The historic Middle Atlantic slave trade looms large in the popular imagination, so much so that it has become virtually synonymous with the word slavery itself. History, however, is never so simple. Slavery has existed throughout human societies from before the dawn of recorded history, and in multiple forms. In order to shine a light on this much broader, varied and ancient history of this vile institution, we pulled together nine of the best books on slavery in its global, historical context. Check them out:
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
by C.L.R. James
Originally written in 1938, James’s work remains the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution, which was the first successful slave rebellion to found an independent polity, and the first independent Caribbean nation. The Haitians, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a semi-literate former slave, would go on to fend off French, Spanish and English invasionary forces, as the reactionary powers threw everything they had against the infant country.
In 1789, the French colony of San Domingo had the highest real estate prices in the world, reflecting a highly productive, pre-industrial slave state economy of environmental and human exploitation. The Haitian Revolution from 1794-1803 won freedom for the island’s people, and has stood as an example of the possibility of liberation to downtrodden people for over two centuries since. However Haiti today is more commonly known as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere; wracked by environmental disasters, aid agency incompetence, and deplorable conduct by successive rotations of the UN’s peacekeepers. The Black Jacobins is a work of outstanding scholarship, and a harsh lesson in geo-political reality.
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
by Andrés Reséndez
The Other Slavery documents the 400-year history of the enslavement of the indigenous people’s of the Americas by their Spanish and English imperial masters. Although supposedly illegal throughout most of the New World, slavery as a native practice among the indigenous peoples was grasped upon and expanded massively by the colonial invaders. Its devastating effects are clear to the present day, with indigenous communities remaining heavily marginalized throughout the Americas, and rates of murder and disappearances of native women in North America significantly out-pacing the general population.
Reséndez documents the abuse of indigenous populations through archival documentary research, analyzing testimonies of slavery left by merchants and administrators who benefited from it, and enslaved indigenous people themselves who were able to record their experiences. The Other Slavery broadens our horizons of understanding of the full extent of the institution of slavery, and its victims of all races, on the American continent.
Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800
by R. Davis
Davis, a Professor Emeritus of Renaissance Italy and pre-modern Mediterranean history at Ohio State University, explores the widespread plague of Muslim piracy and slave-raiding missions along the Italian coast in the pre-modern era. The pirates of the Barbary Coast, who once extracted 20% of the newly independent United States of America’s annual revenue as tribute and protection money, were a much-feared and constant menace throughout the Mediterranean, terrorizing local populaces who left memories of their suffering in fragments of local folklore and traditional songs. Professor Davis delves deep into the sociology of Muslim slavers, the fluid relationships they established with their Christian captives, and the deep scars left on the peasants of the Italian peninsula who suffered most frequently from the Barbary Pirated depredations. Readers will be left with a wider appreciation for the geographical extent, and ancient origins of a despicable institution.
Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry
by Bernard Lewis
A specialist on Ottoman history and Islam, Prof. Lewis explored the place of slavery in Islamic societies by examining a glaring disparity: how could a religion that professed racial harmony among its adherents square the practise of slavery throughout its lands? For millennia right up until the 1960s, slavery was practiced throughout the Islamic world, from the barren Eurasian steppe to the deep rainforest of Africa. Prof. Lewis examined the position of Islamic jurisprudence towards slavery, and its place in the sociology of Muslims during the pre-modern era. During the nineteenth century, European abolitionists frequently cited Muslim lands’ perceived racial utopia as a means to criticize the continued existence of slavery in America. But Lewis demonstrated how the truth on the ground was far removed from Islam’s scriptural promises of racial harmony. Race and Slavery shines a light onto an institution older than Islam itself, and the horrifying reality of life for generations of the enslaved in Muslim lands.
Outcasts of the Gods? The Struggle Over Slavery in Maori New Zealand
by Hazel Petrie
Petrie, an academic in Maori Studies, analyses the institution of slavery among the Maori of New Zealand before, during and after the colonization by the British. Contrasting the institution of ‘slavery’ among Maoris, and especially concerning war captives, with the popular contemporary image of ‘slavery’ gleaned from accounts of the institution’s practices in America, Petrie demonstrates how the two concepts were markedly different, and how this disparity created wide disparities in mutual understanding between the indigenous Maori and the colonizers. Outcasts of the Gods? is an engrossing account of an indigenous system of slavery which defied colonial efforts to simplify it, or to even comprehend its complete inner workings, setting up a clash of cultures whose consequences resonate to this day.
Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America
by Christina Snyder
A Professor of History at Penn State, Snyder’s book reveals the indigenous practice of slavery among Native American peoples. Situating her narrative in the American South, a region synonymous with other modes of slavery, Snyder explores the evolution of indigenous slavery practices after contact with European settlers introduced them to African slaves. Departing from their own system based primarily on age and gender of captives in determining enslavement, indigenous American peoples began to adopt the European mode of racialized slavery, and in turn adopted European language for such practices. Slavery in Indian Country opens reader’s eyes to a much neglected area of slavery studies, and in doing so widens our understanding of its practices, and practisers in the pre-modern era.
Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade
by Randy J. Sparks
Sparks’s stunningly detailed and meticulously researched urban history of the Gold Coast slave trading port of Annamaboe reveals the lives of the city’s indigenous merchant elite. As one of the largest entrepots of human cargo on the West Atlantic coast of Africa, the city was a thriving cultural and commercial crossroads. European slave traders brought Western manufactured goods to barter for slaves; and their African counterparts were more than equal to their negotiating skills. Where the Negroes Are Masters not only adds vivid historical narrative to one of history’s darkest episodes, but also restores agency to the African experience, and active participation in, the Middle Atlantic slave trade. Annamaboe will remain sharply illustrated in readers’ minds as a marketplace of humanity, and a bustling exchange of global goods and peoples which set the stage for the modern Western world’s multi-racial societies.
Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico
by Tatiana Seijas
The trans-Pacific slave trade is largely forgotten today in comparison with the trans-Atlantic trade. Seijas’s fascinating book goes a long way to correcting this amnesia. Taking the reader from the over-flowing slave markets of mid-sixteenth century Manila to the cities of Imperial Spain’s New World colonies, Asian Slaves tracks the fate of chinos; Asians, both of South and South-East Asian origin, who were transported across the Pacific Ocean on the Spanish Empire’s Manila Galleon to a different world, and a different existence. The trade continued for 150 years before its abolishment in the late 17th century paved the way for a racialization of slavery that permanently changed the course of history. A truly global narrative of pre-modern human cargo and commerce, Seijas’s work opens a window onto an almost forgotten period of history in the popular imagination.
To Hell or Barbados: The ethnic cleansing of Ireland
by Sean O’Callaghan
To Hell or Barbados, which took its author some twenty years to research and write, documents the Irish slave trade to the New World, specifically Barbados and the Virginia Colony, in the mid-seventeenth century. It is estimated that in the 1650s alone some fifty thousand Irish were transported and auctioned into slavery in England’s colonies. O’Callaghan vividly reveals the harrowing lives, and all too early deaths, of these white slaves who toiled in the sugarcane fields of Barbados, and tobacco plantations of Virginia. From the subjugation of Ireland and the ethnic cleansing of its peoples by Cromwell, to their descendants fight for survival in the New World, To Hell or Barbados reveals the multi-racial make-up of early slavery in the New World, and is a lasting testament to its victims’ suffering.
There we have it, our top nine books on historical forms of slavery around the world. Do you think we missed out a classic work? Let us know in the comments below.
Alternatively, remember to check out our Current Events page for the latest curated reading recommendations on the topics behind the latest headlines in the global news media. Until next time!