The Enlightenment

This is an act so unnatural,  a crime so monstrous, a sin so God-defying, that it throws into the shade all other distinctions known among mankind.
~  William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the  American Anti-Slavery Society

Of the estimated 11 million Africans transported into slavery, about 1.4 million died during the voyage on the dread Middle Passage. It would be difficult to overstate the horror and cruelty this bondage entailed, but it is noteworthy that it was largely accepted as the natural and customary state of affairs with a timeless history. Most viewed it simply as a commercial enterprise. Ships departed Europe for African markets with goods, which were in turn traded for kidnapped Africans who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the enslaved Africans were then sold or traded as commodities for raw materials,which would be transported back to Europe to complete the “triangular trade”.  A single voyage on the Middle Passage was a large financial undertaking, and they were generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals.

In 1781 the captain of a slave ship, the Zong decided to throw 122 sick slaves overboard, with another ten throwing themselves overboard in despair. He reasoned that as the slaves were cargo, the ship’s owners would be entitled to the £30 a head compensation for their loss at sea under the ‘jettison’ clause of their insurance. Were he to land and the slaves to die there, no compensation would be forthcoming. No officers or crew were charged or prosecuted for this massacre. Indeed, the Solicitor General, John Lee, declared that a master could drown slaves without even “a surmise of impropriety”. He stated:

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder…
The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.

This occurred at a time when slaves were valuable property. Today’s slaves are even more disposable, readily replaced at slight cost and little risk. They are treated with comparable callousness and disregard for any human rights. Whether it is women being treated as objects, men enduring grueling conditions, or children forced to labor… too many people still find this acceptable as the ‘natural and customary state of affairs, with a timeless history.’

One of the first protests against the enslavement of Africans came from German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1688, but theirs was essentially a voice crying out in the wilderness. Not until almost a century later, in 1772, was a significant milestone reached in the campaign to abolish slavery. A slave, James Somersett, having been brought to England by his American colonial owner, had escaped, been recaptured and then imprisoned to be shipped to Jamaica.  His cause was taken up by abolitionists including the activist layman, Granville Sharp. The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield, decided on narrow legal grounds that Somersett must be freed. His judgement laid down the principle that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions could not be enforced in England. It was a landmark case that galvanized the abolitionist movement.  Granville Sharp would later become a founding member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This was the group, of only twelve men, who gathered in a printing shop in 1787 and forever altered the course of human history! Not only did they succeed in eventually seeing slavery outlawed, they changed an entire world culture that found it acceptable.

In the newly independent United States, slavery was well entrenched in much of the land. Indeed for many southern colonies, much of the impetus for independence from Britain had been the desire to distance themselves from growing abolitionist sentiment and the effect of rulings like that in Somersett’s case. This proposition is explored in depth in the book Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution by Albert and Ruth Blumrosen. Our most influential Founding Father and drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, though ostensibly an abolitionist in his public proclamations, was nevertheless one of Virginia’s largest slave holders. In 1777, Vermont became the first portion of what would become the United States to abolish slavery (at the time Vermont was an independent nation). In 1794, under the Jacobins, Revolutionary France abolished slavery. Haiti gained independence in 1804 as part of a successful slave rebellion, becoming the first independent nation in Latin America and the first black-led republic.

Abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom was achieved in large measure through the work of the British Anti-Slavery Society. William Wilberforce received much of the credit although the groundwork was an anti-slavery essay by Thomas Clarkson. The Slave Trade Act (1807) made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. Thereafter, abolitionists campaigned to encourage other countries to follow suit, notably France and the British colonies. Britain finally abolished slavery in 1833. Abolition was on the march!

One argument advanced by many slaveholders, was that while slavery was perhaps morally objectionable, it was an economic necessity. Among slave states, this argument held sway for a generation until finally put to rest by America’s bloodiest war and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Yet this same argument is heard today in defense of labor practices little different than those endured by slaves of yore.

In the United States slavery bitterly divided the nation. William Lloyd Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. This was a period of great foment as new territories were being added to the United States, and debate raged about whether they should be slave or free states. Slavery was a firmly entrenched system, considered by many to be essential to the economic vitality of the nation, unfortunate perhaps, but necessary.

“(Our) peculiar institution” was a euphemism for slavery and the economic ramifications of it in the American South. At the time this expression became popular, it was used in association with a vigorous defense of this institution as a good thing! One of the leaders in using the phrase, and in advancing the argument that slavery was a “positive good”, establishing the proper relation between the races, was South Carolina’s famous statesman John C. Calhoun. Though slavery became confined largely to southern agricultural states, the cotton and other commodities grown by slaves were also essential to the growing success of the manufacturing powerhouses in the North. It would have been quite hard for anyone to claim their hands entirely clean.

How is this relevant to the modern abolition movement? Today we see slavery on a scale that surpasses even what existed in the antebellum South. Much of it exists far away, but in our globalized economy few of us have clean hands. Now, as then, we have euphemisms like “Free Trade” which attempt to sanitize institutional labor exploitation. Now, as then, many consider the objectification of women, the use of child labor, and grinding poverty as unfortunate but unavoidable, a ‘natural and customary state of affairs with a timeless history’.

The yoke of slavery in America was not shed simply by the Civil War. America’s bloodiest war was the culmination of forces for abolition that had persisted for almost a hundred years. Great leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Gerrit Smith, John Brown, Harriet Tubman and many others were responsible for bringing President Lincoln fatefully into the abolitionist fold. It is notable that the causes of abolition and women’s rights were closely aligned then and remain so today.

But behind the many great notables, there toiled thousands of ardent adherents. Regular citizens with jobs and families who nevertheless were drawn to take up a nobel task. Town to town they went, door to door, preaching, engaging neighbors, holding rallies, handing out leaflets, writing to editors and to representatives. These are the unsung heroes that forged a new national consciousness, one where slavery and injustice were no longer considered inevitable. Today, if we wish to be worthy of this heritage, we are called upon to do no less.

For more information see :

UNESCO’s Slave Trade Archives and
the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

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