Westward bound: the cruellest export

The Slave Trade
February 20, 1998

British historians until the 1960s tended to concentrate on the movements to end the slave trade and slavery rather than the trade or slavery itself. This was in contrast to the late 18th- and early 19th-century flood of polemical literature. The historiographical tradition might be said to be the descendant of the winning side. American historians had fewer inhibitions in studying their own peculiar institution and that of Britain in the Caribbean; historians from other parts of the Americas and the Caribbean worked chiefly on slavery in their own countries. From the early 1970s British historians such as Michael Craton, James Walvin and David Richardson moved away from this focus on abolition and emancipation to study slave plantations, slave societies and the slave trade.

In the 1990s the question of slavery became of some political significance, with calls for reparations for the descendants of slaves. Novels with slave themes by British writers, some of Caribbean heritage, were published in some numbers. In 1997 two books appeared that suggest that the long period of inhibition about slavery has ended among the historians. After Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery we now have Hugh Thomas's large new book on the Atlantic slave trade. Unlike Blackburn, Thomas focuses on the trade itself and covers a longer period (Blackburn ends with the 18th century). It is the longest and fullest account of the trade available.

In his introduction, Thomas clearly states that it is a work of synthesis, using archival research in only a few places but relying often on original documents rather than on secondary sources. It therefore has little new or unknown to specialists, but is valuable for assembling so much information about all the European countries involved in the trade for over four centuries. Thomas, as would be expected from the author of a history of Cuba, is especially good on the Cuban traders; he has much to say about the Brazilian ones, too.

The book is divided into six parts. The first part deals with the origins of the trade in the 15th century when the Portuguese and to a lesser extent the Spanish were involved (though the merchants were often Italian). The second discusses the expansion into the New World and the involvement of nearly every European country with a merchant marine; the third the height of the trade in the 18th century when Britain was dominant. The fourth discusses the trade itself from its African origins to its American destinations. The last two parts deal with the movement for its abolition and the illegal after-life of the trade, mainly to Brazil and Cuba in the 19th century. By starting in the middle of the 15th century Thomas is able to show that the Atlantic slave trade in Africans was a continuation of the enslavement of Africans and Europeans in the early modern period. The Portuguese, who were to punch far above their weight as an imperial power, were the people originally involved. Sea-faring, they seized the opportunity of proximity to Africa while Spain and England concentrated on internal problems and became the pioneers in buying or capturing Africans. Initially these were brought back to Portugal but soon were being used in Madeira where the fatal Atlantic conjunction of sugar and African slaves was first made.

The development of the trade to its height in the 18th century when over six million Africans were transported is carefully and clearly set out. Europeans remained in their tiny enclaves; the trade within Africa remained in African hands. The only real exceptions to this were the Portuguese. In their enclaves Afro-Portuguese increasingly ran the African side of the business. The Portuguese proved equally tolerant of other European powers trading in their areas. Soon the Dutch, French and English were involved. The Dutch developed the plantations in the Caribbean and, as the leading commercial power of Northern Europe, served as model and assistant to other powers. Thomas describes in great detail each power's involvement in the trade. The importance of the growing trades to Africa receives full treatment: Thomas points out that substantial income - perhaps two-fifths in the case of the Royal African Company - was derived from non-slave transactions. It was not until the late 18th century that slave trading almost wholly dominated. Developments across the Atlantic are treated more lightly, except when they involve the American, Brazilian and Cuban participants in the trade.

Thomas's great interest as a historian is people and some of the best parts of the book deal with the extraordinary variety of characters among the slave traders. Perhaps the best known is John Newton (listed twice in the index) who ended up a parson and hymn writer. He and several others - Thomas Golightly, mayor of Liverpool, Philip Livingston who traded in slaves, later signed the American Declaration of Independence and founded a chair of theology at Yale, Juli n Zulueta of Cuba and Joaquim Pereira Marinho of Brazil, slave-trader and philanthropist -are all described and illustrated. In many ways these are the most memorable and, on occasion, the most original sections of the book. The movement for abolition of the trade also provides Thomas with the opportunity to describe the more famous abolitionists, Wilberforce, Clarkson and outside Britain the French Societe des Amis des Noirs with Condorcet and the Abbe Siey s. The French were successful rather more quickly in managing to abolish not merely the trade but slavery in the French West Indies, though it was re-imposed by Napoleon and ended in Haiti by the slaves themselves.

This is narrative history in the grand old fashion. Those who wish to know more about slavery in Africa (and the other slave trades originating in Africa) should read Paul Lovejoy's Transformations in Slavery. For the trade itself, Thomas becomes the obvious starting point but what inducements can I offer my students to read 900-odd pages?

The chief problems occur at the end when Thomas offers us his reflections on slavery. Here, uncontroversially, he points out the importance of European monarchs at the beginning and throughout, not failing to note that in northwestern Europe merchants did play the dominant role. The close involvement of African monarchs and people in the trade appears shocking only to the historically ignorant. Though Thomas feels that Voltaire's condemnation of Africans as being more culpable than Europeans should be better remembered, he also reminds us that African monarchs and peoples did not identify themselves as Africans and therefore did not consider that they were enslaving or selling fellow Africans. The religious basis of anti-slavery in Britain and the importance of Quakers is again uncontroversial. Here, however, the popularity of anti-slavery in Britain receives scant attention.

The lack of evidence on the lives of the African slaves comparable to that available for the European slave-traders does lead to their omission: one that a different sort of history, more social and quantitative, has been rectifying for some years. Greater use of secondary sources would have enabled Thomas to provide a fuller picture than he does.

The reader wanting to understand the issues surrounding Eric Williams's claim that slavery financed the industrial revolution would need to consult Robin Blackburn's most recent book. Thomas's discussion is simply too brief and uninformed. While much of what he has to say of the effects of the slave trade on Africa - changes in state structures, agriculture and entrepreneurship - seems unexceptionable, the discussion of population effects again appears too brief. His suggestion that African slaves were docile (except for Muslim ones) makes the whole apparatus of repression appear redundant, even if it is a corrective to the belief that all African slaves were rebellious. The refusal of Africans to Europeanise themselves during the centuries of the trade is attributed to an African personality, a concept born in the 19th century that retains sprightly vigour but not usually one entertained by very good historians like Thomas in the late 20th century - limited contact with Europeans might be a better explanation. The final tribute to "the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World" sounds condescending. The reader who omits the last chapter will avoid these blemishes and finish wiser and probably sadder.

Peter D. Fraser is lecturer in historical and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870

Author - Hugh Thomas
ISBN - 0 330 35437 X
Publisher - Picador
Price - £25.00
Pages - 925

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