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 self-emancipation 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 clear-eyed 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.