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Five Things They Don't Tell You about Slavery

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Jul 7, 2020, 6:16:47 PM7/7/20
The same people most obsessed with slavery seem to have little interest
in the full scope of its history.

There has been an effort for decades now — although with new momentum
lately, as exemplified by the New York Times’ 1619 project — to
identify the United States and its founding with

To the extent that this campaign excavates uncomfortable truths about
our history and underlines the central role of African Americans in our
nation, it is welcome. But it is often
intended to undermine the legitimacy of America itself by effacing what
makes it distinctive and good.

Yes, slavery and racial prejudice were our great original sins. It
would have been better if we had, like the British, been leaders
against the slave trade and for abolition (the
representation of slaveholders in Congress and the rise of King Cotton
forestalled this). But we didn’t invent slavery, even in its race-based

Slavery didn’t make us unique, which is obvious if we consider its
history in a little broader context. Critics of the American Founding
don’t like to do this because it weakens their
case and quickly brings them up against politically inconvenient facts
that they’d prefer to pass over in silence.

Let’s dwell, then, on a few things they don’t tell us about slavery.
None of these are secrets or are hard to find, but they are usually
left out or minimized, since they don’t
involve self-criticism and, worse, they entail a critical look at
societies or cultures that the Left tends to favor vis-à-vis the West.

None of what follows is meant to excuse the practice of slavery in the
United States, or its longevity. Nor is it to deny that the Atlantic
slave trade was one of history’s great
enormities, subjecting millions to mistreatment so horrifying that it
is hard to fathom. But if we are to understand the history of slavery,
it’s important to know what happened
before 1619 and what happened elsewhere besides America.

1. Through much of human history, slavery was ubiquitous and

Slavery wasn’t the exception in human history; it was the norm. The
“perennial institution,” as historian Seymour Drescher calls it, was an
accepted feature of the ancient world, from
ancient Egypt to Greece to Rome, and of traditional societies.

The Greeks, according to the compelling David Brion Davis book Inhuman
Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, “came to see
slave labor as absolutely central to their
entire economy and way of life” and deployed it in a wide range of
occupations. Roman slavery wasn’t race-based but was brutal all the
same (see the fate of slave gladiators, among
many other atrocities).

In the post-Roman world, the Byzantines, the Vikings, and Central Asian
societies all embraced slavery in various forms.

Again, this wasn’t remarkable. Consider, for instance, Ethiopia.
Stewart Gordon writes in his book Shackles of Iron: Slavery Beyond the
Atlantic that its first legal code, dating from
the mid-13th century, “recognized slaves as central to the economy and
defined the acquisition and holding of slaves as the natural order of
things.” In the 16th century, Ethiopia
“was a full slave society,” even taking tribute from some provinces in
the form of slaves.

Slavery knew no bounds of color or creed. During one period, from 1500
to 1700, there were more white European slaves held captive on the
Barbary Coast than slaves sent from West
Africa to the Atlantic world, according to Gordon.

All this history wasn’t incidental to what eventually arose in the
Atlantic world. Davis notes, “There was a genuine continuity of slave-
trading and slave-holding from Ancient Greece
to Rome and from the late Roman Empire to the Byzantine and Arab
worlds, from the medieval shipment of slaves from the Balkans, the
Black Sea and Caucasia to Muslim and Christian
Mediterranean markets, and from there to the beginnings in the
fifteenth century of an African slave trade to Portugal and Spain, and
then to the Atlantic Islands and New World.”

And slavery was widespread throughout the New World. “An imaginary
‘hemispheric traveler,’” Davis writes, “would have seen black slaves in
every colony from Canada and New England all
the way south to Spanish Peru and Chile.”

2. The East African slave trade lasted into the 20th century

The United States ended slavery too late (again, Britain is a better
model). But let’s not forget how long the slave trade, ended in 1808 in
the United States, lasted elsewhere.

Gordon discusses the East African slave trade, also called the Arab
slave trade: “Throughout the vast Indian Ocean region,” he writes,
“slave trade and ownership were considered
completely moral and legal, regardless of the religion of the slaver or
the buyer.”

More than a million slaves were taken from East Africa in the 1800s.
Despite British attempts at suppressing it, this trade continued into
the 20th century. According to Gordon,
“Perhaps the last large-scale movement of East African slaves to the
Middle East was in the 1920s.”

Relatedly, the Muslim world was a vast empire of slavery and enslaved
countless black Africans.

3. Islam was a great conveyor belt of slavery

“Long before the establishment of African slavery in the Americas,”
James Walvin writes in his A Short History of Slavery, “Islamic
societies were characterized by the widespread and
generally unchallenged use of slavery. Indeed slavery was commonplace
throughout Arabia well before the rise of Islam. But as Islam spread
between the eighth and 15th centuries, and
especially to black Africa, it extended and confirmed the commonplace
use of slavery and slave trading.”

According to Walvin, Muslim slavers transported enslaved Africans
across vast distances — via overland routes — “long before the European
pioneers in the Americas began to consider
the use of African slaves as laborers in the American settlements.” The
routes across the Sahara, he adds, “survived from the seventh to the
twentieth century, and millions of
Africans were force-marched along them from their homelands to the
slave markets to the north.”

This story is relevant to the nature of slavery in the Atlantic world.
At first, slavery in the Muslim world wasn’t race-based, but that
changed. Davis writes: “The Arabs and other
Muslim converts were the first people to make use of literally millions
of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and to begin associating black
Africans with the lowliest forms of bondage.”

It may well be, he continues, that “racial stereotypes were
transmitted, along with black slavery itself — to say nothing of the
algebra and knowledge of the ancient Greek classics —
as Christians treated and fought with Muslims for the first Islamic
challenges to the Byzantine Empire, in the seventh and eighth
centuries, through the era of the crusades.”

Certainly, while slavery was in eclipse in the rest of Europe, it had a
new vitality on the Muslim-occupied Iberian peninsula, with Muslims and
Christians both engaged in the

“By the fifteenth century,” historian James Sweet notes, “many Iberian
Christians had internalized the racist attitudes of the Muslims and
were applying them to the increasing flow of
African slaves to their part of the world.“ He adds, “Iberian racism
was a necessary precondition for the system of human bondage that would
develop in the Americas during the
sixteenth century and beyond.”

One would think that there would be more attention paid to the Muslim
world’s contribution to race-based slavery, but since it doesn’t offer
any opportunity for Western self-reproach,
it’s mostly ignored.

4. The Atlantic slave trade would have been impossible without African

Slavery wasn’t a European imposition on West Africa. It was already a
common practice before the European slavers showed up to subject
African captives to the hideous Atlantic passage
and bondage in the New World.

According to John Thornton, “slavery was widespread in Atlantic Africa
because slaves were the only form of private, revenue-producing
property recognized in African law.”

Europeans didn’t capture millions of slaves on their own. The slavers
were confined to the coasts. They weren’t capable of enslaving masses
of Africans, and even when they attempted
it, they risked disrupting the entire system (and retribution from the

In the interior, slaves were captured in battles and raids and marched
to the coast in unspeakable conditions. They were then sold to the
Europeans for liquor, textiles, tobacco, and
other goods.

Davis notes “the rise of predatory states, such as Futa Jallon,
Dahomey, Asante, Kasanje, and the Lunda Empire, which found it
financially profitable to wage war on neighbors and sell
prisoners to the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danes, or

The system of West African enslavement kept running even when the
Europeans stopped coming, “flooding various regions with nonexportable
slaves,” as Davis puts it. The slave
population in West Africa would come to exceed that of the New World.

5. Brazil took the lion’s share of slaves from the Atlantic slave trade

Any historical accounting of the Atlantic slave trade has to judge
Brazil harshly.

Ninety-five percent of the slaves transported across the Atlantic went
to places south of the present-day United States, with Brazil alone
taking about 40 percent.

Black slaves were already about 10 percent of Lisbon’s population in
1550, and Brazil had about 1 million slaves by 1790.

Even though a relatively small 5 percent of African slaves went to
colonial America, the population in the colonies and the United States
grew until there were four million slaves by
the time of the Civil War. Brazil never had this natural increase
because the life expectancy of the slaves there was so low. Life on
Brazil’s sugar plantations was brutal and

“Beginning in the 1960s,” Davis writes, “historians have demolished the
myths that Brazilian slavery was benign or humane and that Brazil was
relatively free from racism.” The record
shows, he writes, “extreme forms of racial prejudice coupled with the
view that slaves were mere instruments of production.”

Even when the Atlantic slave trade was mostly illegal and on the way
out, the beat went on. Brazil and Cuba received most of the more than 2
million slaves transported between 1820
and 1880, according to Davis.


To repeat, none of this justifies American cruelty and hypocrisy across
the centuries. It does suggest, however, that an appropriate
perspective should take full account of all that
sets us apart, which emphatically wasn’t chattel slavery.

None of the other societies tainted by slavery produced the Declaration
of Independence, a Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, the U.S.
Constitution, or a tradition of liberty that
inspired people around the world for centuries. If we don’t keep that
in mind, as well as the broader context of slavery, we aren’t giving
this country — or history — its due.

Democrats and the liberal media hate President Trump more than they
love this country.

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