Although slavery was not legal in the English-speaking world until 1661 when Barbados and Virginia introduced the necessary legislation, English men, and indeed English women, had long been entangled in the practice. In Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World, Michael Guasco sets out to investigate the nature of that entanglement and explore how the English thought, wrote about, and practised slavery from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century.
Guasco suggests that 'we have rarely devoted as much attention to the meaning of human bondage as we have to the origins of racial slavery in the early Anglo-Atlantic world' and that his book seeks to 'redress that oversight' (p. 5). He argues that ideas about slavery and a 'willingness to take advantage of human bondage' shaped English colonialism from the beginning (p. 5). This starting point — the beginning of English colonialism — means that Guasco concentrates, for the most part, on the late-sixteenth century onwards. Although he does refer to those English traders who experienced the fluidity of the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Iberian Atlantic, he does not really explore their experiences or their influence back home. Nor does he look at the practices and influences of those slave-holding Genoese, Florentine, and Venetian merchants who resided in Southampton and London during the period and whose influence on local merchants is recorded in the guild and notary archives of England, the Low Countries, and the Iberian Peninsula. [End Page 210]
Slaves and Englishmen focuses on ideas rather than practices. Guasco expertly illustrates the dichotomy faced by those English citizens willing to find out more about slavery and think through its moral implications. Not only had vestiges of serfdom survived into the sixteenth century, but both Christian and classical texts failed to provide clear-cut guidance. While the Old Testament could be read as 'a story of liberation', passages like Leviticus25.44–46 condoned slavery, as did sections of the New Testament. The classical texts read by learned English men and women were equally confusing: on the one hand extolling individual freedom while, on the other, condoning slavery as a natural state (pp. 15–18). The situation was further clouded by the fact that just as Englishmen were becoming familiar with slavery, and the enslavement of Africans in particular, they realized that they too could be enslaved — particularly in the Mediterranean, seen as an 'epicentre of bondage and captivity' (p. 56).
By Elizabeth I's reign, conflicts between Protestants and Catholics and between England and Spain were increasingly seen as a battle between freedom and slavery. This 'fed into the notion that the English were, ipso facto, anti-slavery' (p. 21). However, while such a stance may have been popular in theory, it was hardly convenient in practice. Only those opportunistic Englishmen who demonstrated flexibility survived and prospered in the Atlantic world. This meant that while commentators claimed that England's invasion of Ireland would 'liberate the mass of poor, downtrodden Irish from a bondage that was imposed on them by their own lords' (p. 49), Englishmen sailing, fighting, and trading in the Atlantic were learning about and tolerating the idea of African slavery even before they embraced it (p. 68). They were integrating Africans into their households and businesses through conversion, servitude, and miscegenation, and were among the first to write about Africans in the Americas. Guasco's comment that these Englishmen were largely 'smugglers and pirates' (p. 86) is somewhat simplistic however, for during this period, divisions between merchant, trader, smuggler, and pirate were blurred and constantly shifting. Whatever their status, Englishmen tended to cohere to a smug rhetoric, which invariably characterized the Spanish as cruel colonizers and themselves as liberators. This meant that while Africans and indigenous Americans were being cast as allies, the geographer and writer Richard Hakluyt felt justified in suggesting that Africans be taken to a settlement in the Straits of Magellan and...