The middle decades of the 19th century witnessed the expansion of slavery and white settlement and dispossession of Indigenous lands west of the Mississippi River, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire followed by the importation of indentured laborers from India and China into the West Indies, the consolidation of British rule in India followed by the so-called Indian Mutiny, and the expansion of settler colonialism in Australia. These processes were all tied together by commerce, empire, and the spread of racial ideologies, yet their histories have largely been written separately. Until now.
Zach Sell’s new book Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital (University of North Carolina Press, 2021) highlights the connections between the “second slavery” in the Deep South of the United States, efforts to socially engineer mono-crop agriculture in India by a British colonial state that pay lip service to laissez-faire and free labor even as it tried to import plantation management techniques from the US south, how the attempt to create plantation-style agriculture in Queensland, Australia bumped up against the logic of white settler colonialism and attempts to expand plantation agriculture in Belize in the age of so-called “free” labor using indentured labor from Asia. This is a story of racial formation on a global scale, and of the limits of capital’s ability to remake social relations and environments in its own image, despite the capacity for organized brutality that it had at its disposal. This book is particularly important at a time when many American, British and French commentators have tried to downplay the violence of expansion and colonialism and to portray white supremacy as some sort of American peculiarity and relic of the past.
Zach is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Drexel University and was previously Ruth J. Simmons Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Slavery and Justice at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.