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.”
The latent virtue argument is not merely complacent; it fails to identify what led some Christians, capitalists and patriots–not the majority, but a brave few–to think and behave differently. It also fails to identify what it was in the original Christianity, capitalism or patriotism that fitted fairly snugly with racial slavery. A surprising number of early slave traders and planters were pious and even learned men. Davis rightly argues that perceptions and norms that expressed a religious worldview were just as important as economic factors in the shaping of the New World regimes. He dwells on changing interpretations of the biblical story of Noah cursing Ham by condemning Ham’s son Canaan, and his offspring, to perpetual slavery. (Ham had exposed the nakedness of his drunken father, but the precise offense was unmentionable.) At its most elementary, the “just so” story legitimized the enslavement of a descent group, an impression that was reinforced by passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy sanctioning the permanent enslavement of strangers. Of course the Golden Rule might have excluded outright enslavement or slavery, as it did for many later abolitionists. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Christians, Jews and Muslims frequently referred to Noah’s curse as justification for hereditary enslavement.
Davis contrasts his own approach with those of many past historians, including Marxists who, he insists, offered a reductively economic explanation of New World slavery, at the expense of “cultural and ideological factors, especially religion.” In fact, some Marxist historians of slavery, such as (the younger) Eugene Genovese, have placed considerable emphasis on culture, religion and racial ideology–at times more than Davis himself. Davis writes: “Having clarified early Jewish views on black Africans and slavery, it is crucially important not to project blame onto Islamic writers, who from the seventh century onward did establish strong precedents for linking blackness with slavery, often reinforced by references to Noah…. If Jews or Christians had been in the Arab’s place, actively enslaving, purchasing and transporting sub-Saharan Africans, they would surely have generated their own justifying ideology.” A good point, but, if true, where does it leave Davis’s earlier rejection of “economic determinism”?
Members of all three religions of the Book made their peace with slavery when it became important to the communities in which they lived. Davis’s concern not to be too hard on religious authorities, especially on any single religion, is understandable since most were at least trying to elevate standards of behavior and an honorable minority expressed concerns about slavery and the exclusion of nonbelievers or strangers from communal protection. But the awkward fact is that the great religions, while sometimes advancing humane values, allowed dangerous loopholes or regarded religious deviance as much worse than cruelty. Christians did not even rate cruelty as a deadly sin, in contrast to sloth and lechery. And each religion had its own strengths and weaknesses. Jews and Muslims, for example, tried to ban or limit the enslavement of fellow believers, something the early Christian churches usually tolerated.
Davis does not much distinguish between Protestantism and Catholicism, perhaps because both came to endorse racial slavery. However, Protestants had much greater latitude to devise their own interpretations because they believed themselves to have a personal relationship to God and Scripture. Even when the Catholic Church endorsed racial definitions, it did not authorize believers to determine who was to be the target of enslavement. The famous Papal Bulls permitting Portuguese slave trading were highly specific and conditional, applying only to certain agents of the Portuguese king and so long as the heathens or Canaanites were baptized. Small Protestant communities were more “democratic” and readier to allow each believer to decide for himself who was a “son of Ham” and what this might mean. Catholic slavery was no less destructive or cruel than Protestant slavery. But it preferred the religiously defined scope of enslavement to be established by clerical authorities and not to be twinned with an obvious physical sign, like skin color, that could be assigned without their help. Spanish Catholicism did validate the racially loaded term “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood), but the hierarchy was uneasy about it and insisted that the Holy Office retain control over its application.
The Catholic practice of racial slavery allowed for greater flexibility and development than was to become typical of Protestant slaveholders. Manumission and the condition of the free person of color probably were a bit easier in the Spanish or Portuguese colonies. On the other hand, the more temperate climate of the North American colonies made for better physical living conditions for the mass of the enslaved. Assessing the precise mix of cultural and economic factors in the formation of New World slavery is not easy, and if Davis occasionally has difficulty here he is hardly alone. It is, perhaps, important to register that while racial feeling certainly preceded the rise of the slave systems and led to their racial character, the “proto-racism” of the sixteenth century was quite different from the full-fledged racism that began to emerge in the eighteenth century.
Lars von Trier’s recent film Dogville offers a helpful parable here, showing how fatally easy and convenient it is for a community to allow a stranger to perform the most disagreeable tasks and only later discover they are keeping a slave. Racial ideologies allotted very harsh jobs to those regarded as aliens or a race apart. Davis rightly insists that the racial stereotypes generated by slavery often equated the slave with a beast of burden or domesticated animal. At the same time, phobic forms of racism did not always fit very well with being a slaveholder, since the master’s dependence on the slave could be quite intimate.
Slavery was always oppressive, but up close, even the enslaved could gradually establish limits within that oppression. In an aside Davis gives us a fascinating glimpse of an episode in which he learned about this: “When in 1945, I was an eighteen year old soldier on a troopship, I was given a billy club and ordered to descend into the lower depths of the ship, where for four hours I was to keep the ‘Negroes’ (a worse word was probably used) from gambling. Until then I had not even known there were any black troops aboard (the army was, of course, ‘segregated’). When I at last arrived in what seemed like the lowest hold of a slave ship, one of the many crap-shooters asked: ‘What you doin’ down here, white boy?’ I finally found a shadow in which to hide.”
Inhuman Bondage contains passages of great wisdom and leads to some rather unsettling conclusions. But sometimes Davis’s insistence on complexity and his generosity to critics lead him to embrace arguments that do not cohere. He writes: “The expansion of the slave plantation system…contributed significantly to Europe’s, and also America’s, economic growth. But economic historians have wholly disproved the narrower proposition that the slave trade or even the plantation system as a whole created a major share of the capital that financed the Industrial Revolution.” The first sentence did not need the half-retraction of the second. In Britain at least (and probably New England and France too) early manufacturers did depend to a “major” extent on credit extended by merchants and bankers whose fortunes derived from plantations and the plantation trades. Of course, capitalism preceded and greatly stimulated the growth of the plantations. But recently economic historians have become much more willing to identify a major foreign trade component in capital accumulation during the Industrial Revolution. Davis sometimes writes as if sugar, tobacco and cotton themselves created the new consumerism. To some extent they did, but mass consumption really took off only in areas where people had money in their pockets or purses: These were the areas where capitalism had developed. Capitalist social relationships were defined and lubricated by cash, whether wages, salaries, fees, rents or profits. Without this intense boost to demand, the slave plantations would have remained modest and marginal.
Elsewhere Davis writes of the “purely capitalistic” British sugar plantations: “The business mentality eventually worked to the slaves’ benefit in the late 1700s and early 1800s. British planters and their agents discovered that slave productivity could be greatly increased by eliminating the most cruel and grisly punishments…. There is a danger, however, in exaggerating the humanitarian effects of the so-called amelioration policy….” The increased output was also a result of working the slave gangs harder and eventually helped to provoke large-scale slave uprisings, which advanced the cause of emancipation.
In the 1980s the American Historical Review featured an extensive debate between Davis and Thomas Haskell, who had written an extensive critique of Davis’s brilliant study The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Among many other arguments in that rich and subtle book, Davis maintained that British abolitionism, with its early emphasis on “free labor,” helped to express a new type of capitalist hegemony (a concept borrowed from Antonio Gramsci). Haskell, by contrast, viewed abolitionism as a direct and pristine product of the new cognitive space permitted by market relations, prior to and apart from class struggle. The question for Haskell (who failed to accord any significance to black rebellions in the plantation zone) was why it took so long for market relations to perform their alchemy and generate the abolitionist movement. In Inhuman Bondage Davis restates something like his former conclusions, albeit in what is offered as a reformulation of Eric Williams’s argument that abolitionism emerged as a result of imperial crisis: “I doubt that Williams’ orthodox leftist followers would be satisfied by even a well-developed theory relating British anti-slavery to free-labor ideology…. Yet such a theory, based on more empirical evidence, would confirm much of Williams’ most important insights.” Williams had an overly economic account of the imperial crisis, but he was right to see official abolitionism as contributing to imperial reform and reorientation. Davis’s argument that British abolitionism also drew on “free labor” ideology is well taken and not one that radical historians will dispute. It offered terrain upon which both hardheaded bourgeois and newly conscious workers could stand. (Eric Foner made a similar argument for the American context in his memorable 1970 study Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.)
Where does the American Revolution belong in this narrative? The result of American independence was to establish a state for slaveholders, while the pattern of Atlantic trade stemming from the Revolution helped foster an enormous slave-based boom. Davis recognizes this, yet he concludes that “most important in the long run, was the Revolution’s legacy of ideology–the popularization amongst blacks as well as whites of a belief in individual freedom and inalienable natural rights.” In his engaging new book, Rough Crossings, Simon Schama delves into the archives and comes up with a rather different account. For Schama the antislavery idea was already a strand of “English liberties” or “British freedom”; Lord Mansfield’s famous judgment in the Somerset case was believed by many to have confirmed the claim that England’s free air was incompatible with slavery. While the American rebels suspended the slave trade, several British commanders went further than this and offered freedom to all slaves of rebel masters who would join the loyalist side. In the end about 20,000 did, and their British commanders repaid them for their service when the war ended. The peace treaty required the return of all stolen property, but to the fury of the American side, the British military evacuated about 15,000 former slaves from New York and Charleston.
Schama is well aware that British military emancipationism was opportunistic and selective, reserved only for slaves owned by rebels. Somewhat like Davis, he argues not that the British government was genuinely antislavery at this point but rather that its strategic offer of emancipation chimed in with the rhetoric of “British freedom” and allowed many thousands of African-Americans to escape slavery and eventually to reach for, and briefly enjoy, a measure of black self-government. Schama has a little-known story to tell. He follows the former slaves from New York to Nova Scotia, Canada, and then to Sierra Leone, on the West African coast. John Clarkson, brother of Thomas Clarkson, the British abolitionist organizer, went to Nova Scotia at the behest of a group of philanthropists who had raised the enormous sum of £4 million–equivalent to about $600 million in today’s money–to help to resettle Canada’s loyalist black refugees in Africa. Clarkson found well over 1,000 willing to sail, many more than had been anticipated, with Canada’s climate and the hostility of some whites, as well as a longing to return, being part of the explanation.
Schama stresses the emergence of capable leaders among the African-Americans and the eventual establishment of a colony marked by lively self-government. This picture is confirmed by Cassandra Pybus, who, in her well-researched Epic Journeys of Freedom, supplies a vivid portrait of several of the African-Americans who sought freedom with the British, notably Henry Washington, one of the leaders of the Sierra Leone group. (Henry Washington was well placed to learn from at least one of the Founders, having been the property of George Washington himself.) The plans for Sierra Leone had initially been drawn up by pioneering English abolitionist Granville Sharp, who championed a type of grassroots democracy called frankpledge, supposedly based on Anglo-Saxon traditions. At all events the members of the young settlement were invited to form themselves into “tithings” and “hundreds” and then, women as well as men, to elect their own leaders who would be responsible for local administration while leaving overall responsibility to the colonial company and its officers. John Clarkson, the first governor of Freetown, managed to make this work effectively and even grew to like the African drumming that had at first alarmed him. But the proprietors declined to reappoint him because they believed that he and his brother had become infected with the Jacobin contagion (both Thomas and John visited France in the early days of the Revolution and looked with favor on its eventual antislavery moves).
The system of black self-government was sustained even under the governorship of Zachary Macaulay but was eventually largely suppressed after a black revolt. Schama sees black resistance and revolt in Sierra Leone in the 1790s and afterward as a tribute to the potential of “British freedom,” even when this had been negated or adulterated by the official proprietors of the colony. Davis sees the very same events and assertions as an echo of the legacy of the American Revolution, evident even among those who had escaped from it. No doubt African-Americans appropriated ideas from these and other sources–including evangelical abolitionists, unpatriotic, free-thinking radicals and, last but not least, West African traditions of village and tribal governance. But the eventual mixture was their own.
Davis has a chapter on the revolution in Haiti, formerly Saint-Domingue, which he rightly sees as a crucial turning point, establishing the first sovereign state in the world to abolish slavery. While the universalism of revolutionary republican ideology had its effect on the leaders of the Haitian revolution, the British, French and Spanish were defeated only as a result of the tenacity of tens of thousands of colored revolutionaries, many African-born, who fought on even when the famous leaders had yielded. This spirit of the revolution, like the spirit of the Sierra Leone colonists, must in the end be seen as a new strand of black and colored emancipationism that was to fuel many future antislavery struggles. When it came to slavery, Haiti reached conclusions that were to require another generation or two in Britain and the United States.
Davis’s book has a brief epilogue, but its last substantial chapter concerns the Civil War and emancipation in the United States. In many ways this is the most intriguing part of the book. At some points Davis seems to imply that emancipation should be seen as a vindication of an antislavery promise held out by the Founders. The problem with this is not only that the Founders formally supported or compromised with slavery but also that many of those antebellum Americans who most consistently opposed slavery, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, were distinctly unpatriotic, indeed sworn enemies of the Constitution. Without the radical abolitionists, many of whom were black, the Southern states might never have seceded. Those who refused burgeoning American nationalism made a critical contribution to antislavery, as Garry Wills has argued in his recent study of Jefferson, “Negro President.” Davis avoids a triumphalist account of the Civil War. He sees that war through the prism of its great brutality and dehumanization and the ensuing emancipation of the slaves as heavily compromised by the defeat of Reconstruction. He implies that while in the past he regarded the Civil War as a “good war,” he no longer does, and he seems to question the ease with which Garrison gave up his pacifism. But if the war between the states was not a “good war,” was it at least a necessary war to end slavery?
Davis briefly observes that slavery was overcome in a different and better way in Brazil, but he does not indicate whether this route could have been pursued in North America. However, he writes: “No doubt we will always have a small number of psychopathic torturers and serial killers. The worst evils arise when institutions encourage large numbers of ‘ordinary’ people to adopt similar behaviour and win approval and even admiration from, let us say, fellow guards at a Nazi death camp, or even at an American-run Iraqi prison. We are seldom willing to recognize the truth that every war converts normal and ordinary citizen-soldiers into serial killers, often of so-called innocent civilians, as in the massive bombings of World War II. I say this having been rigorously trained to kill Japanese in the planned invasion in the autumn of 1945.”
Davis ends this searching and important book on a more positive note, signaling that the ultimate suppression of slavery in the New World could not have been accomplished without both “slave resistance” and the wider “abolitionist movements.” This historic and “willed” achievement, he suggests, raises reasonable hopes for assembling the ambitious alliances needed to redress wrongs in today’s world, including both legacies of slavery and the “still devastated continent of Africa.”
The left has not always found it easy to identify its own debt to antislavery, no doubt because much official abolitionism was intensely bourgeois and evangelical. But the leaders of radical abolitionism, from Sharp and Clarkson to Garrison and Phillips, were genuine progressives. Once emancipation became official policy, its radicalism was much diminished and sometimes entirely perverted. It is sobering to reflect that Africa was carved up by the colonial powers in the name of suppressing the slave trade. While the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 was a cynical travesty of antislavery, some genuinely abolitionist impulses did lend support to colonialism. Although in many respects extraordinarily pioneering and progressive, abolitionism was (particularly in its official version) remote from the antislavery of the slaves and thus unable, once slavery ended, to identify new forms of racial domination, whether in the New World plantation zone or in the lands colonized by Europeans. William Lloyd Garrison’s decision to close The Liberator in 1865 testified to such a blind spot. Yet the movement had a more radical legacy that deserves to be paid tribute. Wendell Phillips and other abolitionists disagreed with Garrison, realizing how much still remained to be done to insure that the former slaves achieved a freedom worthy of the name. Partly for this reason Phillips welcomed the founding of The Nation in the same year that The Liberator closed.