William Mulligan & Maurice Bric (eds.), A Global History of Anti-Slavery Politics in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. viii + 254 pp. (Cloth US$85.00)

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Over the past twenty years, there has been a movement among slavery scholars to expand their frameworks, stressing ever broader transnational comparisons and connections. This volume edited by William Mulligan and Maurice Bric continues to push the envelope. Their eclectic and thought provoking collection explores the international dimensions of the nineteenth-century antislavery movement and its legacy—eleven essays from specialists based around the world that touch on places as far flung as Russia, the Congo, Sierra Leone, Haiti, the United States, the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Germany, Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and France. Mulligan rather succinctly states the phenomenon that every contributor to the book seeks to address on some level. “By the late 1880s,” he explains, “the abolition of slavery and suppression of the slave trade had become a global issue. A century earlier it had not been evident that slavery was morally wrong” (p. 166). Thus the key questions for the contributors are how, why, and to what extent antislavery sentiment became the global norm. It is clear from this book that focusing on one nation will never allow us to adequately answer those questions.

The essays cohere around a few specific issues in this study of antislavery as a global phenomenon, the most consistent theme being the relationship between local political concerns or individual political actors and the increasingly global antislavery and humanitarian movements. They are not, however, just focused on power politics or the relations among nation states. They are also concerned with the intersections between politics and intellectual history. The kind of intellectual history in which these authors engage is, for the most part, nuanced and sophisticated. Far from studying disembodied or static ideas, most of them highlight the way key individuals and the enslaved themselves shaped a constant interplay of politics and ideas. Simon Morgan’s essay approaches the role of individuals in the propagation of ideas in particularly creative ways, exploring what he calls the “politics of personality” (p. 79) by looking at how the celebrity status of prominent activists influenced the spread of antislavery ideas.

Another critically important theme in this collection is the origin and nature of humanitarianist sentiments and human rights thinking, and the relationship of these to local political concerns and security interests. It is all too easy to offer a whiggish history of humanitarianism and human rights, painting their spread as uncomplicated, unidirectional, and even inevitable, and celebrating this set of ideas as a marker of moral progress. The greatest contribution that this volume makes as a whole is to historicize and problematize humanitarianism and human rights thinking by demonstrating how dynamic, complicated, and contingent these ideas were in the nineteenth century and how such thinking differed from more modern conceptions of human rights. Yet the book also highlights striking similarities between nineteenth-century humanitarian interventions and their modern incarnations. Mulligan, for example, argues (with other essays supporting his observation) that in the nineteenth century “the universal claims of liberalism legitimated violent humanitarianism” (p. 155).

Andrea Nicholson, a legal scholar, offers the book’s most intriguing essay. She argues that modern antislavery campaigns have failed to offer “real protection” (p. 232) to slaves because too many people have drawn false distinctions between modern and older forms of slavery and because “slavery is not on the international agenda as it was in the nineteenth century, meaning that it is not a state priority” (p. 230). She argues persuasively for a return to the kind of domestic suppression of the slave trade that was successful in the nineteenth century and suggests that “states should perhaps emulate the nineteenth-century campaign by taking on greater responsibility in initiating effective domestic anti-slavery measures” (p. 231). Her essay can best be read as a general conclusion for the whole volume. It adds significance and explanatory weight to a collection that too often seems scattered in scope as it struggles to pull together the strands of a global history.

This book raises even more questions than it answers about the interconnectedness of the international antislavery movement and the ways in which nineteenth- and twentieth-century labor systems were transformed to adapt to antislavery laws. The essays are focused on Europe and the Americas but the Danish and Dutch receive surprisingly little attention. The Danes in particular are conspicuously absent given that they were the first European power to abolish the transatlantic trade. Readers will also be left wondering about the impact of Western antislavery movements on other places in the world such as Asia or among indigenous societies in the Americas. Little is said about the use of East Indian or Chinese indentured labor in the Americas in the nineteenth century and the way those forms were conceptualized in an age of antislavery sentiment.

This is not the kind of book that will be useful for undergraduates or even for graduate training. Many of the essays rely on specialist knowledge. Only one—Ehud R. Toledano’s on the Ottoman Empire—offers an in-depth historiographical overview of its subject. Nevertheless, the collection will inspire slavery specialists to continue to make global connections and comparisons and it may encourage us to think more about why coerced labor and human trafficking still flourish today despite the entrenchment in the nineteenth century of the global conviction that the institution of slavery was morally wrong.


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