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Slavery In the Atlantic World

ISSUE:  Winter 1976
The Rise and Fall of Black Slavery. By C. Duncan Rice. Harper and Row. $15.00

OVER the last ten years the subject of slavery has fairly dominated the field of American history; during the last eight years alone at least five major book awards have been given to books on slavery or anti-slavery. As a result the field has been well plowed, overturned and reshaped; the non-professional reader of history with an interest in slavery must long for a guide through the historical thicket, for at least some summation of recent findings. The subject has been controversial as well as overwritten, as the hoopla that attended the publication and reviewing of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s deliberately iconoclastic Time on the Cross reminds us. Duncan Rice’s story of the rise and fall of slavery, it is true, was written before Time on the Cross or Eugene Genovese’s compendious Roll, Jordan, Roll,for that matter, were published, though he refers in a post-script to both. Even so, Rice still has an enormous corpus of recent writing to summarize, analyze and collate.

Unlike any of the more recent books, Rice bravely takes as his province the whole Atlantic world—north and south of the Equator—not only in regard to slavery, but in connection with the opposition to slavery as well. As an informed and discerning distillation of recent scholarship—admittedly no original research is included—the book can be highly recommended. It is written with clarity, judgment, compassion and understanding. Although an obvious admirer of the abolitionists, and a friend of the slaves, Rice does not permit sentiment to cloud his historian’s judgment. He makes a point, for example, of showing the importance of African kings and merchants in the slave trade. Yet in surveying such a large and complex subject, drawn from scholarly works in four languages, Rice is bound to make errors. Some of them betray a lack of familiarity with American history.(Although he is identified as an associate professor of history at Yale, no speciality is mentioned, ) He confuses, for example, Presidents Hayes and Harrison, and erroneously writes that the Fifteenth Amendment “made the vote a universal right.” (Susan B.Anthony believed that, too, but the Supreme Court disagreed.) His familiarity with Virginia history is also flawed, for he tells us that the great slavery debate of 1832 antedated the Nat Turner rebellion, when, of course, the slave uprising occasioned the debate. He also repeats the old, but mistaken chestnut that the abolition of slavery was only “narrowly defeated” in Virginia in 1832.

Most of these errors and the few others in the book are not minor, yet they are neither so numerous nor so important as to prevent this book from being a good and readable guide to the complex history of black slavery in the Atlantic world. The story proceeds chronologically from the 16th century, when the first blacks were brought to the New World, to 1888, when Brazil became the last country to abolish black slavery. In between Rice describes the slave trade, the establishment and maturity of slavery in North and South America and its decline and abolition as a result of the antislavery movement. Although narrative in form, Rice’s book canvasses some of the central questions that historians have raised about slavery and antislavery.

In response to the recent, academic interest in the comparative history of slavery, Rice advances an explanation to account for the apparent differences in the impact of slavery on blacks in various societies. The debate over the issue began with Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1947) and reached its culmination in Stanley Elkins’ Slavery (1959). Both books argued that because of the influence of the state and the Roman Catholic Church, slavery in Latin America was more protective of the Negro’s humanity and therefore milder than slavery in the United States. Rice follows the conclusions reached by the many monographic studies of Latin-American slavery that were initiated by the Tannenbaum-Elkins interpretation. He concludes that neither national culture nor religious background offers a key as to why slavery was harsh or mild in any particular country. The key, rather, is to be found, he concludes, in the state of the economy: booms meant harsh demands on the slave; declines brought paternalistic mildness.

Rice is quite right to deny the relative mildness of Latin-American slavery, but he errs when he seeks to fit the Southern United States into his explanatory scheme. The fact is that as slavery spread to new areas of the American South its severity moderated rather than intensified. Both the conditions of the slave’s life and the legal protection extended to the slave in the deep South as well as in the older South actually improved in the 19th, as opposed to the 18th century, yet the cotton boom only came in the 19th. Indeed, one of the many criticisms leveled against Time on the Cross’s effort to show the mildness of slavery in the United States was that it, like the work of U.B.Phillips, relied too heavily upon evidence drawn from large plantations. Yet according to Rice’s model, the large, profit-oriented plantations should have been the harshest on blacks. It is true that in Brazil and Cuba the harshest phases of slavery are associated with a coffee boom in the former and a sugar boom in the latter, but that need not cause us to assume that a similar pattern prevailed in the United States. Contrary to what Rice seems to think, there is every reason to see United States slavery as physically the mildest in the western hemisphere. That constitutes no justification of Southern slavery, but it is surely one way of describing it.

In discussing the rise of the antislavery movement in Europe and the Americas, Rice gives more attention to the Scottish Enlightenment than he probably ought to in a book of such scope. On the other hand, the antislavery politicians of the 1850’s in the United States are rather cursorily treated, yet it is they who brought slavery to an end. Willian Lloyd Garrison’s role is rather querulously minimized by emphasizing a long history of opposition to slavery that preceded Garrison’s arrival on the scene.

The large question that all historians of antislavery must confront—why did opposition to slavery arise when it did—is forthrightly canvassed. Rice discounts Eric Williams’s economic explanation that related the profits from the slave trade to the beginnings of the industrial revolution and accounted for English opposition to slavery by reference to the need for free labor and new markets. Instead, Rice traces the attack on slavery to three intellectual developments: the tendency toward reason and egalitarianism in the Enlightenment, the rise of sentiment and compassion among popular writers and thinkers, and the growing conviction among Protestant Christians that slavery was the ultimate sin. While no one will gainsay the importance of all three movements in ending slavery, identification alone by-passes the question of why these ideas or values came to the fore at the time that they did. For as Rice properly points out, slavery or coerced labor was as old as history; why slavery came to the New World needs no explanation, but why it disappeared so quickly does. David Brion Davis in his The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1974), with admittedly much more space for a narrower subject, does a better job of showing the subtle interaction between antislavery ideas and social and economic developments.

On the whole, Rice is informative in placing the complicated story into a coherent framework that identifies the 18th century as the time when antislavery ideas first gained prominence and when antislavery men and women succeeded in closing the international slave trade and the 19th century as the period when the attack was first mounted in earnest against slavery itself. Within the 19th century the pattern he stresses is that slavery ended first in those areas in which it was only peripherally related to the economy, as in the northern United States, the majority of the Latin American countries and the French, English and Dutch Caribbean island colonies. The Southern United States, Cuba and Brazil retained slavery the longest because there it was integral to the economy. In fact, only with the ending of slavery in the United States through civil war did slavery in Cuba and Brazil come under serious attack. Even so, in both Cuba and Brazil it still hung on for another 20 years, in itself testimony of how unlikely the ending of slavery without war was in any country in which it was an important part of the economy.

As Rice’s title suggests, modern slavery has always been more than a form of subordination. Why colored peoples only were slaves—at one time or another Indians were enslaved throughout the Americas—is an intriguing question that Rice poses early. Actually there are two parts to the question. The first is why did blacks supersede Indians, since the latter were already on the ground and did not need to be imported? The second is why were whites never enslaved, for the admitted cruelties and constraints visited upon indentured servants always stopped just short of actual slavery? Rice answers the second part by contending that whites were too unruly, yet in another place he quite rightly emphasizes the resistance of blacks to bondage. White unruliness can hardly be the full answer. A better response seems to be ancient historian Moses Finley’s contention that the status of slavery has always seemed so awful that few if any cultures could enslave their own people. Only those who appear to be, or are, outsiders can be enslaved. Blacks were preferred to Indians, Rice points out, because they were more experienced as agriculturalists and less likely to find a runaway’s haven in the alien forests, while the aborigines were on their home ground. Rice’s further argument that Indians were weaker or poorer workers than blacks cannot be accepted in the light of the Indians’ central position in the labor force of Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Ecuador then and since.

The book closes with the observation that though anti-slavery advocates exhibited many of the conservative views of their time regarding private property and other reforms, they nevertheless “presided over the greatest turning-point in the history of human society.” (400) Even this extravagant-sounding remark does not do justice to the deeper meaning of the rise and fall of black slavery. For as the current outpouring of books on slavery is making clear, the very value system of our era has been shaped by the struggle against slavery. Men and women of the modern world found in slavery the antithesis to what they held dearest: human freedom. The overthrow of slavery was more than an institutional reform; it was above all the definition of a new ideal of social order, one in which coercion was forbidden and men and women were expected to discipline themselves as well as have responsibility toward others. The war against slavery, in short, was at once the cause for, and the consequence of, the rise of freedom as an intellectual, economic and political value. In slavery’s death lay the origin of the modern world-view. That is probably why the history of slavery and its downfall has attracted historians recently and why Professor Rice’s telling of it engages our attention.


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