M. Brady & Studio/Private Collection/Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library

John Henry, right, an escaped slave who joined the Union Army as a servant, 1861–1865

If I were to ask most Americans what comes to mind in response to the words “slave” and “slavery,” I would probably get an image of an African-American picking cotton in Mississippi or Africans being jammed into the hold of a slave ship. But if an Englishman had been asked the same question in 1670 or 1710, he would almost certainly have referred to fellow white countrymen who had been seized on the English coast or on ships by Barbary corsairs and transported to Muslim North Africa for heavy labor or sometimes ransom. For some three centuries Muslim raiders, often aided by European renegades, enslaved English, Irish, Scottish, French, Iberian, American, and even Scandinavian and Icelander captives, who joined other slaves from Russia, Italy, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa in the Maghreb. From 1600 to 1750 at least 20,000 British and Irish were held as slaves in North Africa.

But in 1490 the image would have been quite different. During the preceding nearly three centuries, slavery in the Christian Mediterranean had been identified with so-called Slavs, many of them from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, who had been purchased by Italian merchants and sold in both Christian and Muslim markets (and the Western European words for “slave”—esclavo, escravo, Sklave, esclave, schiavo—stem from the Latin for Slav, sclavus). By 1490 a notary in Sicily would have answered the question about the prevailing image of slavery with the Latin phrase sclavi negri, literally “black Slavs,” as black African slaves then greatly outnumbered white bondspeople, a transformation that occurred—in ways that would affect the settlement of the Americas—in Portugal and the sugar-producing Atlantic islands, such as São Tomé.

Since I have been attempting for over forty years to put slavery in a more global perspective, I could not be more delighted by Seymour Drescher’s magisterial new history of both slavery and antislavery from the late Middle Ages to the end of World War II. While we of course differ on a few minor issues, I believe Abolition is the most comprehensive, detailed, and integrated account of its subjects yet to appear, concentrating on the Americas but including fascinating digressions and comparisons that involve much of the rest of the world. The book is encyclopedic, but Drescher is superb at giving frequent overviews of a big picture, charting the expansion and contraction of his subjects over a period of twenty or fifty years. And there are valuable insights, to say nothing of enlightening information, on almost every page.

In view of the gradual disappearance of slavery and serfdom in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, it is easy to forget that free labor was virtually unknown in the rest of the world during most of human history. Drescher surveys the nature of the “perennial institution” of slavery on the eve of the discovery of the New World, focusing on Christian–Muslim conflict, and then traces the enormous expansion of slavery into the entire Western Hemisphere, including the Spaniards’ shipment of slaves from China, India, and Indonesia, via Manila, to their new settlements in Mexico. The seeds and blossoming of antislavery appear from the 1770s to the 1820s in the chapters on the American Revolution, the Franco-American revolutions, and the Latin American revolutions. Drescher then turns to Britain’s “abolitionism without revolution” and to Britain’s leadership in suppressing slave trading on a global basis.

The final outlawing of slavery in the American Civil War and then in Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s leads to the somewhat ironic use of the “antislavery banner” by the European powers to provide moral justification for their competitive rush to colonize Africa. By the time the League of Nations called for a final eradication of human bondage, it appeared that the early British abolitionists’ ideology of progress had at last been confirmed by history. But Drescher wisely moves on to Europe’s “reversion” to slavery, beginning with the Soviets’ turn to penal labor and the Gulag in the 1930s. After the Nazis had merged coerced labor with plans for the massive extermination of Jews and other supposedly inferior peoples, Europe, the first continent to eradicate bondage, had become inundated with a new system of labor “larger and more deadly than its earlier system of New World slavery.”

Drescher’s shocking details on Europe’s “reversion,” coupled with a few statistics on contemporary sex slavery and other forms of labor exploitation, convey sober truths regarding the continuing human potential for evil. This is an appropriate way to end a book that concentrates on the remarkable success of the world’s first movement to end the most extreme form of dehumanization and to extend human rights.


What makes the success of that movement especially amazing is the extraordinary strength, vitality, productivity, profitability, and transferability of racial slavery in the New World. By the late 1600s the sugar-producing Caribbean colonies had created the most profitable economy, per capita, in the world. Their exports were worth two and a half times those of the partly free-labor economies of North America, and colonists with the highest incomes now lived in the West Indies. During the next eighty years the maritime nations of Western Europe, led especially by Britain, transported millions of African slaves to every part of the New World from Canada to Chile. In fact, from 1680 to 1820 the flow of migrants across the Atlantic included about five African slaves for every European settler. And despite the emergence of liberal and radical ideologies in the Age of Revolution, despite the rise of antislavery organizations in Britain, America, and France, despite the disruptions of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, the African slave trade reached its peak between 1783 and 1793 and could hardly have been more vigorous and profitable when outlawed in 1807 by Britain and the United States.

While the American Revolution led to at least the gradual emancipation of slaves in the northern states (and contrary to Drescher, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed laws in 1784 that freed only the children of slaves born after a given date), and while at least 20,000 slaves escaped behind British lines, many winning ambiguous freedom, slavery was stronger in the US in 1790 than it had been in 1770. Since the American slave population was then unique in having long had a high rate of natural reproduction, the outlawing of the Atlantic slave trade did not weaken the system. Indeed, as Drescher points out, the acquisition by the US of the Louisiana Territory and then Florida meant that by the early 1820s no free state had been annexed from territory acquired since the Revolution. The rapid expansion of slavery into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas meant that even the free-state status of Illinois was for a time in doubt.

Drescher underestimates the importance of the Haitian Revolution in generating widespread and continuing fears that antislavery agitation would incite slave rebellions.1 But he acknowledges that the event helped persuade British abolitionists to limit their cause to the slave trade and not slavery itself until 1823. And he is surely right in stressing that the example of slave self-liberation did not impede Denmark or South Carolina from increasing slave imports or discourage Britain from expanding its slave empire to include Trinidad, Guiana, and the Cape Colony in South Africa.

Moreover, the destruction by Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution of French Saint-Domingue—in 1790 the world’s richest colony and the leading producer of sugar and coffee—simply gave a long-term major stimulus to the slave plantations of Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. A second and perhaps even greater stimulus came from the slow decline of the British West Indies occasioned by Britain’s ending of all slave imports. (Brazil and Cuba continued to profit from a huge and increasingly illegal slave trade.) By 1825, despite constraints, New World plantation slavery had actually expanded in both area and numbers. Between 1826 and 1850 the volume of the Atlantic slave trade declined by only 5 percent and the domestic institution had never appeared more energetic. And in 1850 the number of slaves in the New World had risen to 5.5 million, one third the combined number then in Africa and Asia. Yet by 1888, when Brazil finally outlawed the institution, 101 and 104 years after the founding of the first small abolition societies in London and Philadelphia, slavery had become illegal throughout the Western Hemisphere.

For generations historians greatly underestimated the continuing economic strength, productivity, and adaptability of New World slavery while also praising William Wilberforce and his fellow “Saints” for proving that a humanitarian movement could bring genuine moral progress in human history. But then Eric Williams, a descendant of Caribbean slaves who had received a doctorate in history at Oxford and who would later become for twenty-five years the ruler of Trinidad and Tobago, published a book in 1944 that established a wholly new model for explaining Britain’s abolition of its slave trade and emancipation of colonial slaves, events that were crucial, everyone agreed, in helping to transform the entire New World into “free soil.”

Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery drew heavily on Lowell Joseph Ragatz’s scholarly work of 1928, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763–1833, and eventually became the starting point for virtually all studies of Caribbean slavery. Williams’s most important thesis linked the rise of British abolitionism with an irreversible economic decline of the British West Indies, both as tropical producers and as importers of British goods, a decline that began after the American Revolution and that was also linked with Britain’s decisive shift from mercantile to laissez-faire capitalism. While Williams acknowledged that a “brilliant band” of abolitionists won fame by conducting what he termed one of the “greatest propaganda movements of all time,” he argued that in the broadest terms, slavery was doomed by the transition from mercantile to industrial capitalism and free trade.


In effect, Williams presented a devastating attack on the consensus that the British had transcended self- interest and abolished the slave trade and slavery out of a moral concern for humanity. Since New World slavery had become inefficient and obsolete, he argued, the supposedly humanitarian motives of the abolitionists were a mere ideological cover for Britain’s economic self-interest.

It was Seymour Drescher’s Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, published in 1977, that presented the first full-scale attack on Williams’s thesis.2Econocide presented extensive empirical evidence, much of it from the same sources used by Williams and Ragatz, that abolition of the slave trade was comparable to committing suicide for a major part of Britain’s economy. Loaded with statistical tables and organized like a lawyer’s brief, Econocide destroyed the belief that the British slave system had declined in value before Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Using statistics on overseas trade, Drescher showed that the value of British West Indian exports to England and of imports in the West Indies from England increased sharply from the early 1780s to the end of the eighteenth century. Drescher also demonstrated that the British West Indies’ share of the total British overseas trade rose to high peaks in the early nineteenth century and did not begin a long-range decline until well after Parliament deprived the colonies of fresh supplies of African labor.

After assessing the profitability of the slave trade, which brought rewards of around 10 percent on investment, and the increasing value of the British West Indies, Drescher contended that the British slave system was expanding, not declining, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The 1807 abolition act came at a time when Britain not only led the world in plantation production but had the opportunity, thanks to naval power and the wartime conquests of Trinidad, Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo—Caribbean colonies—of nearly monopolizing the slave trade and gaining a preponderant share of the growing world market for sugar and coffee. Far from being “old” in some global sense—“old soil, old habits, old techniques,” as Drescher characterized Ragatz and Williams’s argument—Drescher affirmed that “the British slave system was young…[and] it seemed so to contemporaries.”3

While Econocide evoked decades of debate and some argument still continues, Drescher’s repudiation of the decline thesis also helped to undermine an older and more deeply entrenched thesis regarding the backwardness, inefficiency, and obsolescence of slavery itself, a thesis that had been dramatically attacked three years earlier by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross. Our culture still contains much mythological residue based on the assumption that an immoral and flagrantly unjust system of labor could not possibly be congruent with long-term economic and material progress.

This long-dominant mythology seemed to draw some confirmation from the fact that slavery was often associated with soil exhaustion, indebtedness, and low levels of literacy, urban growth, industry, and immigration. Drawing on Adam Smith’s arguments on the superiority of free labor, or on Marxist concepts of alleged irreversible material progress, or on racist views that American slavery, while an anachronism, helped civilize so-called African savages and would have soon died out on its own without a needless Civil War, countless historians, novelists, politicians, and others misrepresented an institution that served as the crucial basis for New World settlement and expansion for over three centuries. It was a system, moreover, that anticipated the efficiency and productivity of factory assembly lines while also leading the way to the first stage of a globalized economy.

In recent decades historians and economists have reached a broad consensus that while the profitability of single export crops like cotton could discourage a more diversified economy, slave labor could still be efficient, productive, and adaptable to a variety of trades and occupations ranging from mining and factory labor to the technologically modernized, steam-powered Cuban sugar mills. Drescher’s later work, combined with the research of Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, David Eltis, Rebecca Scott, Herbert Klein, and many others has proved that the economic importance of slavery increased in the nineteenth century along with the soaring global demand for such consumer goods as sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton textiles.

Some three million Africans, or about one quarter of the grand total exported, were shipped off to the Americas after 1807, despite the militant efforts of the British navy to suppress this mostly illegal commerce. I should add that in the American South, slaveholders effectively applied slave labor to the cultivation of corn, grain, and hemp (for making rope and twine), to both mining and lumbering, to building canals and railroads, and even to manufacturing textiles, iron, and other industrial products. As Drescher’s new book makes clear, in one New World system after another slavery demonstrated its flexibility and durability until abolished by superior military, civil, or political pressure from within or from without.

This fact, coupled with the usually minimal influence of slave revolts (and Drescher judiciously examines the diverse effects on British abolitionism of three major slave revolts between 1816 and 1831), highlights the supreme importance of both the antislavery ideology that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century and the antislavery movements that were largely confined, as Drescher emphasizes, to the Anglo-American world until the generation following the American Civil War, when they finally appeared in Spain, Cuba, and Brazil.

No theme in Drescher’s book is more striking than the extraordinary success of abolitionism in mobilizing public opinion in Britain and then in the northern United States (with a very different outcome), as well as the failure of such efforts on the Continent. Drescher carefully traces the tensions that arose as northwestern Europe increasingly defined itself as “free soil” while governing colonies increasingly dependent on slaves. Yet on the Continent this seeming commitment to freedom provided no precedent, like England’s Somerset decision of 1772, which concluded that slavery was unlawful in that country, though not elsewhere in the empire, for meaningful antislavery movements, despite Britain’s continuing efforts to encourage such developments in countries like France and Holland. This effective dominance of economic self-interest on the Continent makes it all the more difficult to explain the abolitionists’ continuing triumphs in Britain.

Although Drescher underestimates the central force of evangelical religion in motivating Anglo-American abolitionism, he convincingly underscores the importance of representative government and the tradition of public petitioning as well as the fact that newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, voluntary societies and associations, and a common-law tradition created in Anglo-American societies a degree of public participation unmatched in the rest of the world. He also briefly notes that by the 1780s, British culture had long been saturated with appalling descriptions of the cruelties of the African slave trade.

But since Drescher’s exclusion of any British economic self-interest in ending the slave trade points to the overwhelming importance of ideas, moral values, and culture, there is a certain irony in the fact that, as a social and economic historian, he downplays and is suspicious of the noneconomic aspects of “ideology.” Thus in his excellent book, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation,4 he devotes much attention to the “ideology of free labor” as a misleading belief in the economic superiority of free labor. Then and now he refuses to acknowledge the broader cultural and psychological importance of this ideology in elevating and honoring the idea of “free labor” in ways that sanctioned or diverted attention from the shocking, coercive conditions imposed on British industrial workers.

A review of Drescher’s new book is not the occasion for debate on these issues, but we still have important gaps that future historians will need to confront in explaining why for the initial half-century of industrialization millions of Britons became almost obsessed with colonial slavery (except in India), and why hardheaded politicians in the world’s first industrial nation, a nation that soon ruled the seas, would then commit “econocide” by destroying what soon could have become the world’s most valuable plantation empire.

But such questions should not distract attention from the British abolitionists’ extraordinary success in mobilizing public opinion and influencing government policies. In 1787, when reformers in London founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a separate society emerged in the industrial center of Manchester with 68 women among its 302 subscribers. From the very start women had a prominent part in the British movement as writers, public speakers, leaders of campaigns to boycott slave-grown sugar, and by the 1820s as signers of petitions and influential advocates of “immediate,” as opposed to gradual, slave emancipation. In 1788 some two thirds of Manchester’s eligible males, including some factory workers, signed anti-slave-trade petitions, as did at least 60,000 other Britons. By 1792, when the House of Commons passed a gradual slave-trade abolition bill that was blocked by the House of Lords, the number had reached nearly 400,000 names. By 1833, when public demands succeeded in achieving the emancipation of 800,000 slaves, the number of petition signers had risen to 1.3 million, about 30 percent of whom were women. As a sign of unprecedented public support, the ratio of signatures for immediate emancipation, compared to opponents, was more than 250 to 1.

After 1792, the radicalism of the French Revolution and a long global war delayed major agitation until 1806–1807, although the British government took significant action in restraining slave importation into conquered undeveloped colonies like Trinidad, Guiana, and South Africa. As already noted, the passage of the slave-trade-abolition bill in 1807 initiated a long and seemingly irreversible decline of the slave population of the British colonies and thus in the plantation economy itself, and also provided strong motivation to prevent slave traders of other nations from simply purchasing and transporting the African slaves that the British would otherwise have taken.

In 1787 the first British abolitionists made the wise tactical decision, contrary to Granville Sharp’s wishes, to focus entirely upon the slave trade and postpone attention to slavery itself. Many assumed then and later that the prohibition of slave imports would convince planters to take various ameliorative measures that would lead, as in the United States, to a positive growth rate and a natural increase in the slave population. Drescher says too little about this and about the significance and reasons for the continuing great disparity in slave demography between the US and most of the rest of the New World. Yet he vividly shows how the decline in the slave population weakened the British colonies and made emancipation easier, and how the negative slave growth in Brazil, Cuba, and elsewhere enormously increased the significance and outcome of the British diplomatic and naval campaign to suppress all parts of the Atlantic slave trade—culminating, in many ways, in Lord Palmerston’s “crowning achievement” of using force as well as diplomacy to end Brazilian slave imports in 1850.5

From the vast and at times overwhelming detail of Drescher’s book, what are the most important conclusions one can draw? First, abolitionists were encouraged by the prevailing conviction regarding the economic superiority of free labor and the belief, shared even by many New World slaveholders, that slavery, like medieval serfdom, was destined by history to be extinguished. Yet they were forced to deal with the repeated limitations and failures of free-labor ideology, for example the discovery that freed plantation workers were not as productive as slaves, even after periods of “educational” coerced apprenticeship. By 1850, following the abolition of British, French, and Danish Caribbean slavery, slave-importing Cuba and Brazil were prosperously feeding the world’s ever-growing demand for sugar and coffee. The precipitous decline in plantation production following slave emancipation led to the importation of hundreds of thousands of East Asian “coolies,” or indentured servants, a form of compulsory labor the abolitionists failed to prevent. Beginning with the coerced labor that replaced slavery even during the Haitian Revolution, the transition to “freedom” was never clear or easy. By the 1850s some significant British political figures and newspapers had concluded that the “Mighty Experiment” of 1833 had been an appalling failure.

It was the previously inconceivable and sudden emancipation of over four million slaves in the American Civil War that changed everything and put the preceding emancipations in what many saw as a linear progression leading to hemispheric abolition. American abolitionists had been inspired by the British model and in the 1830s succeeded in mobilizing public activities with astonishing speed. Yet Drescher emphasizes the crucial American barriers of race and racism—the widespread public consensus even in the North that the two races could never live together as equals and that emancipation was impossible without some form of black colonization. In striking contrast to Britain, American abolitionists faced hostile mobs, federal censorship, and the blocking of mail sent to the South; for eight years Congress refused to accept antislavery petitions.

Nevertheless, one can conclude that the abolitionists scored their greatest “success” in helping to drive Southerners to secede from the Union and in preparing the Radical Republicans and then Lincoln to respond to the wartime desertion of hundreds of thousands of “contraband” slaves with an Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment. Without the achievements of the British and American abolitionists, there would have been no American Civil War and immediate emancipation, and certainly no hemispheric abolition in the nineteenth century.

By carrying the story of “the perennial institution” from the late Middle Ages to the millions of slave laborers in the Russian Gulag and Nazi concentration and labor camps, Drescher’s monumental work has shown that while opposition to slavery in its various forms can serve as a model for abolishing evil, slavery also seems to be irrevocable, with an amazing capacity to endure or suddenly become resurrected, even in an apparently progressive and civilized nation like twentieth-century Germany. If Drescher’s profound history of human nature gives some cause for hope with regard to moral progress, it should also end complacency and put us on continual alert.

This Issue

December 17, 2009