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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 130-135
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The Atlantic Slave Trade
The Atlantic Slave Trade. By HERBERT S. KLEIN. New Approaches to the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999 . Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. xxi, 234 pp. Cloth, $49 .95 . Paper, $15 .95 .
This book is a synthesis intended to communicate to scholars and the educated public Herbert Klein's understanding of the past quarter century of scholarly research on the Atlantic slave trade and African slavery in the Americas. The need for the synthesis, as Klein explains, arises from "the gap between popular understanding and scholarly knowledge," as racial conflict in North America has made it difficult to treat the subject "in a rational manner" (p. xvii). Klein hopes to overcome this sociology of knowledge and offer a "rational" synthesis of current research to scholars and the general public. Clearly, this is not a mean task for a scholar working in a North American university and socializing in North American society and intellectual culture.
The coverage of issues is more or less comprehensive. In the context of global [End Page 130] history, the issue raised is why Western Europe expanded overseas and Asia (China or India) did not. The explanation is Europe's "unique" ability to mobilize capital and labor, largely because of strong state institutions and a rising merchant class with access to government support (p. 53 ). Somewhat related to the debate provoked by Henry Louis Gate Jr.'s "Wonders of Africa," the question of ultimate responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade is addressed: It was "created" by Europeans and "brought to an end by European intervention" (p. 73 ). What scholars now refer to as the Eric Williams multitheses are all examined in the light of current scholarship. In view of the beating Williams received from Western scholars in the 1960 s and 1970 s, the surprise is how close Klein is to Williams's position. Apart from the profits thesis considered extreme, he finds support in current scholarship for the "enormous wealth" created in the Americas by Africans and the stimulus this gave to industrialization in Western Europe. On the question of why New World demand for slave labor focused exclusively on Africa, there is clear agreement with Williams--the reason was economics, not racism: "In the context of late-fifteenth-century Africa and Europe, it was Africans who could be purchased and transported at a cost that was within the capacity of the American colonizing powers to pay and still make a profit out of their colonies" (p. 16 ). However, conditions in Africa, which explain the cheap supply, are not demonstrated. Even on the highly controversial issue of abolition, Klein comes quite close to Williams. "While the arguments against the slave trade may have had a moral origin," he says, "they were also based on the interests of European workers and capitalists and not on any concern with the African slaves themselves" (p. 185 ). On these and several other issues there is a fair balance and "rational" synthesis of current scholarship. One omission that should be mentioned at this point is the role of the slaves themselves in ending American slavery, a major theme in current scholarship.
When it comes to the more strictly African side of the subject, presentation of current scholarly knowledge is problematic. To be fair, Klein makes no secret of his limitations in African history. To start, the criticism of writers who deny the existence of slave markets in Africa, "assuming that all slaves were taken by piratical seizure of European traders" (p. 103 ), would be seen as shadow boxing by African historians. What they would find even more baffling is the impression of a "discovery" that the captives transported from Africa were, in the main, sold to the Europeans by traders in Africa. Since the 1950 s African historians, black and white --John Fage, Kenneth Dike, Jan Vansina, Walter Rodney, K. Y. Daaku, Basil Davidson, A. G. Hopkins, I. A. Akinjogbin, Robin Law, Ralph Austen, and Joseph Inikori--have said repeatedly and unambiguously that African middlemen sold...