Stone on Sell, 'Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital'

Zach Sell
Madelyn Stone

Zach Sell. Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 447 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6134-6

Reviewed by Madelyn Stone (Emory University) Published on H-Labor (June, 2021) Commissioned by David Marquis (The College of William & Mary)

Printable Version:

The world in the age of capital is a world of crisis. Zach Sell’s Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital intervenes in understandings of this period by placing slavery at the heart of the tumult. To fully grasp the trouble of this world requires untangling the fraught dependencies between slavery and empire, through an analysis of the networks, institutions, and lives made and unmade by colonial capitalism.

An adaptation of the author’s doctoral thesis, the book traces the making of the capitalist present through the wedded projects of slavery and colonialism. It spans the years between the emancipation of enslaved people in the British Empire in 1833, and the 1865 conclusion of the US Civil War. This tight lens facilitates an expansive analysis, continuously traversing national boundaries to follow the contingent flows of extractive models. In this way, the work joins a growing corpus in labor history that moves beyond questions of production, turning toward the circulation of capital.

Against a backdrop of constant crisis and conflict, Sell interweaves anecdotes from enslaved individuals, indentured workers, colonial merchants, and reform advocates, tying British Honduras to China and India to South Carolina. An overriding theme is the unrelenting brutality of racial slavery, upon which the twinned violence of capitalism and empire rests. US plantation slavery, articulated within settler colonialism and industrializing capitalism, set expectations for labor relations that shaped the landscape of empire. The persisting violence of the racially ordered global economy manifests the legacies of this past.

This is, of course, well-trod territory. During the time of this history’s unfolding, writers such as Frederick Douglass, abolitionists like George Thompson, and politicians such as the Indian scholar Dadabhai Naoroji commented on the inextricable connections between capitalism, imperialism, and racial slavery. Many of the sharpest points come in the words of luminaries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The central claim rests on W. E. B. Du Bois’s argument that slavery and the ill-fated project of Reconstruction intensified the exploitation of workers in the United States and around the globe, indelibly structuring relations under capitalism. Abolition did not end the exploitation: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”[1]

Extending Du Bois, Sell situates working conditions in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as closer to plantation slavery than “free” labor. Agricultural production in colonized spaces such as India and British Honduras, reliant on indigenous or imported workers, paralleled the violent disregard for human life that characterized slavery in the US South. Sell demonstrates how incomplete projects of emancipation and decolonization left such violence to shape our present. Like other works of synthesis, Trouble of the World asks readers to wrestle with the complexities of a world imperialism has shaped. Notably, Sell's contribution extends understandings of the global entanglements, elevating the idiosyncrasies of interconnections through an analysis that integrates Atlantic and Pacific frames.

Sell draws on an impressive array of sources from more than two dozen archives, across five continents. Materials from Belize and India complement US, British, and Australian documents. Contemporary published writings, newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals alongside literary materials round out the primary material. The bulk of the book relies on secondary literature, crossing disciplines. As mentioned, Du Bois looms large. Walter Rodney, Sylvia Wynter, and Frantz Fanon are also here, along with Eric Williams and others. Sell thus contributes to interventions in the dichotomized literature on capitalism. He sets out to bring the Black radical tradition into richer conversation with recent commodity histories and critical studies of race and capital, including the work of Anthony Bogues, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Lisa Lowe, and Aziz Rana. Trouble of the World effectively leverages the radical literature and its understanding of the integration of capitalism and imperialism. It avoids the trap of viewing abolitionism as oppositional to capitalism. In line with the tendencies of the New History of Capitalism, a fixed theoretical definition of capitalism does not emerge clearly. Sell instead offers a broad historical framing of capitalist development, articulated through the projects of colonialism and enslaved labor.

The story unfolds in four parts, across ten substantive chapters. Their relative brevity makes for a brisk read. The first section focuses on the relationship between the United States’ articulation of slavery and the British imperial world. Here Sell adapts Du Bois’s notion of slavery’s real estate character. Unlike chattel property, enslaved people were considered in terms of their potential for further capital investment and accumulation. Concepts of enslaved people’s value shaped the expansionary tendencies of the US settler empire. With the aid of loopholes such as those provided in the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, slavery territory expanded through the colonization of the West. Chapter 2 excavates a counterintuitive common cause of British manufacturers and export-dependent American slaveholders: repealing trade tariffs. US slaveholders did not share optimism for British imperial expansion, fearing competition from other commodity producers. Yet Anti-Corn Law Leaguers and enslavers alike pushed for laissez-faire policies to enact visions of a racial, imperial economy sustained by free trade.

The three chapters in part 2, "An Immense Accumulation of Commodities," focus on crucial crops: indigo, rice, and cotton staples. Shifts in the production of indigo, from South Carolina to India, provided an explanatory framework for contemporaries looking to the future. Abolitionists and colonial officials optimistically projected the dynamics of US slavery and the British Empire as they related to South Asian exports. If indigo could be successfully cultivated in India, the thinking went, cotton and rice could be as well—and by free labor. This assumption ignored much. It overlooked the experience of Indian cultivators contracted to work under conditions of physical violence and the pain of cyclical price crashes. The emphasis on contemporaries’ intellectual misapprehension of colonial and race-based capitalism departs from the more material focus of other chapters, but there is an underlying point here left unsaid. Citations to works such as Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics (2014) point to the relevance of present-day assumptions about the nature of commodity supply, untethered as they often are from the violence of political reality. Though beyond the book's temporal scope, this point could have come through more clearly to make this section more compelling.

Part 3, “Crisis,” details the discrepancies between US and Indian cotton cultivation. Drawing on records from India’s National Archives, Sell examines the famine that began in 1860 and killed more than a million people. Chapters 6 and 7 interlace the experiences of workers across three continents: enslaved people forced under the threat of the whip to pick cotton on US plantations; Indians who faced starvation when exports destroyed the market for Indian textiles; and British factory workers who protested the poor quality of short-staple “Surat” cotton, which clogged workers’ lungs, irritated their skin, and made them nauseous. The parallels contemporaries drew between economic crisis in Britain and widespread death in India—a “kindred distress”—suggest the transferability of colonial prejudice. The application of the term “famine” to both Lancashire and India’s North-Western Provinces equated the experience of Indians suffering mass death to Britons enduring reduced standards of living. Lancashire workers received funds from the Indian Famine Relief Fund, while the people of India endured disciplinary work requirements, extended to children as young as seven.

This social-historical perspective runs alongside a higher-level political-economic view. Chapter 6 draws on theories from Rosa Luxemburg, Henryk Grossman, and David Harvey to explicate the global fallout of crises such as the US Civil War, the aftermath of which saw—attending the resumption of cotton exports—a distribution of risk, with victims including Bombay merchants, Cuban commerce, Egyptian finance, and the West African cotton industry. Chapter 7 emphasizes the tendency of British traders and manufacturers to use production levels from US enslaved labor as a metric for Indian cotton cultivation, to disastrous consequences for weavers. The section concludes by taking the theme of crisis to another continent: Australia. Here enters the indentured “coolie” laborer, a key subject of racialized discourse set in opposition to African and indigenous labor. The global character of racial struggles emerges in the interwoven concerns about Queensland’s labor shortage and white southerners’ uncertainty about how to manage formerly enslaved people in the United States. Though unrealized, proposals to remove freedpeople to Australia—in exchange for the United States absorbing England’s “surplus” farmers and mechanics—underscored the appeal US-style white supremacy held across settler societies.

Perhaps the most captivating chapter comes in the final part. Chapter 9 interrogates the complex convergence of Black American’s emancipation, indentured Chinese labor, occupied Mayan territory, and southern plantation colonialism during the 1860s. Failed attempts to move Black Americans to British Honduras, supported by Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, opened the door to Chinese indentured workers—and American planters to manage them. Underfed, overexploited, and falling ill with flu, Chinese migrants left the plantations to live with the Santa Cruz Maya. Primary sources take a powerful role here, with workers’ letters to their families and colonial officials’ reports revealing underpayment and uncertainty amid widespread migrant death on the plantations. The final chapter returns to the notion of real estate, this time in its more common sense. The failure to deliver reparations to formerly enslaved Black Americans derived from the incomplete dispossession of slaveholders, whose claims to the land on which they settled were reaffirmed after the Civil War. Abolitionists participated in the project of affirming white real estate as the basis of US capitalism and national racial purity, in what Sell calls a project of “slaveholder colonialism.”

The book concludes as it began, on a pessimistic note that invokes the title of the original dissertation: “Slavery Beyond Slavery.” We have not so much moved past the trouble of the world as perpetuated it. Sell refers to racial violence and exploitative labor conditions, but the horrors of slavery itself persist. The titular trouble, from the song of enslaved people, remains a pervasive evil. Enslavement has become a truly globalized phenomenon, propelled by an imperially dominated world economy. Today, tens of millions endure coerced labor and dehumanization, as scholars such as Siddharth Kara and Kevin Bales have powerfully shown. Attendant to this, the reader may wish to untangle the use of the term “trouble.” Like the New History of Capitalism literature it seeks to move past, the book hazards a framing of “low-road capitalism” in opposition to a more elevated path. As Sell underscores, our world is a product of slavery as much as empire and capitalism. Today’s injustices of racial violence, ecological collapse, imperial debt structures, and capitalist expropriation would seem to demand reparative action for worldly troubles in their multitude.


[1]. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 30.

[2]. Joel Rogers’s term, cited in Matthew Desmond, for the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” August 14, 2019.

Citation: Madelyn Stone. Review of Sell, Zach, Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital. H-Labor, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021. URL:

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