The Making of New World Slavery

Robin BlackburnGeneral History of the Caribean, volume III: The slave Societies of the Caribbean.Franklin W. KnightThe Slave Trade. The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870Hugh Thomas

Marika Sherwood | Published in 31 Dec 1998

Do we need a book of over 900 pages which is called a history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, but in fact deals almost exclusively with the traders in enslaved Africans? How should a British historian at the end of the 1990s approach such a topic? We are regularly confronted with histories of the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust; should such accounts of that more recent wholesale murder influence the historian to see the Trade from a similar perspective?

Hugh Thomas actually raised the ethical issue by reminding us of Hugh Trevor Roper's warning that we should not judge the past by the present. He does not, he says, want to look for villains. But wasn't the Trade a villainy even by the standards of many living at the time? Why else, for example, was there the need to dehumanise Africans in order to justify their enslavement? Thomas does not write with sensibilities engendered by perceptions of horror or villainy. Nor can he bring himself to wonder whether financial interest then, as now, over-rode ethical considerations.

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