Horror Taken For Granted

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The resources open to men who want to believe that a course of action that is profitable is also morally justifiable, firmly based on the eternal verities, seem to be illimitable. Self-interest is both eloquent and ingenious. The darkest villainy imaginable can be made to look virtuous if it yields good cash dividends; some of the worst deeds in history were committed by men who had managed to persuade themselves that they were doing no more than what was right.

A case in point is the notorious African slave trade.

Except perhaps for the satanic Nazi experiment in genocide, history can show nothing worse than this. The trade went on for four centuries, mixing greed with cruelty to create a total of human suffering that is beyond rational computation; as a by-product, it created racial memories so deeply stained with fear, suspicion, and hatred that today they constitute one of the world’s most terrible problems. Yet many generations of good Christian people accepted this business as ethically and morally right—a step toward civilization that was easily taken because it meant money in the pocket, but that was a positive good in any case.

The rationalization had several threads, frail as the filaments of a spider web but devoutly held. Africans were descended from Noah’s son Ham and so were under a curse from of old. Uprooted and put to work on mine and plantation, they were brought out of darkness and often enough their immortal souls were saved; meanwhile the benefits of civilization seeped down to them and redeemed them from the abject barbarism that was their earthly lot. Besides, they were used to slavery. The evil already existed; African kings made wars to get slaves, necessitous parents sold their own children into bondage, and since all of this was part of the Dark Continent’s routine anyway, European society might just as well reap some of the benefits—which, happily, were immense.

This miserable story is familiar enough, in a vague sort of way, and yet in view of the bewildering crisis that confronts Western civilization nowadays—that is, the white man’s civilization, which finds itself somewhat beset—we really need to know more about it. A wealth of material is currently available in four bulky volumes bearing the matter-of-fact title, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America , compiled and edited by Elizabeth Donnan.

Let it be said at once that this is not easy reading. It is a scholarly compilation, meant for the library rather than for the living-room bookshelf. As the title says, it is made up almost entirely of the original documents, with a minimum of connective comment by the editor. It is the record of the slave trade as written by the men who were part of it—kings, governors, parliaments, legislatures, ship captains, factors, directors of joint-stock companies, and ordinary individual businessmen—and although it is a record of horror it has an odd, matter-of-fact air about it simply because the infamies that are described were so completely taken for granted.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the fact that the African slave trade would probably have collapsed of its own weight (as far as the Western world is concerned, at any rate) if it had not been for the discovery of the Americas. The first European slaver to carry Negroes from Africa into bondage was a Portuguese ship, sailing in the year 1444, and its slaves were sold in Europe. Europe’s need for slaves after all was moderate and was quickly met; but just when this market was saturated, the discovery of the New World opened a new market which seemed to be beyond saturation.

The trade grew like a mushroom. By 1540, slaves were being sent to the Americas at a rate that may have been as high as 10,000 a year. English adventurers discovered that the supposed Portuguese monopoly of trade with Africa was a fiction, and that the Spanish monopoly of trade with the New World was no better; England and France got into the trade on a huge scale, the Dutch and the Danes and the Swedes followed, the West Indies developed an immense sugar trade, and by 1685 Louis XIV of France noted an oddity. French sugar planters in the Indies said they needed 2,000 slaves a year. To buy one slave cost the equivalent of 6,000 pounds of sugar. Total production for the French planters ran to 20,000,000 pounds a year; which meant that 12,000,000 pounds would be used for new slaves, leaving 8,000,000 to meet all other expenses and show a profit.

It had become a big business, in other words. By the opening of the eighteenth century the African slave trade was the foundation not only for the whole European colonial system but also for the domestic industries which made goods for export. Cloth, powder, hardware, iron bars, rum, guns, furniture, and other items went to Africa, slaves went to the New World, sugar and tobacco and gold came back to Europe, and a great deal of money was made. During the eleven years beginning in 1783, Liverpool traders carried more than 300,000 slaves to the New World. Total value of the slaves came to a trifle over fifteen million pounds sterling; profits ran to more than two and three-quarter million pounds.