Jonathan Silver says that Kenneth Morgan’s A Short History of Transatlantic Slavery is the perfect tool for a more systemic teaching of the history of transatlantic slave trade.
Kenneth Morgan is a renowned British historian of the economic and social forces that shaped the British Atlantic during the long eighteenth century. In A Short History of Transatlantic Slavery he has written a concise but expansive introduction that offers readers a broad survey, informed by up-to-date debates and the latest statistical evidence. This is a book that should be of interest to teachers, students and the broader public seeking an articulate and accessible guide to crimes perpetuated over many centuries of appropriation, exploitation and terror.
The book is structured into seven chapters that attempt to capture and unravel the almost unimaginable human misery that began with the arrival of the first slaves in Hispaniola in 1501 through to its abolition in Brazil as late as 1888. The book begins with the millions of lives caught up in this tragedy and the infrastructure required to sustain such global networks of trade before traveling through the intimacies of life on the plantations and the ongoing revolts and resistances that spanned the oceans, before concluding with the struggles for abolition and emancipation.
Perhaps the strongest element of the book is Morgan’s effort to show the variegated nature of transatlantic slavery – the complex geographies across Africa that secured these human cargoes, the colonial powers that oversaw the trade and the different industries from sugar to cotton that exploited slave labour to generate huge fortunes. It is moments such as Morgan’s assertion that “some investors could be men of modest capital such as shopkeepers” (37) that bring home the way that slavery penetrated every aspect of society both in the colonies and in the metropoles in complex ways that have still to be fully appreciated. He shows how different slaving nations organised and arranged the slave trade in very divergent ways and refutes “any notion that such demand was simple, unchanging” (37). Rather he maps out the complexity and changing nature of the slave trade to show its heterogeneity. By giving an equal treatment and focus beyond the Anglo governed, colonial world (explored in more detail in his 2007 book Slavery and the British Empire) the reader learns how both larger slaver nations such as Spain and smaller ones such as Denmark created and sustained their own particular systems of transatlantic slavery, bringing these complicated entanglements to a history that is too often linear and simplified in its telling.
The book succeeds in introducing some of the key debates over the growth and influence of the slave trade. For instance Morgan covers the organisation and imperatives of the trade in its proper historical context of the growth of colonialism, imperial expansion, the emergence of capitalism and the industrialisation of Britain offered by Eric Williams (1944) in Capitalism and Slavery. But he also finds the space to offer caution to such a capital-centric reading highlighting alternative interpretations (such as Seymour Drescher’s (1977) Econcide that begin to map out interesting avenues for readers to expand their understandings. This ability to present historical events with differing interpretations of such realities through varied scholarship is a real achievement that helps to orientate the reader into the ways in which we can think and reflect on transatlantic slavery. If the achievement of this book is its succinct style in highlighting these broader debates then readers left seeking more detail will find the suggestions for further reading at the end well considered and extensive.
At times the sheer numbers cited by Morgan become hard for the reader to take on board. This is particularly apparent in the first chapter when the author seeks to draw on the latest statistical evidence to offer a breakdown of the flows of slave trade; where slave embarkations occurred, the slaving countries involved and the regions they were disembarked. But this long ranging and perhaps even overwhelming overview is tempered by a keen attention to the lives of individuals that experienced the terror of physical and mental domination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the writing on the workings of the plantation economy. Here Morgan makes clear that for many millions of slaves the plantation equalled death (particularly striking in the sugar industry) and for others a slow motion nightmare that continued for lifetimes. Furthermore, Morgan works hard not to lose the agency of slaves through showing how cultures, socio-political organisation and solidarities travelled across the Atlantic and formed the basis for new identities and ways of thinking, writing that “slave customs and cultural beliefs testify to the rich blend of African practices and adjustments to life on a new continent” (79). He shows that from these moorings emerged the widespread revolts, everyday resistances and insurrections that would challenge the totalising logics of colonialism and slavery as a way of life. The reader is given the chance to learn about well-known triumphs such as the Haitian Revolution, that “led CLR James to call the revolt ‘a crucial moment in world history’” (108), through to minor acts of rebellion such as arson and sabotage. Here, Morgan offers a compelling description of the opposition to slavery beyond the abolition movements that seem to remain the focus of remembrance and recognition in countries such as the UK.
In the conclusion, Morgan (171) argues that “racism and in many instances colonialism, cast a long shadow over the status of black people”. This point is pertinent if we are to reach out beyond understanding the histories of transatlantic slavery as merely in the past. For it forces the reader to confront modern day slavery, the ways in which our societies are still structured through these logics and how social movements continue to struggle for a just and equal world free from racial oppression. For Morgan and hopefully the reader this is a history that is still very much alive today.
The image of Chiwetel Ejiofor from Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave early on perhaps belies the motivation of Morgan in writing this book. While a vast library of research offers specialist knowledge for scholars, for many slavery remains all but unfamiliar beyond its most general characteristics. The reception to 12 Years a Slave shows that many European and North American countries are yet to fully reckon with its historical impact nor find sufficient space in the public realm for education and debate. Morgan’s book offers the perfect tool for a more systemic teaching of this history, one that our schools and other audiences can use to begin to put slavery in its rightful position in the making of the modern world.
A Short History of Transatlantic Slavery. Kenneth Morgan. IB Tauris. 2016.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.