Greatest Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery

By Pinfold, John | African Research & Documentation, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Greatest Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery


Pinfold, John, African Research & Documentation


Greatest Emancipations: how the West abolished Slavery, by Jim Powell. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 284 pp. ISBN 978-0-23060592-3. £17.99.

For thousands of years slavery went largely unchallenged in principle. Then, in under two centuries, it came under attack, and, as a result of the abolitionist movements in Europe and the Americas, more than seven million slaves were freed, mostly in the Western hemisphere. In this very readable book, Jim Powell takes this extraordinary shift in opinion as his starting point, from where he goes on to chronicle the processes and battles of the abolitionist movement leading to the 'final victory' of emancipation.

At one level this book thus presents a general history of the anti-slavery movement, written for a predominantly American authence who may be unaware of the role played by the British abolitionists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or by the campaigners in Brazil in the late 19th century. However, as early as the introduction, Powell shows that his main aim is to draw a distinction between the process of emancipation followed in the United States, described by him as a "military strategy", and that employed elsewhere, where, he says, "abolitionists had a greater impact". This leads him to characterise the American Civil War as an unnecessary war which was neither the only nor the best way of a achieving the emancipation of slaves in the American South. Drawing on the examples of the British West Indies, Haiti, Cuba and Brazil, he argues that a "peaceful, persistent, multi-strategy process", employing not just moral but economic pressure and offering compensation to slave owners, as the British did in the West Indies, was far more effective in the long run than the military option employed by the North in the Civil War. The war, he writes,

wasn't a shortcut. …

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