Saturday, March 31, 2007

On slavery

On the occasion of the anniversary of William Wilberforce's success and the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, Steve Burton at Right Reason asks how the history of slavery is being taught these days:
....[T]here are two going narratives of the history of slavery.

Narrative # 1: Once upon a time, Africans lived in peace, harmony and one-ness with the earth. They even built great civilizations, like the Kingdom of Dahomey.

But then the White Devils appeared. Because they were so evil, and so aggressive, they slaughtered without let or hindrance, and enslaved everyone they did not slaughter. And then they built what they called their "civilization" on the gigantic profits that accrued from the labor of their African slaves.

Narrative # 2: The practice of slavery is older than history. It was absolutely endemic to the ancient world. Ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, the Maya, the Aztecs - you name it. It's actually quite difficult to come up with any civilizations that did not practice it. And it's even more difficult to come up with any civilizations that felt the least bit guilty about it. Even the early Christians took it for granted as part of the natural order of things - though St. Paul famously admonished slave-owners to treat their slaves kindly.

Sub-saharan Africa, so far as we can determine, was pretty typical. Then as now, it was a land of perpetually warring tribes and petty kingdoms, which routinely enslaved their prisoners. Some were kept, used and abused, others were sold.

Among the most enthusiastic buyers were the Arabs, who were already trading in African slaves by the time of Mohammed - who was himself a slave-owner. By the time Europeans got back into the act, in the 16th century, many millions of African slaves had already been sold to Arab masters. The Arabs also enslaved a great many slavs (whence the word "slave") and Western Europeans.

Meanwhile, European Christians were slowly abolishing the practice of slavery.

They began by abolishing it amongst themselves.

For a couple of centuries, the worst amongst them got involved in the ongoing African/Arab trade. But the best amongst them opposed it from the beginning, and ended by abolishing it altogether - despite the objections of wealthy and powerful interests.

It took them hundreds of years, but they - and only they - eventually did it.

They even managed to stamp the practice out (temporarily, at least) in their colonial possessions in Africa and the Middle East.

It was among the greatest moral advances in all of human history.

* * * * *

So. Which of the above narratives is the more "reality-based?"
Source: Right Reason: Slavery Narratives

“Imperialism, sexism, and racism, are not European inventions,
but European words, without which the evils they refer to would never
have been challenged.”
Bernard Lewis, 1995

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.