- Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America
Is an imperial history of slavery different than a history of slavery in the Atlantic or in the Americas? What does an imperial view of the institution allow us to see, and is it simply a different picture temporally and spatially? These are some of the significant questions born of Kenneth Morgan's synthesis Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa [End Page 332] to America. Slavery scholars are increasingly adopting a broader comparative perspective for their studies, and Morgan's in Slavery and the British Empire contributes to this spirit of investigation while offering a slightly new perspective. Morgan uses an imperial lens to frame his study of bondage rather than the now popular geographical boundaries (such as slavery in the Americas or the Atlantic World) or a cultural and linguistic framework (such as Anglo-American or Iberian slavery). He is interested in slavery within the British Empire from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century and to a lesser extent the relationship between interimperial rivalries and the expansion of slavery over these two hundred years.
Aside from the attention he pays to intellectual and cultural aspects of humanitarian reform movements during the era of abolition and to religion among the slaves or missionaries in slave societies, Morgan's chapters tend toward an economic, social, and demographic depiction of the institution. He is particularly attentive to the origins of slavery and its expansion, the slave trade, regional differences with slavery, the slave experience, and abolition and emancipation. There is surprisingly little on the cultural origins of slaves or on the survival of African culture in the Americas. A chapter titled "Work, Law and Culture" is organized in such a way as to suggest a kind of crop determinism, the notion that slave experience and cultural patterns and the nature of slave societies were born out of the labor requirements and work rhythms of a particular staple crop. Morgan is particularly attentive to slave agency or experience. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to slave resistance—from work sabotage to running away to outright slave revolts. Yet, he fails to problematize the notion of resistance as some scholars of slavery are now doing. Instead, Morgan continues to allow the resistance paradigm, dominant in slavery studies for over three decades now, to be overdeterminate by allowing almost every act of slave dissidence to be called resistance from "careless" labor to "working below the expected levels of productivity" (p. 126). Born out of debates in the 1960s and 1970s about the moral nature of slavery, the culpability of actors within it and the psychological impact on slaves, the resistance paradigm is beginning to seem antiquated. Scholars are moving beyond the need to stress the resistance of slaves to an immoral institution. It is self-evident. Yet, by expanding the concept of resistance to include almost any act contrary to that which a master would expect of an ideal slave and allowing this concept of resistance to be central to the study of slavery, Morgan, like many slavery specialists, continues to oversimplify the range of possible behaviors, motivations, and responses within the institution. [End Page 333]
While he pays significant attention to slave experiences—particularly family life, resistance, and working environments—Morgan also includes an important chapter titled "Merchants and Planters," which explores the literature on planters but also extends the discussion of slavery beyond the standard narrative of master-slave relationships by examining a variety of economic investments in slavery and the slave trade on the part of British subjects. Chronologically and thematically, Morgan reserves his most thorough coverage for the eras of abolition and emancipation, offering separate chapters on each and tracing closely the political developments in these eras. In the chapters on merchants and planters and on abolition and emancipation, Morgan demonstrates the potential of imperial history to be more than simply a different temporal and spatial perspective. He shows the ways in which...