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The perfect introduction to the subject
on 9 August 2009
Around 12 million people were taken from their African homes and transported to the Americas. Around 1.5 million didn't survive the journey. The rest were subjected to the dehumanisation of slavery. As James Walvin points out: "From first to last, slavery was a system characterised by brutality". It also brought about the political and economic ascendency of "the West" and the corollary subjugation of Africa. This little book is "a short history" - an introduction or overview if you like - but it's an excellent one. It's clear, it's accessible, and it's comprehensive. And a list of "further reading" is helpfully included for those who wish to explore the subject in more depth.
It's a chronological history, with each chapter containing relevant excerpts from texts (some more interesting than others but including some written by slaves) which illustrate the realities explored. It starts by looking at slavery in Greece, Rome, the Medieval world and in Islamic societies before moving on to Atlantic slavery. Walvin covers the hellish conditions on slave ships, documents the modus operandi of oppression and refers to slave resistance while also giving glimpses into the diverse possibilities of slave "community life". The driving force of slavery - profit - is everywhere apparent together with its precondition of the dehumanisation of the African. There is an excellent chapter on the abolition of the slave trade, and the roles of Clarkson, Wilberforce and the Quakers. The book concludes with a further fascinating chapter on the abolition of the institution of slavery itself. In these final two chapters, the role of mobilised public opinion in bringing about social change is interestingly portrayed and provides much food for thought.
Obviously such a slim volume will have its limitations. It is very Anglocentric: there is little focus on the activities of the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch. And no mention of the Swedes or Danes, the latter being the first Europeans to abolish the African slave trade. Nor do we hear anything of countries who didn't abolish slavery until the twentieth century, such as Sierra Leone (1927) or Saudi Arabia (1962). The book also might seem to give the impression that slavery is only a historical phenomenon, as there is no mention of the widespread contemporary slavery and trafficking. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a more effective or comprehensive introduction to this subject.