Measuring Slavery’s Impression | by David Eltis


To the Editors:

Fara Dabhoiwala in “Speech and Slavery within the West Indies” [NYR, August 20] makes two claims that can not be appropriate. As one of many students engaged on the www .slavevoyages.org website, which he kindly references, I wish to counsel that he has not checked out our work very carefully. First, every of the 36,000 transatlantic voyages on the location permits for 3 disembarkation factors, not one as he claims. However extra necessary, the location provides an intra-American slave commerce database containing an additional 11,400 voyages by means of which it’s attainable to trace the motion of Africans within the Americas after their preliminary disembarkation. The creator appears unaware of what the location provides.

Such unawareness leads on to a second and far bigger problem. The creator claims that

slavery was foundational to Britain’s prosperity and rise to international energy. All through the eighteenth century the empire’s epicenter lay not in North America, Africa, or India however in a handful of small sugar-producing Caribbean islands.

Nevertheless, the Slave Voyages databases present clearly that each Portugal and Spain, individually, compelled much more Africans to cross the Atlantic than did the British—necessary slavers although the British undoubtedly had been. Extra necessary, the worth of Spanish American exports far exceeded these of the British Caribbean (and extra broadly the British Americas) all through the colonial interval.

How is it attainable that having bigger slave techniques than the British did not set off “prosperity and rise to international energy” within the case of Portugal and Spain? For the Iberians, the emergence of dominant slave trades and slave techniques seems to be related to diminishing prosperity and energy. Might it’s that the rise of countries and imperial techniques is a bit more difficult than what the creator is ready to concede?

David Eltis
Emeritus Professor of Historical past
Emory College
Atlanta, Georgia
Adjunct Professor of Historical past
College of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

Fara Dabhoiwala replies:

I’m certainly not the primary scholar whom David Eltis has accused of, in his view, exaggerating the historic significance of European slavery. As an financial historian, his personal work has been involved primarily with quantifying the dimensions and financial impression of transatlantic slave regimes. That may be a invaluable method, with a distinguished and contentious historiography courting again to Eric Williams’s pioneering Capitalism and Slavery (1944). However it’s only one, comparatively slim, manner of understanding the general significance of slavery, and it could actually result in the conclusion that, actually, its import was not all that nice. My essay, against this, just like the books it mentioned, thought of slavery not merely as an financial establishment however as a part of the political, army, social, mental, and cultural foundations of the early British Empire.

As for the info in slavevoyages.org, readers can use the location themselves to verify my normal calculations (at “Transatlantic/Estimates/Tables,” choose for 1701–1800, “100-year intervals,” “Broad disembarkation areas,” and “Embarked/Disembarked”). I’m glad to endorse Professor Eltis’s plug for the location’s many further capabilities.



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