Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia – Siddharth Kara

The value of this book lies not only in its adroit exposure of bonded labor in South Asia but in the way in which Kara explains the nature of bonded labor with both simplicity and sophistication so that, as a reader coming to the book with no knowledge of the subject matter, I was able to walk away feeling informed and enlightened. Kara also offers a model to scholars on how to introduce a moral ingredient into writings about atrocities such as slavery. Further, he demonstrates skill in investigating the systemic nature of bonded labor, using a dogged persistence to pursue and deconstruct a variety of written and oral sources, even when they were not always forthcoming. An excellent book to introduce any reader to the subject of modern slavery.
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The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures – Marshall C. Eakin

A well-researched if depressingly Eurocentric account of Latin American history. A more thorough and balanced work would have spent more time exploring the interactions between the indigenous, European, and African peoples that Eakin claimed to be the foundational forces behind the shaping of Latin America. Instead we get chapters focusing solely on Europe and European conquerors with little detail on other perspectives and experiences of the development of Latin America. What’s present is detailed and insightful, but a huge part of the shaping of Latin American is missing due to Eakin’s focus on the European side of the story.

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Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas – Philip D. Morgan (editor)

When historians write about slave labor, they most often make the claim that slave labor varied with time and place. In the case of this book, slave labor is meant to include both the laboring slaves did for their masters as well as the laboring they did for themselves in order to take part in the (independent) slave economy. Reading this book, the authors of each included essay paint a picture of slave labor that looks very much the same: slaves worked for their masters and then slaves worked for themselves in ways that operated so similarly that each essay blended almost identically into the others. Perhaps these similarities speak to the a paucity of sources available about slave labor, particularly the independent slave economy – surely a great deal of reading against the grain is involved. Or perhaps the plantation systems of the Americas were structured so similarly that they bred similar labor regimens. Perhaps slaveowners developed networks of communication and experience that led them to oversee the development of slave labor in similar ways. Perhaps the movement of slaves internally promoted a share expectation of what made up plantation and independent labor. Or perhaps the editors were not careful enough to select essays that would actually show the variety of claimed slave experiences with labor.

All that aside, this book is very useful in instructing the uninitiated reader in the ins and outs of slave labor. But the more informed reader might look elsewhere for more differentiated information on the subject.

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Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 – James Oakes

The best thing about this book, which in my mind definitively proves the Civil War was one fought over slavery, is when Oakes makes the point that, whereas the Union’s PURPOSE may have been to reunite the Union, the CAUSE of the war was due to increasingly untenable conflicts over the institution of slavery. The North elected a president whose goal was to strangle slavery to death in the South, so the South seceded in order to preserve their class and labor system, based around slavery, and the political importance of its extension into the territories.

Oakes gives a detailed but completely understandable and very legible account of the laws that went into forming slave policy in the Union, including critical constitutional debates over the meaning of property and the way war powers granted by the Constitution allowed the Union to confiscate property. He traces the evolution of emancipation laws into abolition laws and ultimately the Thirteenth Amendment, navigating the labyrinth of policy without losing the reader along the way.

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Slavery Hinterland: Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680-1850 – Felix Brahm (Editor), Eve Rosenhaft (Editor)

While deftly researched by all the contributors to this collection, Slavery Hinterland leaves much to be desired. The focus of the essays appears to be on proving slavery played a role in the European hinterland instead of going beyond proving this point and exploring HOW it effected the hinterland. With a universal narrow focus on the people of the hinterland who participated in the slave trade in some way (mostly through economic exchanges involving goods used in the slave trade) valuable insights on the way this trade may have effected people/culture/economics/politics living in the hinterlands in lost. This may be due to a lack of sources, but other authors of slavery in traditional and non-traditional areas have done reasonably good jobs of constructing histories out of sparse sources. A valuable project that falls short of its goals (proving that players from the hinterlands had interactions with and thoughts about the slave trade while failing to prove that they had more than limited effects on the population at large) this work may benefit being turned into larger/longer studies that examine not just those great men/women involved in the trade but the way their involvement effected the hinterland.

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The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 – Hugh Thomas

While clearly thoroughly researched and repeated with rich detail, this book might have been more accurately titled “The Slave Trader,” as it’s really about the technicalities of the process of the slave trade and those who oversaw this process. Very little space in the 800 pages are given to anything that might be considered as being written from the slaves’ point of view, though to be fair the author does acknowledge this is due to the lack of sources available on this perspective. It often reads as a very long list of actions taken by slave traders, and more information on the culture of the slave trade would have been welcome. A valuable resource for those seeking to understand the ins and outs of the European side of the trade, but lacking in other dimensions.

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Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin American – John Charles Chasteen

A Eurocentric history that shades into one focusing heavily on the role of the United States as the author moves through the time, this book could have benefited greatly from an expanded focus on the indigenous and African peoples of Latin America (the mestizos get some representation, though perhaps not enough). Also largely absent are voices of peasants, as this is definitely a top down history. History is more than a recounting of the actions of great men, though credit is due to the author for including brief passages on women and also dipping his toes into cultural waters with discussions of Latin American novelists and poets, though a multitude of other cultural practices are ignored. Overall, Born in Blood and Fire reads like an introductory textbook to Latin American politics that, while deftly tracing the history of Latin American government and to a lesser extent economy, leaves out important components of the large regions history in the form of groups and topics that do not fit Chasteen’s chosen focus.

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The Indian Ocean in World History: Edward A. Alpers

This book is a good primer for a college freshmen who wants to learn the bare bones about the Indian Ocean. It’s really just a list of events with very little detail filled in about the cultures and societies that made up the Indian Ocean and how they interacted. So if you’re looking for a basic historical narrative this is it, but if you’re looking for a more complex understanding of this oceanic system, look elsewhere.

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The Atlantic Slave Trade in History: Jeremy Black

Though the title would lead you to believe this book focuses on the Atlantic slave trade, this slim volume does not neglect to pay at least some attention to slavery on a global scale. It is a strong introduction to the slave trade, and less so to the nature and conditions of slavery. I would happily assign it for an undergraduate course on slavery – it would also serve as a good review for a graduate student who has little to no experience with the subject. I will be teaching an undergraduate course this semester and plan to use this book as a framing device for my lecture on slavery. Can’t recommend highly enough

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The Eagle and the Dragon: Globalization and European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the Sixteenth Century: Serge Gruzinski

This book is a very interesting comparison of the simultaneous Iberian encounters with Mexico and China during the age of European exploration. Gruzinski seeks to explore why the Iberians were able to conquer the Mexicans but failed to even make headway in China, and he does this by exploring the perspective from both sides of the coin, though there is a bit more information on the Chinese than the Mexican, most likely because of a scarcity of sources. This is a great book on which to base a world history class that, while shaped in pat by European actions, equally presents the viewpoint of non-Western actors. Can’t wait to bring the arguments and information in this book before my students and see how they react.

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