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The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848

"One of the finest studies of slavery and abolition."—Eric Foner
In 1770 a handful of European nations ruled the Americas, drawing from them a stream of products, both everyday and exotic. Some two and a half million black slaves, imprisoned in plantation colonies, toiled to produce the sugar, coffee, cotton, ginger and indigo craved by Europeans. By 1848 the major systems of colonial slavery had been swept away either by independence movements, slave revolts, abolitionists or some combination of all three. How did this happen?

Robin Blackburn’s history captures the complexity of a revolutionary age in a compelling narrative. In some cases colonial rule fell while slavery flourished, as happened in the South of the United States and in Brazil; elsewhere slavery ended but colonial rule remained, as in the British West Indies and French Windwards. But in French St. Domingue, the future Haiti, and in Spanish South and Central America both colonialism and slavery were defeated. This story of slave liberation and American independence highlights the pivotal role of the "first emancipation" in the French Antilles in the 1790s, the parallel actions of slave resistance and metropolitan abolitionism, and the contradictory implications of slaveholder patriotism.

The dramatic events of this epoch are examined from an unexpected vantage point, showing how the torch of anti-slavery passed from the medieval communes to dissident Quakers, from African maroons to radical pirates, from Granville Sharp and Ottabah Cuguano to Toussaint L’Ouverture, from the black Jacobins to the Liberators of South America, and from the African Baptists in Jamaica to the Revolutionaries of 1848 in Europe and the Caribbean.

Reviews

  • “A challenge to those who fondly suppose that slavery declined as ideas of Western ‘enlightenment’ spread … Blackburn deserves praise for undermining complacency about the past—and the present.”
  • “Blackburn’s highly intelligent and well-written book is a substantial contribution. In this story the central event is the French Revolution.”
  • “An incisive synthesis of developments in North America, the Caribbean and Latin America. Blackburn’s book is bold and original.”
  • “One of the finest studies of slavery and abolition to appear in many years.”
  • “The first historian since Eric Williams to present a comprehensive interpretation. But Blackburn, profiting from and admirably synthesizing the vast scholarship produced since Capitalism and Slavery (1944), is far less rigid and doctrinaire, much more attuned to the workings of politics. Unlike Williams, he includes slavery throughout the Western hemisphere.”

Blog

  • 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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  • Another University is Possible

    The SOAS students' struggle to decolonise their curriculum is a call to reshape and re-imagine what the university is for and whom the university should serve. 

    The School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was founded by the British state in 1916 to strengthen imperial interests in Asia and Africa. It admitted its first students in 1917, among them colonial administrators, as well as military officers, doctors and missionaries, to instruct them in the languages and cultures of the regions to which they would be posted to govern and rule on behalf of the British Empire. It is in light of the institution’s centenary that SOAS students are seeking to decolonise it. This collective action undertaken by academic staff and students attempts to challenge the university’s “self-image as progressive and diverse” and build a more just and inclusive institution. Some of the aims of decolonisation are reparative: students are demanding the provision of more scholarships for refugees and displaced people, regardless of their immigration status, and more bursaries and grants for working-class students. Linked to the decolonising agenda is also the campaign to end the outsourcing of cleaning staff and for their secure work and pay.

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  • “Can this really be us?”—Who We Are and How We Got Here

    Lara Pawson, author of In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre, examines complacency and complicity in the xenophobic and racist underpinnings of the EU referendum's Leave campaign.

    A few hours before polling stations closed last Thursday, I travelled to west London to watch an extraordinary film about Syria. Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait (2014) is composed almost entirely of footage shot on mobile phones and uploaded, anonymously, onto YouTube. Some of it is also the remarkable work of Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish woman surviving and filming tenaciously in the city of Homs. The film moves back and forth between Syria and France, to Paris where its Syrian director, Ossama Mohammedlives in exile. The violence feels relentless: we see a young man being tortured, a truncheon thrust up his arse; another sitting upright in a plastic chair, his face blown off in shreds; we see the carefully wrapped bodies of dead children; the grief of weeping women; we see a kitten chewing the insides of a dog; and a pair of dead horses, starch stiff on a Homs street. It goes on and on and on. 

    Early in the film, however, I was confused, briefly, by some of the footage. Was I watching a scene in a Syrian city or in Paris? The narrow streets looked so familiar – the almost quaint blocks of flats complete with tiny balconies, blinds and plants in pots. But as the film rolled out, the physical destruction of Syria expanding, so the distinction between here and there and there and here became clear. On screen, at least. In my head, it was a different matter. A series of thoughts were scrambling. Here we were watching a film about the indescribable suffering of so many Syrians on the very day that millions of British voters were marking a cross to keep foreigners out. How many of us have even the vaguest clue of what it is to live with war? How many of us desire to truly understand? Mixing in with my anger and shame was another frightening thought, one that has gone round and round my head for months now: that our meanness, our arrogant notions of British exceptionalism, our racism, parochialism and narcissism are leading us ever closer to violent conflict here.
     

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Other books by Robin Blackburn