Review: ‘World Transformed’ a compendious, illuminating examination of the slave trade | Book Reviews

A WORLD TRANSFORMED: Slavery in the Americas and the Origins of Global Power. By James Walvin. University of California Press. 425 pages. $34.95.

When the young James Walvin began his doctoral research in the late 1960s, the history of slavery was generally seen as peripheral to the grand national narratives that dominated the discipline. Nearly 60 years later, in part thanks to Walvin’s own prolific output, slavery is not only widely studied but has been recognized as crucial to the rise of European power in the modern era.

This single volume, written in clear and energetic prose, covers everything from the beginning of European slaving operations in West Africa at the end of the 15th century to the worldwide wave of anti-racism protests that followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Insisting that the history of slavery necessitates thinking beyond national boundaries, Walvin does not write only about British slave-trading to the New World, but also addresses the other European maritime powers, notably the Spanish and Portuguese. Arguing further that the impact of European slave-trading had truly global consequences, fueling the world’s various addictions to sugar, coffee and tobacco, Walvin also demonstrates how its effects extended beyond the Atlantic World.

Creating “tentacles of economic activity” that impinged even on the economies of China and Japan, the trade that we commonly think of as “trans-Atlantic” was “anything but triangular, … made possible by the ability of the seaborne visitors to gather commodities from all corners of their increasingly expansive global trading empires.”

This long, multinational approach to slavery’s global history places nonetheless enslaved Africans and their descendants at the center of the story. Noting that Africans formed the majority of the population in most areas of the Americas and the Caribbean (even here in South Carolina — which he disappointingly fails to mention), Walvin asserts that “the African was the crucial pioneer settler” in these areas we simplistically represent as colonized by Europeans.

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While the individual experiences of these enslaved pioneers may have been overlooked by previous generations of historians, the collective experience is, as Walvin emphasizes, extremely well documented. Ironically, the “stunning volume of paperwork” the slave trade generated has allowed contemporary historians, such as Walvin himself and many others, to “know more about the enslaved than we do about almost any of their free laboring contemporaries.”

Walvin directs his readers, for instance to such invaluable sites as slavevoyages.org, the massive collaborative digital initiative that includes records of more than 36,000 voyages that forcibly transported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic between 1514 and 1866.

That site draws attention to two other points Walvin emphasizes: that the number of people transported to the continental United States (as many as 500,000) is tiny compared to the number taken to Brazil; and that the “Middle Passage” was only one part of the brutality inflicted on people by enslavement.

Walvin includes separate chapters on the internal slave trades in Brazil and the US, and points out that by the end of slavery (1865 in the US; 1888 in Brazil) people could be packed off like cattle on trains — a process we associate with the more recent genocide of the Holocaust.

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Throughout this comprehensive book such details allow Walvin to hammer home the centrality of racial slavery in the making of Euro-American modernity. He is also particularly strong on drawing attention to African (and Black) resistance to slavery, with excellent chapters on the 18th-century writers Cugoano, Sancho and Equiano, and on the abolitionism of 19th-century African-American religious leaders and institutions. “Slave defiance,” Walvin insists, “was built into the very fabric of slavery itself.”

In the chapter “Beauty and the Beast,” Walvin illuminates yet another common oversight. There is, he says, an “intimate connection between slavery and fashionable Western taste.” The grand houses and country retreats of slave owners and slave traders were furnished on both sides of the Atlantic, for instance, with furniture made of North American and Caribbean mahogany, while rituals around tea consumption and coffee drinking promoted the production of silverware and porcelain, the quality of which indicated one’s taste, one’s degree of refinement, and one’s social status. Such objects represent “a form of beauty fashioned from the belly of the beast.”

Contemporary Charleston is itself an example of exactly such a contradiction. Visitors still flock here drawn by the city’s architectural and physical beauty, and its reputation for refinement and good manners. At the same time, no other city in continental North America can match the Holy City’s record as the painful epicenter of the North American slave trade.

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And as Walvin’s concluding chapters affirm, the world transformed by that slave trade is still the world we inhabit, its baleful legacy of racism our dubious inheritance to this day.

While “A World Transformed” does not add much that is new to the transnational history of slavery, its compendious, comprehensive coverage makes it very valuable, especially to readers here in Charleston.

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Reviewer simon lewis teaches African literature at the College of Charleston.

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