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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

The Atlantic Slave Trade
Herbert S. Klein

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999
234pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: ISBN 0-5214-6020-4. Pb.: ISBN 0-5214-6588-5.

In this detailed and well-researched book Klein provides the reader with a manageable and synthesised historical survey of the 400 years of slave trading that took place across the Atlantic. He attempts to provide a "rational analysis"(p.xviii) so as to bridge the gap between popular and scholarly understandings of the slave trade. Through a measured analysis he aims to transcend the emotionality and politicisation of the slave trade that, he feels, has limited its study and debate. Klein provides a thorough spread of data on the origins, economic structure, demographic nature, social impact and decline of the slave trade, and appends a useful bibliographical essay. Klein deals with a number of controversial debates. For example, he argues that the system was not simply about plunder and piracy, but rather a "complex economic enterprise?involving] complex capital and credit arrangements in Europe, Africa and America" (p.74). He challenges the notion the purchase and sale of slaves was a "costless transaction" (p.131), claiming that slaves were precious commodities; they were not sold as cheaply as is often portrayed and profitability was not as lucrative as is often suggested. The role of African middlemen as the capturers and initial salespersons of slaves is also explored by Klein. He concludes that: "Africans were neither passive actors not peoples innocent of the market economy, and were able to deal with Europeans on the basis of equality" (p.111). These lines of argument are not new and some of Klein's contentions will undoubtedly remain controversial. However, Klein presents his arguments clearly with the support of well-collated information. One of Klein's most useful contributions is that he draws the reader's attention to the scarcity of information on the pre-Middle Passage process. He feels the pre-Middle Passage process has been under-emphasised despite the fact that the mortality rates were probably as high during this period as during the crossing (averaging about 12%). The long wait for docked slave ships (often over 200 days) while relatively small numbers of slaves (the highest rate was 8 slave per day) being rounded up is elucidated. The arduous journeys that those captured faced before they were interned on slave ships is also highlighted. Klein achieves his aim of providing a synthesised and rational analysis, and despite his clinical approach, the book is readable and enlightening. Nonetheless, his attempts to challenge the so-called myths will not escape the emotionality he hoped a detailed survey would circumvent, especially in a world where the legacy of the slave trade, racial divisions and inequality persist. For Klein the Middle Passage "was not the totally disorganised, arbitrary, and bloody experience as pictured in the popular literature", or as "psychologically damaging as some have claimed" (P.159), but these assertions pale into insignificance relative to the context of the entire system and its cumulative impact. It maybe that Klein takes the inhumane nature of the system as a given, but this is not always completely clear. Either way, and regardless of ones reaction, this publication will contribute to the ongoing debate and be useful to those with little knowledge of the nature and extent of the slave trade, as well as scholars of the subject looking for a coherent package of information.

Brandon Hamber, Centre for the Study of Violence

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