Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba and the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv + 314 pp. $23 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-69410-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Eltis, Department of History, Emory University.

No one is better qualified to write a comparative history of slavery in the Americas than Laird Bergad. Alone among active scholars, he has written foundational works on three different societies in the hemisphere that were built on coerced labor ? Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. He has also recently turned his attention to the United States in the post-slavery era. The present work is a synthesis of the last century of slavery in the three most enduring and, after 1807, the most vibrant slave economies of the Americas ? the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. The first two of the eight chapters set the scene with coverage of the three regions? development in the centuries before 1790 and a discussion of the use of slaves in other parts of the Americas. This leaves almost four-fifths of the book devoted to the explosive growth and rather sudden ending of the institution. The six thematic chapters that comprise the bulk of Bergad?s work take up in turn slave narratives, demography, economic performance, slave culture, slave resistance and abolition. Except for the one incorporating four slave narratives ?in their own words,? these chapters all have similar structures in that Brazil, Cuba, and the United States are dealt with in turn with the presentations book-ended by extremely useful introductions and conclusions. Comparative and insightful comments abound, as do references to and judicious discussions of the very latest research.

The great strength of the work, deriving from the 2001 conference paper which triggered it, is its focus on the parallel development of the last three major slave societies of the Americas after 1790. Although only two of the three had continued access to Africa for much of the nineteenth century and each specialized in a different plantation product, their slave populations expanded in tandem with their free populations, and output and exports grew together across the three regions ? as did slave prices. For some historians who study only the U.S. South these points may yet come as a revelation. The greatest beneficiaries, however, will likely be students. The heavily studied antebellum U.S. South was subjected to the same international forces as Cuba and Brazil and all three economies responded together. No other book in print communicates and explores this basic and critical point in such an accessible and persuasive way. It should be required reading in any course on nineteenth century U.S. or Latin American history.

The implications of the book?s basic thrust are perhaps even greater than it recognizes. As the author makes clear in the last chapter, both the slave trade and slavery came to an end for political reasons, without which both would have continued to expand. But what is true for the U.S. South, Western Cuba, and the Brazilian southeast after 1850, was true first for the rest of the slave Americas. The strong and parallel growth of the slave societies that form the subject of this book depended in part on the prior impact of abolition elsewhere beginning at the end of the eighteenth century. The abolition movement constituted, above all, a split in the ruling class of the kind that Lenin identified as the essential prerequisite of revolutionary change. The interaction between the slaves in the French Caribbean and the government in Paris is a clear demonstration of Lenin?s dictum. If the French Revolutionary governments had been as solidly behind the colonial slave system as their ancien regime predecessors, the huge expansion of coffee and sugar in St. Domingue before August, 1791 would no doubt have continued. If slaves had poured into what became British Guiana, Trinidad, and Jamaica in the half century after the Slave Trade Act (1807), as they had in previous decade, cotton production in the first, and sugar production in all three colonies would no doubt have eliminated any possibility of decline for the British Caribbean. Even as it was, sugar production in Cuba did not surpass that in the British Caribbean until 1840 ? two years after the ending of the ?apprenticeship system? by which the British phased out slavery [not as Bergad claims ?by the 1820s? (p. 112)]. In 1830, before abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean and the suppression of the slave trade to its French counterpart (1831), there were more than twice as many slaves in the non-Spanish as in the Spanish Caribbean.

Thus, much of the expansion of Cuba in particular derived from the hobbling of its competitors. Without abolition elsewhere, Cuba, the U.S., and Brazil would have held less dominant shares of world output of sugar, cotton and coffee respectively in 1850 than they actually did. A non-revolutionary St. Domingue with continued access to Africa could well have been the world?s leading exporter of coffee and sugar in 1850 as it had been in 1790. The U.S., Brazil and Cuba were not the only vibrant slave economies, they just happened to be the last, and in part it is because they were the last that they were so vibrant.

These reflections in no way detract from the value of this book. It is not a major research monograph like Bergad?s other books, but it is possibly even more important than they are to the very big picture of the rise and fall of slavery in the Americas.

David Eltis is currently working on an interactive web site that examines the identity of captive Africans put on board slave ships, and is co-editing the Cambridge World History of Slavery.