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Original Sin

April 23, 2010
In a NYT piece entitled Ending the Slavery Blame Game, Skip Gates writes:

THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African-American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage…. [T]here is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa…. For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast…. How did slaves make it to these coastal forts?… 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders… without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred. Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade….

For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane,” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.” But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese…. Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World….

Brad DeLong responds:

Unfortunately for Gates:

  1. The first generations of African kings who began selling slaves to European traders for guns indeed did not know what slavery was like on the other side of the Middle Passage–they thought it was like slavery in Africa, where if you become a slave you then become part of a single household in which you have roughly the status of the very poor third cousin. But slavery in the Caribbean was a much harsher and more vicious institution–as capitalist slavery driven by production of staple cash crops so often is.

  2. Once the slave trade was started and once the kings of Africa knew what they were doing, no individual African kingdom along the coast can back off and stop. If it does, the guns and ammunition stop coming–and it gets conquered in short order by its coastal neighbors who are still engaged in the slave trade.

  3. Only when European consumer demand for Caribbean staple crops appears–only when the profits from slave agriculture and thus slave-raiding become really large–is it worth African kings’ while to start substantial slave-raiding in the interior (and is it worth the Europeans’ while to start shipping people across the Middle Passage).

That Henry Louis Gates makes fun of these arguments doesn’t make them untrue.

I think DeLong is more right than Gates. There is a bizarre anachronism to Gates’ argument. We shouldn’t be any more surprised that African kingdoms would sell other Africans into slavery than we should be that Romans enslaved Gauls or Venetians sold Slavs. Skin color didn’t count for as much back then, so I don’t see why the skin color of slave traders should matter to questions of justice now.

It’s anachronistic to project the color line into an era when the salient divisions were religious. Europeans wanted non-Christian slaves. For most of the middle ages, this meant Christians enslaved Slavs (from which we get the word slaves), whom the Ottomans would later favor for Mamluks. But after Prince Vladimir converted the Slavs to Christianity around 988, the Europeans looked elsewhere. The stateless regions of (often pagan) inner Africa were ideal, and the (often Muslim) African kingdoms on the coast were as happy to trade with Europeans as with Arabs or other African kingdoms.

DeLong is also right that no Africans in the old world could have known how harsh slavery was in the Caribbean. Conditions were actually much better on continental North America, until – for various reasons that I would look up if this weren’t an off the cuff  early morning post – the planting aristocracy left Barbados and resettled in South Carolina. These newcomers to the the colonies brought with them the hardened racial ideology of the Caribbean planters. It’s no accident that the likes of John C Calhoun and Strom Thurmond all came from South Carolina. This is the beginning of the truly persistant intertwining of exploitation and race in American history.

All of which makes me think that the United States’ original sin was not slavery – an institution that pretty much every civilization in human history participated in until the 18th century without leaving scars on their national psyche  – but the color line. Slavery may have been abolished 150 years ago, but the color line certainly wasn’t.

Which is to say that ameliorative social policies should not be justified by discussions of blood guilt – this only leads to Italians, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Asians, Scotch-Irish, etc. pointing out that their ancestors had nothing to do with America’s past sins, and which leads Skip Gates to drag 16th century African princes into the equation. Blood guilt is beside the point when the New World’s original sin – making race central to the allocation of social rights and life chances – is anything but a matter of ancient history.


Some notes:

Further evidence that religion – and not race or nationality – were what mattered to early Europeans, consider the surprisingly persistant legend of Prester John. For centuries, European explorers searched for this mythical Christian emperor deep in the heart of Africa. Europeans assumed that a Christian ruler would naturally ally with them against the more powerful Arab states.

Also, for more on the role of race before the in-migration of Barbadian planters, I suggest Jack Rakove’s lectures on Colonial and Revolutionary America, available on Stanfords iTunes U page. I’m not suggesting that there wouldn’t have been racism if the Barbadian planters had never come to South Carolina, but without them it does seem to me that the color line would have been fuzzier and ultimately less robust to the passage of time.


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