The two hundredth anniversaries of the British and U.S. abolition acts have coincided with a surge of new scholarship on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This essay surveys recent work and considers the benefits and limitations of approaching the slave trade through several common frameworks: the Atlantic, Great Britain, and Western Africa. Historians of the Atlantic—including the editors of the newly revised Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database—emphasize the complexity of trade networks and their far-reaching ramifications, but they have differed sharply on which subjects to emphasize and how to conceptualize the system as a whole. Historians of the slave trade and Great Britain have focused largely on issues of politics and morality and only to a lesser extent on the economic consequences of the slave trade and colonial slavery. Historians of Africa have been more concerned with issues of demography and political economy, viewing the slave trade in terms of long-term dynamics of underdevelopment, capitalism, and colonialism, including the rise of slavery within Africa in the nineteenth century and the advent of European colonialism. A number of recent back-to-Africa travelogues offer a chance to reflect on these divergent perspectives and the limits of the narrative of abolition.


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