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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / economics

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

James A. Rawley

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Title: The Transatlantic Slave Trade
Author: James A. Rawley
Genre: History
Written: 1981, rev. 2005
Length: 374 pages
Availability: The Transatlantic Slave Trade - US
The Transatlantic Slave Trade - UK
The Transatlantic Slave Trade - Canada
  • A History, revised edition
  • with Stephen D. Behrendt
  • With numerous maps, illustrations and tables

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Our Assessment:

B : useful introduction and overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/11/1981 George M. Fredrickson

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is of great value as a compendium of information about the European side of the trade and as a synthesis of recent scholarly work on the subject. Mr. Rawley's own conclusions on controversial issues are generally intelligent and persuasive. (...) This careful and useful study has its limitations. In its concern for economic fact, it misses much of the human side of the story. (...) The coldly detached and impersonal tone of the book will grate on the sensibility of some readers and perhaps encourage a mood of complacency in others. I wonder if Mr. Rawley is not taking too much for granted when he implies that we no longer need to be reminded of the enormous injustice and immorality of the slave trade." - George M. Fredrickson, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The slave trade is an emotionally charged subject, the traffic in humans being something that it is hard not to feel outraged by. Yet aside from the unimaginable human toll on the slaves themselves the transatlantic slave trade had an enormous impact on the economies of Europe, the New World, and Africa, as well as on the demographics of the Americas, then and now. James A. Rawley's book is history-writing of the dispassionate sort; as he notes: "A slave was a commodity", and his survey of the transatlantic slave trade treats them as such -- and almost nothing more. It's a jarring but certainly valid approach; indeed, it proves to be a valuable and often illuminating perspective: the focus on the moral reprehensibility of the practise found in so much of the literature on the subject obscures much about it, and Rawley's focus on the facts and statistics (and especially the money involved) helps explain a great deal. Nevertheless, while Rawley certainly does not deny that the practise itself was outrageous, his "de-emphasis of the trade's undoubted horrors" (as he puts it) does leave the reader with a mighty cold book.
       Rawley presents the evolution of the transatlantic slave trade largely by focussing on the major (national and then local) players, devoting chapters to the role of the various nations engaged in the slave trade and its evolution. It is a good framework: nation-states were long the dominant parties in the trade, and each came to it, or played a specific role, depending on their circumstances. Portugal got an early start, for example, while Spain, unable to establish much of a foothold in Africa (the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 gave Portugal the monopoly in Africa, Asia, and Brazil, leaving the rest of the New World to Spain), did not have a supply of slaves from its own colonies to ship across the Atlantic. However, the perspective is almost entirely a European (and then American) one: while African (colonial) sites are mentioned, there is relatively little discussion of the local effects -- of where the slaves came from, and what consequences the massive de-population of local areas had, geo-politically and economically. (As Rawley notes, almost all slaves were supplied to the Europeans by Africans, rather than actually rounded up by the Europeans themselves: the Europeans merely exchanged one commodity (goods or money) for another (slaves). This African side of the trade does not receive much attention here.)
       The Portuguese slave trade actually began before the discovery of America, and in the 15th century there was considerable traffic into Europe proper: nearly 50,000 is the number Rawley cites, "employed as domestic servants, artisans, and farmers, and sometimes rising in status" -- i.e. not the mass-labourers that would later characterise the slave-trade.
       The opening of the New World led to a spectacular increase in agricultural production, particularly of sugar. The local labour force was wholly inadequate, and the only available supply of labour was to be found in Africa. (Rawley unfortunately does not adequately address why the specific labour-arrangement of slavery developed -- humans as the property of others, with essentially no legal standing, rather than some other form of bonded labour --; this is perhaps more a legal than an economic issue, but certainly deserves a bit of attention.) Slaves soon became seen as a necessity, a commodity of vital national interest. Rawley quotes a 17th century response to Charles II by the Spanish Council of the Indies that warned:

If a prohibition were issued to discontinue bringing them, the food needed for the support of the whole Kingdom would cease to be produced; the landed properties, the main wealth of which consists of negro slaves, would be lost, and America would face absolute ruin
       Different national approaches and conditions led to different results, from the short-lived Danish forays into the trade to the French being hampered by the absence of a market for the products of slave labour, specifically molasses and rum, back in France. Rawley covers all these situations, and then especially the English becoming dominant in the trade, very well -- though it's a lot of history (nearly four centuries during which the trade flourished) and a lot of often dry detail.
       Rawley goes into a lot of the numbers, and the totals are staggering. The numbers, dates, and places are also interesting: not surprisingly, Cuba got about half of the 1.7 million Africans shipped to Spanish America -- but the next biggest taker was Mexico (some 200,000), though they got "only a trickle after about 1800". The United States received relatively few -- certainly less than ten per cent of all Africans shipped across the Atlantic -- , a fact often forgotten.
       In keeping with his focus on slaves-as-commodity, Rawley also considers the fluctuating prices and other economic factors affecting their trade. He notes that several studies indicate that profits from slave-trading were generally not exceptionally high: it was a costly and risky enterprise (and he notes -- in particular in his chapter on the Middle Passage -- that traders had an incentive to treat slaves at least moderately well in order to insure their survival: losing slaves in transport was simply bad business).
       Rawley's book is also a consideration of -- and often response to -- much of the literature on slavery. He considers, cites, and compares much of the existing literature -- and offers his take, given the evidence. A bit much of this is specialist-talk that the reader unfamiliar with the literature can't adequately judge -- though quite possibly it makes the book more useful to the historian looking for a synthesis and overview of the literature.
       Certainly, The Transatlantic Slave Trade is a valuable source book for anyone interest in the slave trade, and it is an often fascinating account. Rawley's approach, treating the slaves essentially as a commodity and nothing more, is appropriate for his purposes but inevitably leaves an unpleasant taste: one appreciates that he did it, but doesn't really like it.
       Disturbing -- and occasionally too much a dry scholarly-historical work, comparing other opinions and claims -- but informative.

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The Transatlantic Slave Trade: Reviews:

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About the Author:

       James A. Rawley taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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© 2006-2008 the complete review

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