Friday, 20 January 2017

How not to write a history of slavery

Rarely have I been so disappointed in a historian that I held in high regard as by Jeremy Black’s Slavery. A New Global History. There are probably very few untruths in this book, but there is a glaring imbalance.


There are markets and goods, there is military technology and repression. Slavery was more harsh in the Carolinas than in the Chesapeake Bay. But beyond the abstractions that Black uses, you’ll be hard pressed to find out what life would have been like for a slave or a slaver or a freed slave living in a slave society: the daily routines, housing conditions, punishments, or slave markets.

Also the agency of the slaves in ending slavery is dismissed in a few sentences as ‘evidence ... is limited’. But since this is a major theory in the study of slavery, you might expect a serious discussion. As would be warranted by the rest of half century of research and debate on slavery that Black mostly ignores.

The imbalance is especially striking when the book is full of not that relevant detail on imperial and colonial history, and on the abolition debate in Great Britain and its role in the following decades. To the point where becomes self-congratulatory.

Alright, there are some redeeming features. This book has a more global perspective than most, looking beyond the early modern Caribbean. What it basically underwrites is that slavery was part and parcel of most societies up to the 19th century and its sudden retreat in that century is something worth noting.

But essentially this is a White Englishman’s History of Slavers that might have been written in the 1960s. Black should have known his limits and stuck to military history.

5 comments:

  1. Een beetje te korte recensie voor iemand die het boek niet gelezen heeft. Wat maakt het zo slecht? Welk boek is beter?

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    1. Je krijgt recensies in alle soorten en maten. Als je elders in mijn blog kijkt zie je ook langere. Je zal t hier mee moeten doen. Wat er mis is met dit boek staat er in.

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  2. Thanks for the review. I'm normally a fan of Jeremy Black's work... as it happensd I did a fair bit of American Slavery history as part of my BA. I'm tempted to read it to see what he hasn't put in now.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

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    1. If you've read American slavery history you will get a better appreciation of global developments from this book, but you'll definitely find some parts are missing that you'd expect. I have read several of Black's books and been impressed by those. Just not sure about his credentials in this field

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    2. And thanks for replying both Pete and Napoleon

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