11 July 2001

Book review: The Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (1999), by Hugh Thomas, *****

Synopsis

After many years of research, Thomas portrays, in a balanced account, the complete history of the slave trade. The Atlantic slave trade was one of the largest and most elaborate maritime and commercial ventures. Between 1492 and about 1870, ten million or more black slaves were carried from Africa to one port or another of the Americas.

In this wide-ranging book, Hugh Thomas follows the development of this massive shift of human lives across the centuries until the slave trade's abolition in the late nineteenth century.

Beginning with the first Portuguese slaving expeditions, he describes and analyzes the rise of one of the largest and most elaborate maritime and commercial ventures in all of history. Between 1492 and 1870, approximately eleven million black slaves were carried from Africa to the Americas to work on plantations, in mines, or as servants in houses. The Slave Trade is alive with villains and heroes and illuminated by eyewitness accounts. Hugh Thomas's achievement is not only to present a compelling history of the time but to answer as well such controversial questions as who the traders were, the extent of the profits, and why so many African rulers and peoples willingly collaborated. Thomas also movingly describes such accounts as are available from the slaves themselves.