Helena Cobban: The Haunting Legacy of Slavery





[Helena Cobban has written about (and often from) the Middle East since 1975. She writes a column on global affairs for the Christian Science Monitor , essays for Boston Review , and has published six books on international issues.
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Here in London, many people are making a pretty big deal out of the 200th anniversary of an act passed by Parliament in March 1807 that outlawed the involvement of British ships in the slave trade. Just a block or two from where I'm staying, the British Museum has a lot of special events relating to this bicentennial (e.g., this one, today.) The movie Amazing Grace, which is based on the life of the abolitionist MP William Wilberforce, is about to be released here. I see the British Quakers have put together an interesting little online exhibition to mark this bicentennary, featuring some texts and other items from the collections of Friends House Library.

I think it's excellent to remember this anniversary, and to find ways to reconnect with the strong ethical and religious sense of all those who worked and organized to end the transatlantic slave trade, which was outlawed by the US Congress in 1808. However, the enslaved persons in the Americas were the first slaves since the days of the Romans whose condition of bondage and status as chattel was passed down from parent to child; and in a cruel irony, as the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans died out the price of the slaves who were already in place, working under horrendous conditions in the US, many Caribbean islands, and some South American nations, merely rose... And there was thus a strong incentive, until the whole institution of slavery was outlawed in the United States, which took several further decades, for slave-"owners" to try to breed their slave-stock as much as much possible, a matter to which many white men in slave-owning communities made a big personal contribution.

If you look at the (US Census Bureau-derived) demographic table in this section of the relevant Wikipedia page, you can see that between 1810 and 1860 the number of enslaved persons in the US rose from 1.2 million to nearly 4 million.

Imagine how many enslaved women were raped by white men and boys as part of that "breeding" program...

Earlier, back in the first half of the 18th century, many, many portions of the white settler community in the US had been heavily involved in the institution of slavery... including some portion of just about all the many Christian denominations that had proliferated in the settler communities by then-- and yes, that included the Quakers-- and also a portion of the Jewish settlers. As far as I know it was only the Mennonites, among the Christians (and perhaps the other Anabaptists?) who had never participated in the owning or trading of enslaved persons. But many Quakers certainly had.

There were huge hyper-profits to be made in the business; and some were made by Quaker plantation owners in the southern states or Quaker slave-traders in Rhode Island and other states to the north.

Then in the 1750s, along came Quaker social activist John Woolman. He saw at first hand the misery and inequity of the institution of slavery. He heard all the allegedly "do-gooding" claims of the slave-holders and slave-traders among the Quakers... that they were "saving these poor souls from the misery of wars in Africa", etc... and he slowly confronted these slave-holders with his witness, one-by-one, and also in small groups and at impassioned meetings for worship and business.

He was not alone. There were other American Quaker abolitionists who joined him in his campaign. But he was the one who kept an extremely moving journal of all his efforts... And between them, these Quaker men and women made a big difference. They managed to persuade all the Quakers of the US to dissociate themselves from the "peculiar institution"; and it was on the basis of that achievement that many Quakers of later decades then became leaders in the broad national movement against all aspects of the institution of slavery.

I guess I wish the events here in Britain being held to mark the bicentenary of this country's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had a little less smug self-satisfaction, and a little more real reflectiveness to them. After all, should we really be doing much celebrating if someone stops beating his wife??

When I say "reflectiveness", I just want to note that I've seen nothing in all the many newspaper articles and other items of commentary here on this anniversary that looks at how many of the fine institutions of the "Enlightenment" here in Britain, as in the rest of Europe and also, certainly, in the Americas, were financed with the hyper-profits from the slave trade... And then, no reflection at all on the degree to which the legacies of the slave trade and other crimes of colonialism still live on in the pauperized, war-ravaged portions of Africa; or, on whether the very rich and settled former slave-trading societies of northern Europe should not take seriously the task of effecting some real form of reparations to those ravaged home-communities of Africa.

Church leaders here in Britain are calling on Tony Blair to at least offer an apology to the descendants of the enslaved communities. So far, Blair has expressed "regret" for the suffering caused, but has stood firm against offering any apology-- since, in the view of many, an apology could open the door to demands for reparations...


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