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Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds

Reviewer(s):Engerman, Stanley L.

Published by EH.Net (October 2013)

Gwyn Campbell and Alessandro Stanziani, editors, Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. xiv + 185 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-374-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Stanley L. Engerman, Department of Economics, University of Rochester.

Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds contains nine essays plus a long introduction by the co-editors, dealing with topics related to the importance of debt in leading to enslavement in many places over a long period of time. The period covered ranges from about 300 B.C. (Early Rome) to 1956 (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), and covers various nations of the world in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The editors introduction discusses the various types of slavery and the meaning of enslavement. While they consider most slaves to be the result of wartime capture, they point to the relative importance (though few numerical estimates are given) of slavery resulting from the failure to pay debt in full, which permits the creditor to enslave the debtor, presumably for life. They note the occasional practice of self-enslavement for debt and sale of children (p. 13), but little attention is given to its major role in times of subsistence crises. They distinguish, as do several of the authors, between pawnship (the provision of collateral for loans) and debt slavery, although they indicate that these categories are often difficult to distinguish ? and while pawnship may lead to slavery in some times and places, at other times and places it does not.

Marc Kleijwegt’s chapter on early Rome focuses on Moses Finley’s contention that chattel slavery began in Rome only after 326 B.C., with the abolition of the nexum as a form of temporary bondage, requiring its replacement by a different form of coerced labor. Kleijwegt argues, against Finley, that chattel slavery in Rome had begun earlier, and that debt enslavement did not end in 326 B.C., so that while some aspects of the arguments made by Finley did take place, these changes were less dramatic and sharp than Finley argued, and that this complicates the belief in an abrupt transition from debt bondage to chattel slavery? (p. 37).

In the most wide-ranging essay in terms of time and location, Alessandro Stanziani deals with enslavement for debt and by war captivity in several Mediterranean and Central Asian states as well as in Russia, China, and India. In some cases these were suppliers of slaves, and in others users of slaves.? In most cases, although debt slavery was important, war captives played a dominant role (p. 48), reflecting the political instability and military operations that characterized these areas.

Michael Ferguson details the Ottoman Empire state-initiated emancipations, mainly of African slaves from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. These may have been a minority of emancipations, but state-initiated emancipation generally led to keeping ex-slaves under state protection, where they often served in the military, or performed agricultural work. Two essays on debt slavery and pawnship, by Paul Lovejoy in West Africa and Olatunji Ojo on the Yoruba, focus on the distinctions and similarities between pawnship and slavery. Pawnship, a form of providing an individual as security for debt, did not necessarily lead to slavery, although there were important legal changes over time and its conditions varied from place to place. In West Africa, as elsewhere, most slaves were the result of violence, including kidnapping, not debt. The same was apparently the case among the Yoruba, where many slaves were also the result of violence, not debt. Most pawns who were to become slaves were women and children, “whereas adult males” were more likely to be taken in combat? (p. 90).

In an update of his classic article of some forty years ago, in “The Africanization of the Work Force in English America,” Russell R. Menard analyzes the transition from the debts entered into by indentured labor, mainly from England, to the growth in the importance of African slaves in the colonial Chesapeake and in Barbados. Based on the detailed work of Lorena Walsh and John C. Coombs in pointing to the differences in the types of tobacco produced in different parts of the Chesapeake, Menard argues for a shift in chronology and explanation from his earlier arguments. In regard to Barbados, he argues that the transition to slavery had begun prior to the sugar revolution, based on other export crops, although sugar greatly accelerated the growth in slavery.

In an attempt to link the development of commerce and credit in various parts of Europe, the Americas, and Africa to the role of slavery and the slave trade, Joseph Miller describes the role of European states and merchants in obtaining and shifting specie and funds in trading with Africa and elsewhere.? While this commercialization did benefit the Europeans, he argues that its effect upon African societies and economies was negative, leading to more militarization and the need to provide slaves to pay for the debts accumulated.

Henrique Espada Lima presents a detailed examination of various forms of coerced labor in Brazil in the nineteenth century, including some labor based on voluntary immigration from Portugal and the Azores.? There were provisions made for self-purchase by slaves, making for a conversion of slavery into debt, and thus having slaves pay financial compensation to their former owners (p. 131). Slavery finally ended in Brazil in 1888, 17 years after passage of the so-called law of the free womb, with no compensation paid to either slaves or slave owners. According to Steven Serels, it was debt, not taxation, which led to the increased labor force participation in cotton production in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan between 1898 and the coming of independence in 1956. This debt influenced both laborers and tenants, and bound these cultivators to the land and prevented them from regaining their lost independence? (p. 142) over the first half of the twentieth century.

All the essays are based upon extensive primary and secondary research, are clearly presented, and are quite useful additions to understanding the historical meaning of slavery, serfdom, pawnship, and different forms of coerced labor. As with such a diverse set of essays, there are differences in the caliber of the argument and in the authors? perceived importance of the role of debt slavery in different times and places. Nevertheless, the great value of this collection is to indicate the widespread frequency and social importance of this particular form of enslavement.

Stanley Engerman is co-author (with Kenneth Sokoloff) of Economic Development in the Americas since 1500: Endowments and Institutions, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative