Widening Our View

From Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals:

“Slavery was an evil of greater scope and magnitude than most people imagine and, as a result, its place in history is radically different from the way it is usually portrayed. Mention slavery and immediately the image that arises is that of Africans and their descendants enslaved by Europeans and their descendants in the Southern United States—or, at most, Africans enslaved by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. 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.

“Why this provincial view of a worldwide evil? 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. Why would anyone wish to arbitrarily understate an evil that plagued mankind for thousands of years, unless it was not this evil itself that was the real concern, but rather the present-day uses of that historic evil? Clearly, the ability to score ideological points against American society or Western civilization, or to induce guilt and thereby extract benefits from the white population today, are greatly enhanced by making enslavement appear to be a peculiarly American, or a peculiarly white, crime.

“This explanation is also consistent with the otherwise inexplicable contrast between the fiery rhetoric about past slavery in the United States used by those who pass over in utter silence the traumas of slavery that still exist in Mauritania, the Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Benin. Why so much more concern for dead people who are now beyond our help than for living human beings suffering the burdens and humiliations of slavery today? Why does a verbal picture of the abuses of slaves in centuries past arouse far more response than contemporary photographs of present-day slaves in Time magazine, the New York Times or the National Geographic?

“It takes no more research than a trip to almost any public library or college library to show the incredibly lopsided coverage of slavery in the United States or in the Western Hemisphere, as compared to the meager writings on the even larger number of Africans enslaved in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa, not to mention the vast numbers of Europeans also enslaved in centuries past in the Islamic world and within Europe itself. At least a million Europeans were enslaved by North African pirates alone from 1500 to 1800, and some European slaves were still being sold on the auction block in Egypt, years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed blacks in the United States. Indeed, an Anglo-Egyptian treaty of August 4, 1877 prohibited the continued sale of white slaves after August 3, 1885, as well as prohibiting the import and export of Sudanese and Abyssinian slaves.

Black_rednecks_and_white_liberals_bookcover“During the Middle Ages, Slavs were so widely used as slaves in both Europe and the Islamic world that the very word “slave” derived from the word for Slav—not only in English, but also in other European languages, as well as in Arabic. Nor have Asians or Polynesians been exempt from either being enslaved or enslaving others. China in centuries past has been described as “one of the largest and most comprehensive markets for the exchange of human beings in the world” Slavery was also common in India, where it has been estimated that there were more slaves than in the entire Western Hemisphere—and where the original Thugs kidnapped children for the purpose of enslavement. In some of the cities of Southeast Asia, slaves were a majority of the population. Slavery was also an established institution in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’ ships ever appeared on the horizon. The Ottoman Empire regularly enslaved a percentage of the young boys from the Balkans, converted them to Islam and assigned them to various duties in the civil or military establishment.

“Ironically, the anti-slavery ideology behind this process began to develop in eighteenth century Britain, at a time when the British Empire led the world in slave trading, and when the economy of most of its overseas colonies in the Western Hemisphere depended on slaves. Here again, the baffling present-day disregard of an international saga of strife, full of individual dramas as well as historic consequences, seems explicable only in terms of today’s ideological agendas. While slavery was common to all civilizations, as well as to peoples considered uncivilized, only one civilization developed a moral revulsion against it, very late in its history— Western civilization. Today it seems so obvious that, as Abraham Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” But the hard fact is that, for thousands of years, slavery was simply not an issue, even among the great religious thinkers or moral philosophers of civilizations around the world.

“We may wonder why it took eighteen centuries after the Sermon on the Mount for Christians to develop an anti-slavery movement, but a more profound question is why not even the leading moralists in other civilizations rejected slavery at all. “There is no evidence,” according to a scholarly study, “that slavery came under serious attack in any part of the world before the eighteenth century.” That is when it first came under attack in Europe.

“Themselves the leading slave traders of the eighteenth century, Europeans nevertheless became, in the nineteenth century, the destroyers of slavery around the world—not just in European societies or European offshoot societies overseas, but in non-European societies as well, over the bitter opposition of Africans, Arabs, Asians, and others. Moreover, within Western civilization, the principal impetus for the abolition of slavery came first from very conservative religious activists—people who would today be called “the religious right.” Clearly, this story is not “politically correct” in today’s terms. Hence it is ignored, as if it never happened.”

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