The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

August 11, 2011

Slavery and the slave trade in the Americas flourished for 400 years from the 1480s until the 1880s. During that long period, the slave trade was the most important coerced migration of people between continents, and plantation slavery transformed the social and ethnic mix of the Western hemisphere.

Abolitionism began seriously in the 1770s but took more than a century to achieve its goals. Robin Blackburn's book is a sociological interpretation of the social, economic and political forces that created and sustained American slave regimes, and of the complexity and diversity of abolitionist initiatives.

Much of the factual material is familiar from studies by historians specialising in slavery. Blackburn also draws freely on information from two of his previous books - The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 (1988).

His latest work is similar in conception to those books: it is based on selective, appropriate reading but no archival research; wide geographical and intellectual coverage; and some bold arguments. He makes a strong, though not unchallengeable, case for the important impact of transatlantic slavery on British industrialisation. Slavery and the slave trade, in this interpretation, widened markets for British exports, supplied capital for metropolitan uses, facilitated credit transfers across the Atlantic Ocean, and promoted the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain.

Other historians have shown, however, that although slavery and the slave trade enriched planters and merchants, the contribution of slavery and its products to national income was not extensive.

Blackburn makes a stronger case for the complexities found in the uneven progress towards abolitionism throughout Atlantic slave societies. Slavery ended at different times, and for a variety of reasons, in the Caribbean, the US, Mexico and Brazil. The telling point is made that in each case abolitionism itself was insufficient to end slavery.

Other factors came into play, including state legislation, the influence of one abolition success upon another, the role of slave agitators, and the flow of antislavery ideas and practices across borders.

Some slave emancipations occurred through violence, as in Haiti in the 1790s and the US during the American Civil War; others happened in a peaceful way, as in Cuba and Brazil in the 1870s and 1880s.

The book's strength lies in its subtle exploration of the influences and ideas that spread from one part of the Atlantic world to another, and in showing, if there was still doubt, that abolition was a hard-won battle, always subject to delays caused by vested interests in preserving slaves as property.

The economic importance of staple crops to the economies of the US and western Europe, even for countries that had abolished their own slave trade and emancipated their own black workers, continued to promote slavery's expansion in the 19th century.

The efforts of naval squadrons to curtail the slave traffic of other powers in the Atlantic after British slave trade abolition in 1807 operated even as the UK benefited from importing slave-produced cotton and turned a blind eye to slavery's existence in territories such as Nigeria.

Blackburn has a strong section on the international impact of the Haitian slave revolt of 1791 on other slave-holding countries. This shows how that explosive event - the only large-scale black slave revolt ever to succeed - left an indelible legacy.

The book ends with the sombre suggestion that acceptance of human rights incorporating different racial groups emerged only very slowly after violence involving the dismantling of slavery had run its course.

The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

By Robin Blackburn. Verso, 512pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781844675692. Published 13 June 2011

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