Most of us are familiar with a little of the history of slavery in America. Slaves were primarily imported from Africa. Slavery existed primarily on plantations in the coastal colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. When the British Colonies were united into the United States and the country grew westward, slavery also spread westward. But that is not the whole story. There is a lot more to know.
Where Did Slaves Come From?
Sailing ships carried would-be slaves from Africa to the southern British American colonies (and later, to the southern U.S. states). But far more African slaves were shipped to South America and the islands of the Caribbean Sea than to America.
But where did all of those slaves taken from Africa come from? European sailing ships did not simply send some men ashore to round up Africa natives. Those doomed to being loaded onto the slave ships were sold by other Africans – traded for goods offered in exchange by the slave ships.
Tribes in Africa, like tribes that have existed everywhere around the world since the dawn of humanity, were (and are still) often at war with each other. Tribes typically are ignorant of the concept of agriculture, except in rare cases where they learn it from others who are more advanced. Tribes must forage for what food they can find. Other tribes were (and are) competitors for that food and the land it grows on. Unlike today, with the rule of law and the widespread use of farming and industrialization, the killing and enslaving of members of other tribes was a necessary part of life for a tribe.
When slave ships appeared on the African coast, some tribes would be waiting to sell captured members of other tribes. On a slave ship’s next visit, the situation might be reversed, with the other tribes selling captured members of the tribes which had done the selling previously. Slave ships were a convenient way for tribes to reduce the population of neighboring tribes. A tribe could better survive by bargaining for trade goods in exchange for the captured members of an enemy tribe, rather than by simply killing them.
The people sold to the slave ships were not the only Africans doomed to slavery. Tribes throughout Africa, and still in much of Africa to this day, kept and keep other Africans as their own slaves. The population of the African nation of Mauritania, for example, is currently about 10% slaves.
The African slave trade existed long before the shipping of Africans to the Americas began in the 1600s. In terms of sheer numbers of people taken to be slaves, the Muslims exceeded everyone else. From 650 to 1905, an estimated 17,000,000 people were enslaved by the Muslims.
The number of Europeans taken as slaves by Muslims was greater than the number of Africans brought to North America. Some were taken from raids by Muslim ships along the coasts of Europe, as far north as Ireland. Another 1,000,000 were taken from the Ukraine and Poland into slavery in Muslim Ottoman Turkey.
But the lion’s share of those enslaved by the Muslims were Africans, forced to march north across the Sahara Desert (with many dying along the way) to be sold into slavery under Muslim owners.
The Other Slavery in America
Slavery had been a part of American history for more than 10,000 years before Europeans first stepped foot on the New World. Slavery was commonplace among American Indian tribes, and remained so at least into the late 1800s.
Tribes around the world have fought each other since time began, killing and enslaving their enemies. Slavery is a natural part of tribal life.
We all have ancestors who were slaves. We all have ancestors who owned slaves. None of us has to trace our ancestry back more than a few hundred years into the past to find slaves and slave owners. While there have been occasional attempts to improve the treatment of slaves, to block the importation of slaves in some locales, and even to eliminate some types of slavery (e.g., debt slavery), slavery continued world-wide into the 1800s – less than 200 years ago.
What Really Ended Slavery?
Two intertwined factors finally started the process towards bringing down the curtain on slavery.
The Enlightenment – the period that began around the time that John Locke wrote his treatises on Individual Rights in the 1680-1690 timeframe, through the time of the American Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the French Revolution in 1792 – also known as the Age of Reason, saw the first consideration of the idea that a person had Rights – as the Americans say, Rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That poetic phrase means the recognition of your Right to your life, to your own choice of what actions you will take, and what personal goals you will set for yourself.
The new philosophy of Individual Rights was a first for humanity – the first appearance of the idea that no one of us should be above another. This new and very radical idea spread first through England and her colonies, and then more slowly to mainland Europe, where Monarchies were dominant. Those kings had no desire to permit such disruptive ideas to be introduced to their subject populations, fearing rebellion (which is what ultimately happened). The world beyond Europe was still very primitive, and the notion of Individual Rights penetrated not at all into Asia, Africa, and Latin America at that time; it still has not reached many parts of the world to this day.
The United States has been called “The Child of the Enlightenment” because the Founding Fathers translated the radical ideals of the Enlightenment into pragmatic law and government. The Enlightenment principles of Individual Rights is the foundation for the U.S. Constitution. Those ideals were not – and are not – perfectly applied in the design of America’s government. People resist change and will only change slowly. Each generation has limits on its capabilities. Some steps, like ending slavery, had to wait for resolution by another generation. But America’s Founding Fathers placed the foundations in place to make it possible for subsequent generations to accomplish what they could not.
The U.S. remains the world’s leader in its respect for Individual Rights. The U.S. has always been the driving wedge for the spread of Individual Rights around the globe. But more remains to be done. Socialism, fundamentally against Individual Rights and destructive of them, is only one doctrine still standing in the way of the world-wide spread of the idea of Individual Rights.
The second factor that hastened the end of slavery was the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the mid-1700s, spreading to the United States and mainland Europe in the early 1800s. The Industrial Revolution made slavery economically unfeasible, which made it easier to force its end. Mechanization and educated, trained workers will outperform unwilling, rote physical human labor in terms of quality, quantity, and cost every time.
By the time of the American Civil War, the widening gulf between the wealth of the industrially-developed northern states and the still-agrarian southern states was becoming a noticeable and divisive issue for the country.
In contrast, the development of the southern states since the end of slavery and the decline of racism has, if anything, outpaced that of the northern states, placing that part of the U.S., with its less restrictive laws allowing greater freedom, at the forefront of America’s current economic development.
30 Million People Know Slavery Exists Right Now
But slavery is not gone yet. Slavery is not just something that happened in the past. Slavery is still practiced throughout the world – particularly where Individual Rights and Industrialization have a limited foothold. In more civilized countries, such as the United States, criminal organizations use slavery for their profit. But real slavery is still prevalent in equatorial Africa and southern Asia – India, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, and Laos.
Thirty million people live in slavery today – now, at this very moment – and they and their slave owners know it all too well.
The next time you see a sports figure or anyone else on bended knee, ask them what they are actually doing about slavery today, and the 30 million who live in it, in the here-and-now – and whether they care more about living human beings than bemoaning a practice of humanity’s past. ■