Guest Commentary / January 20, 2023

The Inconvenient History of Slavery

“He who does not know his history from before he was born will forever be a child.”

By David Marcus

I suspect that Georges Santaya got the inspiration for his quote from Cicero, who, as a historian, said something like, “He who does not know his history from before he was born will forever be a child.” Santayan said without history, “infancy is perpetual.” I agree with both.

Slavery is used to produce something a culture wants that can only be produced by human physical labor, and the nasty nature of the work can only be produced by forced labor — i.e., slavery. In ancient times, rowing the triremes and mining the tin are examples. In later days, the Spanish forced the indigenous population to mine the silver.

In the 18th century, the culture wanted cheap cotton clothing, sugar, and coffee for the masses. The only way to get that was to force people to pick the cotton, pick the coffee and boil sugar plants in horrific conditions.

They condoned slavery to get what they wanted.

Today, electric vehicle batteries require rare earth minerals that are difficult to mine, and many are produced in Myanmar and China with forced labor. So, today’s culture has decided that the need for electric vehicles is so great that it is worth condoning slavery.

Ditto solar panels. Polysilicon is necessary, and the Chinese are producing it in their western provinces with slave labor. So, again, today’s culture has decided that the need for solar panels is so great that it is worth condoning slavery.

There is a gross hypocrisy here somewhere.

As far as the United States’ experience with slavery, while it is a terrible institution, the fact is that less than 10% of the blacks enslaved in Africa by other blacks came to our shores. More went to the Caribbean, where they worked on the sugar plantations like Kamala Harris’s great-grandfather. The conditions there were so bad that the average lifespan was two years. Most went to the Muslim countries where they worked in the mines and the harems, and conditions could not have been much better.

Without claiming justification for slavery, it is true that the slaves in the United States had greater basics — i.e., food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention — than was available to counterparts anywhere in the world, including their home continent. They tended to live long lives, although unhappily.

Not so with their white counterparts, the Europeans, who knowingly signed up to be a slave, an indentured servant, for seven years for the privilege of coming to the United States. Less than 50% of those unfortunate souls lived longer than five years.

The slaves in the United States had children. Many children. While less than 800,000 arrived by boat during those 150 years, by the time of the Civil War there were about 3,500,000.

I am not arguing that slavery was anything less than terrible. It is that slavery was forced upon them by other blacks, and of all of the possible environments they could have had, the United States was by far the best. None wanted to go home after Emancipation.

A word about Emancipation. The country paid a large price to free the slaves. About 600,000 young men died, and another 600,000 wounded. One for every three freed people. A whole generation. The North went deeply into financial debt, which eventually could only be paid by the sale of the western lands.

The South was devastated. Slavery left nothing good in its wake. For a while, a small group of landowners were rich, but with Emancipation they were gone, the land was played out, there was no industrial revolution, and the South was left with a bunch of poor whites and newly freed slaves to economically compete on a wasteland. Thus, the Jim Crow laws.

The newly freed people were illiterate, by law, and untrained in a hostile environment. For 100 years they and their descendants were the best of all of the various cultures that existed in our melting pot. They taught themselves to read and write. They built their own schools and colleges despite the Jim Crow laws. Who can forget the confrontation with Governor Wallace? Education was a driving force. They had lower divorce rates than non-blacks and lower crime rates than non-blacks.

How can today’s differences be explained?

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