Flash! America Did Not Invent Slavery
The latest angle in the teaching of slave history in Florida schools is a semi-recant by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell for misstating Governor Ron DeSantis’ position on the subject. But she added that the governor “opposed the teaching of an African-American studies curriculum, as well as the use of some authors and source materials that some historians and teachers say makes it all but impossible for students to understand the broader historic and political context behind slavery and its aftermath in the years since.”
Ms. Mitchell likely refers to slavery in America, but she might have added that, contrary to some popular opinion, slavery was not invented in the American South. And the guilt complex that seems to annoy DeSantis should be properly distributed. So let us clarify the record. As a recent letter writer to the Sun-Sentinel pointed out, Europeans did not capture Africans and ship them to the Americas. White men were afraid to venture far from the West African coast because, among other things, they feared malaria, for which they had no immune protection. The slaves were captured by Africans themselves and brought to the coast and sold to the slave traders for transport. Often they were already slaves, captured in tribal warfare. One suspects that if the Africans had the ships, they would have cut out the European middlemen.
If brothers selling their racial brothers sounds abominably cruel, it wasn’t that unusual when Transatlantic Slavery began in the 15th century. Throughout recorded history, slavery had been a fact of life. European colonists did not introduce slavery to the Americas. It was already here. Some warlike American Indian tribes enslaved tribes they conquered, just as African tribes did.
In the old world, Greeks took slaves, often from North Africa. The Roman Empire was built on slavery. The Romans made slaves of much of Western Europe through their conquests, including the Bretons when they invaded what is now England. With time, the slaves became Romans.
The fact is that most people worked all day just to survive, and if you could force somebody else to do your work, well that’s just the way it was. Late in the western world’s slave era, Europeans appear to have justified slavery on the grounds that the slaves came from less culturally advanced societies. You might call it systemic racism. It was the case when Europeans encountered American Indians, whose tribes has no sense of European nationhood and had not yet learned to employ the wheel. Indians were not enslaved in any numbers in North America, but they were deprived of their lands.
The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of slavery in most of the world. Machines did the hard work, and gradually slavery was viewed in moral terms. Still, it was legal in most of the world until the early 1800s, about the same time as the debate began which ultimately led to the American Civil War.
And, since this is the season of St. Patrick, we might note that at the same time southern slavery was leading to war, the English domination of the Irish, which led to the great famine in which 1.5 million died, amounted to a polite form of slavery. The west of Ireland was dirt poor and survived on one breed of potato. The Irish had other crops, but when the potato crop failed, that potentially lifesaving food was forcefully exported to England.
And, of course, Germany and Japan in World War Two both enslaved many of the people they conquered. Nothing in the history of slavery rivals the Holocaust. Nor has slavery become extinct. Those who document such things say 40 million people today are effective slaves throughout the world.
This is not intended to endorse DeSantis’ pandering to the Trump cult and their prejudices, or the abuses of the prolonged Jim Crow era. But it does respond to Ms. Mitchell’s call for historical context – unpleasant as that may be.