Ferreira-Meyers on Misevich and Mann, 'The Rise and Demise of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Atlantic World'

Philip Misevich, Kristin Mann, eds.
Karen Ferreira-Meyers

Philip Misevich, Kristin Mann, eds. The Rise and Demise of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Atlantic World. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2016. 408 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58046-560-1.

Reviewed by Karen Ferreira-Meyers (University of Swaziland)
Published on H-AfrArts (May, 2017)
Commissioned by Jean M. Borgatti

New Perspectives on Slavery and Slave Trade Made Possible through the Online Voyages Database

It is always exciting to get to read a new book, and if that study introduces views and information not hitherto discussed or analyzed, the pleasure is even greater. In just such a book, Philip Misevich and Kristin Mann have edited a series of articles dedicated to David Eltis, who devoted many years to the study of slavery and who, in 2000, published The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. In his book, Eltis explored the paradox of the concurrent development of slavery and freedom in the European domains, with particular emphasis on the English Atlantic slave system. He also underlined the major role Africa and Africans played in this chapter of international history. His main contribution revolved around the argument that the transatlantic slave trade was a result of African strength rather than African weakness. In addition, Eltis highlighted the changing patterns of group identity that account for the racial basis of slavery in the early modern Atlantic world.

In The Rise and Demise of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Atlantic World, Misevich and Mann acknowledge previous excellent research carried out by such scholars as Philip Curtin, and they note the fairly recent launch of the long-awaited online version, in 2008, of Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. This database today provides scholars and the public at large with a searchable website "with information on more than thirty-five thousand Atlantic slaving voyages" (p. 1) and thus allows for a new focus on, and analysis of, slave trade routes and patterns.[1]

The volume is subdivided into two major parts. The first one focuses on the slave trade and slavery, and contains five articles. The second part looks at the end of the slave trade and slavery through the eyes of seven scholars, including the two editors. A short preface explains the rationale for the publication. In 2013, Emory University held a conference on the growth, transformation, and demise of slavery and the slave trade in the Atlantic world. New sources and innovative research methods were the basis for the research and the discussion between senior and junior scholars that followed. Subsequently, a selection of representative conference papers was made and subjected to rigorous peer review before appearing in the published volume. 

In the book's introduction, the editors remind their readers about the long and interconnected history of slavery, human trafficking, slave trade, abolition, and emancipation as well as the various and widespread economic, political, and social transformations that peoples, locations, commodities, and societies underwent because of these. Such a well-crafted introduction allows the reader to enter into the subject matter with ease, even if the topics treated here are often baffling and disturbing. 

David Richardson, in “Consuming Goods, Consuming People: Reflections on the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” the first article in the volume, explains the link between the enormous growth in demand of consumer goods, especially sugar, and the use of enslaved Africans to produce those commodities. He provides the readers with a systematic analysis of qualitative data regarding chronological, geographical, and demographic patterns of the slave trade. The second chapter, written by Philip Morgan and entitled “Caribbean Slavery,” continues Richardson's line of thinking and additionally highlights the fact that "on sugar plantations slaves were commonly worked to death" (p. 3), which, in the eyes of the slave owners, was not a major problem since the existing slave trade ensured continued provision of slaves. Rik van Welie's attention goes to the so-called slave-free paradox that he describes and examines from a Dutch perspective in "What Happened in the Colonies Stayed in the Colonies: The Dutch and the Slave-Free Paradox.” Dutch citizens in the Netherlands, like English citizens in England, were supposedly not fully aware of what was going on in the colonies as there was "little or no metropolitan regulation and oversight" (p. 4) and thus the atrocities committed on the plantations were hidden from the consciousness of the European citizens. Jelmer Vos focuses his chapter on the Windward Coast of Africa, the densely forested coast of today's Liberia and Ivory Coast. The researcher states that new data made available through the Voyages database allows us insight into a field that up to now did not figure prominently in Atlantic slave trade scholarship, and concludes that "besides environmental constraints, local supply mechanisms and weak relations of trust between African and foreign traders severely restricted the size of European slave exports from this region" (p. 129). Daniel B. Domingues da Silva tackles the winds and sea currents which were "the principal sources of power carrying men and women across the oceans" (p. 152) in his chapter. Certain currents fostered links between Africa, Europe, and the Americas, playing a role in the distribution of resources, land, and spread of diseases, ultimately making the New World with its African diaspora possible. 

The first chapter of the second part of The Rise and Demise of Slavery and Slave Trade in the Atlantic World is the work of Seymour Drescher, who compares British and French national and imperial antislavery action, concluding that the history of antislavery action was quite different in both countries. For this researcher, it is British abolitionism, rather than French, that can be seen as a clear forerunner of the current human rights movement. “US Shipbuilding, Atlantic Markets and the Structures of the Contraband Slave Trade” are Leonardo Marques's topics. In 1807, the US federal government introduced an act prohibiting slave importation that contributed to the rise of illegal human trafficking, in particular from Brazil and Cuba, and that proved "much trickier to eliminate, however, especially in the nation's successful shipbuilding industry" (p. 15).

Kristin Mann penned the third chapter in this part of the book; she uses the biography of a Yoruba male slave to address the transformations of the illegal slave trade between 1820 and the 1840s. Misevich turns his attention to the Mende and Sherbro diaspora in nineteenth-century southern Sierra Leone in order to demonstrate how, while on the one side a strong British campaign tried to suppress the slave trade, on the other, large contingents of Spanish, Cuban, and Brazilian slave merchants went into contemporary Sierra Leone's hinterlands to obtain slaves. “The Slow Pace of Slave Emancipation and Ex-slave Equality” is the title of the chapter written by Stanley L. Engerman. As the title indicates, the process of slave emancipation was a slow and difficult one riddled by the economic, ideological, and political interests of the various stakeholders.

The volume's penultimate chapter has Robert Goddard completing what was introduced by Richardson's analysis of the sugar trade in that Goddard looks at the critical aftermath of Britain's 1834 slave emancipation and its impact on Trinidadian sugar planters and producers. Olatunji Ojo's chapter closes the volume. He looks at what happened in Nigeria with regard to child theft, slavery, and African agency with a focus on how the changing nature of slavery and the slave trade impacted the Igbo and neighboring peoples. His research draws on data from local administrative and court records in Nigeria. He concludes that because administrators were more interested in abolishing internal slave trade than in ending international slavery, new forms of enslavement ensued. Children, especially girls, became more vulnerable to slavery perpetuated in households, markets, workshops, brothels, and on farms. 

"Why did Europeans turn to enslaved African labor to develop and expand the plantation system in the Americas?" (p. 4). "Why did Africans sell slaves for shipment to the Americas?" (p. 8). Why and how was the slave trade and later slavery abolished in the Atlantic world? The authors’ combined scholarly efforts make it possible to answer some of these questions. In addition, each chapter contains its own list of references and selected bibliography located at the end of the volume, providing a comprehensive list for further exploration of these and other topics addressed in the book. A section on the book's contributors and an index form the final parts of this excellent anthology.


[1]. The database may be accessed at http://www.slavevoyages.org/.

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Citation: Karen Ferreira-Meyers. Review of Misevich, Philip; Mann, Kristin, eds., The Rise and Demise of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Atlantic World. H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47378

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