The finest body of historical writing to appear during the past twenty years has probably been produced by students of slavery and emancipation. An outpouring of exceptional studies by scholars in the United States, Brazil, Cuba, and other countries has transformed our understanding of issues ranging from slave life and culture to planter ideology and the economics of slavery. These works have established beyond question the centrality of slavery to the Western hemisphere’s settlement and development and to the rise and fall of European empires in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
Robin Blackburn’s The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery is not only the latest addition to this impressive body of literature but one of the finest studies of slavery and abolition to appear in many years. The book’s strength is not new research-Blackburn’s account rests on his extraordinary command of the secondary literature-but its broad scope and original, incisive conceptualization. Criss-crossing the Atlantic, Blackburn welds events both in the centers of empire and the slave-based colonies of the New World into a coherent narrative. Equally important, he shows how the social, economic, and political changes unleashed by the Age of Revolution had a contradictory impact on slavery, strengthening it in some place while leading to abolition in others. To explain the fate of slavery in individual colonies, he examines the nature of the planter class, the impact of antislavery ideology, political developments and class conflicts within the relevant metropolitan power, and-a factor often ignored by previous students of abolition-the struggles of the slaves to free themselves....
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