on September 3, 1999
This is a long book, but well worth the time dedicated to reading it, especially if one is interested in understanding the real causes behind the adoption of mass slavery by Christian Nations as a basis for the economic development of the Americas. Mr. Blackburn is writing about an emotionally charged issue but never falls into the trap of emotion and sentiment. Quite the contrary: in the best tradition of historic studies, he seeks to explain and understand; as the author tells us it would have been theoretically possible to build the plantation economies of the new world upon free labour - but how much more convenient for the European colonizers to use an available (African) pool of slave labour right across the ocean. This was reinforced by the fact that not enough whites were willing to emigrate to the Americas in order to work under the harsh conditions predominant in the plantations.
Ideology also came to the rescue of the European nations; from the 15th to the 18th centuries the churches - either Catholic or Protestant - chose to legitimize black (as opposed to Indian) slavery with complicated, Bible-based theological arguments. That helped monarchs and colonizers maintain a clear conscience while enslaving millions; and Mr. Blackburn underlines the key distinction between ancient world slavery, as practised for instance by the Romans, and its modern era "Christian" version. While the former was intimately connected to the capture of POWs and was rarely perpetuated throughout the generations (manumission being a widespread practice), the latter - being a system geared for economic exploitation - was generally hostile to manumission and condemned for centuries a race QUA race to the horrors of enslavement (something that never happened in the ancient world).
This book should be mandatory reading for European" intellectuals": it would help them put in perspective the achievements of the civilisation they so much admire.
This well written and thoughtful book is an excellent synthesis of the large literature on the development of plantation slavery in the Western Hemisphere and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the first 2/3s of this book, Blackburn adopts a generally chronological approach starting with the status of slavery in early modern Europe and contemporaneous Africa on the eve of the European discovery of the Americas. This is followed by the development of slavery in the Portugese and Spanish Empires, the key role of the Dutch in the emergence of the trans-Atlantic economy and early plantations, and the maturation of the plantation system in British and French colonies. This largely brings the story up to the beginning of the 18th century. In the concluding third of the book, Blackburn provides a detailed analysis of the plantation-slave system in the 18th century Americas and its multiple economic connections with Europe and Africa. This section concludes with a particularly thoughtful analysis of the possible role of the plantation-slavery complex in the industrialization of the British economy.
Blackburn points out that slavery had an ancient pedigree but was a largely minor feature of European society on the eve of the great European expansion. The traditional features of slavery in both Europe and Africa, however, were quite different and in many respects less brutal than the slavery regime that would emerge in the New World. Slavery was transformed by the emerging international economy centered on Europe. Blackburn traces the development of the Portugese and Spanish empires and their colonies beginning with the initial colonizations of Atlantic islands like the Canaries and Portugese commercial activities on the coast of Africa. A series of processes led to significant use of African slaves by the Portugese and Spanish; the horrendous epidemiologic impact of the Columbian exchange in the Americas, with the attendant decline in coerced labor in the Americas and availability of land suitable for cultivation of tropical crops, the prior existence of a form of slave trade in Africa, and European marine technology permitting large scale long distance transport of slaves. The great pioneers of international commerce in the early modern period, the Dutch, played a transient but important role in the transition of use of slaves in plantation economies. Based on successful imperialism, the British and French were the inheritors pioneering Dutch efforts with the development of large scale plantation production of tropical products geared towards increasingly avid European consumers. Blackburn does an excellent job of explaining the major web of trans-Atlantic commerce involving Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
Blackburn discusses a number of interesting questions. He shows how aspects of Christian ideology were used to justify slavery and argues well that racism, as we understand the term, was to a large extent the result, as opposed to a major cause, of slavery. His explanations of trans-Atlantic slavery as a relatively modern economic institution are excellent. Large Caribbean plantations, for example, has many features of sophisticated industrial organization. An important point made repeatedly is that the slave trade was a relatively less regulated aspect of European economies. While British and French slavery emerged in the mercantilist framework of imperial states, the slave trade and plantation economy was very much the result of a relatively laissez faire proess. He is very good at showing the important differences between Caribbean slavery, slavery in British North America, and Brazilian slavery, features that would have important long-term consequences. The section on the role of slavery in British industrialization is particularly good. To some extent, this is a critical examination of the debate about Eric Williams' suggestion that slavery capitalized British industrialization. Without going that far, Blackburn shows well that the plantation-slavery complex was a major feature of the emerging British industrial economy and contributed in important ways to demand for manufactures, to increasing consumer demand in Europe, to capital formation, and to provide key inputs of raw materials cheaply.
The illustrations are very good and the footnotes are excellent.
on November 15, 2000
"The Making of New World Slavery" by Robin Blackburn. This is an incredibly rich book and for the casual reader, very academic on first glance, but it contains a superbly well researched and written examination of the early roots of chattel slavery which anyone studying the Caribbean or the development of the colonial Atlantic Community should read.
This is not a book you are likely to sit down to and read cover to cover on a long winter's night, but I find myself reading sections and then putting it down, then going back to study some facet or another, and noone would be wasting money to have it in their library if they have any serious interest in understanding Slavery, the "development" of the Americas,or the world we share in the Americas today. As the other reviews have so well stated, this work is delightfully free of ideology or cant and integrates a wealth of information on the subject. We can only hope that future work on the History of the Americas will be done with such impartiality.
on January 3, 1999
This book although by by a writer from the left is a well researched well-written survey of slavery. Without emotion it explains how slavery, something which had practically ceased to exist following the collapse of the Roman World was re-created to provide labour in colonies of the new world.
It describes the setting up of the trade occurred and how it operated in practice. The brutality, the mechanics of how slaves were obtained how they were sold, what they did as slaves.
The absence of passion makes the book an even more powerful indictment of the institution of slavery. It describes how in most of the colonies slaves were over time worked to death. In Brazil, the usual life expectancy was seven years.
The book is challenging as it raises questions about the origin of our societies and seriously challenges the notions that European Society was either civilized or Christian.
on December 23, 2003
The rise of the modern world is beset by a contradiction: even as the institutions of a new freedom were emerging in a core area the cancer of slavery began to recur its periphery. We should conclude that we have a laboratory study of the nature of economic man in relation to the genuine self-consciousness able to create a new culture, and determined to be finished with the curse of history. This book contains some graphic portraiture of this faultline in modernity, and opens with a gripping depiction of the slavers arriving in the ancient Congo.