Hidden Economies of Slavery

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Hidden Economies of Slavery” which will take place on December 10-11 2020 at the German Historical Institute in London. We talked to the conveners Melina Teubner (University of Bern) and Felix Brahm (German Historical Institute London) about the upcoming event. Please find more information on the conference here.

The call for papers is still open until June 30, 2020.

The title of your upcoming workshop refers to “Hidden Economies”: How do you define hidden economies, and what characteristics make them “hidden”?

With the idea of “hidden economies” we would like to address several aspects:

First of all, when it comes to slavery in the 19th century, historiography continues to deal primarily with aspects of its abolition and asks less about the continuities and changes to slavery after the official bans of slave trade and slavery. Post abolition slavery and new forms of unfree labour were in many cases already a blind spot for contemporaries, partly because they operated in secret.

Food vendors in Rio de Janeiro, who were partly self-emancipated, partly enslaved workers. Coloured lithograph, Jean Baptiste Debret 1834.

However, in recent years interest in the subject has grown and a number of new studies have focused e.g.on the prohibited slave trade to Brazil up until 1851, to Cuba until 1878 and to the southern United States. These studies, in addition to the concept of ‘Second Slavery’ developed by Dale Tomich, emphasize the connection between slavery, capitalism and industrialization. The products grown on large plantations, such as cotton, coffee and sugar, were of major importance for industrialization and the emerging global economy.

In our workshop, we do not want to focus exclusively on the hotspots of second slavery, but to explore its hidden economies in a global perspective. Our aim is to bring together researchers with different regional specialisms in order to achieve a bigger picture. Here, we understand ‘hidden’ also in terms of places that have received little attention by researchers so far, but could still be important for a global history of slavery.

Abolition often did not bring about a swift end to slavery. The cultivation of a wide range of products was – and sometimes is until today – based on unfree labour. We want to investigate continuities and changes in different industries and ask who the actors were and how their businesses continued to operate in the age of abolition.

Finally, we are exploring ways to make these hidden economies visible. Attention, therefore, will also be placed on ethical and practical questions regarding research in this field.

In your Call for Papers, you mention the possibility of comparative studies and entangled history contributing to the conference. How do these fields of historical research come into play when talking about the hidden economies of slavery?

Slavery was situated at the core of a commercial system that had a global reach. When the transatlantic slavery business was in full swing in the 18th century, it connected local economies in various parts of Africa, the Americas, Europe, and also Asia. During the 19th century, the economies of slavery grew even more complex, with the involvement of further geographical areas and commercial sectors, and the invention of new forms of unfree labour. An entangled history approach is required to grasp the complexities of the slavery business and to understand how local economies in very distant locations were linked to it.

A comparative approach, on the other hand, is particularly useful to highlight the different conditions under which slavery unfolded and transformed. This includes local, national, but also inter-imperial comparisons, since in the 19th and early 20th century it were to a large part the colonial empires that set the frame for new regimes of slavery and unfree labour. Both the entangled history approach and a comparative perspective help us to gain a bigger picture and to bring together research that is often focused on one particular region.

Looking ahead: Which new aspects of debate do you hope your workshop might contribute to future discussions about “second slavery”?

We want to discuss the concept of Second Slavery as a global concept. In the post-abolition period, a variety of modern slaveries emerged with different names, which we try to describe in their contexts. Thus, we are more concerned with continuities of unfree labour and a “de-formalization of slavery” (Zeuske) during the formation of a global world economy.


Felix Brahm is a Research Fellow in Colonial and Global History at the German Historical Institute in London. His research and teaching interests lie in the field of modern African and European history, with a focus on trade relations, knowledge and technology, and the history of slavery and abolition. He is co-editor of “Slavery Hinterland: Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680-1850”, a volume which traces the various ways by which continental Europe was linked to the slavery business. His current book project studies the East African arms trade from the middle of the nineteenth century to the First World War.

Melina Teubner is a postdoctoral researcher in Iberian and Latin American History at the History Department of the University of Bern. Her research and teaching interest lie in the history of Latin America and the Lusitanian world with a focus on the 19th and 20th century. She is especially interested in food history, food systems, the history of labour and the history of the late transatlantic slave trade. Her current book project studies the history of alimentation and cooking in the Brazilian slave trade in the 19th century. She published an article on “Street Food, Urban Space, and Gender” in Rio de Janeiro in an Special Issue of the International Review of Social History (“Free and Unfree Labor in Atlantic and Indian Ocean Port Cities”). 


Citation: “Hidden Economies of Slavery”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24218.


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