A British historian charts the rise and collapse of the slave empires of Europe’s New World colonies.
There is irony in the fact that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave revolt that established the free state of Haiti, was himself an owner of slaves. The revolt that he led resulted in a wholesale replacement of characters but not of social structures, as former lieutenants became estate holders and former slaves became forced laborers—and sometimes even slaves again. So observes Walvin (Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity, 2018, etc.), a scholar who has done extensive work on the Caribbean slave economy. Here, he widens his view to embrace enslavement throughout North and South America, with all its grim specifics—for instance, he writes that “Africans often spent longer on board a slave ship anchored off the coast of Africa than in crossing the Atlantic,” those ships serving as horrific floating prisons until they were full enough for the captain to make a profitable trip across the ocean. Brazil is an important case study. As the author notes, 2.8 million Africans embarked as slaves from Angola alone, most bound for Brazil, joining millions of other Africans, and there they took roles in every sector of society. As with L’Ouverture, there were bewildering intersections: “most perplexing of all to modern eyes, we know of Brazilian slaves who themselves owned slaves." Walvin also documents Britons who never set foot in slaveholding territories but yet owned slaves at long distance. For all its puzzles, the slave economy lasted for three centuries but then disappeared over the course of a few decades as abolitionist and liberation movements arose in the 19th century. Even so, notes the author in closing, slavery has never disappeared. In fact, he observes, given the lamentably massive number of impoverished people around the world, “present-day slaves cost only a fraction of the price of slaves bought in the US South before 1860.”
A solid contribution to studies of slavery in the Americas, providing useful rejoinders to other more comprehensive accounts.