The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870; The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800; Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785

In This Review

The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870

by Hugh Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 1997
908 pp. $37.50
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The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800

by Robin Blackburn
Verso, 1997
602 pp. $35.00
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Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785

by David Hancock
Cambridge University Press, 1995
477 pp. $64.95
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Three superior achievements that help explain the resilience of New World slavery and the slave trade to moral and economic challenge and implicitly begin to recognize the lasting contribution the millions of transported and abused human beings made to the formation of the Americas. Thomas points out that five times as many Africans as Europeans went to the New World during the first 325 years of European colonization, and that most of the great enterprises in the Americas rested squarely on the backs of African slave labor: from sugar in Brazil and later the Caribbean, to rice and indigo in South Carolina and Virginia, to cotton in the Guianas and later in North America. It is the slave merchants from every European maritime nation that most interest Thomas, as well as the belated rise of abolitionism. His book is marked by his fine writing, exhaustive research, and pithy anecdotes, but gives short shrift to the view from below, and Thomas at times appears overly anxious to stress African complicity in the trade. Blackburn focuses squarely on the economic dimensions of the enterprise, making good use of historians' recent sifting through slave owners' records to recover the daily lives and resistance of slaves. He explicitly takes on the role of slavery and the slave trade in the formation of Western civilization and its economy. Yet due to the breadth of their works, both Thomas and Blackburn lose some of the intimate perspective brilliantly provided by Hancock. Based entirely on new archival sources, Hancock gets inside the slave trade by cleverly and imaginatively reconstructing the lives of 23 successful London merchants. He shows how they made their fortunes and what they did with their wealth, and demonstrates just how close the slave traders stood to the center of the Atlantic commercial system, giving a human face to Thomas and Blackburn's bigger story.