Slavery, White Guilt, and the Politics of Absurdity

Black Lives Matter used the Fourth of July for its denigration of “racist” America. Accusations of American racism typically begin with references to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, although they do not end there. While the indictment is popular among those who disdain America, most people know less about the slave trade than the intensity of their contempt for America and white people would seem to indicate.

A majority of “white America” are descendants of people who came to America during the great waves of European immigration from 1880 to 1924. Over a hundred million white Americans trace their ancestry to immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, which didn’t open until 1900. Most white Americans are descendants from people who came to these shores long after slavery was extinguished.

The indictment of all white people for the evil of slavery because they share skin color with slave owners is an indulgence in absurdity. We are told not to judge all Muslims as terrorists or all blacks responsible for the crimes of individual blacks. Yet, for whites, the collective guilt is unending. It is propagated in our universities under the now theological dictates of white privilege and white guilt.

The Eastern and Southern Europeans who came here primarily during the period of 1880-1924 had no participation in the slave trade except to have had some of their forbearers taken as slaves by Muslim slavers from North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. For over two hundred years, during the mid-1600s to the 1830s, Barbary Muslims trafficked in white European Christians. The Ottoman Muslims trafficking in White Christian slavery started even earlier, in the 15th century. All in all, Muslims enslaved more than two million white European Christians.

Barbary slavers nearly depopulated the coastal villages of Southern Europe and went as far north as Iceland and Scotland to conduct slave raids. Ottoman Turks went into Russia to procure slaves.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams negotiated, in London, with Tripoli’s ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, over the enslavement of Americans. During the negotiations, they asked Abdrahaman what right he had to seize slaves. He replied that his right was "founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

The Barbary pirates’ slave trade came to an end in the early 19th century when American, Dutch, and British warships defeated them, and France invaded and colonized North Africa west of Libya.

So, should white European Christians condemn all Muslims for their role in the enslavement of white European Christians?  Should the Europeans of the Southern Mediterranean demand reparations from Muslims for the enslavement of their ancestors? Should our universities teach courses about Muslim privilege punctuated with generous citations from the Koran?

Nearly every people were represented in the slave trade on both ends of the yoke. Muslims from North Africa trafficked in sub-Saharan blacks, and Portuguese slavers raided Muslims and took them and their slaves captive. Western Europeans purchased slaves from African kings and transported slaves from West Africa to the New World in conditions that they would not have used for cattle.

Without powerful African kings who were all too willing to sell the people they vanquished to the Europeans, it is doubtful there would have been a trans-Atlantic slave trade.  

Among these Africans was King Tegesibu of Dahomey, who earned 250,000 British pounds a year in the slave trade -- more than an English duke earned in the same period. King Alvare of the Congo was a major supplier of slaves to the Portuguese. There was the late 17th-century royal family of Benin, whose ancestors refused to sell men, but whose descendants sold everyone -- men, women, and children.

Islam prohibited Muslims from holding fellow Muslims as slaves, but the prohibition was ignored when it came to sub-Saharan Africans. Long before the first Portuguese sail could be seen from the African coast, the Muslims had actively been engaged in the trans-Saharan slave trade going back to the Muslim invasion of Africa.

Pope Pius II ordered that Christians could not hold as slaves Africans who had been baptized. Pius II had no qualms about non-Christians being sold into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But even the prohibition on Christian blacks was ignored. The trafficking in human cargo was far too lucrative to be restricted by religious rulings.

Muslims and Christians found it convenient to interpret the children of Ham as being black Africans and rationalized the inhumanity of the slave trade by referring to religious texts. This irony of rationalizing a great evil by invoking scripture seems to have eluded those who needed a justification for their greed.

Some Jews, like every other group, held slaves in the New World, but contrary to the accusation of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, Jews were not the dominant participants in the slave trade. The total number of slaves held by Jews would not have filled one large Mississippi plantation.

Jewish investment in the slave trade was also marginal. Jewish participation in the slave trade was as vital to it as the small number of freed blacks who fought for the Confederacy was to the Southern cause. In both cases, the symbolic value has been crafted to be more important than the numbers by those desperate to make a meaningless point.  

Slavery was not just a despicable institution, it was also a complex one that drew participation from the elite in West African Kingdoms, Western Europe, the Americas, Maghreb, and Middle East. A fortune made in the slave trade could be transformed into a fortune in reputable commerce. It is no accident that the president of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens, began his career as a slave trader.

Calls for reparations for the descendants of American slaves and for various kinds of preferential treatment begin with the evil of slavery. Admittedly, the iniquities visited upon African-Americans did not end with slavery.

Although we could determine who are the descendants of those who lived through this horror, we would be harder pressed to determine who should pay. Should it be the African kingdoms that began the traffic, the Muslims of North Africa and the Middle East who extended it geographically, or the Western Europeans and Americans who made it an intercontinental business? Perhaps all of them. But is that remotely likely?

If we are truly concerned about slavery, would it be better to turn our attention to slavery in the 21st century to honor all those who lived through the oppression of slavery? There is still slavery in the modern world and that is where a concern for justice should begin. 

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