Home > Abolitionism > “Using History to Make Slavery History”: Historical Scholarship as Direct Activism


By Elizabeth Swanson and James Brewer Stewart, co-editors of Human Bondage and Abolition: New Histories of Past and Present Slaveries (Cambridge University Press, 2018)



How should historians respond when pressed to explain how and why it has come to pass that many as sixty million human beings all over the world find themselves reduced to slavery?  As editors of a book of freshly-published original essays that connect slavery “then” with slavery today, our answer is that we need to be “Using History to Make Slavery History.”

That’s the tag-line for the close to 1,000 scholars and activists who make up Historians Against Slavery, and that’s also precisely the mission of our new essay collection, Human Bondage and Abolition: New Histories of Past and Present Slaveries, just published by Cambridge University Press as part of their series “Slaveries since Emancipation.” Using History to Make Slavery Historyis surely a tall order. It is also a path-breaking and doubtless a controversial mandate because it compels us, as historians, to intervene directly in the work of today’s rapidly expanding “new abolitionist” movement.

Set aside whatever you were taught in graduate school about the dangers of anachronism; that is, of projecting the concerns of today backward into the past. Our volume is all about connecting “then” with “now,” and in one sense, this is simply doing historiographical business as usual. Activist scholarship always has been about developing powerfully documented historical precedents for struggles against injustice, as demonstrated in examples such as Heather Ann Thompson’s (Historians Against Slavery charter member) magnificent Blood on the Water: the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 (2017), which imparts extraordinary legitimacy to today’s prison reform movement.

But our new book goes well beyond imparting inspiration, precedent, and legitimacy for current activism. In addition, it intervenes directly in the work of today’s abolitionist movement by critically examining its prevailing assumptions, approaches, and policy positions while also recommending new courses of action. In this manner, our book invites direct collaboration between historians and those engaged in advancing justice and equality, a task that serious historical research specialists seldom design their scholarship to undertake. This uniquely activist mandate, we believe, makes Human Bondage and Abolition truly a “game changer,” as its frontispiece makes clear:

“ [This book] exposes the roots of modern-day slavery from a historical perspective as a means for supporting activist efforts to fight it in the present… Using scholarship also intended as activism, the volume [demonstrates] how the history of African American enslavement might obscure or illuminate the understanding of slavery today and show how the legacies of earlier forms of slavery have shaped human bondage… in the twenty-first century.

What might today’s “new abolitionists” gain from reading Human Bondage and Abolition?

First, a challenge to their own potentially anachronistic beliefs about the problem of slavery, and—

Second, an invitation to replace such impressions with solid historical foundations upon which to build more clear-minded understandings of the ills they are up against, and—

Third, the troubling fact that though slavery has been rendered illegal most everywhere, it has adapted such that it remains a thriving trade and practice most everywhere, thereby begging the question of how to combat slavery using tools other than the law—

Fourth, a challenge to address the fact that in the United States and Great Britain particularly, the problems of contemporary bondage are deeply entwined with the terrible history of African enslavement and its racist legacies and—

Fifth, an opportunity for mobilizing public opinion with more compelling (and historically accurate) explanations of today’s slavery than those currently employed, and—

Sixth, the opportunity to consider new antislavery strategies, tactics, and public policies as recommended by scholars with historical knowledge and perspective.

What might historians gain from reading  Human Bondage and Abolition?

First, an opportunity to evaluate a truly capacious project (the book as a whole) that aims at precisely conceptualizing, defining and “unpacking” the global problems of slavery and trafficking, “then” and “now,” and—

Second, an opportunity to evaluate the book’s most striking overall claim, which is that historians desist from attempting to portray slavery as “an institution” and those in charge of it as “slaveholders,” and—

Third, an opportunity to evaluate the extent to which various forms of enslavement familiar to us have evolved (or not) over the centuries, and to determine what they have in common with plantation slavery in the Americas, and—

Fourth, an opportunity to consider post-emancipation slavery in the US South as an embodiment of 21st century enslavement the world over, and—

Fifth, an opportunity to make sense of the modern abolition movement’s most challenging controversy, the extent to which sex work or, if you prefer, prostitution constitutes enslavement and—

Sixth, an opportunity to engage the book’s contention that  historians should be recommending strategy, tactics, and public policy to today’s abolitionist activists.

From David Richardson’s and James Sidbury’s sweeping essays situating slave systems across time and place in order to better define slavery in the current moment to case studies on maritime bondage, child slavery, and sexual exploitation by leading historians such as Kerry Ward, Anna Mae Duane, and Jessica R. Pliley, readers will encounter scholarship that seeks to do more than to shed light on history. Instead, our authors shed light on history as it bleeds into and informs our current moment—not as an intellectual exercise, but rather to fuel the struggle for human dignity embodied in the abolitionist movements that—as these essays also demonstrate—have always emerged coterminously with slavery itself. We invite you to encounter the “usable pasts” meticulously delineated by our contributors as fuel for your own intellectual and activist fires against slavery, trafficking, and exploitation.




Preface: Solidarity of the Ages; David Blight, Yale University

Introduction: Getting Beyond Chattel Slavery; James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College and Elizabeth Swanson, Babson College


Contemporary Slavery in Historical Perspective, David Richardson, Hull University, UK

Slavery and Civic Death: Making Sense of Modern Slavery in Modern Slavery in Historical Context, James Sidbury, Rice University

From Statute to Amendment and Back Again: The Evolution of American Slavery and Antislavery Law, Alison Mileo Gorsuch, Yale University


Kidnappers and Subcontractors: Historical Perspectives on Human Trafficking, John Donahue, Loyola of Chicago

Maritime Bondage: Comparing Past and Present, Kerry Ward, Rice University

All Boys are Bound to Someone’: Reimagining Freedom in the History of Childhood Slavery, Anna Mae Duane, University of Connecticut

From White Slavery to Anti-Prostitution, the Long View, Jessica R. Pliley, Texas State University


All the Ships that Never Sailed: Lessons for the Modern Antislavery Movement from the British Naval Campaign against the Atlantic Slave Trade, Dave Blair, United States Air Force Academy, United States Department of Defense

Defending Slavery, Denying Slavery: Rhetorical Strategies of the Contemporary Sex Workers Rights Movement in Historical Perspective, James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College and Elizabeth Swanson, Babson College

The Power of the Past in the Present: The Capital of the Confederacy as an Antislavery City, Monti Datta, University of Richmond and James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College.



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