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Slavery in Perspective

May 31, 2001

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.

[Breaker quote: Start with the 
numbers.]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.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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