New World Slavery is a broad but still somehow under-covered theme in the scholarly literature. Works on slavery tend to be either very general or very focused. How does one consider such an expansive subject, both geographically and historically, in one volume without leaving out important themes? David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, and Directory Emeritus of the Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, delivers a solid attempt to cover all the major themes in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Davis helps the reader appreciate the major concepts of slavery in the New World without leading the reader to think that slavery was a monolithic experience. Inhuman Bondage is not an encyclopedia on New World Slavery. Davis’s purpose is to place American slavery within the context of the Atlantic slave system and to help us develop a better understanding of American slavery—and I think Davis accomplishes his mission.
Chapter 1 examines many of the key themes such as racism, international and national law, justice, and politics by considering the case of the Cuban slave ship, La Amistad. In 1839, Cinqué an illegally captured and enslaved African led a revolt on the slave ship La Amistad, killed a number of crew members and forced one of the surviving slave owners to plot a course for Africa. Instead of doing that, the ship’s newly forced pilot steered the ship toward the U.S., ending up in New York; the boat and all on board were taken to Connecticut starting a legal battle that would pit former President John Quincy Adams against the administration of President Van Buren. Chapters 2 and 3 consider the theoretical context of modern, post Age of Exploration, slavery. Modern, New World slavery differed from earlier forms of human bondage in that it was economically and industrially based, while many forms of pre-modern slavery were centered on war plunder or debt. Davis argues that slavery is different from servitude by pointing out that enslaved people throughout history have been dehumanized, stripped of citizenship, and treated as property. Here the discussion turns to examples of pre-modern slavery among the Sumerians, the Neo-Babylonians, and the Tupinamba of pre-conquest Brazil. He also lays out many of the foundational concepts and ideologies leading to the uniqueness of American slavery including slavery among the Israelites, the often-quoted Biblical scriptures, including the cursing of Canaan, and the Greek and Roman philosophical views often used to justify slavery. Many wealthy, early-American slaveholders, particularly in the antebellum South, viewed slavery not only as moral, but also critical to democracy. Some southern slave owners saw themselves as modern parallels of ancient Roman senators of the Republic, evidently as a result of their Classical education. In Chapter 4, the author [End Page 378] further reflects on how racially based African enslavement became incorporated into the exploitation of the New World.
In Chapters 5 and 6, Davis helps us appreciate the regional differences of slavery within Brazil and the United States, and between the Caribbean islands controlled by various European countries. I found the comparisons of slavery within Brazil and the U.S. particularly interesting. More so than their counterparts in the Caribbean, slave owners in Brazil and the southern U.S. emphasized their “paternalistic patronage” while developing harsh industrialized forms of agricultural production.
Chapters 7 and 8 examine the issues raised by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. Each of these convulsions had an impact on the lives of slaves and slave owners throughout the New World. Within the territory that would become the U.S., slaveholders worried about whether to arm slaves to assist in fighting the British. In both North America and the Caribbean, the British increasingly used black soldiers to fend off enemies and maintain the status quo. The French Revolution eventually expanded racial equality to free blacks...