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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 139-141

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Book Review

The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas

The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. By DAVID ELTIS. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000 . Maps. Tables. Bibliography. Index. xvii, 353 pp. Cloth, $59 .95 . Paper, $19 .95 .

David Eltis achieves a masterful synthesis of both primary and secondary sources to shed enormous light on the development of the slave trade in the Atlantic World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, The Rise of African Slavery is an important work that is in many ways a model for conducting Atlantic history, maneuvering fluidly among Africa, Europe, and the Americas while demonstrating key connections and disparities among the continents.

At the heart of the book lie the following questions: why did Europe revive the ailing institution of slavery shortly after the New World voyages of "discovery"? What factors accounted for the development of transatlantic slavery exclusively amongst non-Europeans, particularly Africans? What explains the paradoxical discourse developed by Europeans surrounding the issue of freedom? How could they be committed to the principles of human liberty, yet at the same time maintain the practice of slaveholding?

Eltis answers these questions by using a methodology grounded both in cultural analysis and traditional social science techniques. This is one of the text's great strengths. As with some of the more recent scholarship on abolition, The Rise of African Slavery reduces the emphasis of economic paradigms on explaining the ascent of New World slavery. Instead, Eltis stresses that economic factors operated within a broader cultural milieu. Ultimately, the notion of who could or could not be enslaved was a function of deeply rooted attitudes that differed amongst Africans and Europeans. Europeans possessed a wider conception of ethnicity, which translated into an encompassing, subcontinental view of shared community (chapter 3 ). Consequently, Europeans defined themselves, regardless of nationality, as a single cultural group (Eltis uses the term "insiders") free from being enslaved by one another. By contrast, Africans held a much narrower view of ethnicity, making them more susceptible to being enslaved upon establishing contact with Europeans. Quite simply, without a deep sense of transnational bonding, Africans were more culturally predisposed towards selling one another as slaves.

According to Eltis, the character of the slave trade was also influenced by cultural parameters. In a striking examination of gender and slavery (chapter 4 ), Eltis notes that European traders and plantation owners expressed a preference for acquiring higher ratios of male slaves. Part of their rationale stemmed not from concerns over maximizing profits or plantation efficiency, but from chauvinism and stereotyped European understandings of gender roles. However, when confronted with the realities of the African labor scene, where women were accustomed to [End Page 139] being involved in a greater variety of occupational activities, European traders were forced to adjust to "accepting a wider economic role for women--as long as they were of African extraction" (p. 102 ). Ironically, the greater economic freedom enjoyed by women in Africa also translated into a greater willingness on the part of African traders to sell females into slavery. On the other hand, the more circumscribed role of women in Europe translated into relatively fewer female migrants entering the Americas. Hence, African female migration under slave conditions significantly outpaced European female migration under the cultural confines of freedom.

Chapter 5 marks a turning point in the tenor of the text, as the cultural explanations outlined in the previous chapters become analyzed with more empirical evidence. Specifically, Eltis delves into the nature of the British slave trade, exploring the reasons for its dominance in terms of productivity after 1660 . In a sweeping analysis, Eltis touches upon the significance of transportation costs, ship size, technology, African wars and price structures. The following two chapters provide added depth to the discussion by looking closely at additional African factors. Eltis builds upon the argument posed by others, such as John Thornton, that the Atlantic slave trade was a result of African strength, not weakness. Europeans demonstrated little capacity to control large tracts of...


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pp. 139-141
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Archived 2004
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