Books: Nothing to lose but their chains

The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Trade 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas, Picador pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
The Study of slavery has long been dominated by radical historians - Eric Williams, CLR James, Eugene Genovese and Robin Blackburn, whose magnificent The Making of New World Slavery was published earlier this year. For such authors, the story of slavery provides a means to explore wider social and political themes - the rise of capitalism, the emergence of racism, the history of colonialism and conquest, the development of radical politics. Conservative historians, on the other hand, have tended, naturally, to be more uncomfortable with this history, and have by and large ignored it.

Hugh Thomas, however, is nothing if not an iconoclast. A confirmed Thatcherite, he has nevertheless, as a professional historian, tackled topics that usually appeal to radical writers: the Spanish Civil War and the history of Cuba. His latest work is a monumental effort to retell the story of the slave trade from a conservative viewpoint. Thomas does not deny the unparalleled brutality of slavery and its wide-ranging impact on all three continents involved in the "triangular trade". But where more radical historians have looked to analyse the trade as part of broader historical developments, Thomas is animated by the individual personalities. For Thomas, the evils of slavery are not the product of capitalism, or modernity, or any such historical phenomenon, but simply the consequence of the actions of individual men and women. The book is rich in detail, and in individual psychology, but weak in its grasp of the big picture.

Three major themes underlie Thomas's work: the importance of Africans in promoting slavery; the denial that the slave trade helped finance the emergence of capitalism; and the belief that humanitarian concerns alone persuaded Britain to end the slave trade in the 19th century. In all three arguments, Thomas directly challenges the work of more radical historians.

According to Thomas the Atlantic slave trade was a continuation of pre- existing forms of slavery. Slavery, he points out, existed in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, and Africans themselves were responsible for selling fellow Africans to European slavers. African leaders, he adds, "were neither threatened nor bullied into making the sales". Thomas is at one with Voltaire, who argued that while it was difficult to defend the conduct of Europeans, the actions of the Africans in bartering each other was even more reprehensible.

It is true that slavery was widespread in Africa in the Middle Ages (as it was in southern Europe and the Islamic world too). It is also true that this has frequently been ignored by historians of slavery, who have often been more interested in seeing the enslavement of Africans as a racist act on the part of Europeans. But the idea that transatlantic slave trade was a continuation of existing slavery is as credible as the notion that the modern factory system is a continuation of medieval craft guilds.

Slavery in Africa was similar to that in the ancient world: it was small- scale, and the slaves, who usually lost their freedom as the result of military conquest, were employed in households, as soldiers or in small estates or mines. They were generally well treated, and their children could become freemen. While there was a legal distinction between slaves and freemen, there were few economic or social differences.

The early European trade in African slaves, which began around the 14th century through the activities of Spain and Portugal, was of this form. But by the 17th century an entirely new institution was emerging: the plantation system in the Americas. It was the nations of northern Europe - England, France and the Netherlands - which developed the new form of slavery, as part of the growing system of capitalist commerce.

The plantations harked forward to the coming factory system not back to medieval forms of slavery. Slaves were treated entirely as commodities, and the object of slavers was to secure as much labour as possible. Millions died on the Middle Passage because it was cheaper to buy a new slave than to treat them well. As Sir George Young put it in 1790, "Purchasing slaves was much the cheapest method of keeping up their numbers." The New World slaves were subject to brutality and degradation previously unknown, not because Europeans were more savage, but because their only concern now was to maximise profits.

While in the early years of the slave trade Europeans and Africans were on roughly equal footing, slavery itself helped transform Europe. By the 17th century European traders had a considerable economic and military advantage over Africans. This transformed the nature of African involvement in the trade and it is disingenuous to suggest that no coercion was now applied by Europeans. Where once Africans sold slaves because they had captured them, now they captured them to be sold. In failing to explore these issues, Thomas impoverishes his narrative.

Thomas is equally selective in his arguments about the relationship between slavery and capitalist development. He accepts that the slave trade was very profitable for the slavers. But he derides the argument that wealth from the trade financed European industrialisation as "a brilliant jeu d'esprit". After all, Thomas, points out, "the slave-trading entrepreneurs of Lisbon and Rio, or Seville and Cadiz, did not finance innovations in manufacture". But it was the slave traders, not of the Hispanic world, but of northern Europe that pioneered plantation slavery and whose wealth helped finance industrialisation. A host of historians have established clearly how the profits of slavery helped finance what has been called the "European miracle".

From the mid-18th century, movements against slavery developed in France, Britain, the USA and elsewhere. In 1807 the British parliament passed a law making the slave trade illegal. Britain, which until then had been the most energetic of slave trading nations, now launched a diplomatic and military campaign against "the monstrous trade in human flesh". Contemporary observers viewed the British action with a sceptical eye. "While they have palmed upon us all sorts of humane maxims," Goethe claimed, "their true motive is a practical object." The practical object included extending British influence in Africa, undermining the activities of its trading rivals, and giving itself the moral authority to police the high seas.

Thomas, however, will have none of this, insisting that the campaign against the slave trade was simply an early form of an ethical foreign policy. Yet he never explains why, if Britain was motivated by humanitarian reasons alone, it made illegal the trade in slaves, but left slavery itself untouched. The 750,000 slaves in British colonies had to wait another 30 years before they were legally free. Over the past half-century historians, beginning with Eric Williams, have explored the economic reasons for Britain's actions. Others, such as Robin Blackburn, have pointed out the complex political, social and economic factors that underlay the abolition debate. Thomas's arguments may have had greater plausibility had he taken notice of this wealth of scholarship.

There is little wrong in attempting a revisionist account of slavery. History written from a different viewpoint often helps clarify many issues. What is disappointing about Thomas's work, however, is his failure to place his narrative in historical perspective, to understand the slave trade not simply in terms of the personalities that were involved in it, but also in terms of the economic, social and political developments that helped shape it. Equally disappointing is Thomas's reluctance to engage directly with the arguments of more radical historians. The Slave Trade draws heavily on the archival work of other scholars. But, apart from a few polemical broadsides, Thomas barely acknowledges other interpretations of this history. The Slave Trade is an old-fashioned exercise in story- telling, untainted by wider historical questions. It is the worse for that.