Slavery in Perspective
May 31, 2001

by Joe Sobran

     The recurrent fuss about Confederate flags has 
always struck me as silly, and never more so than now. 
I've been reading Hugh Thomas's impressive history, THE 
SLAVE TRADE (published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). 
It's one of those books that shift your whole perspective 
on the past.

     Thomas covers the Atlantic slave trade from 1440 to 
1870. It was a literally filthy business from first to 
last. More than 11,000,000 Africans were brought to the 
New World, while countless others -- probably about 
2,000,000 -- died of miserable conditions in the 
overcrowded ships en route.

     What I didn't know is that fewer than 5 per cent -- 
about 500,000 -- of these Africans were brought to this 
country. Some 4,000,000 were carried to Brazil by the 
Portuguese, 2,500,000 to Spanish possessions, 2,000,000 
to the British West Indies, and 1,600,000 to the French 
West Indies.

     All this puts something of a damper on the 
assumption that slavery was a sin specific or "peculiar" 
to the American South. The slaves had been Africans who 
were sold to European merchants by other Africans who had 
enslaved them in the first place. Several of Africa's 
proudest empires were built on the sale of slaves. For 
centuries Africa's chief export was human beings. When 
Congresswoman Maxine Waters speaks of "my African 
ancestors' struggle for freedom," she doesn't know what 
she's talking about. Slavery was an African institution 
long before it spread to the South, and there was no 
abolition movement to trouble it. When Europe banned the 
slave trade, African economies reeled.

     So it's rather comical for American blacks to 
sentimentalize Africa and stress that they are "African 
Americans" while cursing the Confederate flag as a symbol 
of slavery. Africa has a much better claim to be such a 
symbol. Slavery still exists there, in Sudan and 
Mauritania and probably elsewhere.

     As Christians, white Europeans always had a bad 
conscience about slavery. They wrestled with the question 
of whether Africans had immortal souls and natural 
rights. Even Southerners who justified slavery as a 
positive good felt that it needed justification.

     Pagans had no such qualms. They no more felt they 
needed to justify owning slaves than owning cattle. 
Slavery was a fact of life, and slaves could be killed, 
mutilated, and even eaten without compunction.

     In the Arab world African slaves were highly prized 
as eunuchs. They were used as guardians of harems and as 
civil servants, some of whom amassed considerable power. 
But many young African men died in the process because of 
inept or infected castration. The prevalence of eunuchs 
probably explains why African slavery didn't leave the 
Arab world with a race problem. Given this history, it's 
ironic that so many American blacks adopt Arab names to 
spite the white man and to achieve a supposedly 
independent "identity."

     Thomas indirectly punctures another cherished 
American notion: that Abraham Lincoln "ended slavery." 
Lincoln is mentioned only three times, very briefly, in 
the entire book. Against the huge backdrop of the slave 
trade, he was only a local, marginal, and rather tardy 
figure. By 1850 it was clear that slavery was doomed 
throughout the Christian world. But just as we exaggerate 
our role in fostering slavery, we exaggerate our role in 
destroying it. We Americans tend to be self-important 
even in our self-flagellations.

     The slave trade was so vast that a European might 
speculate in it, and profit by it, without ever seeing a 
single slave. Such distinguished authors as John Locke, 
Edward Gibbon, and Voltaire drew income from it. Voltaire 
was especially hypocritical. He took the self-serving 
view that it was less immoral for a European to buy 
Africans than it was for other Africans to sell them; and 
after denouncing the slave trade for years, he "accepted 
delightedly" when a merchant offered to name a slave ship 
after him.

     Thomas tells the whole story without much 
moralizing. He knows the facts speak for themselves, in 
all their horror and pathos: people stolen from their 
homes, robbed of their freedom and even their identities, 
often dying namelessly amid unspeakable squalor, with no 
families or friends to mourn or memorialize their 
passing. The ones who survived to be slaves in the New 
World, though unenviable, were relatively lucky.

     But in the end, the Christian conscience prevailed. 
Thank God.


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