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INTERVIEW: David Eltis

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The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition recently awarded it's annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery written this year to The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas written by Queens University of Ontario Professor David Eltis. The book was chosen for its ground-breaking scholarship showing that it was the strength and prosperity of the African nation-states, rather any weakness or poverty, that shaped the Atlantic slave trade and forced the Europeans to accommodate themselves to African customs and economics. The book also seeks to understand why Europe, the champion of individual freedom, helped to create the most pervasive system of slavery in history.

TIME.com spoke with Professor Eltis, a leading scholar on the African Diaspora, about his book:

TIME: In the book you posit that slavery and freedom emerged from the same roots in Western society. How did those contradictory concepts arise together?

ELTIS: They are not as contradictory as they first appear. Freedom from restraints for one individual may well result in slavery for another if there is an imbalance of power between the two individuals. The argument in the first and last chapters of the book is that Western definitions of freedom placed a greater emphasis on the rights of the individual versus the rights of the group than existed anywhere else in the world, and that this tendency was carried furthest in north-west Europe. The English colonies in the Americas were subject to weaker controls on the part of the imperial government than was the case in other imperial systems. In addition both before and after Columbian contact, north-west Europe had much less exposure to, and intercourse with, non-European peoples than, say, had the Portuguese and the Spanish. The English and Dutch were more likely to view non-European peoples as lying outside the social contract and therefore beyond the protection of the web of individual rights they were weaving for themselves. As long as some group is regarded as outsiders then freedom for insiders is perfectly compatible with enslavement and exploitation — as indeed happened in the Athenian city state. The greater the degree of freedom for insiders, the more onerous is slavery likely to be for outsiders.

TIME: Yes, but how is it that hundreds of years after the abolition of serfdom in western Europe, western European nations engaged in the slave trade and slavery flourished in the New World? And why did it take so long for the idea of abolition to take hold in this country and the Caribbean, considering that Western Europeans had abolished slavery and serfdom among themselves?

ELTIS: Once more the insider-outsider divide is critical. At root, this is an expression of the contradiction in all human beings of the need to belong and at the same time to differentiate themselves. My argument is that societies do not usually enslave their own members, except for what is perceived as anti-social behavior. Between the Dark Ages and Columbian contact — aided by the concept of Christendom — Europe came to form an important element in the collective identities (that is the way people saw themselves as a group) of all western European peoples. Thus the French, Germans, English, etc. would fight each other and among themselves, but came to see slavery as a fate reserved for others — or non-Europeans. The concept of "insider" gradually came to encompass the whole of the sub-continent.

For example, after the Viking raids, prisoners of war were no longer enslaved as an alternative to death, but in the wars between the West and Islam, enslavement of prisoners continued on both sides.

TIME: How was African slavery different, "in scale and intensity" than previous forms of slavery and serfdom among Europeans?

ELTIS: To continue from the previous answer, the insider-outsider divide was, for whatever reason, much more localized in sub-Saharan Africa. "Africa" as a concept had no meaning for early modern Africans, so that the answer to the question of how could Africans enslave other African, is that they did not know they were African. Thus, on the coast both Europeans and Africans traded outsiders. In addition slavery in Africa was an important method of recruitment for the kinship group — and the kin group was perhaps more important than the individual as the basic unit of society. Slaves conferred prestige both to the group and the individual owner. Slaves were expected to labor, but their main function was not, or not only, economic. More important, as a member of a kin group, albeit one that might be exploited or sacrificed, a slave had status in society and could begin to acquire some elements of "insidership" almost from the start. Slave status in most societies was in fact eroded over time and down the generations, so that the individual or his descendants became less and less marginalized — or gradually entered into full membership of the group. None of this was true of slavery in the Americas.

TIME: In the later chapters of the book, you look beyond the economic effects of slavery and discuss the even more consequential effects of slavery on culture and self-identification. What were the cultural ramifications of the African slave trade for Europeans, New World whites, Africans, and African Americans? How did it impact their self-identification?

ELTIS: Early modern Europeans were, obviously, first of all French or Dutch or English or Spanish, but in addition had some concept of "Europeanness." Africans identified with some much smaller political/cultural/religious entity. The trauma of the slave trade and slavery meant that in the New World Europeans added "whiteness" to their self-concept. Africans on both sides of the Atlantic also broadened their concepts of collective identity. European colonies extended rights of denization (a preliminary to citizenship) to those coming from any part of Europe — including Jews — before such rights were available in the respective mother countries. Evidence from slave ship revolts — collected as part of the transatlantic slave trade database project (now available on CD-ROM from Cambridge University Press) — suggests that African cohesiveness in resistance to the trade increased over the decades so that there was much more likelihood of a slave ship rebellion being successful in the second half of eighteenth century than a century earlier. From a broad five century perspective, everyone in the Atlantic World broadened their concept of the collective self, but for nearly four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, collective identities were divided from each other along racial lines. This is what separates slavery in the Americas from its predecessors.

TIME: In what way were European aspirations in Africa thwarted by "African power"? To what degree was the slave trade a result of European/African compromise and agreement (as opposed to simply being imposed by Europeans)?

ELTIS: Until late in the nineteenth century Africans, aided by epidemiology, had the power to keep Europeans from colonizing their territory. Sugar, even in the Caribbean, was grown in micro-climates and these micro-climates existed in West Africa (eg, Sao Tome). Europeans attempted to establish plantations in Africa in the late seventeenth century. They did not have the political and military control to do so and were forced to treat with Africans as equals. The plantations were established in the Americas instead, and the expensive transatlantic slave was necessary to bring them labor. In this sense the slave trade was a result of African strength. Europeans bought slaves, they did not obtain them through European-led raids.

TIME: In your preface you say that it's important for a historian to "put distance between scholarship and the values of the society in which he or she functions." Was it easy for you to write with scholarly detachment about such a subject so heavy with ongoing emotional and political weight?

ELTIS: Document after document on the slave trade shows human beings making matter-of-fact decisions about the lives of others as though they were pieces of merchandise. There is no hint of guilt or recrimination. It is because we cannot understand this mind-set today, that, difficult as it is, we have to attempt to distance ourselves from modern values. If we do not do so, we will not come to understand how such things could happen, and if historians can't do this, then they have no function beyond story tellers.

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