The Myths of American Slavery

As construction of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture progresses toward its September opening, Museum Director Lonnie Bunch joined CBS “60 Minutes”’ Scott Pelley on a visit to Mozambique in search of a ship that carried hundreds of African slaves to the bottom of the Indian Ocean when it foundered 220 years ago.    

“The story of slavery is everybody's story,” Bunch explained to Pelley.  “It is the story about how we're all shaped by, regardless of race, regardless of how long we've been in this country. We hope that we can be a factor to both educate America around this subject but maybe more importantly help Americans finally wrestle with this, talk about it, debate it…”

So how are 21st Century citizens of the United States obliged to “finally wrestle” with, in this case, the long-ago deaths of Africans who were enslaved by other Africans, forcefully driven for many miles through a Mozambique port and on to a Portuguese slave ship bound for Brazil, while the descendants of all those who actually participated in this event are allowed to be wistfully unconcerned and guilt-free?   

You see, Mr. Bunch is wrong on one key point. Slavery is not everybody’s story -- it must remain exclusively a story for the United States and its people. Only we are required to bear the indelible stain of this country’s original sin -- and it appears those who entered or will enter here assume this mantle of guilt themselves a century-and-a-half after the institution of slavery was ended.

It is a scab that must be picked at incessantly -- not out of any real concern for those who suffered centuries ago, but to gain political advantage today. Our nation can nominally assuage its relentless shame with assorted forms of reparations from those who never were masters to those who never were slaves.

Hollywood again obliges this week with an eight-hour retelling of Alex Haley’s "Roots", a venture apparently so vital it requires an unprecedented simultaneous airing on three television networks over four consecutive nights. Variety magazine suggested the new miniseries finally will provide the truth about the “cruel persistence” of this peculiar institution in our country to “generations of Americans who are uninformed about the true dimensions of slavery, or who prefer to remain willfully ignorant of its scope and lingering effects.”

However, those generations of American schoolchildren have been marinated in the notion that the institution of slavery sprang fully formed in 1619 when 20 Africans slaves landed in Jamestown, Virginia. (Actually, they originally were destined for Vera Cruz, Mexico aboard a Portuguese slave ship before being intercepted by a British privateer. It is believed the 20 were accepted as indentured servants and eventually were freed.)

Any discussion of slavery in this country should start with the recognition that the North American British colonies were remarkably small players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of the approximate 12.5 million Africans taken in bondage to the New World, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Databases estimates only about 388,000 came to what is now the United States -- and virtually all aboard European-flagged slave ships. That represents a little more than 3% of the Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere.

So is Washington D.C. really the most appropriate place for a museum that focuses so heavily on the desperate institution, or should other candidates be considered? Here are some possible alternatives:

Baghdad, Iraq -- The institution of slavery predates recorded history but the earliest references were recorded in the Code of Hammurabi in about 1760 B.C. 

Mecca, Saudi Arabia -- Beginning in the 7th Century, adherents of Mohammed founded a series of caliphates that brought all of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula under Muslim control. For eight centuries before the first European slavers arrived in Africa, Arab Muslims established a robust trans-Sahara trade that would eventually capture an estimated 18 million Africans. Slavery was not made illegal in the Arabian Peninsula until 1962.

Lagos, Nigeria -- African slavery predated the arrival of the Arabs and Europeans and continues to this day. In some areas of Cameroon and Northern Nigeria, up to half the population lived in slavery. More than two million slaves were released by the British in Nigeria alone in the early 1900s.  

Tripoli, Libya -- Muslim pirates along the North African Barbary Coast didn’t stop with the enslavement of Africans, but also preyed upon Mediterranean shipping and coastal cities. An estimated 1.25 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved by these pirates, whose abuses forced Thomas Jefferson to send the nascent United States Navy to shut them down. The event is commemorated to this day in the Marine Corps hymn reference to their exploits on “the shores of Tripoli.”

Lisbon, Portugal -- This Iberian peninsula country was by far and away the most prolific transporter of Africans to the New World and was, along with Spain, notorious for its ruthless in the treatment of those slaves. 

Rome -- It is estimated that 35% to 40% of the First Century B.C. Roman Empire population were slaves. They were drawn from throughout Europe and acquired by slave traders who followed the Roman army on its path of conquest. 

London -- While England played a key role in reducing the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 19th Century, it had previously been involved in selling Irish and African human cargo. More than 30,000 Irish prisoners were sent in bondage by King James II to work on English plantations in the West Indies beginning in 1625. In a single decade more than half a million Irish were killed and another 300,000 sold as slaves -- reducing the population of Ireland by more than 60%. Many hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants were shipped to Barbados, Jamaica, and British North American colonies. Over a period of two-and-a-half centuries, more than 10,000 voyages by British ships also carried an estimate five million Africans in bondage to the New World -- second only to Portugal.  

Mexico City -- Slavery was widely practiced by the Aztec and Mayan nations long before the arrival of the Spanish. Ritualistic human sacrifices and cannibalism were commonplace, with tens of thousands of slaves slaughtered each year. African slaves arrived in Mexico almost a century prior their appearance in what is now the United States. Violent slave revolts against their brutal treatment occurred as early as 1537 in Mexico, 82 years before the first Africans were brought to what is now the United States.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- Long before the first Portuguese settlement in 1532, indigenous tribes routinely enslaved one another. However, Brazil soon became by far the leading New World importer with more than 4.8 million African slaves toiling in the most brutal working conditions in this nation’s plantations and gold mines. Brazil also was the last Western country to abolish slavery in 1888. 

It is a pretty good rule of thumb to conclude that wherever humans have existed, so has slavery. It was far more brutally practiced throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, where the death rate was so high the slave population could not be sustained without continual importations from Africa. In the U.S. there was a near balance of male and females so the slave population crew by natural reproduction after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned in 1809.   

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates caused a firestorm among his colleagues in the African-American studies ranks when he shared the facts of the relatively low number of slaves transported to British North America and primary role of African slave traders. 

“People wanted to kill me,” Gates said. “Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we are raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn’t like that.”

This is a message unlikely to resonate among those with a vested interest in fostering racial discord in this country. 

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