Why Study Slavery from a Comparative Viewpoint

In September I’ll begin teaching the first of two new courses at the University of Glasgow‘s Centre for Open Studies on the histories of slavery and abolition. ‘Slavery in the Americas‘ will run for 10 weeks from September 28 until December 7 (no class on October 12). With a little over one month to go, I’m beginning to put together some of the resources that I will be sharing with my class. One of the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) for Slavery in the Americas is to ‘Compare the size and state of the slave populations of the various colonies’. I think it’s a really intriguing topic that deserves a bit of exploration here, too.

Atlantic_Ocean image

Why should we study slavery within a wider context? For example, you may have come across studies that look at slavery in two different states in the USA, or the South versus the North, or the United States versus the British Empire and so on. The short answer is that studying slavery using a comparative perspective can tell us more. It can reveal things that we might not have seen otherwise. It gives us context and can reveal significant differences and unique events as well as similarities and trends across space and time.

Here are a few examples of areas to consider when thinking about placing your study within a wider context:

  1. Demographics. While it’s hard to know exact numbers, there are a number of ways to attempt to assess the size of the enslaved population of one or more regions. For example, we can use the Transatlantic Slave Trade database, Voyages, to get an idea of the numbers that were imported to specific regions from Africa. (Check out my guide to using Voyages here.) We can look at registers from the Caribbean and census records from the USA. British compensation records give numbers from the period of abolition in the 1830s. Some plantation record books are still in existence, allowing for comparisons between individual plantations. There are also advertisements in newspapers that provide information on slaves for sale which gives an indication of the interest in and scale of slavery in an area.
  2. Local crops. Coffee, sugar, tobacco, etc. were all grown using slave labour in the Americas. The kinds of crops being grown have been shown to affect the size of the enslaved population. This is due to a number of factors, including: physical intensity and exertion required to grow and harvest the crop; the degree of mechanisation; and the risk of accidental physical harm due to the machinery and tools involved in the growing, harvesting, and processing of the crop. Sugar, for example, was a dangerous, exhausting crop to grow, harvest, and process, yet demand for it was skyrocketing in the later eighteenth century. Planters in the Caribbean, then, struggled to maintain the size of the slave population in their sugar plantations, whereas their counterparts in the southern USA, with more land devoted to growing cotton and tobacco, witnessed a self-sustaining enslaved population.
  3. Mortality. Mortality rates were high for enslaved Africans and those of African descent. Corporal punishment, accidents, racially-based hate crimes, restricted legal rights in the justice system, malnutrition, and infanticide all affected mortality rates (probably many other factors did, too)*, as well as old age and disease. By the late seventeenth century, planters and abolitionists alike were becoming obsessed with understanding and justifying the rate of natural increase (or decrease) in slave versus free populations. Abolitionists argued that a slave population that could not sustain itself was proof that the system of slavery was inhumane. Planters and merchants, meanwhile, blamed decreasing numbers on an unequal sex ratio, the climate, natural ageing, and manumission (the process by which a slave could become free). They used the declining numbers to justify their continuing support for the slave trade.
  4. The timing and nature of abolition. Abolition (here referring to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade) and emancipation (the freeing of enslaved persons) took place at different times in different areas and also comprised of different things. For example, while both the USA and Britain officially ended their participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, Britons could still invest and take part in the foreign trade for several more years. Britain’s Caribbean colonies faced a growing labour shortage France, meanwhile, abolished slavery in her colonies in 1794, only to reinstate it eight years later. Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888. As such, an estimated four million enslaved Africans were imported to Brazil from Africa over the centuries.

I hope that this has been a helpful overview of some of the ways in which we can look at the history of slavery and abolition from a comparative perspective in order to contextualise and, really, just better understand the numbers and experiences that we will inevitably come across.

*The history of slavery in the New World contains stories of unimaginable death, terror, and tragedy. I know that I don’t discuss these elements very often in the context of this blog, but you can’t understand the demographics, the events, and the arguments for and against abolition without acknowledging this reality. We are looking at people’s lives and it was an awful life to live, but there were also enslaved and freed people who kept hope, who made their own ways out, and who helped others get out, too, on the ground, in community centres, and in government chambers and assemblies both there and abroad.

Suggested readings:

Blackburn, Robin.  The Making of New World Slavery (Verso, 1997)

Blackburn, Robin.  The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (Verso, 1988)

Eltis, David. ‘Was Abolition of the U.S. and British Slave Trade Significant in the Broader Atlantic Context?’ The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 66 (2009): 715-36.

Littlefield, Daniel C. ‘Plantations, Paternalism, and Profitability: Factors Affecting African Demography in the Old British Empire.’ Journal of Southern History, 47 (1981): 167-82.

Mason, Matthew. ‘Keeping Up Appearances: The International Politics of Slave Trade Abolition in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World’. The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 66 (2009): 809-32.

Morgan, Kenneth. ‘Slave Women and Reproduction in Jamaica, ca. 1776-1834’. In Women and Slavery: The Modern Atlantic, ed. Gwyn Cambell et. al. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008): 27-53.

Sheridan, Richard B. ‘Slave Demography in the British West Indies and the Abolition of the Slave Trade.’ In The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. David Eltis and James Walvin (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981): 259-86.

Slavery & Abolition, 26 no. 2 (August 2005). [special thematic issue on women and slavery]

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s