- Slavery and Historical Capitalism During the Nineteenth Century ed. by Dale Tomich
The concept of the second slavery has been an important intervention in the historiography of nineteenth-century slavery. Alongside history of capitalism studies, it asks scholars to jettison long-held assumptions and conclusions about slavery and to reconsider slave systems in their global context and separate from their national political stories. In particular, it challenges the assumption that emancipation was an inevitable outcome of the growth and development of the modern liberal state and an increasingly capitalist marketplace. Rather than view slavery as a slowly dying, premodern institution clinging to existence against the forces of modernity, scholars of the second slavery are instead assessing the ability of slavery to adapt, survive, and thrive despite—and even because of—the evolving political and economic environments around the globe. Although they often ignore the broad and deep historiographical shoulders on which they stand (no one, for example, really wants their work to face the scholarly backlash experienced by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman for Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery [Boston, 1974]), these scholars have reopened and reinvigorated a dialogue that will ultimately deepen our understanding of the institution(s) of slavery. In promoting this macro approach, however, the second slavery scholarship sometimes flattens the historical narrative, sacrificing local detail and difference for the sake of broad generalizations.
In putting together this volume, editor Dale Tomich—who is both the originator of the second slavery concept and its greatest proponent—attempts to address both of these critiques. The first chapter provides an explanation of the second slavery concept; the second is a discussion of the theoretical framework for the concept; and the remaining three are in-depth national studies that take a long historiographical view of slavery in Cuba, Brazil, and the United States. Conceptually, this volume makes immense sense as an important foundation for second slavery studies. Unfortunately, it falls short on almost every one of these promises and is unlikely to win many new converts to the second slavery movement. The first four chapters all suffer from a similar problem: they are rambling essays written for a very narrow audience of scholars already familiar with the topic. They seek neither to engage a wider audience nor to demonstrate how scholars of one national slave system can and should engage with scholars of other systems.
Robin Blackburn's opening chapter, "Why the Second Slavery?," attempts to take a bird's-eye view of the topic, outlining the similarities and differences between the first and second slaveries. While Blackburn's deep knowledge of world slavery is apparent, the chapter jumps around both chronologically and geographically, making it extremely difficult to follow the argument. Indeed, rather than explaining "why" for a skeptical audience, Blackburn appears to be preaching to the already converted. Tomich's chapter then provides the theoretical underpinnings of the second slavery model. While much of the essay is an extended critique first of New Economic History and then of Marxism (neither critique is particularly new), he is ultimately trying to place the second slavery at the nexus of these two theories. [End Page 679]
By far the strongest of the five chapters is the last, which is a reprint of Anthony E. Kaye's fine article on the second slavery in the August 2009 volume of the Journal of Southern History. This essay would have served the book better as its opening piece, since it provides the most coherent explanation of the second slavery as well as the most convincing argument for why scholars of the U.S. South should break free of their geographic and political confines. Rafael Marquese and Ricardo Salles's chapter on Brazil is likewise a missed opportunity. The first half of the essay is a deep dive into the historiography of Brazilian slavery since the 1970s, without much sense of how or why this literature matters for the current debate. However...