A Short History of Slavery by James Walvin

This brief history of an economic system has been constructed with care. A diversity of sources have been used to illuminate the dehumanising system in question. The text has been composed to focus on the contradictions and cruelties of slavery in the British Empire. However, the forces which pushed for the abolition of the triangular trade have also been documented.

Slavery within the British Empire was a complex phenomenon which contributed to the economic development of capitalism. However, it was not simply morally dubious in the extreme. The wastage of labour power was inefficient, while reoccurring slave revolts were a cause of chronic instability. The political economist Adam Smith had contended that slaves were actually one of the most expensive types of labour on the basis of poor productivity. The lack of incentive for a slave to be industrious was pinpointed by Smith.

When slavery was formally abolished within the British Empire, the British began to compel other nations to travel in a similar direction. The zeal with which Britain had implemented slavery was almost matched by the zeal with which it clamped down on some forms of slavery elsewhere. However, the strength of this account of slavery was not its highlighting of imperial hypocrisy. The power of the narrative was in its attention to the details of how many brave slaves endured barbaric treatment:

“Despite the arduousness of their lives, slaves made the most of their time at rest. Foremost among those impressions were slaves’ musical pleasures…”

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