Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey

Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey

Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey

Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey

Excerpt

Fields of knowledge, like fields of enterprise, seldom expand in perfect symmetry. In the past generation there has been an enormous upsurge of interest in European-sponsored slavery. During this period, the major focus of scholarly research has been on the establishment and internal dynamics of a system of human relations which deeply affected the social and economic development of Africa and the Americas. Scholars have opened up vast new sources of data and evolved new analytical techniques. The aspects of society to be examined have been expanded and the range of comparative regional analysis broadened.

Relatively less attention has been devoted to the demise of chattel slavery. A little over two centuries ago the institution existed as a virtually unchallenged, if not ubiquitous, element of the international economic network. The trans-oceanic slave trade not only constituted one of the great diasporas of world history, but was based on one of the most complex, dynamic and technologically advanced enterprises ever developed by European capitalism. Yet in less than half the time they took to unfold, transatlantic slavery and the slave trade had disappeared from all European-linked societies and were rapidly eroding at their African core. By the beginning of the twentieth century, slavery was becoming just another part of the dismantled 'old orders' which were fast converging on a single progressive system of individual rights and contractual reciprocity.

As long as this process of emancipation endured, the British part in it seemed to historians to be a fairly straightforward business, underwritten by assumptions of providential design and material progress. One had to account for its momentum and direction no more than one has to account for the direction and flow of a river system, the metaphor graphically used by Thomas Clarkson, the first historian of abolition, in 1808. Even Eric Williams challenge to the humanitarian school of moral progress in Capitalism and Slavery (1944) was written within the framework of a dialectical . . .

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