Review of Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible: Slavery and Emancipation in the Americas

By Roger Annis
Published in Haiti Liberte weekly, Feb 8, 2012

The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights; By Robin Blackburn; Verso, 2011; 502 pp.

Robin Blackburn has written another masterful book on the history of the slave order in the Americas and the emancipation struggle that ultimately vanquished it.

The American Crucibleis an overview of the entire rise and fall of the slave regimes of the Americas from the early 16th century to the end of the 19th century. His previous two books on slavery – The Making of New World Slavery (1998) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988) – cover much of the same period. What is new is his treatment of the rise and fall of the 19th century slave systems in Cuba, the United States, and Brazil.

Slavery survived and prospered in the Americas following the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 (which had won abolition throughout the French Empire for a period of time). It withstood other revolts in the Caribbean as well as the ban on the Atlantic slave trade by Britain and the U.S. in 1807. The mass, abolition movement in Britain won victory in 1833 but not in other empires. Slavery survived in France’s Caribbean colonies until 1848; in the United States until 1865; in Cuba until 1886; and in Brazil until two years after that.

In an interview with the International Socialist Review in May 2011, Blackburn explained that  “what I do [in the book] is offer a broad synthesis tracing the contradictory impact of capitalist growth on the one hand and the surge of antislavery politics on the other, with the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 being the central event, breaching the slave systems but also clearing an opening for new producers in the U.S. South, Brazil and Cuba.”

Large sections of The Crucible accord the Haitian Revolution a central place in the anti-colonial revolt in the Americas that opened with the American Revolution of 1776-1883. The book also details how the fissures in colonial and monarchical rule from Europe opened space for revolutions against slavery to surge forward. These revolutions, the Haitian at their helm, were of course impelled by conditions of extreme exploitation and human suffering.

Blackburn is foremost among many scholars of slavery in arguing the central place of the Haitian Revolution in the demise and eventual downfall of slavery.

He was also something of a lone voice beginning several decades ago in arguing slavery’s importance to the rise of industrial capitalism. Many scholars have heretofore accorded to slavery a secondary place in the accumulation of social wealth (expansion of agricultural production,  trade and transportation; creation of the world’s first, mass-traded consumer luxuries, etc)  that laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. 

Blackburn explains, “Plantation slavery was a form of ‘primitive accumulation,’ as described by Marx in the first volume of Capital, being a form of exploitation based not on wage labor but on the direct appropriation of the labor of the exploited… I call the intensified systems of slave exploitation a regime of ‘extended primitive accumulation, feeding industrial growth.’”

The American Crucible extensively documents the critical role played by Black peoples in their emancipation. He says there has been significant research and publishing on this subject in recent decades. “I think in the last two decades, things have changed a very great deal. African-American agency is being recognized. I think the attention given to the Haitian Revolution is part of this awareness… Black witness and Black abolitionism were in fact central to the development of white abolitionism, especially the more radical currents of white abolitionism. White abolitionists acquired deeper understanding of the slave regime by reading the life stories of Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Linda Brent and about one hundred others.”

Of the Haitian Revolution, he writes, “While most of the well-known leaders of the revolution in Saint Domingue (the name given by the French colonizers to the western half of the island of Hispanola) were American-born, some commanders were African-born (Macaya, Sans Souci, Belley*), and the same was true for many rank and file soldiers and middle-level leaders. They brought with them African ideas and methods of struggle. The insurgents often employed guerrilla tactics that they might well have practiced as soldiers in Africa, prior to capture.”

Summing up Haiti’s history, Blackburn quotes David Geggus’ The Caribbean in the Age of Revolution: “Of all the Atlantic revolutions, Saint-Domingue’s most fully embodies the contemporary struggle for freedom, equality and independence, and it produced the greatest degree of economic and social change. Beginning as a home-rule movement among wealthy white colonists, it quickly spread to militant free people of color seeking political rights and then gave rise to the largest slave uprising in the history of the Americas.

“Its narrative is a succession of major precedents: colonial representation in a metropolitan assembly, the ending of racial discrimination, the first abolition of slavery in a major slave society, and the creation of a Latin American state. By 1804, colonialization and slavery, the defining institutions of the Caribbean, were annihilated precisely where, for three hundred years of unchecked growth, they had prospered.”

Blackburn is working on a book about the African societies that were raided and pillaged by the European slave traders and colonizers.

The scholar pays tribute in the new book to recent authors of Haitian history. “The first decade of [the 21st century], helped by Haiti’s bicentennial [2004], was marked by publication of important new works by Haitian and overseas historians.” Many of those books in English are listed in the Books page of the Canada Haiti Action Network website; reviews of some appear on the Book reviews page of the same website.

* Belley is featured in the iconic 1797 portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet. He poses beside a bust of the anti-slavery Abbé Raynal, the editor of the multi-volume, anti-colonial Histoire des Deux Indes (History of the Two Indias), published in 1770 and considered the single most widely circulated work of the French Enlightenment.