The price of tobacco

Stephen Howe asks if Britain boomed on the backs of slaves; The Making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern, 1492- 1800 by Robin Blackburn, Verso, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Slavery remains more ubiquitous in memory and culture than any other historical crime or tragedy. In recent weeks, we have seen Bernie Grant MP making passionate calls for the site of a slave ship's wreck to be made a national memorial and linking this discovery to his campaign for slaves' descendants to be paid reparations. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has just given the London premiere of Blood on the Fields, a musical history of slavery in the US. The flow of imaginative treatments ranges from Alex Haley's Roots and its influential TV adaptation to novels by Toni Morrison and Caryl Phillips. Only the Holocaust, which still remains within living memory, arouses such deep emotion.

It is a particular kind of slavery that continues to haunt us: the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the New World between the 15th and 19th centuries. Almost all societies have at some time had some form of slavery. The greatest overview, Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, enumerates more than 100 polities, ancient and modern, that were decisively dependent on it. New World slavery and the transatlantic trade that fed it, though, were unique in their scale and probably their harshness. They were intertwined with racial ideologies that still poison every society they affected. And they transformed four continents - North and South America, Africa and Europe - as a central part of the birth of the modern world.

Yet this vast theme has not, for decades, had a comprehensive treatment. Nearly all modern research deals with particular slave societies - above all the southern US. Almost no one has had the skills or nerve to survey the entire, ocean-wide, centuries-long process, treating the English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and other Atlantic slave systems together. Robin Blackburn's book triumphantly fills this gap. He has been working backwards: in his 1988 book The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, he surveyed the end of the British, French and Spanish slave systems. Now he delves back to their birth.

The breadth of knowledge this requires is intimidating enough. Yet more difficult is the question of tone. Much of the cultural afterlife of slavery involves the kind of emotion-laden "memory" which is at odds with accurate reconstruction. The uneasy hybridity between history and fiction in Haley's Roots or (on a higher level) Morrison's Beloved is symptomatic. Slavery intersects with various bitter contemporary disputes, especially in the US. Foolish and sometimes repugnant controversies have ensued over issues such as the role of Jews in the slave trade - in reality, minuscule. So have wild claims about numbers, with some African-American writers asserting that 200 million Africans were enslaved or killed and that any lower estimate is a racist evasion. (As if the real total of 12 to 15 million victims were not terrible enough.)

Leaving such excesses aside, a division has opened between those who stress the sadism and suffering of Atlantic slavery, and those who emphasise the trade's careful business rationality. The story of slavery from one aspect resembles that of Auschwitz; from another, it is part of the history of entrepreneurship.

Blackburn handles all this coolly. There is no downplaying of the horrors, but there is none of the didacticism - and little of the Marxism - one might expect from the editor of New Left Review. His most important and disturbing argument is that the evils of slavery were not mainly produced by state action, but by a mass of individual decisions. Although some Europeans condemned the enslavement of Africans from the start, remarkably few of those involved seem to have had moral qualms.

Blackburn traces not only the way the trade developed, but the ideologies that justified it. This involves one of history's great chicken-and-egg questions. Did European beliefs in Africans' natural inferiority arise to legitimate enslavement, or was slavery made possible by prior racist ideas? He rejects an either/or answer, but underlines that both anti-black prejudices and supposed biblical justifications for slavery long preceded the Atlantic trade.

Such views were always contested. Blackburn therefore adds another disconcerting reflection: that slavery was avoidable. Both economic alternatives to its spread and moral critiques of its injustice were fully available at the time it became most extensive and brutal. New World slavery was central to the development of global modernity, but it need not have been so.

Slavery was, he believes, crucial to the emergence of modern capitalism as well. Economic historians have tended to suggest that slavery and colonialism were marginal to Britain's 18th-century prosperity and the Industrial Revolution, but Blackburn strongly argues that British industrialisation was decisively advanced by the exploitation of slave labour. So it might be thought a kind of poetic justice that many of the trade's products - tobacco, sugar, rum - damaged the health of European consumers even as they destroyed the lives of African producers.