Question/answers about my article on the slave trade

(Click here to view the article)

Q: African Americans are still victims of a misinformation campaign to downplay our tragedy. Honestly, today (2005) i find more misinformation on the other side. The descendants of the white slave owners are fully aware of what their ancestors did. But precious few descendants of the African kingdoms that sold the slaves to Arabs and Europeans are aware of it. In fact, many whites (even whites of countries like Ireland and Austria that never engaged in the Atlantic slave trade) feel that they share the moral responsibility. How many Ghanans or Congolese feel the same way?

The tragedy of African-Americans is possibly the most publicized tragedy in the history of humankind, both in movies and books, not to mention laws. (There is no law in Germany that checks how many Jews are hired by a company, but there is a law in the USA that checks how many African-Americans are hired by a company). This tragedy has been simplified in a way that may reduce it to a mere Hollywood stereotype. I suspect the victims of those slave markets in Ghana are not too proud that their descendants routinely curse against the land that gave them a much better life than they would have had in Ghana but never curse against the land that turned them into slaves and threw them into a boat. If blame has to be shared, let all share it. But it seems to me that the blame has traditionally been placed mostly on only one side: the side that, basically, accepted it.

Q: Whites thought of blacks as voiceless beasts of burden.

Just to be fair, let's mention the timeframe: 17th-18th century (before the USA was born). Until roughly 1750, almost nobody found anything wrong with slavery. But in the 19th century moral opposition to slavery was already widespread in both the newly born USA and in the western European states (Britain, France, Spain, Holland, Portugal) that had practiced it. Even slave owners like Washington were ideologically opposed to the idea, even though they did not do much to fight it in real life. As you know, they were also many black slave owners (free blacks who owned black slaves): they too must have felt it was wrong, but apparently couldn't help it. On the other hand, opposition to slavery was never particularly strong in Africa itself, where slavery is slowly being eradicated only in our time. I seriously suspect that slavery would have remained common in most African kingdoms until this day: what killed slavery in Africa was that all those African kingdoms became colonies of western European countries that (for one reason or another) eventually decided to outlaw slavery. Otherwise my sense is that those African kingdoms would have continued the way they had done before. Just check the way all those African dictators behaved the moment they had the power. Thus my conclusion is that, if we have to assign an "inventor" to this kind of slavery, it was invented in Africa by Africans. We will never exactly know who and where. Arabs and Europeans (and, later, USA) simply took advantage of it for their purposes.

Q: A cruel majority of whites believed that blacks were subhuman.

I disagree. It was a cruel minority, in many parts of the USA and in every European country. By the end of the 19th century, the majority of the USA population was made of poor immigrants, many of whom never saw a black man in their entire lives because these whites "were" the slaves of the area where they worked. The average white man could care less about blacks, slaves, or, for that matter, democracy or freedom: he was too busy trying to survive and feed his family. There was no need for black slaves in the new industrial towns of the north because there was plenty of cheap immigrants from Europe (Ireland, Poland, Italy, even Scandinavia). Of course there were areas and times in which your statement is true. But you should specify the time and the place you are referring to. The number of slave owners was never a majority in any of the countries that allowed slavery (Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, USA). In 1860 there were 385,000 USA citizens who owned slaves. That is about 1.4% of the white population (there were 27 million whites in the USA). That percentage was zero in the states that did not allow slavery (only 8 million of the 27 million whites lived in states that allowed slavery). Incidentally, in 1830 about 25% of the free Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves: that is a much higher percentage (ten times more) than the number of white slave owners. The only other area for which i could find reliable data is New Orleans, where the percentage of free blacks who owned slaves was 28%, very similar. Thus your use of the word "majority" is unfair at best. It was a tiny minority (1.4%) and it was not only whites, but "almost anybody who could".

Q: No other slaves were denied their culture in the same way as African slaves in the United States were.

Debatable. I am not aware of an organized state-driven campaign to eradicate the culture of African slaves in the USA. So much so that today the USA has inherited a vast repertory of African culture from its former slaves (just think of blues/jazz/rap and of the sexual revolution).

Q: It is irresponsible to try and justify the African slave trade by white Europeans.

A: First of all, my article does not justify the slave trade, whether carried out by whites or blacks or anybody else. It simply states the facts. Secondly, it is your statement that is a little racist, and these racist views are so pervasive that they deserve a comment (particularly in a failed educational system such as the USA, where people can hardly tell Paris from London, or Asia from Africa). White Europeans include Russians (who never traded African slaves), Polish, southern Slavs (who were used as slaves by the Romans - the word "slave" comes from "Slavic"), Scandinavians, Austrians (the most powerful country in white Europe in the 16th/17th century, but did not engage in the slave trade), Greeks, etc etc. None of these bought slaves in Africa and sold them in America. Not even Germany (Germany and Italy didn't even exist when the slave trade was booming). You dump all of them (just because of the color of their skin) into one category (white slave traders) because five nations (that happen to share the same color of the skin) engaged in the trade slave. On the other hand you want me to ignore that the vast majority of slave-trading countries were in Africa and in the Arab world.
Q: The slave trade was perpetuated by white Europeans. Technically speaking, this is false. The vast majority of white european nations never traded a single African slave. On the contrary, some Africans became Roman senators, and some Africans became popes: Romans had no preconception against blacks. The color of the skin was totally negligible throughout the centuries. The slaves of the Roman world were (surprise) white Europeans (especially Slavs, which explains the origin of the word "slave"): the "barbarians" of which the Roman books talk were not Africans but the people of the Balkans and of the north, all of them white. The slaves of the middle ages were (alas) anyone caught by pirates, mostly white. The idea that slaves are "black" was an African and especially Arab invention. Black nations of Africa traded black slaves. Arabs imported African blacks for slavery, because blacks were pretty much the only slaves available on the market. For a long time the European nations had no notion of racial difference, only of cultural differences (the barbarians were barbarian because they couldn't read and write).
Q: These Europeans ignored opportunity after opportunity to end the slave trade. A: This is also false, even if referred to the countries that engaged in the slave trade. The European countries were the first (not the last) to abolish the slave trade. The slave trade is still legal today (1998) in some African countries (notably Sudan and Mauritania) and in some Middle-eastern countries (notably in Saudi Arabia). Europe was the place where the abolitionist movement started, and the first continent to abolish slavery.
Q: Whites did not outlaw the slave trade even while drafting the United States Constitution. A: You forget to mention that a) most countries of the time did NOT have a constitution: they were run by tyrants that happily engaged in all sorts of slave trades; b) even among the few countries of the time that had a constitution, NONE (nobody) had an article outlawing the slave trade. You either dishonest or ignorant. You should write "No country in the world (in any of the continents) outlawed slavery at the time".

That said, my article was certainly not meant to justify anyone's slave trade. On the other hand, you seem to excuse the black slave trade by trying to distort history, absolve the (African) nations that started it and the nations that exploited it for several centuries (the Arabs) before some Europeans nations became the masters of it. Nothing excuses those European nations, but, apparently, you think that the only people who are guilty of the slave trade are all the people of white skin, regardless of whether their ancestors traded or did not trade slaves, whereas, according to you, the non-white countries that traded slaves for several centuries should be forgiven (as long as their skin is not white). Personally, i have no interest in placing blame here or there. I am interested in the truth.

Q: You end up blaming the victims of the slave trade. A: I disagree: my article doesn't "blame the victims". The problem, in my opinion, is that you have a nationalistic view of Africans: if i blame one African, then i'm blaming all Africans. I am "blaming" the African kingdoms that started the slave trade. That does not mean that i blame the Africans who were sold as slaves. Just like i blame the current president of the USA for being an idiot but that doesn't mean that all Texans are idiots.
Q: As an African-American, I am still paying the price for the slave trade that enslaved and deported my ancestors. This is another thorny subject (and i am always afraid that my words can be misused by right-wing fanatics), but i find it puzzling that African-americans complain about the slave trade as an unfortunate event. It was unfortunate for your ancestors (no question), but not for you: without the slave trade, you would probably not exist, because your ancestors or your parents would have died a long time ago. Life expectancy among African-Americans has always been a lot higher than life expectancy among Africans, and today the difference is galactic: you enjoy hygienic conditions and hospitals that most Africans can only dream of. In most of Africa an ambulance is a luxury, and surgeons operate with primitive equipment. Even clean water and electricity used to be a luxury until recently. You are a lot richer and freer than any African citizen. It is true that millions died in the slave trade, but let's not forget that many more died (and are still dying, see this page) because they remained in Africa: dozens of civil wars and genocides have been committed in Africa after your ancestors were shipped to the USA. The descendants of those poor ancestors of yours were certainly treated horrible in the USA, but they escaped all those genocides and civil wars. It is hard to tell what was best for those descendants, including you. As cynical as it sounds, you may be better off as the descendant of a slave than as the descendant of someone who was not enslaved (or was enslaved by an African master).

Incidentally, every European was a slave at one point or another. The Greeks took slaves from the Eastern European barbarians. The Romans took slaves from France, Spain, Balkans, Germany, etc etc etc. I suspect there is no nation in the world that was not enslaved at one point or another. What is the difference between you and me? My ancestors were also slaves at some point. Where is the difference? The difference is that your ancestors were enslaved by the country that would go on to become the most powerful in the world, and today you are a citizen of that country. My ancestors were enslaved by the decaying Roman empire and today i am a lot less powerful, free and rich than you. What are the odds that one of my race becomes the most powerful person in the world? Close to zero. What are the odds that an African-American becomes the most powerful person in the world? Quite high, actually (think Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell). So don't forget that everybody was a slave at one point or another. Slavery was pervasive in all civilizations. India has castes which are even worse (they last for eternity). We were all slaves at one point or another. You can hardly say "my race was not lucky". No race was lucky. From the point of view of the rest of the world, African-Americans are the lucky ones. Millions of people from the rest of the world want to be "enslaved" by the USA (migrate to the USA). If you go to any US embassy in Africa, you will see the long long long line of people camping on the sidewalk, waiting to get in an apply for a visa to the very country where their ancestors were NOT deported. You, on the other hand, and millions of African-Americans, never dreamed of applying for a visa to relocate back to Africa, did you? History is cruelly funny sometimes.

Q: I think America needs to apologize and compensate. A: Just a couple of observations. America is a continent, from Argentina to Canada. You are probably referring to the USA, which is NOT the whole of America. But slaves were also imported into Brazil (that's where it started, actually), the French colonies and many other places. Second, the USA includes Native-Americans, Hispanics, Italians, Irish, Polish, etc etc. You are probably referring to the people who had the economic power when the USA was born, which did NOT include poor immigrants from poor countries, who never had anything to do with the slave trade. So at the end of the day, it is not clear who should apologize and compensate.

I also wonder if African-Americans should apologize and compensate for all the crimes ever committed by African-American people against others. Thousands of murders and robberies have been committed by African-Americans. This sounds like a silly statement to me, but i am simply following your logic that the future generations of a race are responsible for what some people of that race did in the past.

Q: Are you saying that the slave trade was the fault of the African people? I agree the Arabs and Europeans+ contributed to the slave trade, but the USA and its xenophobia have also played a major role in the rest of the story. A: Yes, Africans certainly have great responsibilities for the slave trade, but the word "African" is really an over-over-over-simplification. The real racist thing is to talk of "Africans" as if they were one little tribe somewhere. They were and are a continent. And that continent had states, kingdoms, empires, etc. It had dictators, armies, etc, just like any other continent. Some African kings made money by selling prisoners to other kingdoms. Eventually they started selling people to the Portuguese (who needed cheap manpower in Brazil) and that started the Atlantic slave trade (one of the many slave trades, not the only one, unfortunately). In today's racist world, this step is summarized as "blacks sell to whites" or "whites deport blacks" and so on. But in those days it was simply one state selling something to another state, and the color of the skin was not that important (alas, the fact that they were humans was also not very important).

The USA were born in 1776, when the slave trade was dwindling down. The Atlantic slave trade (although it is, again, a little racist to ignore all other slave trades, as if Africans were more "human" than Slavs or Chinese) mainly occurred between the 1520s and 1800. Most of the slaves were already in the USA when the USA was born. (Yes, i know: Hollywood movies show US ships carrying slaves from Africa, but please don't confuse movies with history).

Blaming the USA as a whole for something that the original USA did, is also a little racist (and plainly ridiculous): today the US population includes millions (tens of millions) of Cubans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Italians, Irish, Polish, Mexicans, etc etc whose ancestors had nothing to do with the slave trade. Is my friend Rod Leng guilty of the slave trade because his very poor grandfather emigrated from China to a country that used to have slaves? If so, then everybody in the world is guilty of horrible things, because it's difficult to find a place where horrible things never happened.

I'm not interested in assigning blame. I don't blame today's Germans for deporting my father to Auschwitz, like i hope that the French don't blame me for Caesar's invasion of Gaul. I just state the facts.

Q: It is a bit misleading to imply that the foundation of slavery rests solely on Africans themselves. Slavery has been pervasive in all societies since ancient time. Europe, Africa, Asia, Americas... Q: You mention several times about the trade between Africans and Muslims, but you failed to fully discuss the status of the slaves in Islamic territories. Slaves could rise in status, True. I don't know which article you are reading, but i discussed at length the status of slaves in Islamic society. Islamic society is the one that turned slavery into a science. There would have been no Atlantic slave trade without Islam because, before Islam, slavery was not such a profitable trade. Before Islam, very few got rich trading slaves. After Islam, everybody got rich trading slaves. Q: It only introduced Africa to apartheid, famine, and poverty. Allow me to disagree: these were already endemic in Africa (and in Europe and in Asia and in the Americas). You greatly overestimate the freedom and wealth of the world before 1900. The vast majority of people of this planet (from London to New York to Rio to Cape Town) starved to death, died like flies of all sorts of diseases, and lived under totalitarian regimes. Race relations are tense and often times misunderstood. If i had to list the countries where race relations are worst, i would have to start with several areas of black Africa (ever heard of the genocide in Rwanda?) and the Middle East (check out Iraq), where tribes truly hate each other and gladly mass-murder each other (and slavery is still practiced). Then Russia and Eastern Europe, where there are still strong nationalist feelings (ergo the civil war in Yugoslavia and the Russian genocide in Chechnya). We live in the age in which multinational empires are collapsing and countries are torn apart by sectarian violence, so race relations are clearly an issue. Race relations are relatively good in the West, where violent genocidal racism does not exist anymore. We could discuss why the West is the exception to the widespread resurgence of tribal hatred. Q: ...the 20 million plus documented cases of people dying as a result of slavery at the hands of American abuse... By "American" do you mean USA? (America is a continent extending from Canada to Argentina, and Americans resent that USA citizens call themselves "Americans" as if the rest of America did not exist or was just a province of the USA). If so, then 20 million is way too many. Not documented at all. It must be a figure from a Hollywood movie. The USA entered the slave trade at the very end, when it was almost over, and when it was becoming a much more humane business. The documented number of deaths on US ships is very small. It wouldn't make capitalistic sense in the first place: slaves were valuable goods and the trip from Africa was expensive, so nobody had any interest in a slave dying on a ship. (Unlike in previous centuries, when slaves were cheap and thus disposable). The slaves of the USA era (post 1776) lived in plantations that provided them with basic health care and plenty of food. The massacres occurred way before the USA was founded. To put things in perspective, the USA traded in its entire history 300,000 African slaves. Portugal alone traded 4.5 million African slaves.
I agree with what Ralph Sibande wrote to me: Your article on the African and Arab origins of slavery is accurate. Indeed Africans are responsible for slavery of their own people.

What made the American slavery unique are the following issues:

(a) It was no longer slavery in the ancient understanding of the concept. A slave in Rome could buy his or her freedom. A Greek slave in Rome could teach his masters children or even be responsible for apportioning his masters estate (hence "auditare" and audit)

(b) It was characterized by extreme cruelty. The storage and transport of blacks across the Atlantic was extremely cruel and barbaric. It was never done anywhere anytime by anyone on such a systematic scale before (form 1854 to 1865) for such a long time.

(c) It stole people and systematically dehumanized them and made them into possessions or just like livestock.

- Denial to use home language.

- Theft of human beings and deliberate splitting of family bonds.

- Separating and selling of human beings.

- Extortion of free labour.

- Sexual abuse and rape.

(d) For more than 200 years creating a "free" agricultural sector worked for free by human beings and making immense capital out of it.

(e) Considering that the English did all this while they had full comprehension of the enormity of their deeds, that is why eventually its defence could not be sustained by religion, morality, or reason.

(f) Between the 17th and 20th century, western intellectuals wrote numerous articles and scientific papers justifying the inferiority of black people. This belief was defended even on the pulpit. It ceased to be just slavery, it became institutional genocide of a race.

The word slavery does not even begin to describe what went on in America and the West Indies. It was more than just slavery. We have never seen it practiced anywhere by anyone in that particular manner. With due respect it was a holocaust. And many Americans benefited from the free labour of slaves for more than 200 years. The miracle is to hear white Americans trying to belittle this dark chapter in their history and downplay it.

It is very difficult to be famous for wrong and immoral deeds.

What’s unique is how English colonists and Americans did with "slavery" and that has earned them the eternal opprobrium of the civilized world for all times because they knew better, and had the intellectual resources and spiritual resources to know that they had overstepped the line.