Not just America’s
In the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this summer, America has begun a serious -- perhaps overzealous -- retrospection of the enduring role that African slavery and its legacy played in the development of the great civilization that we call the US.
It is a hallmark of intellectual and moral maturity that so many important white Americans are delving into the uncomfortable context and the jarring historical realities of chattel slavery that was de jure legal until 1860; the bigotry associated with such evil was a very part of de facto life in many parts of America till well into the 1970s, when the modern Civil Rights movement began the process of ending this state of affairs.
Indeed, many Americans of conscience, of all colours, will tell you that the progress towards that “more perfect Union” promised by the constitution is one that continues today.
Yet, slavery was neither uniquely American nor even particularly American. On the contrary, chattel slavery, perhaps humanity’s original sin, has been part of every society from the dawn of the first human settlements to the very age that we live in ... or at least our parents lived in: It was not until the second half of the 20th century -- yes, the 20th century -- that Saudi Arabia and Mauritania formally abolished slavery.
I emphasize the word “formally” because most independent human rights reports readily observe that very similar horrific practices continue in both those countries, and in several other Middle Eastern and African ones, albeit under different social and quasi-legal mechanisms.
The traditions of the major monotheistic religious faiths are, at best, inconsistent about chattel slavery which may be the reason why fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims have alike found it difficult to condemn slavery outright. Indeed, merchants of all of these religious faiths have historically made millions trading off fellow human beings as goods.
Not to be outdone by monotheists, animists in West Africa have long considered it, just like the medieval Mughals and ancient Romans and Greeks have, quite normal to put their defeated enemies, soldier and civilian alike, in perpetual bondage.
While unpopular to admit so today in most of the woke intellectual circles, a harsh fact of North American slavery remains that the slave ships plying from the Gold Coast to Boston and New Orleans were filled by very willing African tribal chiefs and Arab intermediaries who were only too happy to sell hapless African captives into slavery to the white man across the Big Ocean.
Africans were not, of course, the only victims of the slave trade in the Atlantic and Mediterranean basins. Approximately at the same time as Africans were being put into chains on ships and sent to the Americas, North African Berber pirates were raiding villages and hamlets in coastal towns from Scandinavia to Britain to the Iberian peninsula to capture thousands of white men, women, and children to be sold in the slave markets of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli.
It was an excess of these depredations, especially when many Americans were thus enslaved from Europe, that Presidents Jefferson and Madison went to war and cut down, at least temporarily, the Arab-African pirates in the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century.
The treatment by human beings of other human beings as mere objects has not ended with the formal end of slavery, and certainly not in the sub-continent. Before the manufactured textiles revolution provided an alternative source of livelihoods for many women and some men in the late 1980s, domestic service was the only avenue of employment for such people escaping crushing poverty in the rural areas of Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Sindh, and Bihar.
I do not have to remind you of how brutally they were often treated by their employers and how their rights were little more than those of the chattel slaves held by the antebellum plantation owners in the American South.
The same middle-class savants in Dhaka who are quick to wax eloquent about slavery and racism in America had no qualms about beating to a pulp 10-year-old kids who were their domestic servants, for no other reason than a minor infraction like breaking a piece of china. Such stories, though fortunately rarer today, still show up with painful regularity in the pages of newspapers. Who are we kidding with such moral preening about America’s sinful past?
Really, nobody. Facts are uncomfortable things and rather agnostic towards one’s feelings of religious, racial, or nationalistic pride. History tells us in unambiguous terms that slavery was not just America’s original sin but humanity’s as well.
In that dark history of man enslaving fellow man, there are no saints; only a whole lot of sinners of all colours, religions, nationalities, and civilizations.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]