Maps of brutality

Atlas of Slavery. First Edition
February 24, 2006

Next year, as Britain celebrates the anniversary of its greatest humanitarian act, the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, renewed attention will be given to the institution of slavery and to Britain's role in maintaining and then destroying one version of this institution.

What students find hard to understand about slavery and the Atlantic slave trade is its global character. Shipping slaves across the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries brought together three continents in a complex, integrated and profitable economic system. Maps are a useful way of describing the complexities of this trade. James Walvin has supplied a well-written textbook containing 87 maps, all accompanied by substantial text, that fills a gap in the market. It is a comprehensive but accessible survey of slavery over time that shows sensibly that the Atlantic slave trade had its predecessors in the ancient and medieval worlds and had successors into the 20th century under the Soviets and the Nazis.

This atlas will be most useful for courses on the Atlantic world and on the history of slavery, with some utility also for courses in American and in world history. It is especially strong on Africa and on the Caribbean, showing the centrality of those areas in Atlantic history. The accompanying text is crisp, accurate and entertaining.

The clearly drawn maps cover a wide range of topics. The only serious fault is that a few maps, especially those covering flows of goods and people across the 18th-century Atlantic world, have so much information in them that they take a while to absorb. That is probably less the fault of the author than that of the subject matter, but it does mean that students may need help to interpret them. It might also have been valuable to have mapped the extent of contemporary sexual enslavement, to show that slavery, though illegal, is still with us.

Nevertheless, as an introductory visual guide to slavery in all its bewildering variety, this atlas is ideal. Students will find it a very useful means of making sense of a compelling, important but complicated subject.

Trevor Burnard is professor of American studies, Sussex University.

Atlas of Slavery. First Edition

Author - James Walvin
Publisher - Pearson/Longman
Pages - 146
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 582 43780 6

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