As I mentioned the other day, I have been reading Simon Newman’s A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic.
It has been refreshing to dive back into history after spending so much time lately writing about current events and politics. Right now, I am reading about the world of 17th century England, the Gold Coast and Barbados, and it is utterly unlike anything that exists in the present day.
How did slavery even happen? Do these liberals ever stop to think how something like the slave trade could have got started in the first place? The answer is that West Africans had no concept that there was anything wrong with slavery. Their economies were based on slavery. They had been engaging in the Trans-Saharan slave trade for centuries when the first Europeans arrived in the region.
As for the English, they were living in a different world at the time. England was a Commonwealth of households. Each household had a master with authority over his dependents. English law at the time actually required people to work. If you were an unemployed vagabond, a justice of the peace could step in and bound you to a master for a term of service. There was nothing like the “free labor” system we have today. English workers existed in a state between slavery and freedom.
What about human rights? What about liberty and equality? What about racism? These concepts were only developed centuries later. The doctrine of universal natural rights was developed … in the 18th century. The English were debating the morality of slavery … in the 19th century. The concept of racism didn’t exist until … the 20th century. These were also debates internal to European societies. Africa never had an anti-racist or anti-slavery or human rights movement during the slave trade.
West Africans living along the Gold Coast were more than happy to trade with the English. Slaves were valuable commodities. It was a business transaction. In West Africa, it was land that was held in common, and slaves which were commodities rather than the other way around. The Africans were in an overwhelming position of dominance and dictated the terms of the slave trade. The English slave traders were decimated by malaria and yellow fever. They were dependent upon African castle slaves. They were also dependent on the towns that grew up adjacent to the slave castles for their supplies.
It was the Africans who did all the enslaving in the interior. They transported slaves to the coast. They specialized in every aspect of the slave trade in West Africa. Amazingly, it never once seems to have occurred to them that the slave trade was “racist.” They could have easily shut it down if they so desired but they valued the commerce. In fact, West Africans protested the end of the slave trade. They resented abolition which was imposed upon them by the British in the 19th century. One of the reasons Britain colonized West Africa was to abolish slavery against their will.
In the Caribbean, even the rights and liberties which the English traditionally enjoyed in pre-liberal England seem to have deteriorated. In Barbados, human rights didn’t even apply to the White population, much less the enslaved blacks who replaced the first generation of White indentured servants. There was simply no concept of equality in Barbadian society.
Anyway, that’s how slavery got started in the British colonies. You had one group with New World sugar plantations and a severe labor shortage. You had another that was willing to sell slaves which were considered a legitimate article of commerce. There was no concept of universal human rights. Centuries later, we developed the concepts that made us feel guilty about it after the fact.