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No substitute here for the eloquent narrative of Basil Davidson's African Slave Trade (1961), but instead--and perhaps more important, at least for the time being--a comprehensive, diligent, and long-overdue synthesis of the massive literature on the slave trade that has grown up since Davidson wrote. Not surprisingly, Professor Rawley (History, Nebraska) gets highest marks where that literature is best-developed and least controversial: on the many upward adjustments that have raised Philip Curtin's 1969 estimate of some 9.5 million African slaves imported into the Americas to around 11.3 million; on the myth of the ""Triangular Trade""; on the relatively small numbers of slaves brought into what would become the United States; on the low profitability of the slave trade as a whole. Rawley also displays a keen eye for such lesser issues as the role of London in the trade, the mortality rate among seamen on slave ships, and even the use of copper sheathing on slavers' hulls and its possible consequences. Where information remains scarce or disagreements profound, Rawley does less well. Thus his treatment of the Middle Passage seems curiously inconclusive, while his discussion of Eric Williams' interpretation of the relation between capitalism and abolitionism is merely confused and his effort to summarize the intense debate over the effect of the slave trade on Africa itself does not begin to convey the issues involved. And, finally, despite some provocative remarks on the practically global intricacies of the trade, Rawley's nation-by-nation approach--first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, the Dutch, the Danes, the French, the English, and at last the Americans--really compels him to tell a half-dozen or more stories, not one, each spanning as much as three or more centuries: the interconnections between them are frequently lost sight of, and to reconstruct just what was happening, say, in the mid-17th century requires a good deal of irksome leaping back-and-forth between chapters. Still and all, there is much here that cannot be obtained anywhere else without even greater difficulty: a fine and useful book, if not always equal to its subject.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1981
Publisher: Norton