Rise and fall of slavery

Slave ship anchorage point, Elmina Castle, Ghana

Slave ship anchorage point, Elmina Castle, Ghana

The 175 anniversary of emancipation in the Caribbean is being marked this month with an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London celebrating those who resisted slavery and those who fought to end it.

So it is a good opportunity to read the latest work on the slavery by one of Britain’s leading scholars, Robin Blackburn. The American Crucible goes far beyond events in the Caribbean but covers the entire New World in its examination of the rise and fall of the leading slave regimes, from early Spain and its destruction of indigenous peoples, to 19th-century US, Brazil and Cuba.

Blackburn, a founding editor of New Left Review in the 1960s and author of two earlier and equally weighty studies, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery and The Making of New World Slavery, presents here much more than a grim historical narrative as he attempts to explain the link between slavery and capitalism, given that in his opinion slavery was the basis of global growth of commerce and industry in the modern era.

Additionally, he explores the roles of resistance and abolition in the fall of slavery and what impact these had on the evolution of society and culture and, ultimately, on human rights. The New World itself “became a crucible of new nations, values institutions and identities”, he explains.

Pivotal to this is his focus on Saint-Domingue, France’s hugely rich slave colony, which, as Haiti, became the world’s first independent black state in 1804 following a momentous slave uprising.

While the impact of the American and French revolutions have been studied many times over, Blackburn contends that historians have too often failed to properly register Haiti’s contribution in extending and reworking the doctrine of the “rights of man”, or of African agency in shaping emancipation.

“Of all the Atlantic revolutions, Saint-Domingue’s most fully embodies the contemporary struggle for freedom, equality and independence, and it produced the greatest degree of economic and social change,” he declares, thus mirroring the arguments first set out by Trinidad’s CLR James in his seminal 1930s book The Black Jacobins.

Blackburn also throws light on how, having abolished slavery several decades before anyone else and universalised the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, the new state became the target of relentless neo-colonial pressure – a commercial blockade, a £14 billion compensation demand from France that took 100 years to pay off, and eventual US occupation, 1915-34. That was a heavy price to pay for freedom and goes a long way to explaining why Haiti became the poor, disaster-prone nation it is today.

Blackburn also supports the thesis of another Trinidadian historian, Eric Williams, that the profits from slavery financed Britain’s industrial revolution, supplying early industrial entrepreneurs with credit, raw materials and markets, particularly in the leading slave ports of Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London, as well as helping to foster a new consumer culture, in which exotic, and addictive, goods like sugar and tobacco became highly prized.

While this might seem fairly obvious to the onlooker, Williams’ book Capitalism and Slavery was considered controversial when it was published in 1944, and in some cases still is, the main criticism being that he exaggerates slavery’s contribution. Where Blackburn parts company with him is the idea that the British abolition movement was motivated more by economics – that is, slavery by the 1770s was no longer as profitable as before – than moral outrage.

Nevertheless, Blackburn asks why revulsion against such a cruel and exploitative system took so long to manifest itself, and why slavery went from respectability to widespread odium in Europe in just a few short decades. The answer lies in the stirrings of a revolutionary age in the 1780s.

However, the “century of abolition” it prompted did not proceed in a predictable or orderly fashion but followed a “spiral path”, full of detours and disappointments. While slavery was finally defeated in the Caribbean in 1838, the slave order in the US, Brazil and Cuba underwent a resurgence and did not end until second half of the 19th century, in Brazil not until 1888.

Abolition by itself was never enough to end slavery, given that it was motivated by a variety of contradictory forces – “a strange alliance”, Blackburn writes, “of religious radicals and radical patriots, black rebels and troubled members of the white elite, businessmen who aspired to be moral, and working-class agitators”.

Blackburn, again, among the several academic sources he freely quotes, draws upon the views of two slave descendants: James and US scholar activist WEB Dubois, who on the eve of the Second World War  stressed the role of black people themselves in gaining their freedom, a “much needed corrective”, Blackburn writes, “to the traditional whites-only narrative” of emancipation.

Blackburn tells a powerful story, full of authority and rich detail, but it is, necessarily, an unfinished one. Yes, slavery was finally abolished but it was swiftly followed by new forms of racial domination and colonialism. In the US, for example, the recharged institutions of racial oppression following the defeat of Reconstruction in 1877 “pose the issue of whether slavery and Jim Crow, the lynch mob and the chain gang, the ghetto and the prison, were really successive forms of an underlying impulse to racial domination, mutating down the centuries from the 17th to the 21st”.

It is a sobering thought and a reminder that the legacy of 400 years of slavery continues. Then again, the means by which a seemingly unassailable system was challenged and dismantled forged the ideals we strive to uphold today in the face of continued injustices and inequalities. (Article published November 7 2013, Camden Review)

The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights. By Robin Blackburn is published by Verso
Making Freedom: Emancipation-Caribbean-Britain, presented by the Windrush Foundation, takes place at the Royal Geographical Society, Kensington Gore, London SW7, until December 20, Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm

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