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 slavery.
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 form.
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 unquestioned
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 practice.
“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 cooperation
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 Africans).
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 Americans.”
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 regimented.
“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.