Tuesday, June 02, 2020

On the Origins of the African Slave Trade

I posted this article in August of 2019, but it seems more than helpful in today's context.

With all the talk of “intersectionality” “privilege” and “oppression” and “reparations” and “racism” coming from the left, I’ve felt inclined, again, to look to the beginnings of what people are talking about.

I’ve located three excellent historical sources on the African slave trade – I’m open to reviewing more, but these are three that I’ve found:

Inhuman Bondage—David Bryon Davis, 2006. New York, NY and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800—John Thornton, Second Edition, 1998 (Twelfth printing, 2006). New York, NY and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870—Hugh Thomas, 1997. New York, NY: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster).

These are (generally) long books, but here are a few relevant points:

Slavery is not simply the problem of one race, it’s a human problem. The Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, “Romans established the status of a slave by law and distinguished him from a serf” (Thomas, p. 26).

A white slave trade existed in Europe before the west coast of Africa was ever explored by the Portuguese. “In the early 1400s this white slave trade from the Black Sea foreshadowed almost every aspect of the African slave trade, which was about to begin, including complex organization, permanent posts or forts for trade, and long-distance shipment by sea to multinational markets” (Davis, p. 82).

The term “Slavs” – from Slovak to Yugoslavia – is derived from the word “slaves”. I’ve already written to the effect that my own ancestors were likely slaves at some point.

“African Americans” should be at least as incensed with “African Africans” about the on-going capture and sale of fellow Africans, as they are with anyone else. “Virtually all of the enslavement of Africans was carried out by other Africans” (Davis, p. 13). On the other hand, Europeans did not conquer the Africans, nor could they. “Not only did African naval power make raiding difficult, it also allowed Africans to conduct trade with the Europeans on their own terms, collecting customs and other duties as they liked” (Thornton, p. 38).

A series of popes – all prior to the Reformation – authorized the entire African slave trade enterprise, prior to Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Popes “Eugenius IV” (Illius Qui, 1442), “Nicholas V” (Dum Diversas, 1452 and Romanus Pontifex, 1454), and “Callixtus III” (Inter Caetera, 1456), (Thomas, pp. 64–66) ostensibly felt a “need to act forcefully against Islam, seen, after the fall of Constantinople, as now menacing Italy itself” (66). But it was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 which left the pope “the uncontested first prince of Christendom” (65). The slave trade was, in its beginnings, purely a Roman Catholic enterprise.

Fewer than “5-6%” of all Africans who came to the New World came to North America. “By 1820, nearly 10.1 million slaves had departed from Africa for the New World” (Davis, p. 80). “Yet the region that became the United States … received less than 4 percent of the slaves shipped to the New World” (Davis, p. 61). But conditions were such that these thrived to the degree that “by 1850 over 30 percent of the African New World diaspora” lived here.

This is not to say that there wasn’t “inhuman” treatment of some – even of many slaves. But inhuman treatment was rampant everywhere, at all times prior to the 20th century. Ancient Rome first captured its empire and then protected its borders by brutal, even savage means (though couched in “honor”, as it was at the time). This empire fell through invasions of external peoples who attacked, raped, pillaged, and enslaved those they conquered every bit as brutally.

That is just human-on-human treatment, and it’s not to take into consideration at all treatment by nature through “climate”, famine, disease, wild animals, and other ravages of nature. By those standards, no human being faces “oppression” today. You might say we are all (even the most “intersectional” among us) “living the dream”.

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