The economics of the slave trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, by James Rawley. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 452 pp. $24.95. How bad was slavery? In our time even threats of indirect political domination can stir the superpowers to the edge of nuclear war and extinction. We fear no threat more deeply than possible enslavement. And we maintain standing armies at great cost to secure our freedom. Yet here is a book which shows us another side of slavery, the commercial side.

Strange as it may seem, with all the emphasis on publishing black history in recent years, there has been no single volume by a professional historian on the Atlantic slave trade. This comprehensive and scholarly work by James A. Rawley serves this need.

From 1450 to 1870 - roughly, from the Portuguese exploration of the African coast until the Franco-Prussian War, millions of Africans were packed into European ships and transported in chains to the New World. Those who survived the infamous ''middle passage'' were forced to labor until death to produce wealth for white colonizers. Slaves lived under fear of physical torture, and untold numbers perished. Monuments to the fallen slaves still exist in the great mansions of New World countries: in New England's old family shipping estates; in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia plutocracies; and in the South's agricultural dynasties.

Slaves bore the brunt of a great crime, but Professor Rawley is not interested here in moral blame. ''My aim,'' he writes, ''has been to offer an objective history and my de-emphasis of the trade's undaunted horrors is in keeping with the historical climate in which the trade flourished. It should be recognized that before the development of anti-slavery sentiment in the last quarter of the 18th century, economic factors dominated. . . . A slave was a commodity. . . .''

Rawley's is a dispassionate study of the business, stressing the activity of England and the United States but with some reference to other slave-trading states in Europe. There is virtually no consideration of the African trader or his acquisition of slaves. This is the story of profits and losses, investments in ships and returns on goods delivered, and the European quest for dominance in controlling the market. Arguing that the traditional historical emphasis on abolition has slighted the significance of the commerce itself, Professor Rawley attempts to show us the slaves as the owners saw them: a source of wealth.

He notes that the slave trade stimulated improvements in the construction of fast copper-hulled ships, with a resulting drop in mortality during the passage. Remedies for scurvy and smallpox were developed in the period of heaviest demand for slaves. This was the period, too, when free trade by privately owned companies proved superior to government monopolies in the delivery of slaves, thus strengthening the growth of free enterprise and, ironically, the demand for free labor. Rawley's most important and perhaps controversial finding is that humanitarian sentiment rather than profitability was responsible for slavery's abolition. For slavery was everywhere poised to expand, he indicates, until it was legally suppressed.

One comes away from this informative book, however, with the feeling that the commerce in slaves is illuminated, but slavery itself slighted. The relationship between master and slave was not negotiable, so to examine its purely commercial aspect is to omit a vital part of the story.

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