Adventures with Words: A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

It’s not. 336 pages does not a brief book make. And they are 336 dense pages. But then, not only is it a brief history but it also attempts to be a new global history too. That’s a lot to pack into a book about one of the oldest and most widespread institutions in human history. And, you know, what: Jeremy Black succeeds much better than you might expect.

While today we might think slavery self-evidently evil and beyond the pale, almost all civilisations and places have regarded it as perfectly normal. What Black does very well in this book is show the ubiquity of slavery, demonstrate how in all its forms it required the help of local elites to facilitate the trade and how the British came to play a particularly schizophrenic role in its culmination, opening up the Atlantic slave trade while also then outlawing and finally policing, via the dominance of the Royal Navy, the slave trade to an ending.

To fit all this in, Black eschews emotionalism: it’s a fairly dry account, strong on economics and politics, weak on human interest. This is not a book seeking to outrage but to understand. If you want to learn, I recommend it. If you want to burnish your moral certainties, read something else.


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