Saturday 18 July 2015

Last thoughts on slavery, in the USA, Russia and Mauritius


The Comte de Tilly said that to begin ones life by being raped is a very poor school for virtue. Slavery is a very poor school too and it takes more than a generation for the descendants of former slaves to be able to overcome the lessons slavery teaches. 

I am not sure how long the effects of slavery will last or what exactly they are. Some blame slavery for the large number of single black mothers in the USA, for example, and others get angry at the suggestion. The area is a minefield.

Slavery was a thoroughly bad thing, even for its times - we can all agree on this, except the KKK and a small number of fascists. Some slaves in America were contented, some very unhappy, but all would have preferred freedom. Bad though slavery was, however, it cannot be compared, as liberal historians regularly do, to the Germans' murder of six million Jews in the Second World War. 

This comparison indecently belittles the Holocaust, but it explains the significance of the slavery in the modern American imagination. The attention paid to slavery is not primarily because of the very great cruelty with which many slaves were treated, nor even because of the wickedness in principle of slavery but because of the racial issue. Because white people owned black people and could treat them as they liked.

My ancestors were Irish peasants and lived through the Potato Famine of the 1840s -the Whigs were in power then and did nothing. Slaves in America were better off than Irish who starved to death. The Slave Narratives suggest most freed slaves in their old age did not complain about their masters, though even decent slave owners, such as Washington, had slaves whipped, which is very bad. In the 1820s, it is true, Englishmen were flogged for many things and hanged for stealing sheep or sodomy, but not without a trial or at their masters' whim. 

Slavery and serfdom in Russia - which Alexander II abolished in 1861 freeing many times more people than the Americans did - were very similar. 

Serfs were also liable to be whipped, but in America slavery was made worse because, unlike the Russian serfs, who were living in an essentially medieval word and owned by their own people, the American slaves were commodities in an advanced, capitalist society, foreign to them, and were owned by foreigners.

I stayed in Mauritius with a Hindu friend whose ancestor had made a fortune importing Indian indentured labourers into the island, after slavery was abolished by the UK in 1833. My friend told me there was 'almost no difference' between indentured labourers and slaves. He is vaguely a socialist and ashamed of his ancestor, though, as a Brahmin, he takes hierarchy for granted. 

I met a number of Mauritian Indians (Hindus make up 61% of population and Indian Muslims a further 25%) who told me how grateful they are that their ancestors came to Mauritius rather than stayed in India. I perfectly understood why - they have a far higher standard of living and live in a more civilised country. I wonder if African-Americans wish their forbears had stayed in West Africa.

Slavery brought Africans to America. They have enriched America in many ways - were it not for them America would be a duller country - but they do not seem, as far as I can tell, to live happily alongside whites. Thus are the sins of the slave-owning fathers visited on the sons. 

This was foreseen by Madison, Jefferson, and Clay who were in favour of deporting freed slaves to Africa. Lincoln also hoped they might be persuaded to leave.

In 1862, Lincoln invited a delegation of black men to the White House, the first time African Americans had been invited to the White House, to suggest that they should leave the USA for Central America. He told them:

You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. ..

If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated.. 

Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoys. The aspiration of man is to enjoy equality with the best when free; but on this broad continent not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.

Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.

I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition the country engaged in war; our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend.. .

But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. .

It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain with us.

Lincoln’s words provoked great anger among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites. 

In an early draft of the emancipation proclamation colonisation was mentioned but it was quietly dropped. The war had a momentum of its own and by the end of the war Lincoln, who had originally been opposed to blacks being given civil rights, came round to thinking some blacks should have the vote. 

It’s interesting that the Fifteenth Amendment to the US constitution, which  gave the right to vote to black men, did so two years after Disraeli's Reform Act of 1867 gave the vote to most though not all working men in towns in England - a move by Disraeli that shocked liberal intellectuals.


  1. Lincoln was smart. He knew that once you've done terrible things to people, they are not going to be content in your midst -- and you won't rest easy either. No wonder he wanted to pack the problem off somewhere else.

    A crucial difference with serfdom and probably indentured servitude that an earlier poster noted is that slave families were constantly broken up for individual members to be sold. Family destruction may have prevented slaves from being grateful for their deliverance from their homes, as your Indian friend is.

  2. Slavery was certainly worse than serfdom for the reason that slaves could be "sold down the river", whereas serfs were attached to the land they worked. That was the only important difference. Czar Nicholas I, one third of whose subjects were serfs, rightly disapproved of slavery, which he considered inhumane.

  3. it's of course impossible to run a counterfactual
    but it seems v. v. unlikely that an independent Confederacy would have gone for emancipation before the early 20th century
    comparisons to Brazil or the West Indies are not very useful here, as the Confederacy was sui generis
    and in the generation before the War, slavery in the American South was showing no signs of weakening
    quite the opposite -- it was going from strength to strength
    the price of slaves was rising faster than inflation
    causing pressure to, on one hand, reopen the slave trade
    and on the other, to re-enslave free blacks
    hard to see what would dramatically reverse those trends before the arrival of the mechanized cotton picker
    and that was a very late innovation, historically
    the first effective prototype was John Rust's machine in 1936.


  4. Here is a pretty emotionally leveled economic analysis: 'Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, slaves were one of the main sources of energy (if not the main source) for societies stretching back millennia': Why is the subject of slavery so emotional today in the US? I think it is just emotional manufacturing and privilege seeking. Incredibly sad that blacks succumb to this quick gain strategy; they would be so much better without it.

  5. I think if we magically resurrected ANYONE from the mid-1800s, and asked them to make political choices in 2016... they would be universally bewildered and unable to make heads-or-tails of our world.

    The fact that Lincoln toyed with colonizing with freed slaves (hardly "deporting" as you say), doesn't mean that he would support the mass deportation of immigrants from the modern U.S.

    On the contrary, Lincoln was (as you might know) a cunning opponent of the first nativist wave (the original Know-Nothings who were so powerful during the creation of the Republican Party).

    Lincoln was eager for German immigrant support & fielded military units from St. Louis who spoke German. (Confederates called them "Hessians" in an allusion to the Revolutionary War.

    Lincoln's political coalition & army were multi-cultural. It was his Confederate enemies who fantasized of a society ruled by Anglo-Saxons.

    So let's not drag the long-dead into the controversies of today.

  6. he advocated for the slaves moving out of the usa, he was not forcing that move but instead merely seeing that their continuing to stay may cause harm to alot of folks. By Lincolns coming around, he demonstrated calmness and willingness to compromise his own position for what was best.

  7. I wonder who takes into account the number of jobs that prisoners do for free in America. 13th amendment legal slavery; Victorias secret, McDonalds, Whole foods AT&T call centers,Nike are just a few companies who use free slave / prison labour.