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  • Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery
  • Celso T. Castilho
Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. By Seymour Drescher. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 484. Index.

This book demonstrates that the entwined phenomena of slavery and antislavery could well provide the organizing threads for a course on modern world history. The making and remaking of slave systems and antislavery mobilizations, Seymour Drescher points out, have been connected to the most salient political, economic, and social transformations of the past five centuries. Innovatively, Abolition extends the chronological and geographical frames conventionally adopted in synthetic studies of Atlantic slavery; Drescher includes two late chapters that span both the controversial interrelationship between antislavery and imperialism in Africa and the resurgence of massive forced-labor regimes in twentieth-century Europe. Referring to the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps, Drescher sustains that these “approached a corporative form of slaveholding” (p. 424).

Abolition connects and compares the trajectories of slavery, the slave trade, abolition of the trade, and slave emancipation across Europe, South and North America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Additionally, Drescher extrapolates from the parallel processes of Mediterranean slavery during the early modern period to set the expansion of Atlantic slavery in larger perspective. “Well into the early seventeenth century,” he writes, “the numbers of Africans landing in the Americas did not exceed the number of enslaved Europeans landed in Africa” (p. 29). Beyond numbers, the comparison introduces one of Drescher’s key points: the contested relations between “Europeans and Mediterranean Muslim states” prior to the eighteenth century “did not encourage Europeans to associate slavery exclusively with race” (p. 36). Similarly, Abolition tackles other compelling historical and historiographical topics, including a reckoning with the multiple repercussions of the Haitian Revolution on Atlantic slavery and antislavery and the crucial role of U.S. merchants and ships in the historic expansion of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1840s. [End Page 117]

Drescher’s vast range is most evident when discerning the broad trends underlining the destruction of thriving slave systems. Recurrently, the creation of “free soil” zones proved an important building block in different places and at different times in destabilizing the moral and legal foundations of slavery. Accordingly, from Britain to the United States to Brazil, Drescher points to slave resistance and the mobilization of civil society as fundamental to the successful assaults on flourishing slave systems.

Two of the book’s 14 chapters cover the Latin American cases. The first appears within a unit on the Age of Revolution and analyzes how emergent nations dealt with the problem of slavery. If most instituted some form of gradual abolition, in absolute terms the largest slave systems in the Americas expanded in the nineteenth century. By the 1820s, “there were more slaves in Latin America than there had been half a century before” (p. 204). The second chapter concentrates on the late emancipation cases of Puerto Rico (1873), Cuba (1886), and Brazil (1888). Abolition suggests links between the U.S. Civil War and the collapse of slavery in all three places, a relationship that historians in Cuba and Brazil have indeed very recently pursued in great detail.

Non-specialists in the study of slavery should note that some of the most vibrant scholarship in Spanish and Portuguese is not fully incorporated into the historiographical discussions. Due perhaps to limited circulation and/or language constraints, issues that are invariably manifest in a work of this scope, two vibrant areas of inquiry deserve greater mention. First, there has been an ample reconsideration of the meanings of state power and social mobility in the form of microhistorical studies on nineteenth-century slavery, race, and citizenship. Second, and particularly pertinent to Brazilian historiography, since the 1990s a burgeoning interest has developed around the conceptualization of a “Southern Atlantic” space, a framework that accentuates the decisive role of those in Brazil and Angola in shaping the slave trade—largely independent of Portuguese colonial imperatives.

A work of unparalleled breadth, Abolition deserves the careful attention of scholars of Latin America and the Caribbean who are concerned with both the comparative histories of forced labor and economic modernization and issues of political mobilization and state formation.



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