In Freedom: The Overthrow of the Slave Empires (Pegasus Books), James Walvin traces the rise and fall of the transatlantic slave trade with a focus on the constant tension that intrinsically defined the relationship between the slave and his or her master. From the outset, the slave owner had to tread carefully in his or her treatment of the slave as his or her material wealth depended upon the reliable work ethic of the slave.

Toiling in the field and farms across the Americas, the slave existed as the indispensable link in the global trading networks connecting the Americas with the wider world. For this reason, it is worth considering the role of the slave in the gradual erosion of the institution. Violent slave rebellions alone cannot answer the question at the heart of Freedom: why and how did an institution which brought unparalleled material prosperity to the European powers eventually crumble?

Walvin presents the reader with a nuanced evaluation as to the factors which slowly eroded the institution of slavery. Undoubtedly, the process of amending the laws to the institution of slavery occurred in fits and starts. Walvin highlights the dispersion of French Revolutionary ideals emanating from Paris in the late 18th century, coupled with the colonial wars of independence across American colonies, as gradually changing public opinion in regard to the morality of enslaved labor. Yet it would be a mistake to believe that concern for the well-being of the slave alone would compel an alteration to an institution upon which the global economy revolved around.

The tide only began to turn against the institution of slavery with wars of independence springing up in the various American colonies. Frustrated with the rules imposed by the home crown, the slave owners began to revolt against their colonial administrators. Walvin asserts that the role of the slave in the fight against the colonial administrators placed the slave owners in a predicament.

How could the slave owners, fighting for independence from the home crown, nevertheless, continually deny the slave the right to freedom? The slave owners would not release the slave from bondage without demanding financial compensation from the home crown. The unfortunate reality was such that the slave owners received huge sums of money in exchange for granting freedom to his or her slaves who predictably received nothing as compensation for the unspeakable horrors he or she endured throughout the course of his or her bondage.

Though the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1867, Walvin reminds the reader that the institution of slavery continues to this day. Humans continue to be trafficked throughout the world, though not in a manner as visible as those slaves who were transported across the Atlantic Ocean through the horrific “Middle Passage,” as it came to be known. Nonetheless, the institution of slavery controls to exert an awful psychological and physical toll on the modern slave who quietly toils away.

Freedom: The Overthrow of the Slave Empires is now available.

About James Walvin

James Walvin taught for many years at the University of York where he is now Professor of History Emeritus. He also held visiting positions in the Caribbean, the US, and Australia. He won the prestigious Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for his book Black and White and has published widely on the history of slavery and the slave trade. His book The People’s Game was a pioneering study of the history of football and remains in print thirty years after its first publication.