Before we get on to the books I want to start by asking about the origins of the Atlantic slave trade. How did it actually kick off – did it start a week after Columbus arrived in America, or did it develop as a result of particular constraints in developing colonialism in the Spanish experience?
This is a really interesting story. You can trace that story back to the Crusades without too much interruption. You have, in the Levant, the cultivation of—what we would call by the 18th century—plantation crops, using enslaved people.
The word ‘slave’ derives from ‘Slav’. Crusaders who controlled territory in Palestine were, like colonial slavers in the 17th and 18th century, keen to use people not like them to do the work of slaves. So, you have to choose an ethnicity that’s understood to be foreign to you and they often used Slavic peoples. Hence the word ‘slave’.
What happens as the Middle Ages proceed, from the 13th to the 15th century, is that the combination of sugar production and the use of slave labour gradually moves west through the Mediterranean. It goes through Cyprus, Sicily and, ultimately, ends up in the Canary Islands on the west coast of Africa just before Columbus sails. So, you have this really interesting coincidence that, when the Europeans start to push out into the Atlantic in earnest and start to establish centres of population in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, the slavery technology, that is the combination of commodities and slave labour, is resting there on the west coast of Africa.
What happens in Mesoamerica is interesting because the Spanish make a conscious decision not to enslave the indigenous population there. It’s always been really difficult to enslave people on their own territory. What you’re much better off doing is getting people from outside. That undermines them physically, but also undermines them culturally, so the solution to the acute problem of labour supply, which exists all over North America and the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, in South America, is to import people. And they started to do that pretty much immediately. The possibility of using slave labour was there in the 15th century. If you like, the people who were pushing out into the Atlantic Ocean already had this idea of using Africans as slaves. But the crucial thing to say here is that the idea of this slavery doesn’t originate in Africa, it originates in the Middle East.
The other really important thing to stress here is that the solution to the problem of labour supply in America isn’t automatically African. In fact, most European countries try to solve that problem by importing their own populations first and, in the Netherlands and in England, that takes place—we’re into the early 17th century now—via indentured servitude. You were transported across the Atlantic and received no payment for seven years but—once you got through that process, if you get through that process (many people didn’t; they succumbed to disease)—you would be given a piece of land and some tools afterwards.
What I’m emphasizing here is that it wasn’t automatic that those people would be Africans. In many cases they were not. It’s not that people in, for example, colonial Virginia decided that they didn’t want to use indentured servants anymore and they’d rather use Africans. What happened was that the supply of indentured servants from Europe dried up, and so they had no other option but to resort to the purchasing of enslaved African peoples.
That’s very important. There’s a tendency to think of this as a predetermined outcome. But, actually, there are all sorts of alternatives that could have worked and actually would have been a lot cheaper. It would be much cheaper to have used indentured servants. The racism at the heart of this system imposes a huge price on the way in which it operates and that isn’t often highlighted, although it’s highlighted in a couple of the books that I’ve chosen.
Would it not have been an option to use Africans as an indentured workforce, rather than resorting to slavery?
That’s a good question. How can we explain why slave status is connectable to racial or cultural otherness? That does go back to this earlier medieval story, that it was much easier to understand somebody who is foreign to you as an object. If you give somebody a contract of indenture, in the process of contracting them you acknowledge their humanity—and that will make it difficult to enslave them.
Central to the way in which slavery operated was the use of people understood to be ‘other’ and ‘different’ from you and, of course, inferior. Ideas of race were central to how this system was established and how it endured. So it is not simply a question of racial superiority but one of cultural separateness.
Let’s move on to your slave trade books. First up is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by himself. Was Equiano born into slavery, or was he shipped from Africa?
He was shipped from Africa. This is a famous book. It was quite famous when it was first written, in the late 18th century, but it has had a renaissance from the 1960s onwards. The crucial thing about this book—and this is why I’ve listed it first—is that it gives you the lived experience of enslavement and it neatly pieces together pretty much every chapter in the story of the rise and fall of slavery, and it also covers the geography of the slave trade. What you have is the whole life cycle of enslavement, freedom, re-enslavement in his case, and direct participation in the abolitionist movement.
Equiano came from West Africa. We have the story of him being captured. We have the graphic account of the experience of getting on the slave ship, the middle passage itself across the Atlantic; what it’s like to experience plantation slavery in the Caribbean; what it’s like to experience plantation slavery in colonial North America; what it’s like to be freed; what it’s like to live as a black person in London in the 18th century and, what’s more, a black person who, through his skill as a writer, becomes quite wealthy, marries into an English family and becomes a very important lobbyist for the abolitionist cause.
“The great challenge with the history of the slave trade is to come across books which actually describe the lived experience of being an enslaved person”
And he founds an entirely new genre of writing, the slave narrative. He does all of these things in this one text and he summarizes every aspect of the story in the text. The great challenge with the history of the slave trade is to come across books which actually describe the lived experience of being an enslaved person. There’s some wonderful, sophisticated economic history on the slave trade, some of it Nobel Prize-winning, but much of that has been criticized for putting the actual lived experience of enslavement to one side.
It’s absolutely essential if you’re going to read about the slave trade, I think, to find stories and accounts that take you to that lived experience before you go into the historiography and the theory of how you might assess, for example, the economic significance of the slave trade to the development of America, or the development of the Caribbean or the development of West Africa or Britain. Equiano’s the best place to go to for that and he established a genre of writing that enables you to get a sense of that lived experience right through the 18th and 19th centuries. He pioneered the idea that writing a slave narrative was the best way of communicating what it was actually like to be an object.
How did he acquire his education?
The crucial caveat about Equiano is whether he’s accurately telling his personal story, or whether he’s actually gathering together the testimony and experiences of other people in his situation. Many people have dug into claims advanced in his narrative and have found that, actually, he wasn’t in that place when he said he was and he didn’t beat that person when he said he did. But, nonetheless, he establishes a very important narrative of self-improvement. It’s a story about self-education and that becomes quite telling in lots of other famous slave narratives, including that written by Frederick Douglass, where the crucial moment of self-emancipation is the discovery of how to read and write. In Equiano’s narrative there are various sympathetic white characters including a group of sailors who help him learn to read and write. But the crucial thing is he’s very keen to play up the idea that he taught himself as a way of liberating himself.
You said he was enslaved in both the Caribbean and in North America.
One of the great perils of being a black person in the Atlantic economy was that you might (if you had been enslaved) generate enough resources to buy your own freedom, but if you were living in a port town, facing onto the Atlantic, you could rapidly be restored to slavery. Being taken back into slavery is one of the acute tragedies of Equiano’s narrative. As I said before, one of the important aspects of his narrative is that he can talk about the experience of being an enslaved person in the Caribbean and about the experience of being an enslaved person in colonial North America, and that’s because he’s taken back into slavery. His re-enslavement took place in London in 1762 having been freed by his first owner, the English naval officer, Michael Pascal.
Tell us a bit about his role in the abolitionist movement. Did he have some relationship with Wilberforce or others at the political end of the movement, or was he doing something else?
He becomes a very effective convener of people. He clearly had considerable social skills and social capital in London. He famously attended some of the important trials in the Guildhall and elsewhere. He’s clearly somebody who delivers something very important for the abolitionist campaign, which is, again, all about his personal experience of these things. The best way to gather together middle-class sympathy for the enslaved population was to hear from people who’d experienced this themselves and he fulfilled that role very effectively.
Let’s move on to the next book, which is Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Tell us a bit about Eric Williams first, because he was the first prime minister of independent Trinidad, wasn’t he?
Trinidad and Tobago, that’s right. He’s a really fascinating person. His lived experience is crucial here, too. This is someone who grew up in Trinidad when it was still part of the British Empire. He went to Oxford as an undergraduate and postgraduate in the 1930s and, despite his enormous intellectual ability, felt slightly marginalized there. So, what you have here is a lived experience developing this sense of injustice and channelling that injustice not only into absolutely superb academic research, but ultimately into national self-determination. This is someone who wrote a superb book about the history of the transatlantic slave trade that basically became a manifesto for the independence of his own country. And what’s more he led that independence movement himself. So, he’s a really extraordinary figure, particularly if you’re interested in the way certain kinds of observations of injustice can motivate research by historians that, ultimately, lead to massive political change.
And what is the thesis of this book?
There are two aspects to it. First, that the capital required to develop the industrial revolution derived from profits from the slave trade. He makes the straightforward argument that one of the reasons why the industrial revolution appears to emerge in the north of England is because, in places like Liverpool and Lancaster, there’s a lot of spare capital around and that capital happens to come from profits from trading in human beings. So, if you like, British economic greatness derives from the profits of the slave trade.
The second thing was more controversial at the time and still is now, namely that, actually, the abolitionists were not disinterested humanitarians. They were actually capitalists themselves, who saw the slave trade and slavery as a kind of monopoly that needed to be destroyed to create a much freer economic system that they could profit from. He is particularly critical of—and clearly acutely disliked—William Wilberforce. He thought the abolitionists were actually arch-capitalists who were using the pretext of humanitarianism as a way to sweep an old system aside and free up opportunities for their wealth elsewhere.
Those are the two aspects of the Williams thesis and the implications of the second one are somewhat larger, but both of them are still going concerns. Neither of those arguments have been completely dismantled.
Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionist, John Thornton, both came from Hull merchant families, so their business interests would have been primarily involved in the Baltic trade, rather than the Atlantic. Presumably that’s not a coincidence. Does Williams argue that those people had no interest, or less interest, in the Atlantic economy and so wanted to see a re-orientation of British capital investment towards enterprises in which they had a more direct interest?
Yes, that’s it. There are extraordinary sequences in the book, with Williams’ Marxist ideology to the fore—and this was a debate that was live at the time in the 1790s and early part of the 19th century—where he argues that these abolitionists had a much higher opinion of enslaved people they’d never met than the British people whom they enslaved in their own factories. That was also what people said about them at the time.
There’s a clear connection between Williams’ thesis and criticism of the abolitionist movement at the time. That’s the idea that American slave owners often developed with reference to British abolitionists—that these people were talking about supporting the interests of enslaved African people while simultaneously crushing the economic interests and the lives of thousands and thousands of their employees.
And the point about the slave trade funding the Industrial Revolution—how well has that stood up?
I think the distinction between the slave trade and slavery is one to make here because, actually, profits from slave trading are much more uncertain and much smaller in terms of their macro-economic impact than the profits generated by the cultivation of sugar and tobacco. The sugar economy, once you had a plantation up and running in Jamaica, really was highly profitable. Slave trading itself was much riskier. The profit margins were much smaller because slave voyages happened over twelve, fifteen, eighteen months and you had to navigate West Africa as well as the Caribbean and elsewhere, never mind six or seven thousand miles of ocean crossing.
If you were to total up the entire profits from slave trading they would be substantial, but they wouldn’t offer anything like the amount of money that you needed to invest in the Industrial Revolution. Profits from slavery itself, however, were big enough to make a difference. So, my answer is that I think Williams is guilty of eliding the slave trade and slavery into one overarching system, when actually, economically speaking, it does make sense to disconnect them in this context.
Let’s move on to The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas by David Eltis.
This is a really good book. Williams’ argument is that slavery and the slave trade are really designed to promote the economic interests of a capitalist group and that actually profit maximizing is the sole, ahistorical motivation. Eltis challenges that robustly and says, ‘Let’s ask fresh and big questions about how the system of the slave trade was established and how it endured and let’s ask throughout our examination of that system whether or not it was done as efficiently and as profitably as it could have been.’ And this revisiting of every single aspect of explaining the rise of slavery lead Eltis into some really wonderful analysis that has become very influential.
His first point is to say that it’s not about profit maximizing because, if it was about profit maximizing, they wouldn’t have used Africans. That was the most expensive way of doing this. If people had wanted to solve the Americas’ problem of labour supply with the objective of profit maximisation, they would have shipped Europeans.
“If it was about profit maximizing, they wouldn’t have used Africans. That was the most expensive way of doing this”
This is the foundational insight that leads into arguing that the cultural parameters of early modern Europe and the early colonizing nations were more important than the profit-maximizing impulse. And he leads this into a really interesting analysis of each of the economies and nations involved in the slave trade, in Europe, North America and West Africa. He puts West Africa front and centre, which is very important to his analysis. These societies all have different attitudes to belonging in their society, which makes it easier or harder to enslave their own people. There are different attitudes to freedom in these different contexts. And all of these differences in the way in which these peoples relate to these cultural parameters actually explain a lot more about how and why the slave trade got going than a timeless notion of greed.
And what does it say about the paradox, which you address in your own book, about this system of slavery arising at exactly the same time as Europeans were developing ideas about the importance of freedom at a personal and a societal level?
He notices the conjunction of the emergence of what we would now call ‘liberal ideas’ taking off and taking root at exactly the same time as the slave trade is—as he’s careful to say—re-established and he wants to understand exactly why that is. And I think that takes us back to the importance of slavery being something that you do to other people. As you become more conscious of your own humanity and your own rights as an individual you can become more conscious of your ability to deny those rights to other people. It’s very difficult to pin that sort of insight down via historical data, but it’s kind of compelling and it does explain certain different paradoxes that I think historians should be focused on.
Eltis’s version of the slavery paradox is more elusive, more fluid than the versions you would see in Edmund Morgan’s book and, I hope, the version that I pieced together in my book, Freedom’s Debt, where you have the actors in the story—in my case, slave trade lobbyists—saying these things: ‘We wish to enslave more people because we are a free people.’ You actually have it written there. The basic insight that offers is that the individuals who developed the African slave trade, unsurprisingly, didn’t believe African slaves to be people at all. They were goods. And that’s the basic insight that reconciles the slavery paradox.
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The crucial thing about the slavery paradox is how it is used as a bridge between the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. Ultimately it becomes the engine room for the abolitionist movement. As the Americans separate from Britain, the slavery paradox gets political traction. The key person there is Samuel Johnson, who asked, “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negro slaves?” It’s a way of Britain redefining itself as a free country in contradistinction to the Americans: the Americans—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson—talk about freedom, but they’re all slave owners. British people talk about freedom, as Johnson would have it, and they actually mean it and will prove it by abolishing slavery.
This enabled British freedom to be reconditioned around abolition. Whereas, in the early 18th century people—Bristolians, Liverpudlians and the slave traders in London—were quite happy to say that they needed the freedom to profit from the enslavement of other people. And that freedom is central to the establishment of the United States.
Going back to the labour supply question: after the abolition of the trade, possibly even after the abolition of slavery itself later in the 19th century, did the labour supply question re-emerge? Or was the problem largely solved by that stage, either because so many people had already been shipped to the other side of the Atlantic or because there were suddenly Europeans who were prepared to emigrate in large numbers because of population growth in Europe?
Broadly speaking African slavery solves the problem of labour supply, not because of the slave trade—I’m talking now about colonial North America, what becomes the United States—but because they establish a culture of slave-owning that supports what they call ‘the natural increase’ of that population. So slaves are, in effect, bred.
At abolition, there is a certain concern about whether or not no longer having access to the slave trade will undermine the plantation economies and plantation societies in America. But, because this idea of ‘natural increase’ is so well established and the population of enslaved people is quite substantial, it doesn’t present a significant problem. And, by the way, if you get rid of the slave trade you increase the value of your existing slaves, which increases your ability to borrow money. So it’s actually quite good for plantation owners, as long as they don’t feel they need for additional access to slave supplies.
Famously what does happen in the 19th century is that populations from Europe begin to substitute for the movement of populations from West Africa, and that leads to the massive influx of southern Italians, Irish men and women, as well as other Europeans. Those people are understood to be the industrial labour force that will take the United States away from its slavery roots.
Let’s move on to Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving Port by Robin Law. What’s this book about and why have you included it?
This one is all about the West African context for the slave trade. Ouidah was—and still is—a port town. But it would become one of the most important ‘free ports’ for Europeans to purchase enslaved people in the history of the transatlantic slave trade. It was a place controlled by Africans, by the local African leadership, in which Europeans operated and competed with each other for the supply of slaves. African slave vendors—like the King of Ouidah—established places like Ouidah so that Europeans could appear in large numbers to bid up the price of slaves. So, at certain points in the transatlantic slave trade the Africans were pushing the price up and certain African communities, undoubtedly distinct minorities, were profiting from the system and were in absolute control of how it operated. We should think of the word ‘African’ as being in inverted commas is because the concept of a pan-continental identity at the time is a complete fiction. This is as story of much smaller groups, different ethnicities, different linguistic groups, competing and often in violent rivalry with each other to get their hands on the business from the Europeans.
Robin Law is an absolutely superb scholar of this West African dimension, which, I would argue, has often been neglected. His work is largely based on European sources, it has to be said, but in the case of this book he has supplemented them with oral traditions from West Africa. He gives a really fine-grained analysis of this notion of European weakness in Africa. The chronology of the book is really helpful, too, because it doesn’t just go through the period of the slave trade. It goes through into the 19th century. So, you can begin to understand—connecting back to Eric Williams—that, actually, after abolition, the Europeans, unsurprisingly, started to penetrate into the West African interior much more. So, abolition became the kind of friendly face that enables the Europeans to expand their control over the territory of West Africa.
“The concept of a pan-continental identity at that time is a complete fiction”
He studies this process via Ouidah and Dahomey. These places profited a lot from the slave trade, but then experienced European colonialism in Africa in the 19th century. As with Eltis, all of Robin Law’s books are absolutely superb, but this one does a really good job of shining light on an under-appreciated phenomenon. But also, with its unusual chronology—most books looking at this would focus on the period before or after abolition—this book connects the long history of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries through one narrative.
And the point you make about the different African groups is that—as with the Christians and the Slavs and the Europeans and ‘the Africans’—they were enslaving people they considered different from themselves in one way or another.
Absolutely. And these differences remain in the 21st century. Some of the rifts in Nigerian society, in West African society in general, derive from the tensions between these groups, even though they are now within the same nation. It’s difficult both for the descendants of those people who were doing the enslaving and those enslaved. Those groups often won’t intermarry, for example, even today. So, the cultural and ethnic fissures that derived from the slave trade, and actually fuelled it in the first place, continue as a direct legacy into the present day.
And are there persistent disparities in wealth between those groups? Are the descendants of the slavers in Nigeria richer, on the whole, than the descendants of those who were enslaved?
I think the view is—and I may be oversimplifying here—that those who derived from the political groupings formed by the economic benefits of running the slave trade are often in positions of privilege. They may be closer to political power. Those people who descend from those groups that tended to be enslaved, tend to work in more entrepreneurial contexts and therefore are just as likely to be wealthy, but for different reasons.
You mentioned that, with the end of the trade, Europeans started to penetrate into the interior of the African continent. We’re talking well before the ‘scramble for Africa’ here, right? Why were they interested in the interior?
They understood that they had these footholds on the West African coast, which in some cases they’d had for centuries—the first English forts in West Africa were established in the middle of the 17th century. They saw these as assets that they could use as launching pads for the securing of more natural resources.
The legislation that abolishes the slave trade is, if you like, a wartime measure that’s designed partly to suppress the slave trade of other European countries. So, in order to do that, you need a pretty serious naval presence on the west African coast. Once you have that significant military presence there and you’ve been able to suppress your rival slave trade, that military presence was then used to subdue the local population and move in to seizing territory and resources in the African interior. So, I think what happened in the 1820s and 1830s does lead to the process we understand as they scramble for Africa. It’s inseparable from that.
Let’s move on to your final book American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia by Edmund Morgan.
This is the most readable book of my choices. I would say this book is not only the best book on the slave trade, but among the best books on the United States. I mean, the depth of insight generated by this idea of the slavery paradox in the context of America is difficult to put limits on.
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Let me just explain the slavery paradox again in this context, which is to say, following Samuel Johnson, why were the leaders of the independence movement in the American colonies slave owners? Morgan traces the sociological importance of the connection between owning people and being interested in ostensibly egalitarian republican ideology. He goes right back through the colonial period—hence the subtitle, the ‘ordeal of colonial Virginia’—and he usefully connects the beginnings of American colonies to the early modern—that is, 16th and 17th century—English context. What he traces is the beginnings of political tensions, class tensions, in the colonies in the 1660s and 1670s. And he notices that slavery is introduced in earnest at around about this time and develops the insight that slavery is a way of achieving political stability in the colonies—because if you introduce a racial underclass, then you make the existing white population bond together: this idea that ‘I might be poorer than you, but at least I’m the same race as you.’
“This book is not only the best book on the slave trade, but among the best books on the United States”
So, this is race trumping class. It’s a way of dissolving class stratification, which the Americans would always see as a European thing, by introducing race. And that’s why you get this fixation on egalitarianism in the republican thought of the founders of the United States. It’s really just a reworking of racial solidarity amongst white people.
I think that does begin to shed light on all sorts of things about the United States as a place. You know, why do Americans sometimes think of themselves as classless? What is the relationship between race and class? What sociological function does the introduction of the slave population provide? Everybody’s familiar with the economic advantages, or assumed economic advantages, of using enslaved people, but what effect does it have on your society and what benefits does it bring to your society in stabilizing the relationship between poor white people and rich white people?
That’s all in the book and trying to replicate that analysis in a British context was what I sought to do in Freedom’s Debt. It’s, if you like, a kind of projection of some of those ideas and a testing of some of those ideas in a discussion of the Glorious Revolution in England.
Jefferson and Washington—just to take the two most obvious examples—were both slave owners, but they were both deeply unhappy about slavery, weren’t they? I mean, fundamentally, they didn’t like it. Is that right? And wasn’t one of their difficulties with abolition that they couldn’t envision a way of freeing the enslaved black population without creating unmanageable conflicts. Or were those issues pretty marginal and, ultimately, what shaped their actions were fundamental ideas about racial inequality?
The latter. That’s certainly the case with Jefferson, who’s much more explicit about his views on this issue. He lived a long time and he shifted his opinion. As president, his views were somewhat different to those he held earlier in his life and they were different again later. But it’s very clear that, however uncomfortable he might have been in principle with the idea of slavery, he did very little about it, not just with his own slaves, but also with the enslaved population of the country. At various different points he works up towards doing something about it, but doesn’t.
I think you’re absolutely right that one of the reasons he is uncomfortable with it is because he doesn’t know what to do with the emancipated slave population, those who’d been formerly enslaved. He’s absolutely convinced that if the slaves are freed what he would see as inherent tensions between the two races will lead to an undermining of his republican project. And that’s why he becomes an advocate—at certain points—for colonisation, that is shifting former American slaves of African origin back to Africa. He just doesn’t think that the two races can live alongside each other.
Was there any practical project put in place to effect that colonisation?
There was the precedent of the Sierra Leone colony and Liberia. I think Jefferson has all sorts of ideas about where you might send the formerly enslaved population, but although these were mainstream views as the United States descends into civil war, the plans weren’t usually well developed or thought through. They were dismissed as impractical as well.
When did Edmund Morgan write this book?
In the 1970s. I think the 1970s context is quite interesting because, again, it shifts the analysis away from economics and towards class analysis, that race trumps class, but that racial stratification is itself inspired by class stratification. That’s one of the things he’s done a good job of demonstrating.
Do you think things are changing, with the Black Lives Matter movement and that kind of thing? Has the debate around the founding of the United States and its racial basis shifted in a direction that is more honest about the painful aspects of the past? Or is that fundamental problem at the heart of American democracy just as un-addressable as it ever has been?
I wouldn’t say it’s un-addressable. My correspondence with historians of slavery and the slave trade who are descendants of enslaved people would suggest to me that actually, yes, there has been, perhaps, a more wide-ranging debate about the history of the United States and the painful durability of racism, but none of that, so far, has translated into a consensus that would actually do much about it. In fact, it’s still in a painful process of discovering and revealing these issues, rather than moving to the next stage, which is to say, ‘Look, we have this original sin. Our country was established with slavery and race at the beginning. How are we going to detach our republican egalitarian ideas from their roots and turn them into the means of creating a society that encourages racial equality?’
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