Tuesday, July 03, 2007

William St. Clair, The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British slave trade

The Atlantic slave trade will naturally come up more than once in my fall and winter course, A History of the Modern World. It is one of the key characteristics of the early modern period (which I define as 1400-1800), and its results can be seen on the faces and fates of the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

The complexities of this trade are well-treated in this new (2006) book by William St. Clair, who has a genius for taking one series of sources and illuminating a huge web of relationships. His sources are the documents preserved in London from Cape Coast Castle (now in Ghana), a British fort established and maintained to promote and protect the British slave trade. St. Clair says that there are few places that are potentially so well known over a long period (1660s to the mid 19th century) . His own presentation of this material is quite wonderful. If only more people could write like this. I haven't finished the book yet, but even if it goes steeply downhill after p. 115 it will still have been an enjoyable and illuminating read.

Students who will be in my first-year class in September (if any come across this) might want to ponder this impressive list from p. 4:

Among those who received dividends from the slave trade were the British royal family, the British aristocracy, the English Church, and many institutions, families and individuals. Plantation owners in the West Indies and North America prospered from the sale of commodities produced by slave labour, as did some of their employess and business partners, and profits remitted to Britain skupported others who never left home. A similar reckoning coud be made for the other slaving nations. But it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that every person in the Europeanised world who put sugar in their tea or coffee, spread jam on their bread, who ate sweets, cakes, or ice0cream, who smoked or chewed tobacco, took snuff, drank rum or corn brandy, or wore coloured cotton clothes, also benefited from, and participated in, a globalised economy of tropical plantations worked by slaves forcibly brought from Africa.

The jam connection never occurred to me...

Image: Loango, now in the Republic of the Congo, an early modern African coastal metropolis.

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