By Jim Walvin, author of A World Transformed: Slavery in the Americas and the Origins of Global Power
Like most apprentice historians, I learned my trade on a specific, narrow area of study: the history of a single Jamaican slave plantation. At that time, in the late 60’s, slavery was not a common topic of interest to historians of Britain. There was a rich and expanding body of literature in the Caribbean, launched by CLR James and Eric Williams and continued by a brilliant coterie of historians at the University of the West Indies under Douglas Hall. In addition, US historians of slavery — notably, Eugene Genovese — were engaged in an astonishing historical reassessment of slavery in the USA. But British historians had other more local (parochial even) objectives in view. The dominant and most influential British historians of the time — as seen in the work published in Past and Present — remained focused in domestic, island issues. Within the discipline, slavery was seen as geographically and intellectually far away—a topic best left to historians of Africa, of maritime affairs or of the Americas.
Clearly this left a frustrating gap in our understanding of British history. Thus I set out, in various books, to explore the relationship between Britain and slavery.
Yet looking beyond Britain, there was also a need for a larger, global story of slavery which took into account how the labor of millions of enslaved Africans led to massive social changes around the world. Most of the work at the time remained rooted in national identities: slavery in the USA, in Jamaica, in Brazil. Where did all these distinct geographic and national studies fit? Or, put another way, where did slavery fit in a global setting? That question became more pressing with the emergence of the study of globalisation, and of the intellectual and political search for explanations of global trends.
My new book, A World Transformed, emerged from these questions of how to locate slavery in a global setting. The book is not simply about slavery around the world — it is a study that explains the enslavement of millions of Africans as a defining factor of worldwide issues.
Take the case of slave-produced commodities as one example. We know how sugar, rum, tobacco, and cotton emerged from the slave plantations to become central aspects of consumer life across the globe. But what role did commodities from wider trading systems — in Asia and the Indian Ocean for example — make possible in the creation and development of slavery in the Atlantic world? And what role did all this play in the material enhancement of Western life?
Of course, many of these particular questions have been explored before. But my aim was to bring those studies together into a narrative history that made sense on a global scale. A World Transformed explains the role played by enslaved people in the emergence of a prospering modern Western world, and suggests ways the wider world was deeply dependent on the slave system of the Atlantic world.