Sunday, January 09, 2005

Who ended slavery?


The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe in.'' This phrase, with slight variations, recurs through long years in the rhetoric of movements to abolish first African slavery within England, then the Atlantic traffic in African people that England dominated for more than a century and then the institution of slavery in the British Empire, whose populations included hundreds of thousands of slaves. It is an axiom traditionally believed to have been invoked in 1772, in principle if not verbatim, by Lord Mansfield, the judge in Somerset v. Steuart, which Steven M. Wise in ''Though the Heavens May Fall'' calls the ''trial that led to the end of human slavery.'' Somerset was an African who accompanied Steuart, his owner, to England. He escaped, was recaptured and sued successfully for his freedom.

Both Wise and Adam Hochschild
["Bury the Chains:
Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves"] celebrate this trial and the events and personalities that brought it about. No doubt they should. It is a melancholy fact, however, that the phenomenon of African slavery loomed as it did over the Atlantic world because, from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of George III, England assumed that the air of its colonies, or of any other colony ready to buy, was impure enough to accommodate slavery very nicely.

Wise, the president of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, traces with reverent care how the question of the legality of slavery developed within England, culminating in this famous trial. The hero of his narrative is Granville Sharp, a minor government clerk who educated himself in the law in the course of defending the rights of Africans brought into England as slaves. He devoted himself and his slender resources to this work over decades with the object of finally putting an end to slavery itself. The trial, which is said to have abolished slavery within England by legal precedent, was centered on the question of Steuart's right to sell Somerset into the West Indies. Lord Mansfield ruled in favor of Somerset on the grounds that slavery ''is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.'' There being no such law in England, ''the black must be discharged.'' This decision freed an estimated 15,000 Africans then held as slaves in England."

Now where was that "postive law?"

It's been remarked by some historians that one of the main reasons for the American Revolution had to do with precisely this case, and the import that it had for the American economy- especially in the South.

But everybody seems to have dirty hands here...

When the British outlawed the exportation of Africans to the colonies for sale in 1807, they had had almost 20 years' notice that the Americans intended to ban the importation of Africans in 1808...

And there were the rebellions in the West Indies, particularly the Haitian rebellion. ... Since Haiti alone produced as much foreign trade at that time as the whole of the 13 colonies of North America, it was potentially a great loss. It belonged to France, but Britain supplied it with slaves, a valuable trade since the slaves were intentionally worked to death -- it was cheaper to replace them than to sustain them -- so the market for Africans was very brisk. Uprisings had long been frequent in the West Indies, but at long last rage in Haiti converged with the tactical brilliance of Toussaint L'Ouverture and others and the slaves seized the island. This part of the story is familiar. But there is more.

First the British and then the French under Napoleon sent huge forces against the Haitians. The British sent a larger army against Haiti than it had dispatched to fight in the American Revolution. And it buried 60 percent of those soldiers in Haiti. The two greatest powers on earth went up against a population of half-starved, desperate people and were utterly defeated. It is no surprise that these two abysmal wars of empire have fallen out of history. One cannot read about them without concluding that the Haitian Africans contributed mightily to making the Caribbean slave system untenable. All in all, in 1807 the prospects of the traffic in human beings were not good. It is perhaps coincidental that in adopting the abolitionist stance Britain was able to seize the moral high ground and attempt (together with the United States) to suppress the slave trade among its economic rivals. Certainly this posture was gallant enough to make a great part of the world forget that Britain was for so long pre-eminent among the despoilers of Africa. ...

Hochschild interprets the success of the British abolitionist movement as a triumph of empathy, a humane response to horrors of which the public only gradually became conscious. His heroes are Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp and the former slave Olaudah Equiano, among others. These men did indeed work patiently and passionately for emancipation...

In fact, the slave trade was at home in a world where the appropriation of lives and the extortion of labor were astonishingly commonplace. Hochschild describes the virtual abductions by which slave ships were manned, and tells how these sailors were subject to flogging and starving, and died in numbers as great as did the abducted Africans they helped to transport. And the British Navy was manned in the same way. None of this was at all exceptional, as it would have to have been if there were indeed a presumption of freedom embedded in English culture, as both books assert. No consensus in support of freedom can be demonstrated. The industrialist Robert Owen, writing in 1813, years after the Mansfield decision, describes the transfer to factories of the children of British paupers by the hundreds, 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who worked 13 hours a day through seven-year apprenticeships. These little workers died quickly and were replaced by other pauper children. They were not slaves in the strictest sense. The system did resemble Caribbean slavery, however, in that it set a negative value on their well-being.

In a world where child labor is commonplace (as it still is in many parts of the world- forget about the sex trafficking for a microsecond), where workers are still worked to death in many places, can we actually say that slavery has ended? Did Franklin Roosevelt help end that in the US?

Can we also just as well say, as Ms. Robinson seems to imply, that the Haitian slaves did a great deal to end slavery, perhaps freeing more slaves than Wilberforce?

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