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Review: The Making of New World Slavery by Robin Blackburn

30 June 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Read and follow The Molinist at its new home!
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Cover of the Verso World History Series editionI’ve been known to overuse the word ‘magisterial,’ mostly because I like the sound of it, but this work comes closer than perhaps any I have ever read to deserving the title. This expansive study of Castilian (Blackburn refers to the Spanish but, of course, he meant Castilian), Portugese, Dutch, British, and French colonial imperialism and slavery in the New World, from the early days of the encomienda system in Castilian colonies like New Hispania to the rise and apex of the plantation economy to the Industrial Revolution and Anglo-French Wars of 1793-1815, is a thorough, multi-faceted exploration of the contexts and development of colonial slavery in the Americas.

Structurally, The Making of New World Slavery proceeds chronologically as well as geographically: each chapter moves forward in time, more or less, while also focussing on a particular European colonial state. Some back and forth is, of course, necessary to provide the proper context in each successive chapter but the overall thrust of the book is easy to follow. Blackburn divides his narrative into two broad sections, ‘The Selection of New World Slavery,’ where he explores how and why slavery on the plantation scale came to development, and ‘Slavery and Accumulation,’ where explores the economic engline of colonial slavery and its relationship to the metropole. Part one opens with the ‘Old World’ (that is, pre-colonial) history of European slavery, then moving into Portugal in Africa and the Atlantic, Castile in America, the momentous rise of Brazilian sugar, the Dutch West India Company’s war for Brazil, English colonialism, and French colonialism, closing with a discussion of the emergence of specifically racial slavery and the plantation system which it sustained. This first section, which is the longer of the two, has something of a feel of a survey course to it: Blackburn runs through a vast amount of social, economic, and intellectual history in the course of only a few hundred pages, though without feeling rushed or condensed. Section two, ‘Slavery and Accumulation,’ is the more technical of the two, where The Making of New World Slavery becomes more explicitly a work of economic history. Here chapters on the place of colonial slavery in the 18th century boom, the sugar islands, slavery on the South and Central American mainland, and slavery as primitive accumulation explore the role of slave in the emerging economies of the European colonial powers and what role it played in the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Despite the heavy focus on the economics of slavery, divergences are also made into social and intellectual considerations…

Continued at The Molinist.

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