Conversations: History of Slavery

The global wave of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd reminds us that we live in times of continuing racial injustice. As a publisher, we believe that books are uniquely able to help inform public consciousness and understanding – so this summer we are posting a series of extracts from works that explore our society, share different perspectives and take lessons from the past.

We are beginning our ‘Conversations About Global Racial Injustice’ blogs posts with three extracts on the history of slavery – followed by further reading ideas. Extracts to come will explore the ‘history of empire’, ‘protest’ and ‘migration histories’.

We hope that by turning to books, we can contribute towards vital conversations about social equity and a brighter future – you can find the Association of University Presses Statement on Equity and Anti-Racism here, and a statement from the President of Yale University on the killing of George Floyd here.

Chapter 5: ‘Gradual Initiation into the Mysteries of Slavery’ from My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass

Chapter 1: ‘Mistresses in the Making’ from They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Part I: ‘Nations Transporting Slaves from Africa, 1501-1867’ from Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson

Related Reading

The Slave’s Cause
A History of Abolition
Manisha Sinha

Received historical wisdom casts abolitionists as bourgeois, mostly white reformers burdened by racial paternalism and economic conservatism. Manisha Sinha overturns this image, broadening her scope beyond the antebellum period usually associated with abolitionism and recasting it as a radical social movement in which men and women, black and white, free and enslaved found common ground in causes ranging from feminism and utopian socialism to anti-imperialism and efforts to defend the rights of labour. Drawing on extensive archival research, including newly discovered letters and pamphlets, Sinha documents the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the centrality of slave resistance in shaping the ideology and tactics of abolition. This book is a comprehensive history of the abolition movement in a transnational context. It illustrates how the abolitionist vision ultimately linked the slave’s cause to the struggle to redefine American democracy and human rights across the globe.

The Last Slave Ships
New York and the End of the Middle Passage
John Harris

Long after the transatlantic slave trade was officially outlawed by every major slave trading nation in the early nineteenth century, merchants based in the United States were still sending hundreds of illegal slave ships from American ports to the African coast. The key instigators were slave traders who moved to New York City after the shuttering of the massive illegal slave trade to Brazil in 1850. These traffickers were determined to make lower Manhattan a key hub in the illegal slave trade to Cuba. In conjunction with allies in Africa and Cuba, they ensnared around 200,000 African men, women and children during the 1850s and 1860s. John Harris explores how the U.S. government went from ignoring, and even abetting, this illegal trade to helping to shut it down completely in 1867.

A Question of Freedom
The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War
William G. Thomas

For over seventy years and five generations, the enslaved families of Prince George’s County, Maryland, filed hundreds of suits for their freedom against a powerful circle of slaveholders, taking their cause all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Between 1787 and 1861, these lawsuits challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law and put slavery on trial in the nation’s capital. Piecing together evidence once dismissed in court and buried in the archives, Thomas tells an intricate and intensely human story of the enslaved families, their lawyers and the slaveholders who fought to defend slavery.

Witnessing Slavery
Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition
Sarah Thomas
Published by The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Gathering together over 160 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints, this book offers an unprecedented examination of the shifting iconography of slavery in British and European art between 1760 and 1840. In addition to considering how the work of artists such as Agostino Brunias, James Hakewill and Augustus Earle responded to abolitionist politics, Sarah Thomas examines the importance of the eyewitness account in endowing visual representations of transatlantic slavery with veracity.

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