The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870

By Williams, Steve | African Business, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870


Williams, Steve, African Business


By Hugh Thomas

Over the last decade there has been a rapidly escalating feud between historians who hold diametrically opposing views on the impact of the Atlantic slave trade upon African societies and Hugh Thomas' epic volume, the latest shot in the conflict, will provoke further heated debate.

Hugh Thomas has always remained aloof from the academic mainstream, but has built a solid reputation as a Hispanic scholar and author of note. Previous books have dealt with Franco and the Spanish Civil War, Castro's revolution and Cuba, and Mexico and the Spanish conquests. Ennobled with a life peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 (his public service included chairing the Tory created think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies) he now sits in the Upper House as Lord Thomas of Swynnerton. Barely 10 days before this book was published in the UK last November, he crossed the floor of the House from Conservative to Liberal Democrat benches. The two events were unrelated -- more likely it was Thomas' pro-European leanings being increasingly at variance with the Conservative party's stance that was the central cause.

This is a blockbuster account of the 430 slave years, when more than 13m souls were transported from Africa to the Americas as enslaved labour to work on sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco plantations, in gold, silver and diamond mines and as domestic servants. Millions more died on the journey. It is a book packed with meticulous detail that will take its place as a standard reference volume for any serious student.

But Thomas cannot be accused of allowing political correctness to determine his views on the impact of the slave trade. The understandable passion, felt so keenly in the diaspora at the monumental injustice of slavery, is hardly likely to be dampened by many of the author's conclusions.

While he utterly condemns the West's systematic and brutal enslavement of Africans, he notes that slavery is an ancient and near universal practise which existed in Africa long before Europeans arrived on the continent. He presents the earliest evidence: prehistoric graves of slaves in Lower Egypt dating from 8000BC. He also emphasises that the vast majority of slaves carried from Africa were purchased by slave traders from local chiefs, notably the Kings of Ashanti, Congo and Dahomey, and the rulers of Benin and of Loango, in exchange for European cloth, beads, cowries, horses, alcohol, guns and gold.

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