Slav­ery’s end ex­am­ined in tril­ogy’s pow­er­ful con­clu­sion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jim Blan­chard

THIS im­pres­sive book is the third in a se­ries on slav­ery by David Brion Davis, and the one in which he ex­am­ines its end. His other works in the tril­ogy, The Prob­lem of Slav­ery in Western Cul­ture (1966) and The Prob­lem of Slav­ery in the Age of Revo­lu­tion, 1770-1823 (1975), form only part of a life­time’s work on what he calls “the her­itage of slav­ery.” Davis is a distin­guished aca­demic who taught for many years at Yale. In his pref­ace he ex­plains that he de­cided to make slav­ery the sub­ject of much of his work be­cause of his ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up in an Amer­ica that was still seg­re­gated and that paid lit­tle at­ten­tion to the sub­ject. As a young sol­dier in Ger­many in 1946, the anti-black racism he wit­nessed in the Amer­i­can army moved him, in his own way, to try and im­prove con­di­tions. His work has there­fore been aimed at both aca­demic and gen­eral au­di­ences. His clear, en­gag­ing writ­ing has led to a num­ber of awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for the first book of the tril­ogy. In all his work, Davis’ fo­cus is much broader than slav­ery in his na­tive United States. As a his­to­rian of cul­ture and of ideas, he looks at slav­ery as a vast in­ter­na­tional phe­nom­e­non, the ba­sis of boom­ing su­gar, tobacco, rice, cot­ton and cof­fee in­dus­tries from Brazil to the United States. Haiti was one of the rich­est slave economies, pro­duc­ing a large pro­por­tion of the world’s cof­fee in the 18th century. Davis’s dis­cus­sion of the great eman­ci­pa­tion of slaves in the 1800s be­gins with the self­e­man­ci­pa­tion of Haitian slaves in­spired by the ideas of the French Revo­lu­tion. They over­threw their French planter masters, es­tab­lish­ing a free state in the 1790s. Pro­fes­sional ar­mies sent by France, Bri­tain and Spain all failed to crush their re­volt and re-es­tab­lish slav­ery. Davis shows how the Haitians in­spired other slaves all over the Amer­i­cas, while refugee slave own­ers re­in­forced the dread of re­volt felt by masters flee­ing to other Caribbean is­lands and the United States. Davis’s ex­am­i­na­tion of the psy­chol­ogy of slave own­ers and slaves is fas­ci­nat­ing. How could one group of hu­mans treat an­other group so cru­elly? In an­swer­ing this he dis­cusses an­i­mal­iza­tion: think­ing of other people not as hu­mans, but as an­i­mals who can be driven and bru­tal­ized. The great scholar that he is, Davis ques­tions many of our con­ven­tional ideas about slav­ery. He shows, for ex­am­ple, the com­plex­ity of mo­tives be­hind the move­ment in slave-hold­ing coun­tries to cre­ate colonies such as Liberia in Africa to which freed slaves could be sent. Davis is cleareyed about the abo­li­tion­ists in the north­east­ern states as well as the great Bri­tish cam­paign­ers like Wil­liam Wil­ber­force, who man­aged to end slav­ery in the Bri­tish Em­pire. He shows how, along with their un­doubted hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism, they wanted to prove the su­pe­ri­or­ity of their brand of Chris­tian­ity. David Brion Davis’s work shows us that the eman­ci­pa­tion of slaves in­volved much more than Abe Lin­coln’s sig­na­ture on the Amer­i­can Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion. His care­ful dis­cus­sion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal, cul­tural and eco­nomic bar­ri­ers that had to be over­come be­fore eman­ci­pa­tion gives us a much richer un­der­stand­ing of this ter­ri­ble in­sti­tu­tion, un­for­tu­nately still with us to­day. Jim Blan­chard is a li­brar­ian at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba and a writer

of lo­cal his­tory.

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