Slavery has been ubiquitous in history, with innumerable forms and functions: something of the truth of human nature is revealed by this fact. Horace saw nothing wrong in it, though himself the son of a freed-man and sensitive about his origins. Debt-bondage has been very widespread in Asia; some Red Indian tribes kept slaves, and were glad to add negroes to their stock. Peer Gynt as slave-dealer was a representative money-making European of the 19th century. White men acquired slaves wherever they went, in India, South Africa, Java: but the Americas were the real New World of slavery, the new Dark Continent. This was servitude geared to the capitalism that was bringing European economies under its sway from the 18th century. A sugar plantation with its mill, and its businesslike organisation and rhythms of work, bore, as Robin Blackburn points out, a clear resemblance to the factory that emerged with the Industrial Revolution; and its labour force was 'more intensively exploited than any group of this size in history'. By a kind of poetic justice, of the three commodities Europe extracted from its plantations by such atrocious methods - cotton, tobacco, sugar - two have turned out to be semi-poisons. And now the Third World is revenging itself by flooding the West with drugs.
LRB 23 June 1988 | PDF Download