Slavery Ancient and Modern

Originally posted on Facebook 11 Jul 2020

It is convenient to regard slavery as an historical issue, which ended when the seceding confederate states were conquered by Lincoln’s republicans. But that comfortable yankee fiction is belied by some W-D family anecdotes, or a quick glance at parts of the Middle East & North Africa.

As a young boy, my father asked my grandfather why he was going to the expensive local garage for petrol when a nearby alternative was much cheaper: ‘because the 1d/gallon petrol uses slaves’ was the explanation. I guess this was in the late 1920s.

In 1989, at the funeral of my uncle, Roy, his friend, Mark Sykes spoke of going with Roy to Timbuktu to ‘buy a cook’. It was 20 years later before, talking to Mark, I realised the cook was a slave. Mark (whose father was of Sykes-Picot eminence) is one of the most colourfully disreputable people I have known. Part of him was not only surprised, but slightly disappointed, that his last venture (and the only actually successful one), vanity publishing, was entirely legal.

The overthrow of Gadafi in 2011 was something that (failing to have learned anything from the second Iraq war) I thought would be a good thing. Instead Libya is reduced to rubble, amongst which there are slave markets. The slaves tend to be from sub-Saharan Africa, the owners and traders from Nothern Africa or the Middle East. This is actual slavery, people chained up, reduced to the state of someone else’s property, with this situation seen as according with the law.

The machinery of the state including the legal system, de facto, also supports the ownership claims made by ‘employers’ across the Middle East who lure impoverished people (often from Asia) with the promise of lucrative jobs. But, on arrival at their destination, the hapless workers have their passports stolen by their employers (de facto owners) and are told that they must work for years to repay the ‘debt’ for their flights, accommodation, etc. The construction of wondrous new cities in desert kingdoms and emirates has often been by slaves who, if they run away, will be detailed by the authorities, or returned to their captors.

A key attribute of slavery, beyond reward-free labour, is that the law does not give testimony by a slave the same weight that would be given to the word of a free person. This condition is suffered in the Middle East by imported domestic staff who suffer sexual abuse, but cannot report it to the police as, if anything happened at all, it would be the victims themselves being punished.  Horrifyingly a similar situation seems to have occurred recently in the U.K. with child (13yrs old) victims trafficked for rape by hundreds of men, who, on reporting the matter to a corrupt policeman, were punched, called a racist prostitute, and handed back to her torturers.

It is not only bent U.K. policemen that work to ensure children are sex slaves. As the 2010 film, ‘The Whistleblower’ portrayed, UN ‘peace keeping’ forces include men who use their above-the-law international status to enslave children and young women for rape.

Factory ships can become floating slave labour camps when they enter international waters: no escape is possible, and no one has jurisdiction to stop any abuse. Whatever the workers have been told to get them on to the ships, once there, the captain’s power is absolute.

On top of the myriad cases of actual slavery where humans are treated by their fellow humans not as people, but as possessions to be expended as the owners see fit, and without the protection of the law, there are the industries that rely on labour with pay / conditions that confine workers to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When there are headlines about Nike factories paying $1/day, how much worse is it likely to get for the people, often children, toiling to make unbranded clothing for sale in parts of the world where no one even thinks about the conditions in their supply chains?

If the horrors of slavery are to be eradicated, the first thing we must do is to acknowledge its ongoing existence. Having done that, I find it difficult to think that the liberation of these wretched souls should be treated as a side issue, or glossed over entirely, while we concern ourselves with our history’s long-dead slave owners, and their victims.

When we do have time to look at the history of slavery, it would be as well to avoid the American and British habit of assuming that our own history of slave ownership, and abolition, is the whole picture, or even most of it.

Our history has been written by, and about, slave owners, for the simple reason that Homo Sapiens first showed up about 315,000 years ago, and slavery was probably widespread from then until today. About thousand years ago, slavery was officially abolished in England though the serfdom that replaced it was not always a vast improvement. So we can be pretty certain that the wonders of the Ancient world were commissioned by slave owners, if not always built by slaves. Solomon in all his glory and wisdom enslaved people, he also caused The Temple to be built. Egypt’s pyramids, the Colosseum, parts of what is now the Vatican, Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s wall, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, The Alhambra, Heliopolis, Angkor Wat, in fact, most UNESCO world heritage sites, were slave-era creations. Next month, August, is named after slave-owner Augustus Cesar. We have weekdays named after Thor and Odin, by their followers who raided these isles and enslaved those they captured. The idea that we should pull down the products of slavery, hide the images of slave owners, and re-name anything from before 1833 in the U.K. before 1865 in the US, before the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Soviet Union, and to the present day in a China, would do nothing to help the victims of slavery, nor would it add to the virtue of those of us that have never owned slaves.

There is something remarkably comforting about repenting and apologising for the misdeeds of prior generations. It meets the natural human desire to make things better by putting wrongs to right. And it absolves the actor from having to admit, far less confront, the wrongs that they themselves have wrought, or been complicit in. This is why the present fad is not simply misdirected, but potentially very harmful.

I happen to think that the destruction of art, culture, and history, are rather bad in themselves. But that is not the whole picture, and it may be subordinate to the issue of taking responsibility for ones own actions.

It is better to have high ideals even if one is imperfect in their execution: if you think vegetarianism is the moral choice then you should say so, and your analysis is not undermined by occasionally ‘falling off the wagon’. So my criticism of woke culture is not the fact Its adherents are human and thus flawed. It is because they begin with the flaws other than their own, and typically conclude that it is others that need to change.

Consider US affirmative action in college admissions. The headline is that where a ‘white’ American (however that is defined) needs to score 100, an African American can be admitted with a score of 80. So far so good, you might think, if (and it is a very big if) the African American is descended from slaves owned by the forbears of the ‘white’ American. But it does not end there, the affirmative action programmes don’t just deal with ‘black’ and ‘white’, they also give a weighting to marks by Asian Americans who need to score 130 to get in. Without affirmative action, everyone would need 100 to get in. With it, the ‘white Americans’ still need 100, but their notional debt/guilt to African Americans is paid by Asian children whose families landed in America long after slavery ended. Whom does the scheme most benefit? Arguably the ‘white Americans’ scoring just over 100 who would otherwise have been competing for graduate jobs against Asian Americans from the same school scoring 110-120. And, of course, those who prefer to categorise people into groups that divide them, rather than see everyone as an individual

In the area of slavery, and quasi- slavery, as in most areas, a great staring point is the physician’s oath: ‘First, do no harm’. The 21st Century offers us lots of versions of that 1d/gallon petrol produced by slaves. I am a long way from perfect when it comes to identifying them and avoiding them, but it seems like a good place to start.

When I have time to work through the history of slavery, and ranking the levels of horror, and identifying those that suffered most, those that perpetrated the most evil, and those on the side of the angels, I know there will be some counter intuitive discoveries.

Wilberforce’s eventual 1833 success in abolishing slavery in the British empire, and the vigor with which the empire sought to ensure slaves were freed (and buy their freedom) and stop trafficking is a proud part of our history which balances some parts less proud. As an Anglican I have to admit that the quakers and non conformists were energetically anti-slavery from their inception, which is rather more than the CofE (or the Church of Rome) can claim.

One of the most horrific chapters of modern history is found in the Belgian Congo, as recently as the twentieth Centuary, where king Leopold’s rule involved amputating the limbs of the children of slaves that failed to work hard enough. Such barbarism is almost impossible to comprehend. Why is it so little known? Perhaps the butchers of the later 20th century, Hitler (6million) , Stalin (20+ million of which ) Mao (30-45 million), and Pol Pot (1.5-3 million) hogged the ignominy. But Leopold’s toll of 10million souls, and those children with severed limbs, sprang to mind in 2017 when his Villa Les Cèdres came onto the market for >$400m

Were I Congolese, with a grandparent who had been one of Leopold’s slaves, I would have found it difficult not to see that villa, clearly ill gotten gains, as something that should be finding some reparations.

Unfortunately it was not being sold by Leopold or his heirs. It had already been owned by others for decades.

As well as a lack of clear assets owned by slavers, most victims of historic slavery are far less easy to identify than the Congolese with slave parents / grandparents.

The transatlantic slave trade saw some Spanish and Portuguese capture Africans, enslave them, and transport them. But Britain did not enslave any free people, rather it’s merchants bought from African owners people who were already enslaved (about 1/3 of slaves in Africa died during the journeys from the interior to the slave market ports). For those going to North America, the most horrendous part was typically the sea voyage. Drawings of slave ships show slaves packed like sardines, the c2 month crossing had a c10% mortality rate. Of those that survived crossing the North Atlantic, most went to Caribbean islands, largely for sugar plantations run with varying degrees of barbarism. Only a minority of trafficked slaves from Africa went to the the American colonies, though, on emancipation, many former slaves, and their descendants, from the Caribbean went to the USA.

So in the USA today ‘white Americans’ include a small number of descendants of slave owners, descendants of Irish & British insurgents who were forcibly shipped to the colonies for indentured servitude, descendants of those who campaigned for abolition, and yankees who fought against confederate secession (a war which Lincoln pivoted to be anti-slavery, albeit that was not the original northern casus belli), descendants of those who arrived after slavery was abolished, those who have arrived in recent decades. There are also those whose forbears and family members were enslaved in North Africa (in the eighteenth century, Barbary pirates Captured countless Europeans who were enslaved, and sold in North Africa, where their treatment was horrendous) and those whose British ancestors not only campaigned successfully for abolition of the slave trade, but also financed the buying of freedom for vast numbers of slaves.

Current ‘African Americans’ include descendants of slaves from before the 1861-65 war, descendants of slave owners, descendants of Caribbean former slaves who voluntarily emigrated to the USA, descendants of those who voluntarily emigrated to the USA from Africa, descendants of those that enslaved people in Africa and sold them to the transatlantic slave trade.

And there are native Americans whose historical lands were stolen by European settlers, and Asian Americans most of whose families were still in Asia at the start of the twentieth century.

Time does not heal everything, just as 500+ years in Europe did not stop many Jewish emigres hankering after the ideal of a return to the Holy Land. But, un-healed as some woulds are, with both the enslavers, slave traders, and slaves of the transatlantic slave trade being dead for more than a century, I cannot see how those historic wrongs are made right.

As is so often the case, it comes down to all individuals being different, with the important differences being nothing like as easy to observe as the external characteristics like eye and skin colour. Even if we could identify a group of Americans as having an ancestry that was exclusively from Biafra, it would not tell us whose ancestors were transported to the American colonies as part of the Slave trade, whose ancestors were slave owners that sold people into the slave trade, whose ancestors were transported to the Caribbean then set out to make their fortunes in the USA. In short, it would tell us nothing of the character or lives of their ancestors, far less of the the individuals themselves.

But we can’t even do that: racially homogenous people hardly exist, we are all mixtures, and attempts to create rigid demarcations tend to degenerate into pseudoscience. It is almost impossible to categorise people by race.

Even trying to categorise people by gender has become controversial for some. Can you imagine where we would get with any attempts to categorise people by race? Megan Markle spoke eloquently about her childhood dilemma when asked to tick a box identifying herself as either black or white: to choose one would feel like rejecting the other, and thereby rejecting that parent and that part of herself. I am Scottish, though I was born south of the border, and it is three generations since the family lived in Dunlop: if they don’t return to Scotland, when, if ever, will my descendants cease being Scottish? Whatever one thinks of the gender identity debate, when it comes to ethnic and kinship groups, allowing people to self identify seems inevitable, for all that it would be ludicrous for me to claim to be Tibetan.

But, with self-identifying, the current cultural debate turns the choice into does one self-identify as a descendent of victims, or a descendent of oppressors? Thirty years ago, that would have been a case of Reductio ad Absurdum, case closed. These days the absurd seems to be in vogue: Some suggest that if Person A, who is deemed to be white, paid reparations to Person B, who is deemed to be black, then, irrespective of all other considerations, the payment would be just and to be encouraged. The fact that Person B’s ancestors captured and enslaved people in Africa and sold them for transport to America, while Person A’s ancestors were poor indentured labourers exiled to America and later leading abolitionists fighting to turn the anti-secessionist war into an anti-slavery crusade, in which some of them perished, is seen as immaterial.

I hope that we return to a view of our fellow men (and women) that sees them first as fellow humans, and not as categorised by colour, race, or the football team they follow. This classically liberal view, espoused (without the reference to football) by Martin Luther King, was seen as progressive, but is now characterised as reactionary. Hoover’s FBI treated MLK as a public enemy, carried out surveillance, tried to blackmail him, and leaked information about his personal life as part of a campaign of character assassination. Today the FBI is probably doing the same to some of the opponents of the identity politics establishment (I don’t claim that Flynn’s views placed him fully in this category, but if the FBI can treat the incoming national security advisor as they did, and for reasons documented as entirely political, you can bet that J Edgar Hoover’s politically partisan abusive weaponisation of police power is alive and well). The views haven’t changed, and the FBI’s harassment of their proponents remains. It is just that there is a new narrative trying to explain why equality and constitutional rights are dangerous.

The pivot by the FBI is no more remarkable than the CIA’s pivot from being a ‘a conscientious objector in the war against drugs’ in the 80s to cheerleaders for that war in the post-soviet 90s. I would never have thought it in the 80s, but it beginning to look as if those old hippies (and, arguably, DDE) were right about the military industrial complex and the security establishment just wanting to have a war to fight. It may be a culture war, a drug war, a Cold War, or a hot war, but they will be centre stage, and with persuasive arguments as to why they need a bigger budget if we are to have the protection needed to sleep soundly.

As ever, we should ask ‘Cui Bono?’. When it comes to creating racial dividing lines and a victim narrative, don’t loose sight of the fact that almost every personal development coach on the planet starts by telling people to take ownership of their own destiny. From Tony Robbins down, the message is that you have the power to change your life for the better, and that the first step is to own your own choices and to stop expecting to get better results if you keep doing what you have always done. The victim narrative is the opposite: it tells people that they are neither responsible for their situation nor able to change it: the change should come from an external party making up for ancient wrongs. As a result, it makes less likely the introspection that could help. Who benefits ? It is certainly not the bright, stunning 14yr old African American girl who is told that she is betraying her people if she dates a white boy who loves her, but should be content to be the ‘baby mother’ of a neer-do-well that will loose interest and leave her & their child subsisting on welfare checks. It is not the bright African American boy whose peers disparage his hard work as ‘Acting white’. It is not the grieving mother whose African American child’s murderer was emboldened by the knowledge that witnesses would remain silent. It is not the job applicant who narrowly looses out to a better-prepared candidate, and ascribes it to prejudice and gets disheartened, rather than asking themselves what they could do better next time, and next time could have got the job by being the best prepared (this is not to say that prejudice does not exist, merely that it is not always the explanation). It is not the poor ‘white American’ communities fed a message that characterises them as oppressors when they are barely scraping a living and have little in common with the Ivy League graduates lecturing them.

Those that benefit are politicians wanting to tell people that their identity means they have to vote for them (recently this has become more blatant: see Biden’s ‘you ain’t black’ if you support Trump): why bother formulating attractive policies that command majority support, if you can do deals with leaders of various identity based factions and treat the electorate as a few voting blocks rather than hundreds of millions of individuals? And the race industry, which has far too much in common with the aid industry’s modus operandi of talking a good game about helping the least well off, while lavishing money on expat officials living in secure compounds, chauffeured in Land Cruisers, and creating few opportunities for locals beyond the domestic staff they employ.

When we look back on this chapter of our history, the story will be less determined by what is now done, than by who is writing the history. Many people now think of WW2 as a fight against genocidal fascists, but, when we went to war, we didn’t know about the Holocaust, and had not been fulsome in welcoming German Jews fleeing persecution. We lionise Lincoln, think of Gettysburg, and his emancipation of the slaves, but we conveniently forget that emancipation occurred only during the war, that Lincoln stated: "If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.".

We are all flawed, most of us have significant good points as well as bad. Lets hope that the story of our personal actions will not require too much re-writing, and we don’t have to rely on the Devil’s narrative of ‘The ends justify the means’. Resisting that siren call is sometimes easier when one remembers that he will always lie: When we do something bad, the only certainty is that we are sinning, the idea that the sin will promote some noble aim is likely to be an illusion. Either way, the devil will have won, just as he did when persuading idealistic young members of the inquisition that they would further the work of Jesus by torturing and burning heretics and ‘false converts’, and as he did when persuading American churchgoers to participate in lynchings. And as he did when persuading people in the 21st century that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ should be removed from libraries for its ‘dated language’.

On which cheery note, I wish everyone a Happy Saturday.

Subscribe to Question Everything

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.