By Felix Brahm (German Historical Institute London) and Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool)
Slavery Hinterland. Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680–1850 is published by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher -offer ends on the 28th June 2018. See below for details.
The history of transatlantic slavery is one of the most active and fruitful fields of international historical research, and an important lesson of the latest work on maritime countries like Britain and France is that there the profits of slavery and indeed abolition ‘trickled down’ to very wide sections of the population and to places well away from the principal slave-trading ports. Recently historians have started to look beyond the familiar Atlantic axis and to apply the same paradigm to the European hinterlands of the triangular trade. That is, they have sought its traces and impacts in territories that were not directly involved (or were relatively minor participants) in the traffic in Africans: the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, Italy and Central Europe. And they are finding that the slave trade, the plantation economies that it fed, the consequences of its abolition, and not least the questions of moral and political principle that it threw up, were very much a part of the texture of society right across Europe.
In material terms, it is clear that the manufacture of trade goods – the wares with which Europeans paid African traders for the enslaved men, women and children whom they then shipped to the Americas – was an important element of many regional economies. Firearms, iron bars and ironware travelled from Denmark and the Baltic to Western Europe’s slaving ports. Glass beads were exported from Bohemia (the Czech lands), and the higher quality Venetian products attracted Liverpool merchants to set up branch offices in Italy to secure their supply. The Swiss family firm Burckhardt/Bourcard began by supplying cotton cloth for the slave trade and importing slave-produced luxury goods and moved into equipping its own slaving ships. Textile plants in the Wupper Valley in Western Germany and the hand looms of Eastern Prussia provided linens of varying quality for use on the slave plantations, though because they were shipped through English and Dutch ports their German origins have often been obscured. And the trading networks established in the context of the slave economy supported German exporting projects even after the trade was abolished, as German firms continued to trade into territories – Brazil and the Caribbean – where slavery persisted until the late 19th century.
Germans in particular were keen observers of the Atlantic slave economy, and they had their own perspective on international debates about the trade and its abolition. At the beginnings of the trade, the rulers of Brandenburg Prussia had some hopes of buying into it, establishing a slave fort on the Gold Coast between 1682 and 1720. One of the key documents of this episode is the diary of a ship’s barber, Johann Peter Oettinger, who sailed on slaving expeditions. He chose to make no comment about the brutalities that he witnessed and recorded. Characteristically, though, when the diaries were published for German readers 200 years later, they were given a moralising spin; by the 1880s, Germany was at the forefront of the Scramble for Africa, justifying colonisation in the name of suppressing the internal slave trade. Before that, and once the German states were no longer involved in the slave trade, German-speaking scientists and administrators placed themselves in the service of those states that were: Ernst Schimmelmann, whose family had one foot in Hamburg and one in Copenhagen, was a plantation owner and manager of the Swedish state slaving company, but also responsible for the abolition of the Danish slave trade in 1792. And initiatives for the post-abolition exploitation of tropical territories relied on the work of German scientists in service to the Danish state like the botanist Julius von Rohr.
Scholarly attention to the German case is also bringing the Atlantic plantation economies into dialogue with the practices of unfree labour that existed in Central Europe at the same time. Analysis of the conditions of linen production on eastern Prussia’s aristocratic estates indicates that their low production costs helped to keep down the costs of production on slave plantations. And when Germans confronted the moral and legal challenges to slavery that were crystallising into a political movement in Britain and France by the 1790s, they could not escape the implications of abolitionist arguments for the future of their own ‘peculiar institutions’ of serfdom and personal service. This was true of Theresa Huber, the author and journalist who stands for two generations of Germans who engaged in transnational abolitionist networks, and who was equally sharp in her critique of serfdom. And it was true of Prussian administrators who, when challenged by enslaved Africans on German soil to enforce the notion that ‘there are no slaves in Prussia’, could not help asking themselves what that might mean for the process towards reform of feudal institutions.
These issues have only begun to receive greater attention – more studies are needed to gain a clearer understanding of the various links through which continental Europe was connected to the Transatlantic slave business and its abolition.
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