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  • The Sounds of Silence: Nineteenth-century Portugal and the Abolition of the Slave Trade
  • Matt D. Childs
The Sounds of Silence: Nineteenth-century Portugal and the Abolition of the Slave Trade. By João Pedro Marques. Translated by Richard Wall (New York: Bergham Books, 2006. xxi plus 282 pp. $80.00).

The trans-Atlantic slave trade continues to produce a wide-ranging historiography by intellectual, social, cultural, political, and economic historians. Over the last ten years quantitative methodologies, most notably those of David Eltis, have breathed new life into demographic history, while bicentennial celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic have catalyzed a new generation of scholarship, funded dozens of conferences, and produced numerous monographs that challenge any historian to stay on top of the field. The scholarly literature on the slave trade and its abolition is overwhelmingly focused on the British. This reflects the historical reality that Britain was both the largest transporter of slaves and first championed the abolitionists' cause among the colonial European powers. But is also indicative of a wider trend in imperial and colonial studies whereby historians tend to ignore or minimize the role of other countries and use the British and US experience for the dominant narrative of Global History, World History, Atlantic History, and Colonial History. The translation of João Pedro Marques' Sounds of Silence will serve to correct the historiographical emphasis on British abolitionism and provide English readers with an insightful counterpoint by looking at the abolition of the Portuguese slave trade.

Marques frames his study by exploring the question of why, if Portugal controlled Angola, the major exporting colony of slaves, and Brazil, the major importing colony of slaves, there has been a relative silence on the abolition of the [End Page 239] Portuguese slave trade? Unlike the abolition of the British slave trade that was marked by mass-based protests both pro and con, flooding parliament with petitions, fiery speeches, politicalization of evangelical Protestantism, and modern-day lobbying campaigns, the abolition of the Portuguese trade seems like a non-event that ended due to a gradual erosion of support. The major contribution of Marques' study is that he corrects this simplistic comparison. He in fact finds that the question of abolition was far from a silent non-event, but resounded throughout Portuguese politics in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In documenting the importance of the slave trade for 19th century Portugal, Marques has consulted a vast and impressive array of primary sources to locate the debate over abolition at the public, political, and diplomatic levels. In order to gauge public opinion on the slave trade, he has worked through dozens of newspapers and periodicals where the topic figured prominently in their pages. At the political level, Marques has consulted parliamentary archives and surveyed all of the debates and hearings in the Diarios of the Câmaras and the Cortes. And for the diplomatic angle of the debate, he has done research at the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo as well as specialized military, naval, colonial, and foreign archives. Collectively these sources convinced Marques that while there was a relative silence in terms of celebrating abolition as a cause in the name of humanity, the documentary record indicated that explaining the silence would reveal a much more complex story. Consequently, Marques' explanation of Portuguese abolition is at times explicitly and throughout implicitly a comparison with the British model.

Marques tracks the changing positions on the slave trade from "tolerationism" to "gradualism" to "abolitionism." Marques recognizes that placing attitudes and positions on slavery into clearly defined categories gives them the somewhat false impression of being easily distinguishable from each other. Despite this caveat, by attaching labels to chronological time periods and ideologies of slavery he has brought a degree of clarity and progression to the Portuguese slave trade debate that had previously been reduced to explanations of expediency. By using the term "tolerationism" he shows how slavery was ideologically "tolerated" for political, economic, and social reasons from 1770 to 1810, while recognizing that it advocates did regard it as an inhumane institution. The Portuguese argued the slave trade had to be tolerated because it was a...


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