Slavery in Perspective
May 31, 2001
fuss about Confederate flags has always struck me as silly, and never more
so than now. Ive been reading Hugh Thomass impressive history,
The Slave Trade (published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster).
Its 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 didnt 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
Africas proudest empires were built on the sale of slaves. For centuries
Africas chief export was human beings. When Congresswoman Maxine
Waters speaks of my African ancestors struggle for
freedom, she doesnt know what shes 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
So its 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 didnt leave the Arab world with a
race problem. Given this history, its ironic that so many American blacks
adopt Arab names to spite the white man and to achieve a supposedly independent
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-
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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