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Reviewed by:
  • Children in Slavery through the Ages
  • Benedetta Rossi
Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers and Joseph C. Miller (eds), Children in Slavery through the Ages. Athens OH: Ohio University Press (pb US$19.95 – 978 0 821 41877 2). 2009, 248 pp.

This book is the first of two volumes on children in slavery, which together fill a gap in our understanding of slavery across time and space by shedding light on how this institution affected the lives of children. Slave children were doubly marginalized by virtue of their status and age. The scarcity of sources on the experience of enslaved children and the high quality of most chapters make the volume a welcome addition to the historiography of slavery and slavery studies in general. Yet, precisely because this contribution meets a need and makes available valuable research on a notoriously ‘difficult’ subject, it is regrettable that the Introduction devotes less than one and a half pages to the two sections ‘Definition of slavery’ and ‘Definition of a child’, and refers to only five publications by authors other than the editors themselves. The editors miss a chance to develop reflections of general historical and conceptual relevance based on the arguments put forward in the contributions, and to integrate this volume in broader debates that they helped to shape through their earlier work. [End Page 516] The Introduction would have benefited from a more critical discussion of the implications of using the notions of ‘childhood’ and ‘slavery’ comparatively and diachronically, and of the role of gender in child slavery. These comments should not detract from the fact that this book is a notable addition to the literature. The twelve chapters are clear, rich and never redundant. They are divided in two sections. Section 1 (chapters 1–6) focuses on the trade of slave children. Section 2 explores the uses of enslaved children in different contexts: the types of labour, degrees of exploitation, and potential social mobility of children.

In Chapter 1, Antonio de Almeida Mendes discusses children in the early Portuguese slave trade across the Iberian peninsula, West and North Africa, and the Americas. He advances the original suggestion that arrival in Portugal may have increased the chances of upward mobility of African captives from communities for whom slavery was an inherited status. Chapter 2, by Richard Allen, makes available a detailed reconstruction of the place of children in some scarcely studied axes of the Indian Ocean slave trade in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He concludes a thorough investigation of scarce sources by asking ‘to what extent did knowledge of an expanding trade in children in an era marked by the emergence of the modern concepts of the child and childhood shape the development of the abolitionist movement?’ (p. 46). Allen’s (self-)reflexive approach would have benefited the volume as a whole. The idea, put forth in the opening section of the Introduction, that ‘child slavery is surely the most pitiful form of slavery’ (p. 1) belongs to the same intellectual heritage interrogated by Allen. Chapter 3 by Fred Morton, on children in the nineteenth-century East African slave trade, is one of the book’s most compelling contributions. Morton extensively cites testimonies of liberated slave children, available in published autobiographies and archives. The rich empirical base of his research allows Morton to make interesting suggestions on the nature of child enslavement, including the idea that children functioned as ‘small change’ in slave trade networks, and changed hands frequently across successive owners/traders whose main business was to deal in adults. Children’s versatility meant that they could be put to different uses until they reached an age when their management became more difficult and their sale more profitable. In Chapter 4, George Michael La Rue focuses on the story of Ali, a little boy purchased by a European doctor in the nineteenth-century Egyptian slave trade in the Sudan. While this case is illuminating in multiple ways, La Rue could have been more critical toward his European sources, which he often takes at face value. In Chapter 5, Susan Eva O’Donovan reconstructs the alienating experience of enslaved children’s subsequent relocations through trade in nineteenth-century...


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pp. 516-518
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