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  • Humanitarian Intervention and Changing Labor Relations: The Long-Term Implications of the Abolition of the Slave Trade ed. by Marcel van der Linden
  • Seymour Drescher
Humanitarian Intervention and Changing Labor Relations: The Long-Term Implications of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Edited by Marcel van der Linden (Leiden/Boston: Brill 2011. xvi plus 556 pp.).

This intriguing collection explores the impact of slave trade abolition on the development of labor relations over the past two centuries. The volume opens with two essays on the politics of memory. James Walvin surveys the bicentennial of British slave trade abolition (1807) and Angelie Sens traces the development of perspectives on slavery and emancipation in Surinam. Like the movement that led to abolitionism’s success, Britain’s bicentennial was a national event. It reflected the demands of Britain’s large black presence, and reimagined Britain’s role in global terms. In contrast, Dutch slave emancipation was achieved without popular mobilization. Its original historiography represented the process as a humanitarian gift to passive slaves. Current historiography remains deeply divided between a mainstream “white” history and a militant “black” history.

The second set of essays turns to the original abolitionist process. David Eltis notes that Anglo-American abolition in 1807 only shifted the locus of slavery to the southern hemisphere. Neither coerced African migration nor the institution itself faded away because some other form of labor was proving to be more efficient or incompatible with the expansion of capitalism. The process was successfully launched at the very moment that the transatlantic trade reached its zenith. Eltis’s most intriguing suggestion flows from his concluding inquiry. What would have occurred had Britain never abolished its slave trade nor acted as the principal agent for curtailing it in the Atlantic and elsewhere? A world without British abolitionism would have permitted a greater slave trade, a different profile of later transcontinental migration, and a far deeper stake of capitalism in the institution. His counterfactual is the volume’s most emphatic argument in favor of the long-term significance of humanitarian intervention.

Dick Geary’s essay focuses on Brazil, which ended its slave trade and slavery more than forty years after the British Acts of abolition and emancipation. Most of the essay is devoted to accounting for Brazil’s belated response to the [End Page 797] humanitarian initiative. The country’s difficulty in moving towards emancipation was due in part to the wide diffusion of slave ownership and the diversity of slave occupations. Brazil’s belated emancipation (1888) was accompanied by a massive European immigration that marginalized opportunities for the descendants of slaves.

Robin Blackburn links the story of British abolition to other variants, especially those connected to New World revolutions. He, too, stresses the economic compatibility of capitalism with slavery. Rather than humanitarianism, Blackburn examines the abolition process through its links with democratic political class struggles and national revolutions. Slave emancipation was furthered most effectively by political violence or its threat. There is something “special” Blackburn argues, about the role of deep, social revolutionary crises like the Haitian revolution. His reference to Haiti’s pivotal roll calls attention to the fact that there is no separate essay devoted to the impact of the Franco-Caribbean revolutions on long-term changes in labor relations. This is regrettable since these revolutions offer the first glimpse into an enduring post-emancipation problem. L. F. Sonthonax and Toussaint-Louverture in revolutionary Saint-Domingue, and Henri Christophe in post-revolutionary Haiti all illustrate a reflexive recourse to post-slave systems of coerced labor. They were harbingers of a search for alternative coerced labor systems that are so prominent in the “consequences” section of this volume.

Nicole Ulrich offers readers a case of British insurgency rarely chronicled in the history of slave revolts. In 1808 an uprising of more than 300 slaves and servants occurred in Britain’s Cape Colony. Inspired by slave trade abolition, the mobilized slaves took farmers prisoner and planned to march on Cape Town in order to demand freedom. Although the uprising was easily crushed and played no role in subsequent legislative debates over emancipation it may be significant for another reason. Unlike the Haitian revolution no lives...


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