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Uniquely Bad—But Not Uniquely American

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books and culture

Uniquely Bad—But Not Uniquely American

For much of history, slavery was as fundamental to society as agriculture. October 16, 2020
The Social Order

The 1619 Project has not been having an easy time of it. Ever since the Pulitzer Prize-winning essays first appeared in the New York Times in August 2019, historians have been chipping away at some of the central claims. No, they’ve shown, protecting slavery was not the primary motive of the American revolutionaries when they broke away from Britain in 1776. No, the arrival of 20 African slaves at Jamestown was not when the country “began.”

The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was at first boldly dismissive of the attacks, but she has more recently been going through contortions to insist that she didn’t say what she demonstrably said; she has even erased her Twitter feed. The New York Times has likewise done some stealth editing of its own, altering some of the more controversial assertions in the online edition. A few weeks ago, President Trump himself went on the attack.

I’d like to propose adding another reason to close the book on the 1619 Project: it is based on a twisted notion of American exceptionalism. America’s “brutal system of slavery [was] unlike anything that had existed in the world before,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.” Brutal? Yes. Unlike anything that existed in the world before? Seeing how far this is from the truth is the only way to make sense of the contradictions and perplexing compromises of the American Founding that trouble us so much today.

In fact, slavery was a mundane fact in most human civilizations, neither questioned nor much thought about. It appeared in the earliest settlements of Sumer, Babylonia, China, and Egypt, and it continues in many parts of the world to this day. Far from grappling with whether slavery should be legal, the code of Hammurabi, civilization’s first known legal text, simply defines appropriate punishments for recalcitrant slaves (cutting off their ears) or those who help them escape (death). Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament take for granted the existence of slaves. Slavery was so firmly established in ancient Greece that Plato could not imagine his ideal Republic without them, though he rejected the idea of individual ownership in favor of state control. As for Rome, well, Spartacus, anyone?

In the ancient world, slaves were almost always captives from the era’s endless wars of conquest. They were forced to do all the heavy labor required for building and sustaining cities and towns: clearing forests; building roads, temples, and palaces; digging and transporting stone; hoeing fields; rowing galley ships; and marching to almost-certain death in the front line of battle. Women (and often enough boy) slaves had the task of servicing the sexual appetites of their masters. None of that changed with the arrival of a new millennium. Gaelic tribes took advantage of the fall of the Roman Empire to raid the west coast of England and Wales for strong bodies; one belonged to a 16-year-old later anointed St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. “In the slavery business, no tribe was fiercer or more feared than the Irish,” writes Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Today, of course, the immorality of slave-owning is as clear as day. But in the premodern world, no neat division existed between evil slaveowners and their innocent victims. Once the Vikings arrived in their longboats in the 700s, the Irish enslavers found themselves the enslaved. Slavery became the commanding height of the Viking economy; Norsemen raided coastal villages across Europe and brought their captives to Dublin, which became one of the largest slave markets of the time. The Vikings thought of their slaves as more like cattle than people; the unlucky victims had to sleep alongside the domestic animals, according to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Norsemen rounded up captured Irish men and women to settle the desolate landscape of Iceland; scientists have found Irish DNA in present-day Icelanders, a legacy of that time. The Slavic tribes in Eastern Europe were an especially fertile supplier for Viking slave traders as well as for Muslim dealers from Spain: their Latin name gave us the word slave. Slavs were evidently not deterred by the misery they must have suffered; when Viking power waned by the twelfth century, the Slavs turned around and enslaved Vikings as well as Greeks.

Slavery was a normal state of affairs well beyond the territory we now call Europe. The Mayans had slaves; the Aztecs harnessed the labor of captives to build their temples and then serve as human sacrifices at the altars they had helped construct. The ancient Near East and Asia Minor were chockfull of slaves, mostly from East Africa. According to eminent slavery scholar Orlando Patterson, East Africa was plundered for human chattel as far back as 1580 BC. Muhammad called for compassion for the enslaved, but that didn’t stop his followers from expanding their search for chattel beyond the east coast into the interior of Africa, where the trade flourished for many centuries before those first West Africans arrived in Jamestown. Throughout that time, African kings and merchants grew rich from capturing and selling the millions of African slaves sent through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to Persians and Ottomans.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the North African Barbary coast was a hub for “white slavery.” This episode was relatively short-lived in the global history of slavery, but one with overlooked impact on Western culture. Around 1619, just as the first Africans were being sailed from the African coast to Jamestown, Algerian and Tunisian pirates, or “corsairs” as they were known, were using their boats to raid seaside villages on the Mediterranean and Atlantic for slaves who happened in this case to be white. In 1631, Ottoman pirates sacked Baltimore on the southern coast of Ireland, capturing and enslaving the villagers. Around the same time, Iceland was raided by Barbary corsairs who took hundreds of prisoners, selling them into lifetime bondage.

Large stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were emptied as those inhabitants who hadn’t been sent to slave markets fled to safety. Miguel Cervantes was one of those captured; enslaved by Algerians for five years, he returned repeatedly to the trauma in his writings, including his masterpiece Don Quixote. In Robinson Crusoe, the fictional hero is captured by pirates and enslaved in Morocco for two years, before escaping and, with no apparent hesitation, deciding to become a slave trader himself. One 1640 investigation estimated that more than 5,000 English citizens were being held as slaves in North Africa. Amazingly, ten American ships were seized and their passengers enslaved after the nation was founded. The American abolitionist senator Charles Sumner wrote a remarkable short treatise about the white Christians enslaved along the Barbary coast, speculating that outrage over the practice inspired some Americans to notice the evil that they were perpetrating on Africans in their own country.

Some of the few who have noticed this history protest that American slavery was more vicious than other forms. It’s true that some of the ancients and the Barbary Coast masters had a kind of slavery lite for a fortunate few: house slaves could sometimes marry freeborn women and work as skilled artisans or tutors for the children of their owners. Manumission was fairly common among the Greeks and Romans, though that was a minor decision for them; there was always more territory to seize for their empires, and they could quickly repopulate their slave quarters.

Make no mistake, though: slaves were always considered property to be traded, bought, and sold. For millennia, wherever people were buying and selling things, slave markets existed. “Slaves were the closest thing to a universal currency in trading centers,” observes Steven Johnson in his recent book about piracy, The Enemy of All Mankind. Joseph Pitts, an English boy seized by Barbary pirates in the seventeenth century, wrote of a Cairo market: “The slaves are examined much like animals; buyers are allowed to check their teeth, muscles, and stature to get an idea of the overall health of a slave.” David Brion Davis explains: “While African slaves did grueling labor on sugar and cotton plantations in the Americas, European Christian slaves were often worked just as hard and as lethally—in quarries, in heavy construction, and above all rowing the corsair galleys themselves.”

Slavery’s long, cosmopolitan history is ignored by the architects of the 1619 Project. That oversight matters, but not because it would ameliorate the horror of the practice in the United States. No one can erase slavery’s lasting impact on our politics and identity or ease contemporary racial inequalities, entwined, however distantly, with the country’s slave past.

But slavery’s history does suggest two facts that can bring more clarity to how America, the land of the free, tolerated bondage: first, slavery, brutal and repulsive as we rightly believe it to be, was as much a part of ancient and early modern history as farming. And second: widespread revulsion against slavery came relatively late in the human story.

When the first African slaves were stepping off the boat onto American soil in 1619, and as Europeans were being steered into the slave markets of Algiers, there had been only scattered, regional, and temporary gestures toward abolishing the global practice of human bondage: a Greek philosopher here, an Indian emperor there; prohibition against trading in one area, edicts against owning a co-religionist in another. Slavery had been gradually disappearing from France and England by the twelfth century, but less because those civilizations were developing a modern conception of universal human rights than because tribes were coalescing into cities and nations that were finding less appalling ways to harness cheap labor. The spread of Christianity may have played a role in some areas. Urged on by his archbishop, the otherwise ruthless William the Conqueror freed Saxon and Welsh slaves. Still, the early Church’s record on slavery was erratic at best. And centuries later, the English and French, like other Europeans, had little compunction about putting West Africans in chains and transporting them to their colonies in the Americas.

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that anti-slavery sentiment became enough of a moral force to exorcise the practice on a large scale in the West. Historians generally trace the origins of this revolution to two forces: first, secular, Enlightenment notions about the natural rights of man; and second, religious fervor among Quakers and later on, evangelical Christians. Quakers, the earliest abolitionists in both England and the American colonies, introduced the “Gradual Abolition Act of 1780,” the first such legislation in the West. Though it took more than a century and a horrific civil war to emancipate slaves in the United States, the abolitionist movement was a white Western invention. Other parts of the world remained wedded to slavery well into the twentieth century: slavery was legal in Ethiopia until 1942, in Saudi Arabia until 1963, and Mauritania until 1980. Today, one reads reports of slavery in Mauritania, Sudan, and in Islamist quasi-states in Iraq and Nigeria. As much as 15 percent of the population of Mauritania may be enslaved, according to the BBC. Estimates of those in bondage today run as high as 1 million people, mostly women and children.

What set America apart from other slaveholding societies, and what continues to curse the country to this day, was not slavery per se but its racialization. Slaves had always been inferior “others” in some way meaningful to each society: Greeks only used foreigners, or “barbarians,” as slaves; Christians justified enslaving pagans; Muslims did the same with infidels, even as they spared fellow Muslims; the Chinese enslaved Koreans, Turks, Persians, and Indonesians—and now the Uyghurs—but not ethnic Chinese. But after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to use smallpox-prone Indians as slave labor, Americans turned to a different “other”: Africans, who, thanks to the growing transatlantic slave trade, would now be available in huge numbers.

The advantage for slaveowners—but the affliction for both blacks and the country as a whole—is that race is a highly visible and tenacious dividing line between peoples. Escaped and freed slaves could not simply blend into the local population as they could in other parts of the world. Only 4 percent of the Africans who suffered through the middle passage across the Atlantic ended up in what would become the United States. The rest were sold in the Caribbean and Latin America, where, with the area’s large indigenous and Mestizo population, race was less binary than in the U.S. and the divisions between groups more flexible. Hereditary slavery was not unique to the U.S.—children were born slaves in the Roman empire and early on in the Caribbean and Latin America—but once color became the defining distinction between bonded and free, hereditary slavery made a certain awful sense.

So what should be our stance toward the immorality of our past? After a trip to Dublin in 2007, Danish culture minister Brian Mikkelsen scoffed at the idea of apologizing to the Irish people for the Vikings’ savagery in the Dark Ages, saying “we don’t apologize for what the Vikings did 1,000 years ago. That was the way you acted back then.” That position may make sense for an older civilization whose founding sins are hidden in the mists of ancient tribal history. In the relatively young, racially divided United States, it is inadequate.

But the minister hints at the reality that history presents us with a numbing array of opportunities for indignant judgement: wars of conquest, tortures, massacres, infanticide, beheadings, rapes, kidnappings, coercive and brutalizing labor, gulags, death camps, and so on. While we can and should condemn it all, that judgment has to be tempered by a certain knowing detachment, even humility, especially when we think about the more distant past. Consider that as the American Founders pondered the design of their new country in the 1770s, they were caught between two worlds—a past where human servitude was an unremarkable fact and a future, just taking shape, that condemned the idea as grossly immoral. James Madison grasped the contradictions of the moment: “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man,” he wrote. Deeply in debt, Madison couldn’t see his way to freeing his own slaves upon his death. It’s a decision deserving our censure. But it is hubris for any person today to assume that they themselves would have had the foresight, the freedom of mind and heart, or even the moral vocabulary, to side with the angels. Remember: even freed black slaves were known to purchase and own slaves.

In an excerpt in The Atlantic from his new book Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs describes Frederick Douglass’s struggle to come to grips with the achievement of the American Founding. No one knew better than this former slave the boundaries of that achievement. No one better understood the limits of the virtue of these men. But the self-taught Douglass understood the omnipresence of human cruelty and the rarity of freedom. Painful as it must have been for him to do so, he conceded about the men who had compromised away his freedom, that they “were great in their day and generation.”

To understand the truth of that qualified praise is to understand the complexities of our history—and of any history. And it is another level on which the 1619 Project fails utterly.

Photo: Circa 1910: Three Abyssinian slaves in iron collars and chains. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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