The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach

By Hawthorne, Walter | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach


Hawthorne, Walter, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach. By Joseph C. Miller. The David Brion Davis Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2012. Pp. xii, 218. $30.00 paper.

During my first year in graduate school over twenty years ago, I asked Prof. Marie Perinbaum if she would lead a tutorial about slavery in Africa. She said she would consider it after I wrote a critique of Miller's Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1983). Miller hooked me. Since then, I have consumed, as all scholars and aspiring scholars of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade have to, the incredible corpus of work that Miller has produced over a forty-year career. Year after year I follow Perinbaum' s lead, plunking Way of Death down on the table of graduate seminars and telling students to be ready for next week's discussion.

I'll now be adding The Problem of Slavery to my graduate syllabi. What is appealing about the study is that while considering an incredible span of time (tens of thousands of years) and multiple continents, Miller embeds slaving in specific temporal and spatial contexts in a way that no one else has the erudition to do. In his words, he challenges readers to think "in an epistemologically historical way" by "tracking observable outcomes of human strategies of slaving ... in their historical contexts" (p. 9). His central argument is revealed in the title. Slavery has persisted as history and not merely in history. No period of the human past can be understood without a consideration of the strategic importance of slaving. There is much in this revelatory thesis to be packed into a relatively short book. With dense prose, select examples, and great historical imagination, Miller succeeds, forging a study that is important, challenging, and insightful.

He begins with the premise that the "prevailing concept of institutionalized slavery in fact primarily represents abolitionist depictions of the U.S. antebellum South, with the enslaved as one-dimensional victims of similarly one-dimensional brutal masters" (p. 2). This may be true of some scholarship, but with regard to Africanist historiography it is not. Certainly the past generation of studies has situated slave and slave-like systems in particular local contexts. Moreover, as popularly imagined, slavery in the U.S. antebellum South has not been one-dimensional. Slavery has been characterized as both brutal (in the film Amistad), and benignly paternalistic (in Gone with the Wind) and has been ignored, depicted, and re-depicted in all manner of ways at sites of historical preservation (e.g., Jefferson ' s Monticello) .

Miller proceeds to problematize the oft-used phrasing "slavery as an institution," which, he emphasizes, gives the impression that slavery was a fixed, unchanging system across time and space. This is a useful point for non-specialists, but specialists will be surprised to read that "nearly all academic literature ... implicitly or explicitly, anywhere in the world, has continued to treat slavery as an implicitly static institution: that is, sociologically" (p. 24). By my read, for about three decades Africanist scholarship in particular has examined transformations in slavery. To be sure, when viewed in global perspective, slavery was not an institution. Across time and space slaveries have existed in many institutionalized and not-so- institutionalized forms. …

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