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Published by EH.NET (August 2004)

Johannes Postma, The Atlantic Slave Trade. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. xi + 177 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-313-31862-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Rachel Chernos Lin, Department of History, Brown University.

In the last few decades, there has been an explosion of interest in and research on the Atlantic slave trade. Despite such trends, however, the field has been lacking a solid textbook that would provide students early in their academic careers with an introduction to the topic. In the latest addition to the Greenwood Guides to Historic Events series, Johannes Postma (Minnesota State University, Mankato) fills this void, bringing us a concise survey of the Atlantic slave trade. Clearly intended for use in the classroom, his book, The Atlantic Slave Trade, neatly covers a wide range of topics and ideas, and should prove useful to high school and undergraduate students and teachers alike.

As with other books in the series, this one is divided into two main sections. The first section forms a brief overview of the Atlantic slave trade, numbering only 85 pages, tables and endnotes included. It is divided into six short chapters that roughly follow the course of the Atlantic slave trade.

In chapter one, Postma discusses various topics related to African forced migration, such as definitions of slavery, why Africans were enslaved, how the trade started, the African diaspora, and the role of Europeans in the trade. Chapter two covers the process of enslavement in Africa, the middle passage and ship-board rebellions, and briefly touches on the sale of slaves in the New World. In chapter three, Postma turns to issues of quantification and identification. He synthesizes some of the key trends that historians have identified about the origins of the slaves, their gender distribution, the European countries involved, the numbers transported, and mortality rates among both slaves and crews. Chapter four, which may be of particular interest to readers of this list-serve, outlines some of the economic implications of the trade for the world economy as well as for European and African merchants. While Postma cautions against exaggerating the importance of the slave trade for the growth of Atlantic trading nations, he supports arguments made by scholars such as Barbara Solow and Martin Klein who have emphasized the role of the slave trade in the economic development of the New World (pp. 52, 58, 60). The fifth chapter outlines the struggle for abolition, highlighting the role of British and North American abolitionists as well as the slaves themselves, particularly in St. Domingue. In the sixth and final chapter of the first section, Postma considers the legacy of the slave trade, looking at issues of racism, cultural change, and the existence of present-day slavery.

The second section, comparable in length to the first one, contains a variety of additional materials, including sixteen biographical sketches, thirteen primary source documents, a glossary of terms and an annotated bibliography, that are meant to supplement the preceeding narrative and spark further research.

What is perhaps most striking about this book is its textbook-style approach. There is no central argument or hypothesis structured around the author’s own archival research. This is a survey rather than a synthesis or monograph. Although Postma brings in primary- source evidence to demonstrate various points (such as shipping statistics, for example, to show Britain’s leading position as a carrier of slaves), he draws primarily on the work of others for the information he includes. And, while he occasionally refers to historiographical debates, such as Eric Williams’ thesis regarding the economic roots of abolition, he generally refrains from structuring his narrative around historiographical questions. Instead, Postma takes readers on a quick tour through numerous topics and issues that form central areas of study in Atlantic slave-trade research, provisioning his text with examples drawn from a limited number of carefully chosen primary and secondary sources (some reprinted in the documents section, others included in a useful annotated bibliography), thus introducing readers to countless subjects for potential study.

Postma’s approach has many benefits. First and foremost, it allows him to dispense with traditional approaches to the literature and instead pick and choose what to include and leave out, a necessity in such a short survey. He makes the most of his method by using primarily recent scholarship and sources that have been generating a certain degree of interest in historical circles, thereby giving his survey a sense of currency. For example, Postma draws his statistics largely from information contained in the The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-Rom (TSTD), and he makes a point of discussing the source itself in some detail in both the body of his text and in the bibliography. This source is likely to appeal to younger, computer-savvy students, and it could serve as a good starting point for further research.

In addition, Postma makes use of sources that provide a window into the African perspective. For instance, he includes slave narratives and accounts by Europeans who came into close contact with Africans during the enslavement process as evidence in the body of his text and he also reprints portions of such pieces in the documents section of the book. Along with the well-known narratives by slave Olaudah Equiano and slave-trader John Newton, he also presents less familiar figures. Not only are such narratives an increasingly popular area of inquiry within the historical community (see, for example, the recent collection of images put on the web by anthropologist and ethnohistorian Jerome S. Handler at http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/), but they also serve as a useful supplement, or counterpoint, to the numbers found in the TSTD. Thus, while students can avail themselves of statistical information, they are also encouraged to turn to the back of the text where the narratives provide a human voice to the numbers.

The brevity of the survey, however, has its drawbacks. In attempting to present a scholarly but concise overview, Postma is forced to make many choices in terms of what evidence to present or omit. It is not surprising that, as a leading scholar on the role of the Dutch in the Atlantic slave trade,[1] Postma should often turn to Dutch examples. Usually, his own scholarship shines through to great effect, such as when he discusses the effectiveness of rebellion and resistance by maroon communities and slaves in Dutch-controlled Surinam and Demerara (p. 69), or in his section on numbers and statistics, where he revises current estimates for the Dutch role, taking into account newly discovered voyages (p. 36), but his occasional failure to note other examples in certain contexts can be a bit misleading. For instance, when pointing out the role of North American slavers in the trade, he notes that “during the last decades of the eighteenth century, they shipped nearly 3,000 slaves to Dutch-controlled Suriname alone” (p. 43). However, a quick search of the TSTD reveals that Rhode Islanders, the principal North American slave traders in the late-eighteenth century, shipped more than twice that number to Cuba in this period.[2] As Postma himself points out, the Dutch held major carrier status only during the 1680s, whereas the British and the Portuguese were by far the largest carriers of slaves. So, in a short survey on the Atlantic slave trade intended for a general audience, an over-reliance on Dutch participation for evidence can lead to some misunderstanding.

That said, it is refreshing to read a clearly-written, broad survey that does not attempt to oversimplify or dumb-down the material. Far from it. Postma never shies away from complex, multi-causal answers to major questions. It is precisely this approach, especially when combined with the primary sources, biographical sketches and annotated bibliography included in this volume, that make this survey an ideal choice to introduce advanced high-school students and beginning undergraduate students to the Atlantic slave trade.

Notes:

1. See, for example, Johannes Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Johannes Postma and Victor Enthoven, editors, Riches in Atlantic Commerce: Dutch Transatlantic Shipping, 1585-1817 (Brill, 2003). 2. David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson and Herbert S. Klein, The Transatlantic Slave Trade — A Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Rachel Chernos Lin is a PhD Candidate at Brown University. Her article, “The Rhode Island Slave-Traders: Butchers, Bakers, and Candlestick-Makers,” appeared in the December 2002 issue of Slavery and Abolition.