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March 12, 2010

A first-rate book which doesn't do what it says on the tin: Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery - Seymour Drescher

Posted by Jeremy Black

Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery
by Seymour Drescher
Pp. 484. Cambridge University Press, 2009
Hardback, 50; Paperback, 15.99

This is a first-rate book but with one fundamental caveat. Drescher, University Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and a distinguished scholar on the subject, does not in fact provide a history of slavery. Instead, he largely restricts himself to the period since 1450. This of course leads to a particular conspectus for slavery, that of the expanding empires and developing trade routes of the period.

Moreover, as Drescher notes, he has

attended less to East Asian slavery in this study of the global rhythms of slavery and antislavery. China, Korea, and Japan all exhibited their own variants of the institution. For the most part, their institutions followed internal cycles, independent of developments beyond the region. Where I did find congruencies, I attempted to incorporate them into this account.
In practice, there is not the global span suggested by that comment. One can of course feel for Drescher in his comment t
hat it is nearly impossible to master the cascade of scholarship that has inundated the fields of slavery and abolition during the past half century of historiography.
Yet, if a major scholar who had been studying the subject for decades cannot do so, what hope is there for scholarship, as we rely on such figures in order to provide us with guidance.

There is a more particular concern with scope because the understanding of the subject today has clear political resonances, and both understanding and resonances owe much to the scope of what is covered and the respective weight given to particular narratives. Thus, for example, the coverage in Britain at the time of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 was singularly depressing because most of the story was of Britain's past, for both good and ill, and there was singularly little attempt by most commentators to devote due weight to international comparisons.

This point, however, finds Drescher at a marked advantage for after the standard narrative organised in the parts of the book in terms of Extension, Crisis and Contraction, there is a fourth part, Reversion. This devotes due attention to the nature of slavery in the twentieth century, notably in the Soviet Union and in the Nazi empire, but with attention also to other episodes, such as the use of enforced labour by Wilhelmine Germany.

Coerced labour in Africa and Asia is also discussed, albeit too briefly. There is, for example, a failure to consider in detail the current situation in Sudan. Moreover, the state slavery of North Korea is neglected. These points raise a question about Drescher's confidence that slavery now is again in retreat; and there is a more general need to consider how far the pretensions, demands, surveillance and violence of many modern governments can be seen as ensuring elements of state slavery albeit far less so than North Korea or Hoxha's Albania.

Drescher's study therefore is at once a skilful, well-written and absorbing account of the established subject of slavery and anti-slavery, a valuable extension of that into the twentieth century, and yet also an incomplete work.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade.

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