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Reviewed by:
  • The Slavery Reader ed. by Gad Heuman and James Walvin
  • Jessica Millward
The Slavery Reader Edited by Gad Heuman and James Walvin. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

In this impressive volume on slavery in the New World, editors Gad Heuman and James Walvin present a formidable collection of previously published works which “were pioneering, reversionary, or remain, despite more recent critiques of their arguments, model examples of historical approaches to slavery,” (2). Consisting of 37 essays and divided into nine sections introduced by the editors, The Slavery Reader will be best utilized by graduate seminars on slavery, by scholars beginning research in the field or by those wishing to benefit from the compilation of some of the most relevant and classic discussions on New World slavery. Articles presented in The Slavery Reader cover the Atlantic slave trade, the origins and development of slavery in the Americas, labor, family, gender and community, culture, economy and materialproduction, resistance, race, and social structure and Africans in the Atlantic world. There are three prominent and overlapping themes guiding this collection: the development of the Atlantic slave trade; factors influencing the diverse nature of slave life in the New World; and the confluence of resistance, agency and survival in the lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans. At nearly every turn it becomes apparent that Black society, to borrow from Ira Berlin, evolved differently over “time and space” (122).

The development of the Atlantic slave trade ushered in one of the most lucrative and at the same time morally questionable acts in the modern world. European nations and African political states traded material goods for human bodies along the coast of west Africa. In turn, upwards of 21 million Africans from west central Africa were transported to the New World as slaves. Given the prominence of the Atlantic slave trade in a global perspective, it is not surprising that a significant number of the entries in this volume question and, subsequently, outline why African labor predominated over the enslavement of indigenous populations in the New World. Gad Heuman and James Walvin posit, “when people think of slavery, they think of black slaves. Yet this association between race and slavery is, in the long span of history, unusual” (636). Nonetheless, the African presence in the Americas often defines discussions on slavery. Within discussions on chattel slavery, the role of race, status and the slave trade produced a significant body of literature in last half of the twentieth century. As demonstrated by Gad Heuman and Arnold Sio on free blacks, Winthrop Jordan on mulattoes in the British colonies and finally David Northrup in his critique on Igbo myth and reality in the Atlantic world, many contemporary views on race and status can be traced to pervasive views about status and difference in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Factors leading to the Atlantic slave trade such as racial bias and the need for a sustainable labor force command a prominent place in The Slavery Reader. According to the editors, economic demands, more so than racial difference or pervasive negative views about blackness, hastened the development of African chattel slavery. It was the demand for labor that “dictated the rise and direction of the Atlantic slave trade” (5). A variety of push and pull factors contributed to the predominance of African bonded labor in the New World but these demands were nonetheless situated within the history of European expansion and the internal histories of Africa (81). One example of this global system is found in Philip Curtin’s article on epidemiology and the slave trade. Curtin suggests that, though epidemiological factors by themselves did not produce the Atlantic slave trade, “(t)hey influenced economic decisions and economic patterns, the demography of tropical America, and the planters’ preference for Africans over other workers,” (26). In addition to this path-breaking study, Curtin’s, The Atlantic Slave Trade was of signal importance to the development of more nuanced studies on the volume of Africans imported into the New world, their ethnic origins and their age and gender ratios. The inclusion of the work by David Eltis and David Richardson based on the slave-trading database from Harvard balances...

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