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If African slavery came to dominate the labour systems of the Americas for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, we might wonder when ideology — and theories of race — entered the picture. Davis chronicles a variety of attempts to rationalise black slavery and inferiority, from the biblical curse of Noah to the quasi-scientific concept of purity of blood limpieza de sangre which prevailed in the Spanish Empire.

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The question of how, exactly, these intellectual influences shaped social and political action is harder to fathom, especially in the more autonomous societies of the British Atlantic. John Newton was a slave captain who became an Anglican cleric and, towards the end of his life, an opponent of the trade. Thomas Thistlewood was an overseer and eventually a slaveholder in western Jamaica who compiled a meticulous diary of his activities. Olaudah Equiano c. Like Newton, he became an important witness against the trade. These diverse figures give us some sense of what it meant to experience slavery at first hand.

But the stories keep wandering away from this simple characterisation, towards ambiguities which upset the image of the 18th century as marking a gradual triumph over the inhumanity of slavery. John Newton was a dissolute young man who discovered a sense of discipline through the patient and strict management of slaves. He sailed from England to West Africa to the Caribbean with no apparent acknowledgment of the immorality of his actions.

Meanwhile, he wrote love letters of a rare tenderness to his wife, and became interested in religion. This might be the stuff of a classic conversion narrative. In he wrote an autobiography, which was intended to demonstrate that he had repented of his wild youth. But in his catalogue of callow sins and foibles, Newton found no place for slaving. Instead, he confessed to infidelity, sexual licentiousness and indolence. In the meantime, he befriended a very young William Wilberforce and moved to London.

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Newton reconsidered the morality of his early years only when the antislavery campaigners of the late s encouraged him to testify. After writing a pamphlet in , and appearing before the Parliamentary committee investigating the trade, he withdrew once more from the debate. Newton could have been one of the most powerful and credible antislavery voices, but he played only a small role in the campaign.

The careers of Thomas Thistlewood and Olaudah Equiano also diverge from type. And yet his unchecked appetites also led to his becoming emotionally dependent on his slaves. As an overseer, he began a relationship with a slave woman called Phibbah, and worked hard to sustain their connection all through his life. Phibbah had managed to acquire cash and property even before she met Thistlewood, selling food and animals in the informal trading networks that gave modest hope to Caribbean blacks. Thistlewood looked after her money, and even borrowed from her early in his career.

In she gave birth to his son, and he set aside money in his will for Phibbah to buy her freedom. Did he find some form of redemption among the creolised Africans he had subjugated?

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Olaudah Equiano has become a controversial figure among scholars. In his autobiography, he claimed to be an Igbo born in what is now Nigeria, and offered a wrenching account of the Middle Passage which was an especially effective piece of evidence in the antislavery campaign.


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Recently unearthed baptismal and naval records suggest, however, that he may have been born in South Carolina. While one can appreciate his delicate position before he secured his manumission papers in , he continued to work in the trade as a free man. But, as with Newton, it was some time before he became unambiguously opposed to the enslavement of black people. Equiano agreed in to accompany the scientist and businessman Charles Irving on a colonisation venture.

It is an incongruous tale: in a black man and a white man, having developed a friendship over several years, founded a new American colony based on slave labour. Paul Lovejoy, who has investigated this venture carefully, believes that Equiano and Irving saw the plantation as a social experiment as well as a commercial opportunity: the slaves might eventually be freed, after proving themselves in the new colony. Having assured his new African recruits that they had a bright future, he fled the plantation when it was beset by bad weather and harassed by the Spanish both were eminently predictable.

The entire slave population eventually died in a vain effort to escape from the colony by sea. The moral certainties of Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce had shallower roots than we might imagine. Was racialised slavery based on a racist ideology? White Englishmen and women recognised differences of skin colour from the moment that black people arrived in significant numbers as entertainers and servants, mostly in the late 16th century; but they were slow to develop any coherent system of racial superiority to back up their prejudices.

In she rounded up nearly a hundred Moors for a prisoner exchange with Spain, suggesting a still more instrumental motive for their expulsion. Their English masters were asked to take comfort from the fact that Christians would be redeemed from captivity as a result of the swap. Scientific racism — which held that white people were endowed with superior qualities to black, and were perhaps a different species — did not gain intellectual traction until the middle of the 19th century.

Instead, as Colin Kidd argues in The Forging of Races , it was religion that provided the benchmarks against which physical difference and racial potential could be measured. After a spirited opening chapter on the illusory nature of racial thinking, Kidd discusses the many sometimes unintended collisions between theology and race in the early modern period. Log In. Toggle navigation MENU. Email Address. Deeply researched, ingeniously argued.

Review Posted Online: Dec. Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. Do you work in the book industry? Which of the following best describes you? Literary Agent. Publicist or Marketing Professional. Film Industry Professional. The Amistad test of law and justice -- The ancient foundations of modern slavery -- The origins of antiblack racism in the New World -- How Africans became integral to New World history -- The Atlantic slave system : Brazil and the Caribbean -- Slavery in Colonial North America -- The problem of slavery in the American Revolution -- The impact of the French and Haitian revolutions -- Slavery in the nineteenth-century South I : from contradiction to defense -- Slavery in the nineteenth-century south II : from slaveholder treatment and the nature of labor to slave culture, sex and religion, and free Blacks -- Some nineteenth-century slave conspiracies and revolts -- Explanations of British abolitionism -- Abolitionism in America -- The politics of slavery in the United States -- The Civil War and slave emancipation.

Table of contents. Slavery -- United States -- History.


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  6. Slavery -- America -- History. Antislavery movements -- United States -- History.