The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870
An up-to-date comprehensive history of the Atlantic slave trade is as much needed as it is daunting to write. The last three decades have seen an explosion of inquiry into various aspects of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, ranging from its volume to its impact on societies across all three continents. Hugh Thomas’s book The Slave Trade not only attempts to offer a synthesis of what has become a specialized field of historical study, but also promises to provide “a balanced historical account” of a topic “laden with contemporary controversy” [End Page 473] and “obscured by myth and legend” (cover). So ambitious a work must necessarily stand at the intersection of conflicting opinions about content, approaches, and treatment of issues. The volume is thus best judged by its own standards: does it represent a well-informed, accessible overview of the history of the Atlantic slave trade, and does it provide a balanced account?
The basic organizing principle of Thomas’s book is chronological. The first long section (book 1) outlines the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, with heavy emphasis on recounting the key events of the early European oceanic explorations and expansion. The next segment discusses the “internalization of the trade” in the later sixteenth through seventeenth centuries, and its apogee in the eighteenth century (books 2 and 3). The chronological line is then broken by an analytical section (book 4) dealing with the mechanics of trade and transportation involved in the crossing of the Atlantic. The work eventually resumes its chronological progression, and deals with the Abolition and its aftermath (book 5), and the illegal export of slaves across the Atlantic (book 6).
The approach would be sound if the periods were well balanced and the themes discussed in connection with them comprehensive. This, however, is not so. The early period of the Atlantic slave trade receives as much attention as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combined, although it was then that the trade grew the most and had most significance. Out of nine hundred pages, one hundred fifty is hardly enough to cover the peak period of the trade, when 70% of the overall number of slaves were shipped. It might be argued that the thematic section on the mechanics of the crossing makes up for this deficiency, but the reader is left with the impression that it was first the early period and then the illegal trade that were truly important.
The second problem is the episodical coverage of themes. The chapters represent mostly a weft of incidents and examples derived from contemporary narrative sources. It is thus extremely difficult to discern the overall structure and dynamics of the trade, even in such basic areas as the changing role played by different African and American regions. Later parts of the book give far too much attention to Great Britain, at the expense of other players, especially the Dutch, the French, and the Portuguese. The information on the volume of the trade and its demographic impact is scattered throughout the text, so that even an expert can easily get lost in the material.
The third problem is the overly Western focus of the book, although this was not the author’s intention. Europeans, and in the later period specifically the British, appear as the active movers. The [End Page 474] Africans are seen largely through European eyes, both contemporary and modern. Only about four chapters in book 4 deal with the role of the Africans, whether as suppliers or as slaves. Chapters 17 and 18 (Slave Harbours I and II) are among the most superficial of the book, driven almost entirely by material from eighteenth-century accounts of slaving and other voyages to Africa. Given the wealth of recent literature on African history in the era of the Atlantic slave trade, this deficiency cannot be attributed to a lack of sources.
This brings us to the fourth problem: the issue of research. Lord Thomas chose to work with two kinds of literature, narrative primary sources and older scholarly literature, ignoring almost entirely the huge body of research and interpretive works of the last thirty years. For example, John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), a seminal interpretation of the historical context of the early Atlantic slave trade, serves merely as a mine of illustrative examples from original Portuguese sources. The complex debate on the volume of the Atlantic slave trade is dismissed as “vain” (p. 861) in a one-page note to appendix 3, which represents the author’s own estimate of the trade’s volume. To compound the problem, the reader is left to guess at the author’s own quantitative reasoning. Thomas’s decision to ignore recent historical research is the more curious as his “Bibliographical Note” shows that he was aware of many important publications and their content.
Lord Thomas may have chosen his approach for the sake of readability, deciding not to involve the reader in theories, conceptual issues, economics, and interpretations that he could have assumed to be unpalatable to a broad public. If so, it has worked as a literary device: his book is a very lively and extremely readable piece of nonfiction, replete with colorful quotations from contemporary sources. However, many of these quotations are misleading because they were selected more to appeal to the reader’s feelings and fancies than to provide an accurate representation of the historical context. This problem is particularly severe in the case of derivative chapter titles, such as “I Herded Them as if They Were Cattle” (chap. 5). The result is a very gripping, very long, and very shallow book that fails to convey the overall dimensions, dynamics, complexities, and the spectrum of human experience covered by the umbrella term “the Atlantic slave trade,” which are so masterfully captured, for example, in Joseph Miller’s Way of Death (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
Despite its shortcomings, Thomas’s Slave Trade is bound to rank as [End Page 475] one of the most widely read publications on the topic. Although it is unlikely to become required reading in university courses, general readership will more than compensate. The Slave Trade is a classic trade publication. It has been heavily promoted and has been very positively reviewed in many widely read periodicals, such as The Economist, New Statesman, and Times Literary Supplement. As a result of this (and the fact that there are hardly any competitors), Lord Thomas’s book will do more to shape the general public’s perception of the Atlantic slave trade than the rich and painstaking scholarly works on the subject. For historians, and especially world historians, this prospect is chastening: why does it seem close to impossible to write books that the general public would appreciate while providing first-rate scholarly content?