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The economics of the slave trade

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The Transatlantic Slave Trade, by James Rawley. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 452 pp. $24.95. How bad was slavery? In our time even threats of indirect political domination can stir the superpowers to the edge of nuclear war and extinction. We fear no threat more deeply than possible enslavement. And we maintain standing armies at great cost to secure our freedom. Yet here is a book which shows us another side of slavery, the commercial side.

Strange as it may seem, with all the emphasis on publishing black history in recent years, there has been no single volume by a professional historian on the Atlantic slave trade. This comprehensive and scholarly work by James A. Rawley serves this need.

From 1450 to 1870 - roughly, from the Portuguese exploration of the African coast until the Franco-Prussian War, millions of Africans were packed into European ships and transported in chains to the New World. Those who survived the infamous ''middle passage'' were forced to labor until death to produce wealth for white colonizers. Slaves lived under fear of physical torture, and untold numbers perished. Monuments to the fallen slaves still exist in the great mansions of New World countries: in New England's old family shipping estates; in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia plutocracies; and in the South's agricultural dynasties.

Slaves bore the brunt of a great crime, but Professor Rawley is not interested here in moral blame. ''My aim,'' he writes, ''has been to offer an objective history and my de-emphasis of the trade's undaunted horrors is in keeping with the historical climate in which the trade flourished. It should be recognized that before the development of anti-slavery sentiment in the last quarter of the 18th century, economic factors dominated. . . . A slave was a commodity. . . .''

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