Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation

Kris Manjapra

Kris Manjapra Headshot (c) Beowulf Sheehan
Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

To fully understand why the shadow of slavery haunts us today, we must confront the flawed way that it ended. We celebrate abolition – in Haiti after the revolution, in the British Empire in 1833, in the United States during the Civil War. Yet in Black Ghost of Empire, acclaimed historian Kris Manjapra argues that during each of these supposed emancipations, Black people were dispossessed by the moves that were meant to free them. Emancipation, in other words, simply codified the existing racial caste system - rather than obliterating it.

Ranging across the Americas, Europe and Africa, Manjapra unearths disturbing truths about the Age of Emancipations, 1780-1880. In Britain, reparations were given to wealthy slaveowners, not the enslaved, a vast debt that was only paid off in 2015, and the crucial role of Black abolitionists and rebellions in bringing an end to slavery has been overlooked. In Jamaica, Black people were liberated only to enter into an apprenticeship period harsher than slavery itself. In the American South, the formerly enslaved were ‘freed’ into a system of white supremacy and racial terror. Across Africa, emancipation served as an alibi for colonization. None of these emancipations involved atonement by the enslavers and their governments for wrongs committed, or reparative justice for the formerly enslaved-an omission that grassroots Black organizers and activists are rightly seeking to address today.

Black Ghost of Empire will rewire readers’ understanding of the world in which we live. Paradigm-shifting, lucid and courageous, this book shines a light into the enigma of slavery’s supposed death, and its afterlives.

Below is an extract of the shortlisted book.


When history writing focuses only on abolition—and the “ending” of slavery—the half is not told. Histories that tell us the hurt is over, that abolitionist achievements endure, disregard the reality of ongoing racial oppressions. What happened after slavery ended, in the legal and procedural aftermaths called “emancipation,” and in the rebellious self-liberations of black communities, matters for the work of reparative justice. Reparative justice demands ways of retelling the past that detect the voices previously consigned to the archival void; and of rewriting history in ways that matter to those voices and that make those voices matter to us...

Emancipations provided a failed pathway to justice, just as they were designed to do. It is failure was not accidental, but systematic. It was not the result of faulty implementation, but of careful planning and international coordination among European and American states over generations. As we shall see, the governments and political elites in charge of emancipation processes around the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries design laws and policies to incarcerate, deport, indebt, and imperil the freedom of African peoples. Ideas about property rights, the sources of economic value, the bounds of democracy and citizenship, and the supposed divisions of civilization shaped these emancipation processes...

Emancipation, from the Latin emancipatio, means “to let free from his hand.” Embedded in the etymology of the word, and its roots in ancient Roman law, is the legitimation of a supposed authority of some kinds of people to trade or sell ownership rights (mancipatio) in other kinds of people. Under Roman law, emancipatio referred to the act by which a paterfamilias (a property-owning male householder) could voluntarily give up his power (potestas) over other human beings in his household, including children and slaves. Emancipation was, thus, legally construed as the voluntary grant of an owner, not as the righteous vindication of the captives.

© Kris Manjapra from Black Ghost of Empire, The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation, Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2023

Kris Manjapra was born in the Caribbean of mixed African and Indian parentage. He grew up in Canada and completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard. He is Stearns Trustee Professor of History and Global Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and a recipient of the Diverse magazine 2015 Emerging Scholar Award. He has held fellowships at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is the author of Colonialism in Global Perspective and Age of Entanglement.

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