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Wednesday; 20 October 2010

Andrew S. Terrell
HIST 6393: Atlantic History to 1750

Précis: Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern,
1492-1800. London: Verso, 1997.

Professor Robin Blackburn is a British social historian who focuses on colonialism,

revolutions, and slavery. In his survey of Atlantic Slavery, Blackburn analyzes the experiences
of the slave trade under the major empires of the modern era--the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch,
English, and French. His analyses follow a few larger topics covered at length for each empire:
Religious problems in defense of and in condemnation of slavery as it emerged, the social
struggle with choosing slavery as a labor force, and how slave systems hastened the industrial
revolution and subsequent prominence of mercantilist capitalist political economies. Blackburn
uses the latter theme to supplant his thesis that plantation economies boomed during the
seventeenth century and not earlier which raises many questions over the Caribbean Islands. The
result of his efforts in The Making of New World Slavery is a top-down approach to how the slave
trade fit into mainstream Atlantic history.
The image of the Baroque era in the “Selection of New World Slavery” part served to
explain the chaos dealt with the expansion of colonialism and power in the state or private
efforts. At its heart, the Baroque links the modern era to the classical world and thus in this
context personifies the darker elements of the rapid transition. Blackburn contends the rise of the
consumer class in urban areas beckoned a quick “evolution” of mass production in order to
maintain the new modern society. Blackburn sees early slavery as being wasteful and inflexible
and thus unprofitable early on. However, he notes the seemingly evolutionary changes to slave
systems and slave trade that climax with the English system in the American middle and
southern colonies. To Blackburn, the new systems were independent of Old World traditions and
the only connection to them was trial and error phases that culminated in the racial identity of the
modern plantation.
Marx’s principles of primitive accumulation are used in analyzing the new plantation
system. Blackburn made direct correlations between the rising English system of capitalism and
the expansion of slave plantations. He contends only the English were successful on such a large
scale, which this reader agrees with. By 1800, Blackburn believes that slavery as an institution
was a modern consumerist, capitalist venture with slaves as the currency. From this vantage he
shows how each successive empire left an impression on the slave trade. Thus, we see the reason
for his title baroque to modern as an evolutionary market expansion from controlled absolutism
to an international commercial enterprise.
To extoll the slave institution, however, was not Blackburn’s goal. The language of his
monograph settles rather as a more objective approach reminiscent of business history today.
Though he does not give agency to the slaves themselves as other studies do, the macro approach
to the Atlantic slave trade is equally important in understanding the rapid expansion of capitalist
markets in the modern world. We see from the case study of the slave trade that plantations in
themselves were not the true predecessors to post Age of Revolutions industrial factories, rather
it was the slave trade in and of itself.