(A Review of David Granger’s Crime against humanity: The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans, 1440-180. ISBN 978-976-8178-15-2.)
David Granger’s Crime against humanity: The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans, 1440-1807 offers a panoramic view of the slave trade from its initiation in the 15th century, through intensification and competition to its abolition in the 19th century. The book forms part of the author’s trilogy on aspects of human enslavement, emancipation and reparations.
The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans has been the subject of numerous books and treatises. Most have examined the trade’s role in economic underdevelopment of Africa and to the industrialization and enrichment of North America and Western Europe. Voluminous as they are, reading could be tedious and is likely to be ignored by the non-academic seeking a comprehensive but concise overview of the slave trade.
David Granger’s Crime against humanity: The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans, 1440-1807 satisfies the need of the general reader. It is a sweeping, simplified and succinct recounting of the trade in enslaved Africans over a period of more than 350 years.
Granger displays his craft as a versatile writer with the ability to distill the essential elements of a subject without diminishing the substance of its argument. The book’s special attractiveness is its compact and coherent treatment of this subject in six sections, each named after a book of the Bible:
Genesis traces the origins of the slave trade to maritime exploration by Western European states along the coasts of North and West Africa and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, beginning in the early 15th century. It explains how Roman Catholic Popes, through a series of Papal Bulls, sanctioned the oppression of Africans and how the development of Caribbean plantations intensified the demand for cheap labour;
Exodus outlines the roles played by Portuguese explorers and Dutch Trading Companies in the early development of the slave trade;
Chronicles examines the development of the triangular trans-Atlantic trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean;
Lamentations highlights the horrible treatment of enslaved Africans during the trans-Atlantic voyages which transported them to America, the Caribbean and Europe;
Numbers quantifies the cargoes and deaths involved in the trafficking of enslaved Africans; and
Apocalypse details the factors which led to the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807.
David Granger has mined a rich vein of sources – including Philip Curtin’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census; Ralph Davis’s The Rise of the Atlantic Economies; Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713; Joseph Inikori’s The Slave Trade and the Atlantic economies 1451-1870; and Hugh Thomas’s The Slave Trade: the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 – among others in compiling this highly informative book.
Granger situates the trade in enslaved Africans within three major developments in the international political economy. The first was the trade’s role as a consequence, initially, of the Western European maritime exploration of the early 15th century. The second was the trade’s pivotal role in the emergence and expansion of Europe’s seaborne economic empires – especially those of England, France, The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. The third was the trade’s role in shaping the system of mercantilism and consequently the international division of labour and the creation of the Atlantic economy, shifting economic forces from the Mediterranean.
Granger details how the triangular trade between Africa, the Caribbean and Europe remodeled the international trading system. He states:
“The transport of goods manufactured in Europe to be traded in Africa and, in turn, the transport of Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas to be traded for tropical products which were then taken back to Europe, came to constitute a ‘great circuit’ of commerce, better known as the ‘triangular trade.’ This provided a triple stimulus to British industry – captives were acquired in Africa by exchanging them for European manufactured goods. They were taken to the plantations of the New World where they produced tropical goods, including cotton, molasses, rum, sugar, and tobacco, which were then shipped to Europe where they were processed, creating new industries there. By stimulating shipping, manufacturing, marketing and production of agricultural goods, the triangular trade came to constitute a large volume of overall international economic transactions during the period 1451-1870.”
David Landes, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), acknowledged the horrors of the slave trade and human enslavement but pointed, also, to the trade’s instrumentality in ensuring high intensity sugar production, the enrichment of planters and merchants and the increase in European exports to its colonies.
Landes argues that the system stimulated industrialization but asserts that industrialization would have occurred even without human enslavement. Implicit in this argument is that that Europe would have become rich even without the slave trade. Ironically, it was this process of industrialization and the social relations which it spawned which, according to Granger, were the decisive factors responsible for the abolition of the slave trade.
Granger does not dismiss, but discounts, the influence of humanitarian and religious concerns in the decision to abolish the trade. He places greater emphasis on economic factors, arguing that work done by free labour was cheaper than that performed by slave labour and that the trade was no longer compatible, or even competitive, with the emerging era of private property, free enterprise and open markets.
Granger overlooks the fact, however, that slavery continued in some parts of the British Empire after the trade ended in 1807. If economic arguments were persuasive in the debate in the British Parliament, then these were rendered otiose by the continuation of slavery after 1807. It was not until three decades later that slavery was finally abolished in the British West Indies and, later still, in America, Brazil, Cuba and elsewhere in the New World.
Crime against humanity: The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans, 1440-1807 was first published in 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. The book in its ‘foreword’ highlights the demands which have been made for a “complete and unequivocal apology” for the greatest crime against humanity – human enslavement.
The book is a monument of remembrance. Remembrance, however, is not simply about recounting or revising past occurrences. At the heart of the act of remembrance is a cry for recognition and reconciliation.
The world is yet to reconcile itself with the descendants of the victims of that greatest crime against humanity. The protests which are sweeping the western world are sufficient evidence that the memory of what occurred more than 350 years ago continues to lacerate the human spirit and western civilisation. Monuments are being toppled, defaced and destroyed today because of the memory of past wrongs for which there has neither been justice.
KazuoIshiguro, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2017 in his acceptance address asked whether free nations can truly be established on foundations of willful amnesia and frustrated justice.
David Granger with this book reminds the world of its debt to persons of African descent – whose ancestors were the principal victims of humanity’s shameful crime of human enslavement.
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