- Abolitions as a Global Experience ed. by Hideaki Suzuki
The seeming disjunction in the title of this book between the plural "abolitions" and a single "global experience" is a calculated reference to the classic epistemological conundrum of world history, the multiplicity of local contexts through which broader, even integrated, historical processes gain momentum. In the nineteenth-century wave of abolishing slavery as a legal status, the impulse originated from the quite local northern Atlantic process of consolidating nominally homogenous modern nation-states, driven by populist dynamics quite particular to Britain and the new United States. The conventional literature seldom emphasizes the uniqueness of this formative nation-state context and treats both legally institutionalized slavery and its termination by law as concepts generically applicable around the world. Each is a function of the other: one has to have formulated slavery [End Page 274] legally in order to use law to abolish it. The nine local studies (and editor Suzuki's introduction) of other world regions acknowledge local contexts to varying degrees but tend not to give comparable attention to the local specificity of abolition itself. Just because what European abolitionists saw as "slavery" elsewhere was modified doesn't bring these other widely dispersed historical processes into a single category susceptible to fruitful comparison.
The volume originates in a five-year collaborative project on world history based at the University of Tokyo, which started with comparative examinations of slavery and concluded with the session that produced this collection of papers. The authors include established names and themes (Sue Peabody on France's two emancipations, Martin A. Klein on the ending of slavery in French West Africa, Alessandro Stanziani on the gradual reductions of serfdom in Russia) as well as welcome new voices, perspectives, and places (Ei Murakami on the end of the coolie trade at Amoy in China and Yuriko Yokoyama on the release of prostitutes in Meiji Japan from a brutal kind of debt servitude) and new contributors on relatively familiar themes (Isabel Tanaka-van Daalen contrasting Dutch unconcern with slavery in its East and West Indies possessions, Mirzai Behnaz on Britain's suppression of maritime slaving from Africa to the Persian Gulf, and Amitav Chowdhury on maritime marronage in the Danish and British Virgin Islands). An initial essay by Kumie Inose also contemplates the ironies of changes between the 1907 and 2007 centennial memorializations of the widely commemorated British abolition of Atlantic slaving in 1807. One would like to have seen also what abolitions in Latin America and the Ottoman empire would have added to the insights in this volume.
In all, the authors raise the basic issues in the field, but more in passing, as they come up in local contexts, than by focusing on them. Who abolished slavery, the activists and politicians who forced the issue on governments or the enslaved whose recalcitrance raised the costs of keeping them in bondage to levels that made governments responsive to popular agitation? What were the mixtures of humanitarian principle, legal constructivism, and political opportunism along the twisting paths toward legislating abolition in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark? How did economic considerations motivate the politics? Abroad, we see the gaps between the resulting metropolitan intentions and colonial officers' subversions of policy directives, as well as imperialist aggression wrapped in the banners of conquering people to save them from slavery. Several authors acknowledge that terminating the legal status of slavery neither endowed [End Page 275] the emancipated with means to free themselves from continued dependence and deprivation nor precluded further imports of workers under nominal contracts of indenture, who toiled under coercive conditions little different from the experiences of their enslaved predecessors.
These European origins of the problem, accompanied by European military dominance growing in tandem with its extension to other continents, leave the arguably compelling local contexts analytically relatively faint. A productively balanced world-historical perspective, taking account of both the global-scaled initiatives and the local contexts through which they necessarily were implemented and experienced, appears only occasionally. One promising lead comes in...