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Book Reviews

Davis, David Brion.  Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Pp. xvi, 440.  Cloth, ISBN-10: 0-19-514073-7, £17.99.
[The LoC Cataloguing-in-Publication Data show an additional ISBN -13: 978-0-19-514073-6.  The ISBN on the publisher's accompanying information sheet is given without hyphens and there is a publication date of 25 May 2006.]

Reviewed by George Rehin of Lewes, Sussex

Inhuman bondage

David Brion Davis, an outstanding and prolific historian, won a Pulitzer Prize with his first book on slavery, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, 1966.  His latest volume, Inhuman Bondage, springs from the realisation in the 1990s that - despite epic scholarship, debates, and discoveries of historians since the 1960s - school and college students and the public generally were not well informed about slavery, resistance and abolition.  Also about this time Davis began teaching slavery as a subject on its own in summer-school seminars for high-school teachers and in a semester-long undergraduate lecture course.  Inhuman Bondage aims to set slavery in the United States "within the larger contexts of the Atlantic Slave System and the rise and fall of slavery in the New World" because it "can no longer be understood in parochial terms or simply as a chapter" in southern U.S. history. 

Inhuman Bondage is "not a comprehensive or encyclopaedic survey", but it covers a lot of ground.  Beginning with the Amistad affair, it goes on to deal with slavery in antiquity, the origins of anti-black racism, Africa's involvement, the Atlantic system - Brazil and the Caribbean, colonial north America, the problem of slavery in the American revolution, the French and Haitian revolutions, the nineteenth-century south (two chapters), nineteenth-century slave conspiracies and revolts, British and American abolitionism (two chapters), the politics of slavery in the United States, and civil war and emancipation.  Eighty pages of endnotes provide ample references (occasionally a note points to sources in another of Davis's works) and much supplementary information.  There is no separate bibliography.  The index, peculiarly, gives no superordinate entries for "slave trade" or synonymous terms and only a few subordinate entries.  Davis gives due narrative and analytical attention to established historical knowledge, to historians' debates and discoveries, in a near conversational style, always explaining why he commends facts or interpretations.

Yet there is uneasiness in this historiography, particularly in prologue and epilogue, where Davis outlines and contextualises his substantive text and attempts to lead readers to consider slavery's consequences and ramifications and abolition's limitations.  Davis treats antislavery and abolition as the paramount features of the long, complex and tenacious history of slavery, which provide its chief lessons.  Antislavery movements are "historically unique"; they "succeeded in overthrowing" productive, profitable and extensive slave systems in less than a century.  This understanding yields a "positive message of willed moral achievement", which "must also be linked with the need to recognize the heavy and complex legacies" of slavery.  Willed achievement is less certain in the book's final paragraph; it "may have no parallel"; but "despite its many limitations" it "should help inspire some confidence in other movements for social change".  This verbose, circumlocutory and tentative language betrays an ambivalence about moral force versus realpolitik. 

Considering the cruelties of slavery and similar institutions, Davis writes:

"No doubt we will always have individual psychopathic torturers .  The worst evils arise when institutions encourage "ordinary" people to adopt similar behavior and win approval from, let us say, fellow guards at a Nazi death camp or even at an American-run Iraqi prison.  We are seldom willing to recognize that every war converts ordinary citizen-soldiers into serial killers . "

Such contradictions are mirrored, inter alia, by the inconsiderate fact that slavery survived Congress's prohibition of the "migration or importation" of slaves into the United States (from 1808) for two generations, and was overthrown by military force in a bloody civil war.  The Iraq war and its contradictions are one root of Davis's ambivalence; keep this in mind when reading this valuable volume.

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