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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

Chapter 6 - Comparing or interlinking? Economic comparisons of early nineteenth-century slave systems in the Americas in historical perspective

from Part II - ECONOMICS AND TECHNOLOGY OF ANCIENT AND MODERN SLAVE SYSTEMS

Summary

INTRODUCTION

As a historiographer of the Americas, I have sought to illuminate the facts through the employment of comparisons and statistical surveys and, thus, provide proof to my ideas.

With these words, Alexander von Humboldt began the chapter on slavery in his Political Essay (Essai politique) on the island of Cuba, published in 1826. The chapter represented the most important argument made by a liberal thinker against slavery in the Atlantic world in the first half of the nineteenth century. Understandably, when John Thrasher omitted it from his 1856 translation of the Essai politique into English, Humboldt protested openly and forcefully against the omission.

The origins of systematic comparison between slave systems, however, can be traced back to earlier than the publication of Humboldt's Essai politique and can be linked directly to the Haitian revolution. Already by 21 August 1791, immediately after the outbreak of the rebellion in the Acul region's plantations, in the north of Saint Domingue, terror struck throughout the world of slaveholders in the Americas. A powerful fear travelled through the Atlantic world in a pattern of concentric rings; one could appropriately describe this phenomenon by saying that ‘a spectre wandered through the Americas’. It was, thus, the ‘suspicion of an analogy between the contemporaneous shocks experienced by all the American slave systems’ that was to trigger scientific comparison.