V.G. Kiernan on the high price of poison

  • The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848 by Robin Blackburn
    Verso, 560 pp, £27.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86091 188 8
  • Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defence of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 by Larry Tise
    Georgia, 501 pp, $40.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 8203 0927 3
  • Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean by Alfred Hunt
    Louisiana State, 196 pp, £23.75, March 1988, ISBN 0 8071 1328 X
  • Thomas Paine by A.J. Ayer
    Secker, 195 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 436 02820 4
  • Paine and Cobbett: The Transatlantic Connection by David Wilson
    McGill-Queen’s University Press, 218 pp, $27.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7735 1013 3

Slavery has been ubiquitous in history, with innumerable forms and functions: something of the truth of human nature is revealed by this fact. Horace saw nothing wrong in it, though himself the son of a freed-man and sensitive about his origins. Debt-bondage has been very widespread in Asia; some Red Indian tribes kept slaves, and were glad to add negroes to their stock. Peer Gynt as slave-dealer was a representative money-making European of the 19th century. White men acquired slaves wherever they went, in India, South Africa, Java: but the Americas were the real New World of slavery, the new Dark Continent. This was servitude geared to the capitalism that was bringing European economies under its sway from the 18th century. A sugar plantation with its mill, and its businesslike organisation and rhythms of work, bore, as Robin Blackburn points out, a clear resemblance to the factory that emerged with the Industrial Revolution; and its labour force was ‘more intensively exploited than any group of this size in history’. By a kind of poetic justice, of the three commodities Europe extracted from its plantations by such atrocious methods – cotton, tobacco, sugar – two have turned out to be semi-poisons. And now the Third World is revenging itself by flooding the West with drugs.

Blackburn’s massive, thoroughly researched, highly intelligent and well-written book is a substantial contribution to Marxist historical literature. It offers ‘a Marxist narrative’ of how abolition was coming about, down to 1848, and an enquiry region by region into how far the motivation of its white supporters rose above the level of bourgeois liberalism. It does not offer any simple unilinear interpretation, as some others have done. So long-lived and widely ramifying an institution could not but generate multiple relations and reactions within societies increasingly complex: Blackburn understands this, and his account is a sophisticated, carefully balanced one, always seeking to identify both material and moral pressures, and rich in insights into their intricate interactions. He pays tribute to Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, but finds its baldly economic reasoning in the end ‘mechanical and unsatisfactory’.

In this story the central event is the French Revolution, one of many reasons why its bicentenary next year deserves to be taken due note of. Directly or indirectly it gave rise to immense dislocations and upheaval in the Americas. Before 1789 the biggest change came with the stormy birth of the United States. Slavery was not a prime issue in that revolution, even if patriots might like to indulge in ‘anti-slavery gestures’, but it did lead to renunciation of further imports from Africa. Jefferson the Virginian slave-holder quite approved of this, realising that farmers and artisans in the Northern States where blacks were few did not want any more to be brought in to compete with them: but he helped to give slavery a wider diffusion in the new nation. In 1776 there were fewer than half a million slaves in North America; by 1790, in spite of the war, there were 700,000.

Another investigator, Larry Tise in Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defence of Slavery in America, 1701-1840, shows how deeply men’s thinking, all over the country, came to be tainted by this vicious survival. Ministers of religion, the most vocal élite in society, ‘wrote almost half of all defences of slavery published in America’; and nearly all its later apologists ‘characterised slavery as a missionary institution’. Modern America’s propensity to humbug and double-think must have deep roots in this long-drawn-out education in whitewashing: the original dichotomy between North and South has continued into the present-day amalgam in the shape of American enthusiasm for human rights and right-wing dictators.

In Spanish America, as Blackburn emphasises, slavery and plantations were not fundamental to the economy. Hence negroes could be treated more humanely, and the codes regulating their condition, even if not always enforced, compared very favourably with anything the French or British had to show in the West Indies. Spaniards and Portuguese were readier than white men further north to employ black or coloured men as soldiers, even against other whites – a thing not to be thought of by the time of the Boer War, after another century of imperialism and racialist indoctrination. It may be added that white men everywhere were remarkably free from any dislike of black concubines, but many of them lived under the shadow of fear of black retaliation in kind. It was an added trauma of the plantation world that, as Blackburn observes, there was often a heavy surplus of young males in the servile population – in 19th-century Cuba, for instance, where proprietors always suspected their slaves of wanting to murder them and seize their women.

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