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The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

James Walvin reviews a provocative new study of slavery that may leave other historians licking their wounds

Published: August 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm
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Reviewed by: James Walvin
Author: Robin Blackburn
Publisher: Verso
Price (RRP): £20


The saga of African slavery in the Atlantic world continues to attract some of the best historical research and argument in contemporary historiography. In the process slavery has shifted from the margins of historical research to a central and even dominant position.

How could it be otherwise? Twelve million Africans, three continents, four centuries – all held together by the exploitation and consequences of slavery. Today, it is hard to keep up with the flow of scholarship.

Robin Blackburn has already secured his position as Britain’s pre-eminent historian of slavery. This new volume confirms that position.

His trilogy of books have emerged in a peculiar fashion. He began (1988) with The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery – a marvellous, wide-ranging challenge to accepted views of the process of ending slavery. He then stepped back, in The Making of New World Slavery (1997) to explain the origins and growth of the slave system whose demise he had explored a decade before.

Now, in The American Crucible, Blackburn provides a brilliant and engaging account of slavery and its ending.

This is a masterly analysis, which engages with African slavery in its widest setting, from North America to Brazil, from the Caribbean islands to Central America. Importantly, the book is also able to engage with confidence with a huge, varied and multilingual literature, much of which has been published since Blackburn’s first book in 1988. Indeed The American Crucible has been made possible by the literature of the past 30 years, and by Blackburn’s critical analysis of that work.

Robin Blackburn is too subtle a thinker and writer to fall back on the traditional Marxist analyses of slavery (even when deriving inspiration and encouragement from them). Instead, he persuasively reveals the degree to which the world of emergent capitalism was both cause and effect of what unfolded on the slave plantations of the Americas.

And in expanding his study to embrace Brazil, Cuba and the USA he explains how 19th-century industrial capitalism was inextricably tied to slavery – and to its demise.

This is a richly scholarly book, alert to a broad historical and theoretical scholarship. It has the stylistic weakness (for this reader at least) of being too self-referential (of regularly referring back, in the text, to points made elsewhere by the same author : “As I explained in Chapter X…”)

Yet it is scholarship which comes with a punch. And the toughest punches are delivered often in the most gentlemanly of fashions: Blackburn concedes the value of another scholar’s importance before landing a telling blow on what they say.

The American Crucible inevitably embraces areas covered by the author in earlier volumes. But even then, he is keen to tease out a different story, more especially the foundations of modern human rights. The result is a book with a significance not simply for historians of slavery.

It is an important contribution to our understanding of the shaping of the modern western world (even though the last pages show signs of haste – or running out of steam).

Blackburn also makes the important argument for the centrality of Haiti in the story of slavery and human freedom. The volcanic slave upheaval in that island after 1791, for long a marginal matter to historians who should have known better, had seismic consequences throughout the Americas.

It galvanised the enslaved and terrified the slave holders. It also secured the basic fact that Africans wanted – insisted on – their freedom. It is the struggle for those rights which provides Blackburn with his most innovative and provocative theme and it is here that the author is at his assertive best.

This book is bound to attract its critics, for it leaves a string of other academics licking their scholarly wounds. But more importantly, it demands that all historians of Atlantic slavery pay serious attention to Blackburn’s compelling arguments.

James Walvin is the author of The Slave Trade (Thames & Hudson, 2011)

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