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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

September 10th, 2001.


George Macaulay Trevelyan describes this dark business of the slavers:

"They bought them on the coast from native kings, who drove down the long files of captives from the dark forests of the interior; by what cruelties and wars the victims had been there obtained, no white man had the curiosity to enquire. Then followed a period of imprisonment in a stockade on the coast, under guard of white sailors armed with cutlasses, waiting for a ship; and after that the horrors of the 'middle passage' across the Atlantic -- living human bodies lying crushed side by side in the pitch-dark, tossing dungeon. As the long weeks of the voyage drew on, many died and were thrown overboard like ballast."2

One of the points to be taken from this passage is that it was more than just white men who engaged in slavery: Africans also engaged in it. We should be reminded, too, that the trading in men as but chattels to be bought and sold, was not peculiar to Africa, nor just to the 18th century.3

"Three-fourths of the population of the Roman world were still the chattels of the other fourth. In that fact lay the canker which, notwithstanding the best-devised imperial administration, was to eat away the heart of the Roman Empire and to bring about its decline and fall. ... Rome ... was a civilization based on gradations of rank and wealth, seeing in mass slavery the natural and necessary foundation of any culture worth having, and in slaves chattels without legal rights, to be bought or sold, employed as prostitutes or gladiators, thrown to the fishes or crucified if their owners saw fit."4

So, while we think of the blacks when we think of slaves, in early classic times a slave was more likely to be white; indeed, even in the slaving times of the 18th century there were white men and white women sold into slavery.5

It is accepted, however, that "large-scale slavery was an 18th-century phenomenon," as Paul Johnson explains. "Even by 1714 there were fewer than 60,000 slaves in the whole of the English colonies on mainland America. Thereafter the numbers grew steadily -- 78,000 by 1727, 263,000 by 1754, and 697,000 at the first census in 1790."6 When, with "The Big Bang" of the Industrial Revolution in England, a huge demand for cotton was rather suddenly created as steam engines were employed to power spinning machinery.7 This accounts for the huge jump in the numbers of black people between 1754 (263,000) and 1790 (697,000).

In 1780, the British parliament, much before any other legislative chamber in the world, passed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.8 However, a number of years were to pass, before, in 1806, England made the trade in slaves, illegal. In 1833, slavery itself was abolished. By the following year slavery was made unlawful throughout all of the British territories, and that, of course would have included Canada.9

Because of the American southern farmer, whose cotton crop was so important to the new country, the United States was slower than the British in coming to grips with the slave trade.10 The black slaves in the southern states of America grew in great numbers, for example in Virginia there was a doubling of their numbers between the years 1755 and 1782 (the year that marked the end of the American Revolution). This was so, not because there was more brought in from Africa but because of the living conditions in the United States (as compared to those in Africa) that allowed for greater birth rates and longer lives. In the southern American states the slaves were to live "twice as long as in Africa and 50 percent longer than in South America."11 In 1808, the lawful import of slaves ended; though, the trade in home grown slaves continued until after the American civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

And, so, there it is -- slavery has long since been abolished in America. (There is no argument, of course, that slavery continues to exist in classic form and accepted in societies throughout many other parts of the world.) If the definition of a slave is when a person has no choice (and he but only needs to feel he has no choice) and he is bound (feel he is bound) by the will of another or others; then it may be, though not in its classic form, that slavery yet exists in America. Abraham Lincoln's dictum that a state "cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," though applied to the situation as it existed prior to the American Civil War has application to any society where the "have nots" become a massive majority and the gap between them and the "haves" conspicuously widens.



1 Those who have followed my pages will know that up to this past July 1st, I entitled my commentaries as, "Weekly Commentaries"; now, they are just entitled "Commentaries". With such a heading I will no longer feel obliged to put something up every week.

2 England Under Queen Anne, vol. 3, p. 149. Jamaica was the entrepôt of the slave trade from Africa. The trade picked up as the 18th century wore on corresponding to the agricultural requirements in Virginia and southwards. By 1713 there had grown up a network of traders in Bristol and Liverpool. There was a company known as the English Africa Company and there was a dispute (c. 1713) on whether this company should be given exclusive rights. The dispute was not at all about the moral correctness of enslaving fellow human beings, the dispute was whether one company should have a monopoly (the "free traders" or interlopers were against it). The Imperial policy was plain and had been adopted: the Colonies should be supplied with cheap slaves (£15 to £50) the question was how to get them delivered at a good price. The company was of the view that the profits of a monopoly was required to maintain the two forts: Cape Coast Castle (70 guns) on the Gold Coast and Fort James on an island of the Gambia River.

3 "Slavery had always existed in Africa, where it was operated extensively by local rulers, often with the assistance of Arab traders. Slaves were captives, outsiders, people who had lost tribal status; once enslaved, they became exchangeable commodities indeed an important form of currency." (Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) p. 4.) We might read from our newspapers of today that the slavery business still goes on in Africa.

4 Archibald Robertson, How to Read History, 1952 (New York: Ungar, 1963).

5 Trevelyan's England Under Queen Anne, vol. 3, p. 147.

6 A History of the American People, p. 74.

7 For a good exposition of how, and why cotton was king; and further how the English cotton mills impacted on slavery in the United States, - see Johnson, The Birth of the Modern, p. 308 and on.

8 See,

9 Parliament abolishes slavery throughout its the English Empire and "Twenty millions sterling were paid in compensation to the slave-owners ... On the First of August, 1834, all slaves in the British Empire were to become free." (G.M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century, p. 254.)

10 The powerful southern block was to hold the abolitionists at bay right up to the American Civil War. In 1820, the U.S. Congress passed an act which admitted the State of Maine as slave free state and Missouri as a slave state, thus keeping the number of the slave and anti-slave states equal. By "The Missouri Compromise," the federal territory above 36 degrees 30 minutes was to be free; below that it was allowed to be slave territory.

11 A History of the American People, op. cit., p. 169.

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Peter Landry

September, 2001 (2019)