11 July 2001

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


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.


This is as close to a definitive work on the Atlantic slave trade as it is ever likely to see the light of day. There is an immense amount of information in 900 pages of intense reading. This book takes some to read and absorb. I would have liked it to be shorter, there is way too much detail here that does not add much to the points the author is trying to make. It does add to the time necessary for the reader to complete the book however!

I was surprised to learn that the biggest share of the Atlantic slave trade was handled by the Portuguese (about 38% of the total). The role of the pope in arbitrating disputes over slave trade concessions between them and the Spanish is explained in detail.

Actually the biggest slavers were the African chiefs themselves. While many slaves were kidnapped, many were actually bought from local chiefs. Africans held slaves themselves, and sold them to the best buyers. The King of the Ashanti Empire in West Africa asked the British why they were stopping the slave trade when the Arab traders were as busy as ever... did they not share the same God? In fact slaves under the Arabs were usually worse off because they were not allowed to bring or raise their families as was the case of the slaves in the Americas.

I appreciated the detached approach of the book, always useful in any serious research but especially in the case of a controversial issue like this one, where a writer might fall into the temptation of political correctness.

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