Beginning in the 1440s and for more than four centuries slavery and the slave trade underpinned a prodigious expansion of the Atlantic economy that transformed every land lapped by that ocean. Before the 1820s the number of captive Africans who arrived in the New World greatly surpassed the number of free European migrants. The value of the Atlantic trade swiftly overtook that of the Mediterranean. Economic historians now believe the rise of plantation colonies added millions of acres of cultivated land to the European economies, diversified output, stimulated a new type of consumption and enabled these societies, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to pull ahead of South and East Asia, which had been the world’s most prosperous and civilized regions. The advent of steamboats, railways and steam-driven engines greatly extended the land area involved, but the harsh toil of cultivating and processing raw cotton, sugar cane and coffee beans was performed by a slave population that rose from 3 million to 6 million between 1800 and 1860. Just at the moment when Europeans and their white American cousins began to exult in their global good fortune, however, a succession of slave revolts and protest campaigns forced them to confront the fact that the entire dazzling edifice was built on horrendous and criminal foundations. Beginning in the 1760s, but with gathering force over succeeding decades, rebels, revolutionaries and abolitionists, both black and white, challenged slavery and the slave trade, as well as other institutions upon which the Atlantic boom had been based–colonialism, monarchy, war and an untrammeled “commercial society.”
In The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, first published in 1966, David Brion Davis drew attention to the remarkable fact that prior to the mid-eighteenth century slavery had been a widely accepted and entirely respectable institution, yet by the 1780s it had become the target of widespread critique and revulsion. While it is not difficult to see why slaves struggled for freedom during the crisis of empire and monarchy, it is more of a challenge to explain how black rebels and revolutionaries could find allies in societies that were becoming ever more dependent on–and richer from–exchanges with the plantation zone. In his new book, Inhuman Bondage, Davis looks at the entire span of New World slavery, with special emphasis on what was to become the largest slave system: that of the United States. He asks why European settlers resorted in the first place to an institution that was marginal and declining in Europe. And he explores how historians have tried to explain the rise of abolitionism and the eventual success of the century-long campaign to suppress slavery.
Although he has written a series of indispensable studies of how the leading Atlantic societies addressed “the problem of slavery,” Davis has never before sought to bring the institution’s rise and fall within the scope of a single argument. The result is an absorbing book that obliges us to confront the complex legacy of slavery and emancipation in our own time. The mighty mobilizations that led to the suppression of slavery in the New World from Vermont in 1777 to Brazil in 1888 certainly hold out grounds for hope. They show that societies can change for the better in fundamental ways. But they also show that the victories were sometimes deeply compromised. The acceptance of New World slavery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflected entrenched legal, religious and philosophical traditions. But it also coincided with a withering away of slavery in many parts of Europe. Jean Bodin, the only philosopher to call slavery into question prior to Montesquieu, did so on the grounds that ordinary people had a powerful prejudice against it.
Somehow what was unacceptable in Europe became necessary in the New World. The racialization of slavery partly accounts for this apparent paradox. In most societies slavery had been reserved for outsiders, and this status could easily be specified in ethnic or religious terms. Although few of the slaves in ancient Rome were black Africans, the European legacy of Roman law supplied an authoritative codification that allowed captive outsiders to be transformed into economic property, or chattel. The New Testament seemed to endorse slaveholding, while passages in Genesis and Leviticus were held by many early modern Europeans to justify the imposition of permanent bondage on descent groups.
The story of slavery and emancipation in the New World has lent itself to several kinds of falsely redemptive interpretation, most of which rely on what one might call the argument from latent virtue. Such accounts ruefully admit enslavement was largely condoned, rather than challenged, by Christianity, capitalism, “English liberties” and American patriotism, with the escape clause that each of the above contained a latent antislavery meaning that in a few decades–or was that centuries?–would emerge into the light of day. The message was that, properly understood, Christianity, capitalism and patriotism were in essence abolitionist. Once the initial paradox, irony and contradiction had been resolved, the comforting truth would be clear. Eric Williams–the Trinidadian leader and author of the classic Capitalism and Slavery (1944)–referred to a variant of this consoling view when he noted in 1964 that “British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery for the sole satisfaction of abolishing it.”