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The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

How slavery shaped the market economy and abolitionists gave us our ideals

The American Crucible furnishes a vivid and authoritative history of the rise and fall of slavery in the Americas. For over three centuries enslavement promoted the rise of capitalism in the Atlantic world. The New World became the crucible for a succession of fateful experiments in colonization, silver mining, plantation agriculture, racial enslavement, colonial rebellion, slave witness and slave resistance. Slave produce raised up empires, fostered new cultures of consumption and financed the breakthrough to an industrial order.

Not until the stirrings of a revolutionary age in the 1780s was there the first public challenge to the ‘peculiar institution’. An anti-slavery alliance then set the scene for great acts of emancipation in Haiti in 1804, Britain in 1833–8, the United States in the 1860s, and Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s. In The American Crucible, Robin Blackburn argues that the anti-slavery movement forged many of the ideals we live by today.

Reviews

  • “Robin Blackburn has provided one of the most commanding and wide-ranging examinations of Atlantic abolitionism in years.”
  • “The finest one-volume history of the rise and fall of modern slavery.”
  • “Blackburn describes emancipation in all its vexed, indeterminate grandeur, propelled by violent clashes, public debate, harrowing exposés, and the consolidation of new notions of freedom and equality.”
  • “Poses a challenge for the political future as well as a bold reappraisal of the historical past.”
  • “A marvelous book—insightful and stimulating.”
  • “Magisterial history of transatlantic slavery.”
  • “This is a richly scholarly book … an important contribution to our understanding of the shaping of the modern world.”
  • “Blackburn writes authoritatively across centuries and continents.”

Blog

  • New Perspectives on the Black Atlantic







    In 1993, Paul Gilroy famously described the “Black Atlantic” as a “counterculture of modernity,” using an “explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective” as opposed to a nationalist or ethnically absolutist approach to the history of the African diaspora.  In the two decades since he wrote those words the scholarship on the Black Atlantic has been rich, wide-ranging, and deep.  This workshop will analyze and evaluate this work, assessing strengths and weaknesses and suggesting new areas for future investigation.  We will discuss a variety of themes in the linked histories of Africa, Europe, and the Americas: race, class, gender, environment, and visual representation, with special emphases on history from below and the rise of capitalism.


    In 1993, Paul Gilroy famously described the “Black Atlantic” as a “counterculture of modernity,” using an “explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective” as opposed to a nationalist or ethnically absolutist approach to the history of the African diaspora. In the two decades since he wrote those words the scholarship on the Black Atlantic has been rich, wide-ranging, and deep.

    In this workshop, a range of speakers, including Marcus Rediker, Robin Blackburn, Catherine Hall, Francoise Verges, and Tera Hunter analyze and evaluate this work, assessing strengths and weaknesses and suggesting new areas for future investigation.
  • Forced Labor and Progress

    Published as part of Verso's Haymarket Series in 1996, Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South was the first book-length history of the convict-lease and chain gang systems of penal servitude in the Southern United States. Focusing on Georgia in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Lichtenstein traces the interwoven development of the region's notoriously brutal carceral forms and it's industrial and commercial expansion. "The postbellum history of Georgia's penal system," Lichenstein writes, "offers a clear illustration of how convict labor helped forge the peculiar New South 'Bourbon' political alliance, by accommodating the labor needs of an emerging class of industrialists without eroding the racial domination essential to planters."

    In the text below, the book's epilogue, Lichtenstein expands on his findings in a broader historical consideration of the relation between coerced labor and economic development.
       


    A Georgia road gang in Rockdale County in 1909, shortly after the state abolished convict leasing. (Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History).

    “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” –Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History”1

    Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin's Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.

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  • Verso's History Bookshelf




    A round-up of some of our history reading, from new to old.

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Other books by Robin Blackburn