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The often ignored back story of slavery in America.

July 6, 2015

It is fashionable or perhaps simply profitable in some circles to construct a narrative that everything about America is bad, motivated by a hatred of all people not white.

From online pundits that maintain that America should still be under British rule to college professors who are reportedly teaching that all white people are racists,  America-bashing is very trendy.

Perhaps that’s why people rallied on America’s birthday to talk and demonstrate about a flag that to some symbolizes slavery, and to others, resistance to the crushing overreach of the Federal government. The Confederate flag was about more than just slavery at the time it first flew.

A (very) short historical synopsis

To listen to the current chorus of racial issue commentators, you would think that the United States was the sole creator,  source and promulgator of slavery.

Exploring the origins of slavery in North America beyond that rhetoric reveals some inconvenient truths.

It is likely that if you’re breathing, your ancestors probably had something to do with the rise of the organized intercontinental trafficking in slaves. That gives Ben Affleck a lot of company.

As reported by the National Park Service, largely quoting Eltis et al, the primary purchasers of slaves for the European slave markets from 1519 to 1799 were the Portuguese, British and the Spanish. At the time the French ceded Louisiana to the Spanish, there were more African slaves than whites in residence.

The primary original suppliers of slaves were tribal chieftains in the West Central Africa  region, and the source at least prior to 1519, was from captured prisoners originally resulting from inter-tribal conflicts between various African tribes.

That union of willing sellers with willing buyers created the transatlantic slave trade.

Once the Americas started to become colonies of the British, Spanish, Portuguese and French, the slave trade supplied slaves to the colonies as well. Interestingly, South America received the majority of  the imported slaves, disembarking 41% of all the slave shipments over the 300 year existence of the transatlantic slave trade, while British North American ports received 29% of the supply.

If you were a colony of any of the principal slave trading nations, you got slaves, whether you wanted them or not.

In short, if you claim African, British, Spanish or Portuguese ancestry, as well as  descendants of the Dutch and a few other European countries, your ancestors were probably directly or indirectly responsible for or at least acquiescent to the enslavement of millions of Africans.

The origin of the early North American colonial population was largely England and Spain. Given that  it wasn’t until after the American Revolution and the formation of the United States that the importation of slaves was constitutionally banned in 1807,  it’s a bit hard to see why we allow the false narrative that America invented the slave trade to continue.

The reason the practice of slavery endured longer in the American South than the North was largely due to the highly agricultural economy of the South. Slaves (and indentured servants) were imported primarily to provide labor for the tobacco and cotton farms, crops that only flourished in the warmer southern climates.

An often ignored component of the Civil War was that the South needed manpower. The move to outlaw slavery was seen by some in the South  as a way for the North to ruin the Southern economy so that Northern businessmen could control production and thus prices of raw goods. The secessionist states had a lot more at stake than just the ownership of slaves.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that if technology and mechanization had reached these agricultural economies sooner, slavery might have gone away peacefully, the way other obsolete production methods did in the North.

Farmers then as now were constantly looking for ways to plant, grow and harvest crops more efficiently. Replacing a person that could harvest 100 bushels of corn in 40 hours with a tractor that could do the job in a quarter to a tenth of that time would have made the need for human labor, whether slave or free, less necessary just it has today..

Unfortunately, tractors and mechanized harvesters weren’t in common use until the early years of the 20th century.

The issue of slavery was such a compelling social rallying point on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line that farmers who might have been happy to let the practice die out on its own found themselves defending a way of life that even they knew couldn’t endure forever. (See sidebar below.)

Modern day slavery exists

Slavery hasn’t exactly vanished even in the 21st-century world, and is still being publicly practiced by various terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram and ISIS right up to the present day. Human traffickers of today are the modern-day equivalent of the slave traders of past history and now as then, they are certainly not all Caucasian.

There is nothing attractive or defensible about slavery, whether it occurred in 1519, 1860 or now in 2015.

What is even less defensible is to keep alive the same inter-tribal, interracial conflicts that started it in the first place.

It is permissible to dislike someone. There is not and never has been a way to force all people to love each other.

A wise man once said “A bad person doesn’t have a color, a shape or a religion. It is the content of their character,  not the color of their skin that makes them behave badly.”

Judging people by that standard, the world has a long way to go to approach perfection, and we all live in glass houses.

In 2015, it is fitting to retire the Confederate flag to its proper place in history, so long as that history is honestly credited for its existence.


Sidebar: This writer’s grandmother was born in Mississippi just 15 years after the Civil War ended.  She had in her possession some dozen letters, some of them 10 pages or more,  written by and to a relative detailing the efforts by some landowners to effect a more reasoned solution to ending slavery by phasing it out over time.

Plainly evident was the opinion that wealthy northern business interests were using the moral issue of slavery to coerce President Lincoln into ending it, primarily to destroy the southern monopoly on the pricing and delivery of cotton and tobacco.

This is partly substantiated by the reversal (today we would call it a flip-flop) of Lincoln’s personal views that full equality would permit interracial marriages, something he did not support as a first-time candidate.

One of the letters in particular stuck with me. I used quotes from it in a report for a history class.  Dated in 1858, the correspondent, writing to my great-great uncle, plainly stated that “…no one in their right mind wants to support these over-breeding and under-producing (n-word) if there be a better alternative. I would happily deliver them to Charleston tomorrow and place them on a ship to return them from whence they came, had I no further need for them.”

It was with the deepest regret that I discovered after her death in 1972 that these letters were apparently destroyed when her executor cleaned out her home.

From → op-ed

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