A Comparative and Global History of Slavery

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Although most of these modules will focus on the early modern and modern period, from roughly 1600-the present, and will be centered around particular case-studies in the history of slavery, the purpose of this module is to introduce historical theories and concepts about ‘unfree’ labour by looking more broadly and comparatively at the nature of slavery as an institution, and to explore the economic and social relationships that constituted ‘slave holding societies’. This comparative perspective is important, because while the Atlantic slave trade has become a key focus of research, its dominance in the historiography has distorted our understanding of the diversity of ‘unfree’ labour around the world and over time.

Historian Richard B. Allen has argued, for example, that in ignoring the unique developments and debates about slavery in the Indian Ocean, we lose an opportunity to ‘test’ historical arguments about the nature of slavery elsewhere:

‘Strikingly absent from this historiographical tradition are attempts to paint a more comprehensive picture of the Mascarene trade from its inception during the late seventeenth century until its demise more than 150 years later. This omission has precluded more meaningful assessments of the islands' role in the slave and other migrant labour systems that were an integral part of life in the Indian Ocean basin-and beyond-into the early twentieth century. Historians of Africa and the African diaspora have done little to correct this oversight even though this era probably witnessed a minimum of 1,100,000 slave exports from eastern Africa to the Middle East, South Asia, and various parts of the European colonial world.’

(Richard B. Allen, ‘The Mascarene Slave-Trade and Labour Migration in the Indian Ocean during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, in Campbell, Gwyn. The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. London; Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, 2004, p. 34.)

The activities below will provide a brief overview of key historiographic debates and concepts. Once you have read the materials, try answering the questions listed below.