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How the West Got Rich

THE MAKING OF NEW WORLD SLAVERY: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. By Robin Blackburn . Verso: 582 pp., $35

March 16, 1997|PETER KOLCHIN | Peter Kolchin is the Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware. He is author of "Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom" (Harvard, 1987) and "American Slavery, 1619-1877" (Hill & Wang, 1993)

The colonization and settlement of the New World went hand in hand with the spread of slavery. From the 16th through the 19th centuries, more than 10 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to cultivate luxury products that Western Europeans increasingly came to consider necessities: sugar, tobacco, coffee and cotton. Many current-day Americans may be surprised to learn that only about 6% of these Africans wound up in what is now the United States, whereas more than three-quarters of them were destined for Brazil and the Caribbean islands; Britain's richest and most prized possessions in the New World were Barbados and Jamaica, not Virginia or South Carolina.

In "The Making of New World Slavery," Robin Blackburn, author of "The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848" (Verso, 1988), turns his attention to the creation of New World slavery. Unlike much recent slavery scholarship, this book focuses less on the lives of slaves than on the actions and arguments of Europeans. Beginning with a background chapter on slavery in the Old World, Blackburn devotes successive chapters to the slave-trading and colonizing ventures of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French before turning to consider slavery's role in promoting the economic development of modern Europe. This is as much a work of European as of American history.

Although Blackburn's story is too complex to summarize in a brief review, a number of central themes deserve mention:

* Slavery had become insignificant in most of Western Europe by the late medieval period, but the idea of slavery's acceptability remained largely unchallenged, as Christian theologians adopted the Muslim precept that it was legitimate to enslave heathens but not true believers.

* In a variety of ways, including its commercial orientation and racial basis, slavery in the Americas differed from previous versions of slavery; as Blackburn puts it, "Slavery in the New World was not based on an Old World prototype."

* Although the Portuguese pioneered opening Africa to European contact and dominated the slave trade until the early years of the 17th century, the British established naval supremacy in the mid-17th century, after a brief Dutch challenge, and became by far the leading slave-traders in the 18th century.

* The increasing European (especially British) addiction to sugar fueled both the trade in Africans and the colonization of the Americas. At first regarded as a luxury, sugar became available to English of modest means in the 18th century; annual per capita consumption of the sweetener in England surged from 2 pounds in the 1660s to 8 pounds in the 1710s to 24 pounds in the 1790s.

* Europeans held strong class, racial and ethnic prejudices and expressed few scruples about mistreating those whom they regarded as different from themselves. Economic motivation, however, was central to the establishment of slavery--"I have found no evidence," writes Blackburn, "that those most concerned with the construction of the slave systems were primarily animated by racial feeling."

* New World slaves typically experienced mortality rates so high and fertility rates so low that only continued importation of Africans permitted the slave population to increase. The major exception was the United States, where, well before the War of Independence, the slave population grew "naturally," from excess of births over deaths.

Blackburn's book is primarily a work of historical synthesis rather than one of original scholarship--most of what he has to say will be familiar to experts in the field. He has, however, brought together diverse strands of historical research and woven them into a compelling story. Based on extensive reading in secondary sources in four languages (English, French, Spanish and Portuguese), this is a learned and informative survey.

Most readers will not, however, find it easy going. A discursive style, an abundance of detail and statistics, frequent recourse to long indented quotations and use of English terms unfamiliar to most Americans (for example, "batten" and "subjacent") make this book something of a struggle. Some readers are also likely to be surprised by the rather flat, matter-of-fact way in which Blackburn presents his evidence. Although almost everything he discusses has important interpretive implications, he usually eschews analysis of historical issues and historiographical controversies in favor of a descriptive (this happened, that happened) presentation.

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