The Anti-slavery Project

Quirk, Joel. The anti-slavery project: From the slave trade to human trafficking. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Joel Quirk’s, The Anti-slavery Project, is concerned with the separation between the historical and the contemporary abolitionists movements. He hopes that by building a discourse between the two movements, using a common vocabulary and legal definitions, the contemporary and the historical can end slavery. He also advocates an interdisciplinary approach in developing his antislavery project linking history, law, and political scholars to the cause. Three frameworks are used in his work. First, he focuses on Britain role in making the abolition of slavery a solvable problem. Next, he examines the role of imperialism and expansion in the continuation of the institution of slavery. And lastly, he discusses the limitations of legal abolition and how these limits never brought about an end to slavery, but instead just produced substitutions for slaves. This last idea shows the link between the current and historical movements by demonstrating slavery’s continuance.

The work was published by a scholarly press and academics in the fields of history, law, political science, and human rights were its primary audience. Quirk’s project also drew the attention of activist groups outside of academia. While this shows the works appeal to a more general audience the organization and scholarly style firmly situates as an interdisciplinary academic publication. While it is a recent work, printed in 2011, several reviews have already been published. In general the book is well received by reviewers and critics. Many point to Quirk’s ability to connect the historical abolition movement to the contemporary anti-slavery campaign as the most salient section of his work. This is where Quirk shines successfully linking past and present by explaining the limitation of legal abolition and how this created the framework of “new slavery.” Some scholars take issue with his use of Britain’s abolition movement as a focus, noting the limitations of Britain’s influence on international politics throughout the abolition movement. England is a good starting point, but Quirk ignores the roles of other countries in forming political and legal structures that impaired the abolition movement. He also largely ignores the transatlantic slave trade and its influence on the political and legal obstacles to abolition. Overall, The Anti-slavery Project was well received and viewed as an ambitious but welcome addition to the scholarly discourse on slavery.

Since publication the book has been cited in several different academic journals as well as a handful of books. The Journal of Human Rights, International Theory, and Human Rights Quarterly are a few of the journals where Quirk’s book has been reviewed and also cited in new scholarly publications. The majority of these works expand on the concept of linking the contemporary anti-slavery campaigns to the historical abolition movement. Some examine the legal limitations and ramifications of slavery, but most focus on human rights and the historical significance of the abolition of slavery. Interestingly, Samuel Moyn has written two new historiographies of human rights and The Anti-slavery Project and its frameworks are discussed in each article. Moyn is particularly interested in Quirk’s frameworks and the political and legal limitations of the abolition movements. I have added both of these to my bibliography and need to examine each further. In another journal article, Kelli Johnson finds Quirk’s frameworks movements. She also notes the use of slave narratives as a link between the modern and historical movements. In all Quirk is cited in just fewer than twenty new publications and I believe this many citations in such as short amount of time demonstrates the value of his work.

Quirk’s project serves two purposes for my research project. First, it provides the framework to link the two movements together using the legal limitations of slavery as a primary connection. Secondly, the book also shows the modern day fight against slavery, its obstacles, and how new forms of slavery grew out of the past. The book also shows the tactics of the movements, such as contemporary slave narratives, and how these were used by abolitionists. At this point I do not think the work will be useful for the images or whiteness aspect of my project. I believe The Anti-slavery Project’s value to my thesis will be to provide a solid background for the contemporary fight against slavery, help to define key terms, and show the connections between the historical and contemporary movements. The book’s bibliography, and those of works citing Quirk since publication, has already produced several results I believe will be helpful for my research. I have noted these and plan to look into as many of these as possible in the coming weeks.The antislavery project