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  • The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights by Robin Blackburn
  • Kevin Dawson
The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights. By Robin Blackburn. London: Verso Books, 2011. 512 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

The narrative of African slavery in the Americas has rightly become a topic of considerable scholarly attention. In the past half-century it has steadily moved from the periphery of historical analysis to the center as historians increasingly consider both the institution of slavery and experiences of the enslaved Africans who between 1500 and 1820 “outnumbered European migrants by four to one” (p. 1). The colonization of the Americas, displacement and death of innumerable American Indians, growth of plantation slavery, uprooting of some twelve million Africans, and development of imperialism, commercial capitalism, and industrialization impacted four continents for some four hundred years. This is, indeed, a broad story in its own right, worthy of its place in global history. Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights ambitiously and successfully considers the entire scope of this saga. The history of slavery and abolition are well-traversed areas of study. Blackburn skillfully adds considerable nuance and depth to these bodies of scholarship, closing the gap between the fields of slavery and abolition, which “possess their own bibliographies” (p. 2), while considering how the foundation of modern human rights was laid at this time, permitting the book to speak across the discipline to a broad audience.

In The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (New York: Verso, 1988) and The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (London: Verso, 1997) Blackburn documented the creation and abolition of New World slavery, establishing himself as a premier scholar of slavery as a transatlantic institution. American Crucible expands upon themes covered in these two praiseworthy books, while enhancing and refining Blackburn’s analysis and extending his [End Page 980] temporal scope to about 1900. He employs Atlantic and transnational approaches, while carefully considering local events, permitting him to gauge, compare, and contrast developments in slavery and abolitionism across broad expanses of time and space.

Blackburn asserts that colonization and plantation slavery were central to the West’s economic and military dominance. He carefully considers the rather incestuous relationship between planters, merchants, slave traders, and manufacturers that resulted from individuals and corporations investing in all four of these economic sectors. Analysis of the United States, Brazil, and Cuba avers that nineteenth-century industrial capitalism was reliant on bondage. Stressing the importance that the Atlantic slave trade and slavery had on the British Industrial Revolution, Blackburn explains that industrialization required more than just slave-produced capital. Industrialization also needed a large domestic market and supportive state, binding the entire society to the institution of slavery. Britain had both, while Spain and Portugal did not, permitting the former to industrialize. In turn, nineteenth-century industrialism demanded the further expansion of slavery, especially in the American South where it spurred the growth of cotton production.

Blackburn’s use of a transnational lens adds breadth to scholarship on the abolitionist movements. He rejects the premise that the virtues of abolitionism were sufficient to end slavery, contending that other forces had to come to bear, stressing that emancipation was precipitated by the coalescences of slave resistance and Western ideological conflicts and political crises. Accordingly, conditions brought on by revolution in France; wars of colonial independence in the Spanish Empire during the early nineteenth century; the British loss of North America, early defeats during the Napoleonic Wars, imperial crisis, and parliamentary upheaval; and the American Civil War (1861–1864) permitted slave resistance to become infused with new meaning for many white people while enabling abolitionist rhetoric to gain traction with both the general population and political elite. For example, Haitian slaves’ demands for the “Rights of Man and Citizen” during the 1790s served as the impetus for a wave of egalitarianism that denounced privilege and the corruption of planters and elite aristocracies (p. 173). Additionally, the process of state formation undercut slaveholders’ supremacy by stripping them of their unique control of individuals while granting the state the political and moral legitimacy to extend freedom to all.

The author’s interpretations...


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