CUP (2021) p/b 375pp £27.99 (ISBN 9781009113847)
Like many of these compilation volumes, this one owes its existence to contributions originally offered to an international conference, in this case one held at the National University of Ireland in Galway in 2004. The editors are Enrico Dal Lago, who is a lecturer in American History at that University and Constantina Katsari, who currently lectures at Leicester University, but in 2004 was a colleague of Dal Lago. There are ten other contributors drawn from universities in Europe and North and South America. This volume was originally published in hardback form in 2008 but has recently been reissued in paperback.
The editors lead off with an explanation of the purpose of the contributions, namely to examine aspects of slavery drawn from around the world and over time; then to identify how such an examination of these comparable systems may illuminate the understanding both of the historical concept of slavery itself and of the context in which each historical example presents itself.
They describe the continuum of unfree labour from relatively informal regimes, through helotage, serfdom and finally chattel slavery. They distinguish ‘slavery’ from ‘slave systems’ and describe two different approaches to historical comparisons: the ‘synchronic’, which compares and contrasts similar systems operating in the same period, and the ‘diachronic’, which extends the same treatment to systems operating in widely different periods. They explain that the main thrust of current ‘diachronic’ research involves comparing the slave systems of the classical world with the systems that were developed in the Caribbean and North America in the modern era. They then briefly summarise the contributions which follow and indicate how they assist the development of the concept of comparative history, an outcome which they see as both desirable and inevitable.
The first individual essay (Patterson) is a statistical examination of 186 large and small societies (with reliable ethnographies dating between AD 110 and 1965) to establish the probability that certain characteristics of the society will correlate to the existence of a slave system in that society. Among other findings he concludes that, while hunter gatherers rarely use slavery, the presence of pastoralism, polygyny and endemic warfare strongly correlates to slave systems.
The second (Miller) looks at slavery as a historical process with special reference to the classical and the New World. He suggests that ‘slaving’ is ‘a strategy focussed specifically on mobilising directly controlled human resources’ and that the details of that strategy in any individual society will vary according to the prevailing context.
There follow three essays on the economics of slavery (Scheidel, Rihll and Zeuske). They describe how they were employed: most slavery in the classical period was domestic and female, unlike in the New World where slavery typically involved sizable groups of mainly males employed in industrial style agriculture. Most technological innovation in the classical period (usually small scale) would have been generated by slave participants themselves (which throws an interesting light on ‘carrot and stick’ regimes).
Dal Lago and Katsari then explore the treatises on ideal slave management compiled by both Roman and American writers. They find a consensus that the slave owner has obligations towards his slaves which go somewhat beyond a need to run an efficient business. The shared model is that of the paterfamilias in which the owner has similar powers over and obligations to his slaves as he has to his wife and children. Marquese and Joly additionally explain how the Jesuits set out a similar ideal model for slavery in Brazil (albeit as much for the interest of the Jesuits as for the economy).
The next section (Pétrè-Grenouilleau and Engerman) deals with leaving the slave system, whether by manumission volunteered by the owner or a general release orchestrated by the authorities. The only two examples in any period of a permanent release which was both immediate and involved no compensation to the owners were the successful slave revolt in Haiti and the end of the American civil war. They argue that manumission (which in the classical world typically led to a new type of client relationship with the original owner) had the effect of cementing the slave/master system rather than putting it at risk. They examine the various techniques used by the authorities when compensating slave-owners for statutory emancipation but note that there was never any suggestion that compensation should be offered to the released slave.
The final essay (Hodkinson) examines helotage in Messenia where he suggests that the paterfamilias model was only strictly maintained in the region closest to where the Spartans were required personally to live. It is not clear however how they manged to control the helots living further afield. The essays are supported by 38 pages of bibliography.
Although this a work by scholars for scholars and frequently assumes that the reader will be familiar with the detail of previous research, most of the contributions are easy for the non-professional to read and appreciate. They are, even in isolation, fascinating and stimulating. Whether the collection succeeds in its objective of promoting the role of comparative historiography is perhaps less certain.
In the 19th century two things happened to slave systems which had never happened before: it became clear that, in an economic system under capitalism, slavery systems would have to be judged by the same tests as were applied to other investment choices; also there arose a worldwide acceptance that chattel slavery was socially and morally indefensible. By 1900 chattel slavery had ceased to exist (even if pockets of other types of unfree labour persist).
The contributors do not make it clear how a study of comparative history might have foreseen this watershed. They establish that characteristics of slave system A reoccur in slave system B but they do not establish that because these characteristics occur in well documented system X they must also have been present in less well documented system Y. As Scheidel (slightly out of context) says ‘There can be no simple solution to this problem. Our answers are inevitably conditioned by our perspective’
Nevertheless, given the importance of this topic in current academic literature, the paperback price of this book makes it a good value purchase for the regular Classics for All reader.