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Book Review


Stewart Gordon, Shackles of Iron: Slavery beyond the Atlantic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016. Pp. xxix + 142. Bibliography and Index. $18.00 (paper).


     Steward Gordon's Shackles of Iron: Slavery beyond the Atlantic examines slavery as a degraded human condition found across all human history and challenges common images and perceptions of slavery. Maintaining that slavery is not a singular phenomenon of European colonialism, Gordon argues that slavery has been characteristic of every historic period and a wide variety of societies, including herding, agricultural, and industrial cultures. Validating his claims, Gordon utilizes a variety of sources, including scholarly works, slave narratives, government reports and United Nations declarations, religious texts, and memoirs. Accordingly, Shackles of Iron lays bare the universal nature of slavery throughout history, including in the modern era.

     This text purposely omits an exhaustive discussion of trans-Atlantic slavery since slavery's existence on a global scale remains "unnoticed and not taught in either schools or colleges" (xii). Shackles of Iron examines the human condition of slavery by journeying through four thematic assessments of slavery's historical existence in: Ancient Athens, East Africa from the first century to the twentieth century, the Barbary Coast from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century, and contemporary societies. Each chapter surveys the basis of each respective society's economic and social structure, various forms of slavery, and how slaves were acquired and manumitted. Additionally, the chapters are concluded with collections of primary documents providing slave narratives, memoirs of slave masters, and justifications for slavery that both amplify the voices of slaves and allow the reader to actively inquire into the complexities of slavery in multiple historical contexts.

     The initial chapter offers an assessment of Ancient Athens and its legacy of slavery. Gordon posits slavery as the common solution to issues of labor facing the economy. The expansion of the Athenian Empire's military successes was linked to the increase use of slaves. Arguing that Athenian society and democracy could not have functioned without slavery, the text suggests that Greek philosophers did not criticize Athenian democracy for condoning slavery, "nor did they see it as a system that was antithetical to slavery" (9). Furthermore, Gordon contends that slavery's centrality to Athens' economic, political, and social systems created the conditions for each citizen to seem at least nominally equal.

     Chapter Two surveys East African slavery, which was marked by several sources of slaves (Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya), a variety of traders, and the remarkably diverse life experiences of slaves. Gordon examines East African slavery by way of the ending destinations for slaves in Rome, the Arabian Peninsula at the advent of Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and the Middle East as recently as 1920. The peculiarities of this case of slavery are all highlighted in the chapter's discussions of Islam's religious and legal justifications for slavery; the world-shaking Zanj Rebellion in 869 C.E.; and, the experiences of Malik Amber, an enslaved East African who became a successful military commander in India. Overall, the chapter provides a rich discussion on one of the oldest and most enduring slave trading routes in history.

     Focusing on slavery along the Barbary Coast of North Africa in the third chapter, Gordon distinguishes Barbary slavery from chattel slavery of the Atlantic world. In the Barbary slave system, the enslaved were primarily white Europeans rather than black Africans; religion rather than race directed the politics and economics of slave-taking; and, slavers maintained ties between captured slaves and their families in order to extract ransoms. The scale of Barbary slavery is also illustrated in the author's assessment of slaves being captured not only throughout the Mediterranean but also as far north as the Iceland, as far south as the Caribbean, and as far west as the United States. As a result, this chapter provides an examination of a unique form of slavery based on pirating, kidnapping, and ransoming as opposed to labor exploitation for profit.

     The final chapter highlights instances of slavery in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Gordon assesses modern slavery in the forms of political servitude in Nazi Germany, sexual slavery in Thailand, and slavery in China and Brazil. Distinguishing between old and new forms of slavery, Gordon arguing that new slavery "exists when an 'owner' can put a person into a work situation that pays nothing or almost nothing with conditions enforced and controlled by unconstrained threatened and actual violence" (106). As such, the text positions globalization and its overlapping social problems (such as illegal immigration, poverty, endemic warfare, and criminal networks) at the center of modern slavery. Gordon astutely notes that there is no "typical" form of slavery, as conditions of slavery vary by region of supply, transport networks, and destinations. Gordon concludes the text by arguing that freedom is a fundamental right of all humans and discussing what can be done to eradicate slavery beyond United Nations declarations and resolutions.

     Though the text successfully portrays slavery as both historical and contemporary conditions, a limitation arises in its discussion of Athenian slavery. While Gordon admits slaves were central to Athens' economic, political, and social systems and argues that Athenian democracy could not function without slavery, he maintains that Athens was not a slave society. Alas, his arguments about the dearth of evidence of slave breeding and slave markets and that slaves were not a form of wealth indicate that this point could be further developed. The reader is left wondering how a society maintained by slave labor can avoid being called a slave society.

     Due to its brevity and impressive coverage of slavery in a global context, this text is well-suited for undergraduate college courses, especially since each chapter is accompanied by a list of "Questions for Consideration" that challenges the reader to inquire deeper into slavery's historical context. As such, the text will be very effective in world history surveys and seminars on slavery. Positing slavery as a historical human condition, Shackles of Iron succeeds in furthering our understandings of slavery beyond the typical images of the Atlantic world. It forces readers to reconsider notions of human rights in relation to slavery's contemporary forms as well.

Nicholas C. McLeod is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Pan-African Studies at University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. You may contact him at


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