In the Western world, and in America in particular, slavery is a widely misunderstood phenomenon. When people hear the word “slave,” most Americans think of blacks enslaved by whites, and in particular of plantation slaves in the American South. In “The True History of Slavery,” the third essay in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell responds to this impression with the following:
No other historic horror is so narrowly construed. No one thinks of war, famine, or decimating epidemics in such localized terms. These are afflictions that have been suffered by the entire human race, all over the planet—and so was slavery. Had slavery been limited to one race in one country during three centuries, its tragedies would not have been one-tenth the magnitude that they were in fact.
He argues that this “provincial view of a worldwide evil” has been perpetuated as a means of denigrating Western civilization. “Often it is those who are most critical of a ‘Eurocentric’ view of the world who are most Eurocentric when it comes to the evils and failings of the human race.”
Sowell then gives a broad overview of the long history of slavery, pointing out that for the most part, slavery had nothing to do with race. People enslaved whoever was vulnerable and available, which before the modern era usually meant people of their own race. Even in the American case, slavery was not an outgrowth of racism. Rather, a particularly virulent form of racism arose there in order to justify the continuation of slavery. Outside of the Western world such a justification was not necessary as slavery was never questioned. In the US, however, slavery stood in stark contrast to the liberal values of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Viewing blacks as essentially subhuman provided a convenient excuse to keep them in bondage.
Far from slavery being a particular sin of the West, slavery was practised across the globe. The only thing in which Western civilization is unusual when it comes to slavery is that they were the first to abolish it. And not only did they abolish it in their own societies, they also used their great power and influence to put pressure on non-Western countries to end this institution. The various Western powers, first and foremost the British, expended a considerable amount of treasure and human lives on the thankless task of stopping slave trading, but these heroic efforts are just passed over in silence by contemporary critics of the West.
Although I strongly agree with most of what Sowell puts forth in this essay, I have a few nitpicks. Sowell makes the common mistake of claiming that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the US. I’ve written about this misconception before.
Elsewhere, Sowell says that slavery died out because “Europeans had gunpowder weapons first,” so they had an advantage against the non-Western defenders of slavery. This claim is quite frankly bizarre. Gunpowder weapons were invented by the Chinese and made their way to the Middle East before they came into use in Europe. All of this is beside the point, however, as Europeans only became invested in stamping out slavery in the 19th century. By then, gunpowder weapons had spread far and wide, so talking about any kind of first mover advantage is nonsense. Europeans of that age were technologically and economically more advanced than non-Western peoples, but that had little to do with the mere possession of fire arms.
But these are fairly minor quibbles. Overall, “The True History of Slavery” is a great essay and ranks very closely behind “Are Jews Generic” as my second favourite essay in Black Rednecks and White Liberals.
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