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Book Review


Hideaki Suzuki, Abolitions as a Global Experience. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2016. Pp. viii + 304. Bibliography and Index. $32.00 (paper)


     "If we are to understand our globalizing world," Hideaki Suzuki sensibly comments in his introduction to Abolitions as a Global Experience, "we need histories that cover the entire globe" (1). Suzuki is correct and his statement takes account of the fact that, over the past few decades, many historians have avidly embraced transnational and global history. Suzuki and the contributors to this volume utilize transnational methodologies to shed light on the global nature of abolition as well as the ways it varied, often tremendously, among countries such as France, Great Britain, and Russia, and colonies such as the Danish West Indies. They also demonstrate, through comparison and analysis of connections, something we knew already but is nevertheless worth repeating: "abolition and anti-slavery policies were not pursued in isolation" (4). There is no one way to understand this similar yet dramatically different globally shared experience, and the contributors to this volume offer nine different examples for consideration.

     Scholars will discover at least four benefits of this volume. For one, the topics of the chapters testify to the geographical breadth of the volume. Sue Peabody and Martin Klein consider three French abolitions. Kumie Inose discusses the anniversary of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. Isabel Tanaka-Van Daalen studies Dutch attitudes toward slavery and abolition. Behnaz A. Mirzai explores the suppression of the African slave trade in the Persian Gulf. Ei Murakami examines the coolie trade during the 1840s and 1870s. Amitava Chowdhury analyzes "the trans-imperial consequences of British emancipation" (150). Yuriko Yokoyama investigates the Japanese Release Act. Finally, Alessandro Stanziani surveys the abolition of serfdom in Russia. No single book can hope to be completely comprehensive. This one does neglect certain parts of the globe – most pointedly the Americas, with the exception of Chowdhury's essay. The relative lack of attention to the Americas may be due to the fact that there is already an enormous literature on this topic or that this volume grew out of a project entitled "Eurasia in the Modern Period: Towards a New World History" (1). Nevertheless, the volume ranges over a great deal of ground and offers students opportunities to read about abolitions throughout the world.

     Several chapters address the second benefit, the temporal breadth of the volume. Peabody and Klein, for instance, analyze three different French abolitions that occurred in a period spanning more than a century. Peabody explores France's emancipations of 1794 and 1848, noting the first was "prompted by direct military action of the slaves themselves while the second was a long-considered product of liberal reformers in Paris" (26). Klein's essay handles the third abolition: legislative acts in 1903 and 1905. These acts did not make slavery illegal but enabled slaves to leave their masters. Stanziani, in his analysis of the abolition of serfdom in Russia, argues that "the abolition of 1861 must be viewed as part of a long-term process of reform starting at least in the 18th century and completed on the eve of World War I" (229). Certainly, historians of slavery and emancipation are used to thinking about long period of time. However, these chapters reinforce the protracted nature of abolitions, explore how they unfolded in different ways, and demonstrate that some places did not experience one abolition moment but several. This would, again, serve as a good introduction for students.

     The third benefit of the volume is the attention to the local as well as to the global. Most chapters address, in one way or another, the interplay between the two. Murakami, for instance, analyzes the coolie trade, that is, indentured emigration from southern China to non-Southeast Asia areas, and focuses on the period covering the 1840s to the 1870s. Most studies, he argues, overlook "the role of British consuls and local Chinese officials" (131). Local officials sought the help of British consuls and, along with local Chinese people, played an important role in stamping out the coolie trade. In other words, focusing on national governments ignores the important, if overlooked, roles played by local people and officials. Chowdhury explores how Danish maritime maroons created a "diplomatic impasse between the Danish and British colonial governments" and, ultimately, "weakened the system of slavery in the Danish territories" (151). This is not a new idea, per se, but it illustrates how the enslaved played an important role in securing abolition. These contributions, along with some of the other chapters, could help students understand the role local people, as well as enslaved people themselves, played in story of global movements such as abolition.

     The fourth benefit of the volume is that many of the chapters suggest topics that merit additional investigation. One topic is the memory of abolition. Inose discusses abolition and memory, specifically how people in Great Britain commemorated the anniversary of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. In 1907, the centenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Britons crafted a narrative emphasizing the humanitarian motivations of abolition. This narrative made abolition "the act of a humane, benevolent and self-sacrificing British people" (53). In contrast, 2007, the bicentenary, was marked by apologies for British participation in the slave trade and a recognition of the British role in slavery and the slave trade. Peabody scrutinizes the diverse ways France wrestles with its colonial past. One French discourse suggests emancipation was a benevolent act bestowed by the French state upon slaves. This discourse tracks with the humanitarian narrative Inose identified. However, another discourse emphasizes the primary role of the slaves in securing their freedom. Tanaka-Van Daalen, in addition, describes a "slow and lukewarm process towards abolition" among the Dutch. This, no doubt, "lies at the root of the half-hearted acknowledgement and interest in the Netherlands in its slave trade and slavery" (75). These three chapters highlight the contested nature of the memory of abolition as well as the different uses to which it is put by modern audiences. Historians have considered the memory of abolition in other regions of the world. One could well envision a collection of essays or a monograph devoted to abolition and memory. In sum, we need a lot more work on the memory of abolition, and some of these chapters suggest strategies for how such a history could be written.

     The chapters in this volume, read together, suggest other themes as well, most dealing with how abolitions actually took place. For one, did abolition come through violence on the part of enslaved people, state action, or some combination of the two? Were masters compensated for their slaves? Did freed slaves have to pass through an apprenticeship period? Did elites participate in abolition or reject it? Was abolition a struggle between metropole and colony or between different colonial interests? What was the relationship between abolitionism and imperialism? We know some of the answers to some of these questions for some countries and regions of the world. However, this volume should prompt people to think transnationally and globally about these questions. When Suzuki writes that this volume "shows the complex dynamics of abolition, in which local and global contexts as well as the past and the present were entangled" (11), he is correct. However, despite all the ink that has been spilled on the subject, there is a great deal more to say about the complex dynamics of a vital movement.

     All things considered, this is an interesting volume, not least because the individual chapters suggest a variety of ideas other historians could and should pursue. This volume is not without certain problems. The quality of the individual chapters varies greatly. In addition, Suzuki's introduction rather understates the large body of comparative work on slavery, emancipation, and abolition. In point of fact, the Americas as a whole, are generally, although not completely, absent from this volume. Given the prominence of Britain and France, this omission is puzzling. On the other hand, to give credit where credit is due, this volume is well-made for upper-division undergraduate and graduate seminars and should spur conversations among scholars about this fascinating globally shared experience.

Evan C. Rothera is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The Pennsylvania State University. He can be reached at


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