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174CIVIL WAR history Economic Growth and the Ending ofthe Transatlantic Slave Trade. By David Eltis. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Pp. xiii, 418. $42.00.) Extremely impressive on its own terms, this book is not easy for an ordinary historian to read or review. David Eltis is among the most accomplished cliometricians concerned with analyzing the transition from slavery to free wage labor throughout the Atlantic sphere, and this book crowns more than a dozen years of productive work. Thoughtful and useful throughout, in certain limited respects it is conclusive. But one should not be overwhelmed by the expertise to ignore the ways in which many larger issues or historiographical problems are side stepped or ignored. There is (for one reader, at least) a recurrent fuzziness about the interrelationships between ideologies, actions, and measurable outcomes, and from an extreme point of view the book is not even a work of pure history, dealing too much with what the author calls "scenarios," or what historiographers term "counter-factual history." The dust-jacket description of the book concentrates on the role of Britain in the ending of the Atlantic trade in slaves and its effects upon Britain's economy, but the book itself ranges even wider to assess the long-term impacts on Africa and the Americas. In the first respect, Eltis makes the most extreme statement to date of what might be called the anti-Williams or proDrescher position—that far from abolition being determined by the imperative needs of Britain's changing economy, in fact the ending of the British slave trade, the freeing of British slaves, and the campaign to end the foreign trade in slaves were profoundly counterproductive. Even without the arguments about what might have happened had other courses been followed, the author convincingly shows that opting for wage rather than slave labor effectively doomed the British West Indian plantation economy and seriously penalized the British economy as a whole. Moreover, the cost of the largely ineffectual campaign against foreign slavery was a net loss for Britain. Less conflicting with the overall Williams thesis is Eltis's demonstration that slavery continued elsewhere in the Americas almost as long as it was regarded as economically imperative and that the benefits of change were both different from and less than the abolitionists claimed. In the Americas, abolition was followed by waves of free immigration, but this, like abolition itself, should be attributed as much to economic and demographic factors as to ideology. The post-emancipation period saw little or no improvement in conditions for former slaves and a steady increase in racism. Likewise, Eltis's arguments that the continuing plundering of people from Africa was economically and politically more dynamic than the alternatives offered, and that the eventual ending of the Atlantic slave trade, coupled with a demographic surge, was a prelude not to a lasting indigenous economic transformation but to a new era of political and economic exploitation from outside, are consonant with the connections between early and late colonialism and neocolonialism argued by Williams and many others. BOOK REVIEWSI75 This reader may have missed the drift through inattention to detail or obruseness, but Eltis's balance sheet does seem not to distinguish adequately who and what profited (or lost) from the staged ending ofthe Atlantic trade in slaves and the subsequent switch from slavery to "free" wage labor . What was loss for individual Britons was often gain for others or for the general good, and vice versa. Eltis does not clearly distinguish those genuinely motivated by idealism from the self-interested, those with actual political power from those with mere influence and those without either. He does not sufficiently distinguish either political statements—so often consisting of humbug, cant, or mere polemic—from actual beliefs, or firmly held but erroneous beliefs from prognostications proved accurate in the outcome . He seems, besides, not to recognize that actions were often followed not because they were believed to be the best but because they were the only available options. Above all, he is often guilty of "the fallacy of the faceless they," particularly in using "Britain" and "the British" generically, when it would be more accurate and useful to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 174-175
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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