Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870

 John Thornton reviewed The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas, in the New York Times article entitled, "The Business of Slavery Why did a practice that was widely considered despicable last so long?" on 30 November 1997  --  The history of the Atlantic slave trade seems to call out for a moral treatment, especially when viewed from its bleakest instant, the ''Middle Passage'' from Africa to the Americas. Hundreds of naked people were crammed into an impossibly small space on a tiny sailing ship for a voyage of one or two months of terrible hardship. When abolitionists wished to stir up outrage against the trade, they published pictures of the cramped quarters of the slave ship Brookes, its unwilling passengers lying ''spoonwise,'' as the tight-packing captains referred to it. Alternatively, they told of the dead being unceremoniously consigned to the sharks.

From the hold of a slave ship, the slave trade has a clear-cut set of victims, and of victimizers in the captains and owners of the ships. The victims are all black, the victimizers mostly white. Amid the racialized debates in the United States now, one can buy a T-shirt with an engraving of the Brookes cargo hold and the motto ''Never Forgive, Never Forget.'' Conditions on slave ships were so bad, as Hugh Thomas demonstrates in this book on the trade, that even in the 16th and 17th centuries, when moral sensibilities were blunted by atrocities at home and abroad, slave trading found a good number of moral critics in Europe and America. 
 The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. By Hugh Thomas.

But as anyone who studies the slave trade in depth quickly learns, the larger picture is much more complex, and more morally ambiguous, than such gruesome imagery suggests. Apparently good and moral people had their hands in it, and its collaborators were legion -- of all colors, religions and nationalities. Moreover, since the slave trade carried some 15 million people, touched four continents and lasted better than 400 years, one can find anecdotes of just about every sort of event and attitude imaginable to illustrate it.

Lord Thomas is well aware of this, and ''The Slave Trade'' avoids the sensationalism and moral outrage that have accompanied so many popular accounts. He achieves this by focusing on the development of the trade as a branch of European and, later, American commerce. He locates its origins in the ancient Mediterranean and medieval Islam, and then covers the beginning, growth and apogee (in the late 1700's) of the Atlantic trade. The emphasis is on the spread of the trade from the European perspective -- the international rivalries, the contacts with Africa and the colonization of the Americas.

Thomas then pauses to look at the trade as a business, with chapters devoted to the nautical details of ships, the kinds of people who were traders, the commodities brought to Africa and a thorough examination of the histories and locations of trading posts. He studies the means by which people were enslaved in Africa, and conducts a careful survey of the business practices of the trade on the coast, where European buyers met African sellers face to face. Only one chapter is devoted to the Middle Passage and the sale of slaves on the auction block, a sensitive but relatively bloodless account of the moral core of the trade. Throughout, Thomas treads carefully on touchy issues involving the role of African wars in generating slaves, the relationship between those wars and the demands of the slave traders, and the overall profitability of the trade to ship owners and captains.

The remainder of the book covers the continuation of the slave trade well into the 19th century and its final demise in an era when the last slaves crossed the Atlantic in steamships after having received smallpox vaccinations. This section is particularly devoted to the slow growth of the moral sentiments in popular religion that linked the abolitionist movement and evangelical Christianity, and is especially strong on showing the growth of abolitionist sentiment (or the lack of it) on the Continent, specifically in countries with overseas possessions.
The great strength of this book is its remarkably thorough treatment of the topics that Thomas chooses to take on. It is well researched, and Thomas is comfortable in several languages. Thanks to his earlier work on the 16th-century Spanish conquistadors, the recent history of Cuba and the history of the Atlantic, his chapters on the 16th and 17th centuries are as detailed and faithful to the record as are those on the better-known heyday of slaving in the 18th century. Thomas also pays careful attention to all the European players; Spain and Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands get their share of space, along with France and England, in the story of the trade and its abolition. This balance is free of the national partisanship that many scholars who are less well read sometimes unwittingly indulge in.

In this engaging account, the personalities of the trade emerge as complex and confusing human beings. There are few heroic characters and many people whom most of us would consider villains. But as he presents this morally questionable group of people, Thomas avoids stereotypes, challenging us to understand why a business widely considered despicable lasted so long. He has a keen nose for the telling anecdote.

Yet ''The Slave Trade'' is a curious book in the context of the last 20 years of academic study of the slave trade. It is not surprising that Thomas has eschewed an extensive discussion of the ''numbers game,'' the multidisciplinary search for quantifying the number of slaves transported across the Atlantic. The technical statistical approach does not readily lend itself to the human dimension of a narrative. Thomas covers this material adequately in an appendix, where he reviews the recent estimates of the numbers and makes his own assessment.

It is harder to explain why he has also avoided more urgent academic debate. He says this book had its origins 30 years ago, when he met Eric Williams, then Prime Minister of Trinidad and the author of a hugely influential study of the slave trade and its impact on the development of capitalism. Williams upbraided Thomas for not having read his book, ''Capitalism and Slavery,'' and sent him a copy. ''The Slave Trade'' never deals in depth with the central issues of that book, what these days is called ''the Williams thesis,'' which holds that the profitability of the slave trade financed the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and that the growth of industry eventually ended slavery and the slave trade. Debate on the Williams thesis is the cutting edge of slave trade research in academic circles.

The impact of slave trading on Africa has also been a battleground among academics, and although Thomas does deal with Africa, he is less sure-handed here than in his coverage of the European end of the trade. He takes Africa seriously enough to realize that Africans were not primitives raided at will by Europeans, but the sections about how African institutions and history might have shaped African participation are riddled with errors of fact and unusual (but poorly documented) interpretations of events. Consequently, we never really understand what drove African leaders to tolerate the slave trade, or why they could not or did not stop it. In contrast to his fine command of the complexities of the European rivalries and practices, Thomas is unsure of the political geography of Africa, confusing, for example, the Songhai empire with the empire of Mali at times. His evident unfamiliarity with some specifics of African history is puzzling, given the substantial scholarship done on that history in the last 30 years.

This lapse also leads to a serious imbalance in his treatment of opposition to slavery. He carefully outlines European antislavery writing, but gives little attention to Muslim sentiment. He makes only a passing mention of the 17th-century holy war waged by the Senegambian Muslim Nasr al-Din, which had ending the export of slaves as one of its aims, and no mention of a similar movement led by Abd al-Kadir in the 18th century.

''The Slave Trade'' is, for all this, a fine narrative history, long on detail and striking anecdote, short on analysis and statistics. Where he is at his best, dealing with the European mercantile community and its supporters in government who made the trade possible, Thomas is very good indeed. (source: The New York Times)


  1. The criticisms in this review are mostly of scope. It's a hefty book, and Thomas is excellent within the parameters he sets for it.

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