Was slavery a bad thing?
Was slavery a common thing?
Just about every society up to and just past the steam engine had slavery. True, it might have been villeinage, serfdom, rather than pure chattel slavery but yes, it existed pretty much everywhere and when.
There’s not even anything wholly different about the Atlantic trade in the chattel slavery of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. The trans-Saharan trade predated it and outlived it. The East African trade most certainly outlived it – there were episodes of the Royal Navy capturing slavers in the 1920s.
That Atlantic trade also wasn’t a “white” thing. Near no European buying slaves on the coast of Africa went more than a few miles inland. On the reasonable basis that most who did died. Therefore it was locals selling other locals into that slavery on those boats. And in the absence of the boats the slavery had already existed and continued to do so too.
But still a bad thing and we’re all glad it stopped. And while we all laud Wilberforce for that there’s a very decent amount of praise that should go to Newcomen and Watt.
And then there are stupid arguments about the whole thing:
The footprints of slavery, and the profits it bequeathed to generations, still shape the present. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans. Not one of them got a penny. Instead, the British government paid out today’s equivalent of £16bn to former slave owners to “compensate” them for their loss of “property”, a national debt that took until 2015 to be paid off. Yes, that means the descendants of slaves here in the UK were, until just four years ago, paying off slave owners for their ancestors’ freedom. Britons today aren’t directly responsible for the actions of their ancestors, but we are responsible for making the consequences of their wrongful actions right – starting with recognising how history and a culture rooted in supremacy feed into modern-day injustice.
Arguable but we’ll take it, arguendo.
Today in Britain, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people are more than three times more likely than white British people to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
And that’s idiocy. The effect of slavery on the never enslaved is clearly going to be nothing.
Oddly, just yesterday I was interviewed by NPR on this very subject of reparations. They described me as a “leading voice” on the subject. A leading voice against them that is. Which is seriously weird – for me to be a leading voice on anything there must be very few people indeed involved.
Rates of prosecution and sentencing for black people are three times higher than for white people. Unemployment rates are significantly higher for ethnic minorities; from mental health to education, crime to housing, there are enduring inequalities. The question, then, is why? Could it be that the supremacist beliefs that shaped slavery and colonialism did not simply evaporate in 1833?
We could of course employ Occam’s shaving kit. Recent immigrants tend to be poorer than indigenes. Does that explain that Pakistani and Bangladeshi position? Why, yes, it does. Do we need anything more to explain it? No, we don’t. Thus in a shower of soap foam that worry disappears then, doesn’t it?
As the Jamaican-American philosopher Charles W Mills points out, while other political ideologies are acknowledged – socialism, capitalism, fascism – we consistently fail to name the ideology that forged global European imperialism: white supremacy.
As Jared Diamond pointed out at length it was technological supremacy – itself driven by geographic circumstances. It never was going to be the Americas which invaded Europe, whatever the genes of the people, it was always going to be the other way around. So too with Eurasia and Africa.
Dr Myriam François is a research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, Soas University of London, and founder of the blog We Need to Talk about Whiteness
As ever, don’t go to SOAS if you want to learn anything useful.