Attitudes to Slavery: Texts and Sources
As many as twelve million persons have been estimated as being taken on ships from the African coastline in the Atlantic Slave Trade. These pages look through the eyes of commentators, critics and defenders of the institution of slavery. This introductory page show a perspective from the United States on the trade. In the Attitudes to Slavery: Texts and Sources section the following are links to pages concerning:
Islam and slavery
Asante attitudes to slavery
European attitudes to slavery
Christianity and attitudes to slavery
African-British writers and attitudes to slavery
African attitudes to slavery
Slavery today alive in the world of today
See also the web discussion thread on African involvement in the slave trade shown in the ISSUES section on this site.
Reason for remorse?
- In the New York Times Howard W. French writes of The Atlantic Slave Trade: On Both Sides, Reason for Remorse
- The New York Times April 5, 1998
The Atlantic Slave Trade: On Both Sides, Reason for Remorse
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- From the moment the White House announced that President Clinton would stop at Senegal's Goree Island, one of this continent's most famous monuments to the Atlantic slave trade, a polemic was re-launched in the United States and in much of Africa over how and indeed whether Clinton should apologize for the centuries-long capture and sale into bondage of millions of Africans.
For some, the very idea of an apology was offensive. Weren't Africans engaging in slavery themselves well before the first Europeans came and carried off their first human cargoes? Didn't African chiefs themselves conduct razzias, or slaving raids, on neighboring tribes and march their harvest to the shores for sale?
For others, though, the Atlantic trade in Africans was one of the greatest crimes humanity has known, and remains one that has never been properly acknowledged.
"The Holocaust was certainly a great tragedy, but it only lasted a few short years," said Joseph Ndiaye, the curator of the Maison des Esclaves, the featured stop on Clinton's trip to Goree. "We never stop hearing about the Holocaust, but how often do we dwell on the tragedy that took place here over 350 years; a tragedy that consumed tens of millions of lives?"
In the end, an appropriately solemn Clinton stopped short of an outright apology for America's part in the slave trade, finding other ways to express his regret as he focused on the future.
That Clinton so artfully chose to sidestep African slavery's long history should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with its cruel and complicated details.
Even today, few subjects are so prone to passionate disagreement. As ever, people from each leg of the triangular Atlantic trade -- Europe, Africa and the Americas -- still use the slave experience as a vacant screen upon which they project their own misperceptions and justifications.
The Colonial View
In the United States, conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan recently echoed a sentiment heard often from whites who resent attempts to make them feel guilty for slavery:
"When Europeans arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, the inhabitants had no machinery and no written language. When the Europeans departed, most of them by 1960, they left behind power stations, telephones, telegraphs, railroads, mines, plantations, schools, a civil service, a police force and a treasury."
Even disregarding the wildly benign view of Europe's colonial legacy, many historians say Buchanan's assumptions -- of a savage continent being blessed with the gift of European civilization -- are as erroneous as they are widespread.
Early European travelers to West Africa, in fact, found societies that by many measures, from commonly available technology to general living standards, were not so different from home.
"The smelting of iron and steel in West Africa was similar to that in Europe in the 13th century, before the advent of power driven by the water wheel," wrote Hugh Thomas, the author of "The Slave Trade" (Simon & Schuster, 1997). "Senegambia had iron and copper industries, and the quality of African steel approached that of Toledo before the 15th century."
It would be dishonest to lay all of Africa's subsequent problems on the slave trade. But most experts do not doubt that the forces unleashed by Europe's demand for slaves, gold and other African goods radically destabilized societies that were embarking on their own path toward development, and laid waste to whole regions of this continent.
"The discussion of how Africa became what it did subsequent to 1500 very quickly becomes an argument over what the slave trade did to the continent," said John Reader, a fellow of the British Royal Anthropological Institute and author of "Africa, a Biography of the Continent."
"Africa clearly would not have had an easy time even if there had not been an Atlantic slave trade," he wrote. "But one can easily imagine entirely different trajectories for the continent."
A cold look at the nature of the Atlantic slave trade makes it very difficult to overstate its impact.
Until recently, Africa's economic development has always been hindered by low population densities. Africa's population in 1500 has been estimated by some at 47 million. Over the next 350 years, between 10 and 15 million Africans were landed in chains in the New World, and 4 to 6 million more are thought to have died during their capture or the Atlantic crossing -- a total of between 14 and 21 million people. History has seen few social disruptions on that scale.
In the end, however, many specialists in African history consider the process by which slavery worked to be as destructive as the sheer numbers involved.
Few African slaves were enchained by Europeans themselves. Instead, massive slave raids, huge marches of captives from inland areas and continuous rivalries between coastal kingdoms and local ethnic groups were driven by demand for Europe's coveted goods -- cloth and candles, grain, horses, spiced wine, pots and pans.
For centuries in Africa, ethical conventions had governed the taking and use of slaves, who in most cases resembled the serfs of Europe more than the chattel of the Americas. These suddenly dissolved.
"The trans-Atlantic slave trade vastly devalued human life compared to what existed virtually anywhere on the continent before," said historian Basil Davidson. "Things were not a peaceful Garden of Eden in Africa beforehand. But all of the evidence combines to show that the level of civilization in pre-colonial Africa was degraded and depressed by the onset of widespread violence related to the slave trade."
And here one begins to touch upon one of the cruelest ironies of the slave trade and enter into an area that many Africans and African-Americans are often unaware of or uncomfortable confronting directly.
African slavery, albeit of a very different kind, began long before the arrival of Europeans, and continued well after slavery's abolition in the West. And the slavery of the Americas could never have approached the scale it attained without the active and widespread collaboration of Africans. Most troubling, perhaps, are how European perceptions of Africans and their behavior lent seeming moral acceptability to the commerce.
The free-for-all among African societies to capture slaves from their neighbors and rivals for sale to whites was deliberately stimulated by the Europeans who anchored offshore with their cloth and trinkets. And this same state of chaos comforted whites in their view of Africans as ignoble savages.
Today Africans and African-Americans may often share a common view of slavery as the evil work of whites. But the very notion of shared Africanness so commonplace today existed only in the minds of foreigners during the time of this trade. To Africans, their own divisions on ethnic and linguistic lines mattered far more. The lack of solidarity served, in the European mind, as another easy rationale for enslaving them.
Contrast this to the attitude Europeans took toward the New World's Indians. Recorded instances of Indians selling each other into plantation slavery are rare. Less than 100 years into the colonization of the New World, calls were spreading for the abolition of Indian slavery.
"The Indians were seen by and large as a people unknown to the ancients who had somehow remained innocent and noble," said David Brion Davis, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University." At the very same time, mariners going up and down the African coast spread tales of Africans as savage barbarians who sold slaves themselves."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company