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Ambitious History Of Atlantic Slave Trade Bogs Down in Detail


By Hugh Thomas

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Simon & Schuster

908 pp., $38

Hugh Thomas is, quite simply, a phenomenon. This remarkably productive, popularizing historian has written a dozen or more books over a 35-year span. They range from his most famous work, on the Spanish Civil War, through studies of the cold war, modern Cuba, global technology, the conquest of Mexico, and now this overwhelming tome, "The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870."

But there are difficulties with this latest work: a lack of discipline and much structure beyond chronology. Of course, Thomas is fluent in the French and especially the Spanish sources. Unfortunately, there is little penetration, little attempt to develop themes, present ideas, or get to the bottom of things.

The result is a bloated, slap-dash assemblage of facts and factlets that includes every conceivable name, but imposes a casual, occasionally cynical, irony on the vital questions of motivation and causality.

There are endless recitals of expeditions undertaken, African slaves carried off, sold in the New World, and marched to their new "homes"; of this profitable business fought over by Portuguese, then Spanish, then Dutch, then French, then British, and finally American slavers; of the pirates, privateers, and men of war that hovered around the edges; and of the changes in wealth and politics that influenced the trade.

The book contains not one, but two back-to-back texts, the first dealing with "high" slavery, its period of acceptance and expansion, principally by Spain and Portugal from the 15th century onward; the second with its rejection by the two expanding Western democracies, Britain and the United States, and the consequent efforts at worldwide elimination during 1780 to 1860.

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The watershed between these two falls during 1776-1815, the period of the American and French nationalist and democratic revolutions. Entitled the "World Revolution of the West," this period destroyed the ideological - though not the economic - basis for a slavery that was seen thereafter in the northern US and especially in Great Britain as an unmitigated horror, unworthy of survival, and ripe for attack by the Royal Navy.

This massive shift in thinking goes essentially unnoticed by Thomas, aside from a very few pages on the Enlightenment. His text is too focused on the minutiae of the names of ships, of their captains, the number of guns they bore, and the events that befell them. Thomas does, to be sure, emphasize the role of William Wilberforce, the English statesman, the British Quakers and Methodists, but fails to convey their antislavery fervor.

Thomas is little interested in ideas and political movements, but very much in economic growth - sugar tonnage, cotton exports, the cost of slaves - and the wealthy entrepreneurs this involved. He is entirely oblivious to the individuals held as slaves, the great unknown in a book purporting to be about a process in which they were central. Though slave revolts are mentioned, for example, and clearly the masters were increasingly apprehensive about them from 1800 onward, nothing else is stated.

The result is an outmoded, virtually 19th-century-like history. It lacks context. It presents one fact after another, strung together chronologically. Only dominant men have roles. Its central figures are mere creatures, without feeIings, let alone ideas.

* Leonard Bushkoff regularly reviews history for the Monitor.

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