‘Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation’
A slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864 (public domain)

When wealthy, Harvard-trained ultra-right Senator Tom Cotton described racial slavery as a “necessary evil” in 2020, he made two crucial admissions. First, the enslavement and consequent genocide of millions of Africans by Europeans and Euro-Americans between 1492 and the 1880s was a necessary feature for the development of capitalism (and consequent European and U.S. imperialism into the present). From the production of desired agricultural products such as food (sugar and coffee) and the basis of industrial production (cotton), even the very trade in humans itself (finance capital and shipping), capitalist development depended fundamentally on the European slave trade in the Atlantic world.

Alone, this admission signals the acknowledgment (although he will likely refuse to acknowledge this aspect of his claim) that value, technology, and political ideas—all the supposedly good features of modernity—are rooted in the theft of people’s bodies, labor, and self-determining capacities to make their world for themselves. The logic of justice, the reparative action needed to render this world-historical injustice, of course, demands a reparative and restorative solution, at least. Retribution may also be considered. That is the logic, as can easily be determined, which he has demonstrated in almost every other situation where he has been asked to express an opinion about justice or ethical behavior. Thieves and murderers should be punished and should be made to restore and repair the foul outcomes of their deeds. And built into Cotton’s admission is the critical fact that the perpetrators are neither simply individual bad actors nor long out of view of history. The systems of capitalism and imperialism bear a decisive responsibility both for the crime and the reparation.

A second admission inherent in Cotton’s statement is that he does not truly believe racial slavery was Evil. For, if an atrocity is necessary to bring about what I assume he thinks is Good, it cannot really be Evil. In this worldview, enslavers were actually creating something so Good that it overcame the Evil that accompanied its origins. In other words, he believes at the very least that the “necessity” of European and Euro-American racial domination of the world system was substantially greater than the generation upon generation of violence, sexual assault, torture, murder, theft, hatred, and so on, that, as we have seen, he believes were foundational of all we see around us now. That goodness is so Good, in this logic, that it overwhelms the rightful claims of the descendants of the enslaved for reparative justice.

In other words, justice can never be achieved for them at the expense of those for whom justice in actuality serves when the perpetrators continue to control the system of justice and simply refuse to allow justice to be rendered. Wait it out, and you won’t have to pay for your crime. In this worldview, which Cotton is hardly alone in articulating, power is the force that trumps justice. Or, more precisely, in the capitalist-imperialist-white supremacist system, power makes justice.

Senator Cotton’s logic, comprising this massive unacknowledged set of material and ethical contradictions, is the direct descendant of the enslaver’s worldview, as he is the direct descendant of enslavers. Implicit in this frame of mind, which he shares with his enslaving ancestors, is the belief that European people and their descendants have the sole right to determine the outcomes of human life, to own all the wealth of the world, and to create any conditions, including the future deaths and enduring subordination of non-white people, to secure the outcomes of any events they deem worthy of their interest.

This implicit element—what is essentially white supremacy’s extension of racial slavery in modified terms—is the core topic of Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation, by historian Kris Manjapra.

Manjapra’s research centers on a comparative analysis of the “emancipation” processes of several major geo-political centers: the U.S. Northern states and the British and French empires, beginning in the 1780s and tracking that process into the 20th century. Before diving into that analytical documentation, Manjapra warns the reader to keep in mind a critical distinction between “emancipation” and “abolition.” Emancipation historically was a state-determined process of gradual elimination of de facto ownership of human beings through the payment of reparations by the enslaved to the enslaver. These payments came in the form of cash payments, extended bonded labor regimes, indenture, and the very real continuation of conditions of generalized unfreedom incorporated into convict-lease schemes and systemic racism.

Emancipation processes were built on the white supremacy-infused regard for capitalist property relations, even when it involved the ownership of people, their labor, and the product of their labor. Even the most progressive Euro-American Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1780, Manjapra shows, used such a process to protect the wealth of enslavers and the system they dominated. They preserved these relations by forcing a delay in freedom for “emancipated” people through indenture and other legal schemes that denied their full admission as citizens. That “progressive” emancipation process was replicated in most geo-political sites where emancipation was undertaken. Part of the logic of this process was the belief that Black people could always be treated “as future assets for white property owners,” Manjapra contends. British policy throughout its Caribbean colonies—Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas, etc.—operated under similar principles. In each site, “the conditions of slavery,” Manjapra shows, “remained in place long after the legal institution of slavery passed away.”

Abolition was the counter Black people made to the emancipation process. This involved simultaneously the demand for immediate freedom and the reparation and restoration of Black self-determining development. Under the European and Euro-American international slave regimes, this approach was explicitly expressed and enacted through the Haitian Revolution. Defying the French empire’s claim to own their bodies, the land they worked on, and the product of their labor, the Haitian people launched an armed rebellion in 1791 to establish their country and their freedom. Manjapra sketches the long historical process of this “people’s revolution,” which had begun a generation or so earlier with increasing numbers of “marooned” Haitians fleeing enslavement and increasing hostility and opposition to French domination.

Not unlike that of their counterparts in British colonies and the U.S. states, the French greed to own humans as capital and laborers drove plantation owners to grow the population of enslaved Africans in Haiti from 20,000 in 1740 to 330,000 in 1790, radically undermining their numerical domination. This demographic shift forced them (with great pleasure no doubt) to turn to more violent and openly atrocious forms of control of the enslaved—public torture, mutilations, violent mass killings, surveillance techniques—to maintain domination. The worsening violence of the regime revealed not its strength, but its increasing desperation to control property. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Haitians fled into the bush, where they created counter-institutions—governments, armies, educational and religious bodies—that fostered their capacity for an armed uprising. Manjapra writes that “surveilled people do not submit, they resist. And chastised people do not cower, they revolt.”

A posthumous portrait of Toussaint Louverture

Haitians created abolition, as a counterpoint to emancipation, by revolution. The people not only created the conditions for their freedom, but they also strove to put into effect the conditions of reparation and restoration of the “total control over their own bodies, their own labor, their family’s lands.” Citizenship and access to all social institutions were extended to all Black people by law. Formerly white-owned plantation lands were deemed constitutionally the property of all Haitians, who claimed access to the commons. By 1794, the revolution forced the French government, newly installed via its own revolutionary process, to recognize the freedom of the Haitian people.

For their part, former enslavers of Haitians created a wail and uproar about the loss of their property which they deemed sacrosanct. When Napoleon took over the reins of the empire, he sought to re-enslave the Haitian people. He ordered the invasion of the island and the destruction of its revolutionary forces. Revolutionary leaders were executed, and Toussaint Louverture was slowly tortured to death in a French prison. Temporarily successful, the Haitian Revolution regrouped and restored independence in 1804. Thus began two decades of a deadly blockade organized by the major European countries and the U.S. that refused to acknowledge the country’s rightful existence. Only in 1826 did the blockade lift when the Haitian government agreed to pay reparations to France for its struggle to free itself. Those payments continued well into the mid-20th century, during which France, incapable of restoring direct military control over the revolutionary people of Haiti, turned Haiti into a “commercial colony,” inventing neocolonialism a century before its imposition in Africa. Through this process, France succeeded in “keeping Haiti chained to the past of white colonial domination,” imposing its version of the emancipation process on the Haitian people who dared to demand and win brief abolition.

A couple of critical observations about Black Ghost of Empire are worthwhile here. Manjapra’s global comparative study of slave regimes asks us, in part, to reconsider the foundation of the U.S. in light of the facts about slavery. The emancipation process reveals how clearly property rights were elevated above all other concerns, especially when we understand how property was racialized. That is, white property owners had rights that Black people were bound to respect, even when that property was their own bodies, their labor, and the product of their labor. In addition, the political philosophy of this system was thoroughly a racial project that equated white power and interests with justice, a fallacy echoed today in Cotton’s words. This was the fundamental basis of white supremacy and post-slavery institutional and systemic racism.

Finally, Manjapra’s scholarship is suggestive of how emancipation processes were achieved in legislative arenas—through compromises of progressive values related to human rights with white capitalist values—revealing a structural flaw in progressive politics ever since, especially when compromise is sought with exploitative and oppressive social forces in the name of securing some supposed social good. Indeed, abolitionist politics—not only the demand for complete freedom now but specific measures to restore and repair the capacity of the oppressed and exploited to achieve their full self-determining freedom—is needed now more than ever. Short of abolition, the system, if W.E.B. Du Bois’s relentless warnings are ultimately proved correct, is doomed.

Kris Manjapra
Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation
Scribner, 2023
paperback, 272 pp., $18
ISBN 13: 9781982123499

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Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).