Freedom – J. Walvin

Hey folks, we’re not done with the whole slavery thing. Because after I read The Half Has Never Been Told (which, just to repeat myself, you should definitively read), I realized that … well, in all that I thought I knew about world history, there was something missing. If slavery was mentioned at all, it was mentioned on the side, quickly glanced over and ignored for the rest of it.

Whereas, in reality, slavery was a HUGE thing. Ignoring slavery, especially if you talk about the history of the United States, is kinda like making a cake without flour. It can work, it might even taste good, but chances are, you’re ending up with something held together more by prayers than a good foundation.

Slavery, to put it simply, is the red thread that runs through the history of the United States (and the world), and ignoring it (or ignoring the importance it had – and still has) means we’re not being true to ourselves and our history.

Image result for slave ship

So I’ll stay on this topic for the next few weeks, and I have the nagging suspicion I will return to it periodically – whenever I find a good book.

Okay. Freedom is one of those good books. The basic question it asks – and answers – is this – at the beginning of the 18th century, slavery was the central cornerstone of the world economy. One hundred years later, it was abolished and ostracized. How did public opinion change so dramatically over the course of one century?

There’s a caveat in the beginning – slavery was outlawed at different points in different countries, and in some (Brazil) it survived for far longer than others. Still.

And I know we all want a feel good story, about how people came to their senses and realized how bad slavery was, kind of like if everyone got super conscious at the same time and freed the slaves, jailed the slave owners, and begged for forgiveness for profiting off a system that was exploiting people.

Of course, that’s not how it went. (That’s never how it goes.) Freedom wasn’t given, it was asked for, demanded, fought for, died for. It was, this book shows, the slaves who defied the system when they could, and demanded their freedom whenever they got a chance.

There’s this idea that slaves were content with their lives, that the slave owners were patriarchs of a family, a good father to look after them – that’s bullshit. Slaves might have looked obedient, but that’s because they had to. Simply put, they were in a fight for their lives – doing whatever they had to do. And if smiling and nodding and pretending to be simple got you through another day, wouldn’t you have done the same?

Defenders of slavery (urgh) often point to the absence of slave rebellions in the US. If slavery was really so bad, they ask, how come the slaves never staged an uprising, especially in the South, where they outnumbered their white owners? If someone ever asks this question, please walk away from them. Quickly. Perhaps shoot them an evil look.

Because slaves rebelled. They rebelled constantly, so much so that owners were constantly stressing out over getting killed in their sleep.

And they had reason to worry – because in one case, one country, slaves staged an uprising, and managed to overthrow their owners. Slavery was abolished, and a new republic was proclaimed. What country am I talking about?

Haiti. Yes, truly. It is a piece of impossible history – something that, by all rights, shouldn’t have happened, but it did. And it shook the world.

So it goes like this. The French Revolution goes down in France. (Brief interlude – I have heard about the whole Bastille – Louis XVI flees – guillotine – Terror – Robespierre EVERY YEAR when I was in school, and I studied HISTORY in FRANCE and the following was never MENTIONED and it makes me mad.)

So. France is kinda busy with trying to figure its shit out, so the slaves in Haiti (which was then a French colony) see their chance and stage and uprising. It was bloody, it was horrible, but they managed to keep the French troops stationed there busy.

France, however, needed all the troops it could get to deal with the mess back home, so they kind of cut their losses and leave Haiti. Great Britain and Spain, who have kinda circled the water like blood-thirsty sharks, get ready to pounce on the island and make it their own (Haiti was the main producers of sugar). The French throw a Hail Mary to keep their colony – they abolish slavery over night, to save the colony for their country.

AND, it should be mentioned here – France gives all former slaves full citizen rights (which hasn’t happened in the US until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, by the way). This was one of the most radical acts of the French Revolution, and I never heard about it!!

(Then Napoleon comes to the stage and fucks everything up, as he always did (except for when he introduced civil divorce) and long story short – this turns into an ugly civil war, with the Haitiens ultimately beating the French and declaring independence.)

So now there was this one independent former slave state. Which gave the slaves hope beyond belief and the slave owners really bad nightmares. Because whatever they had been telling themselves – about slaves being born obedient, about slaves never succeeding at running a government, about Blacks not being able to do all of this – all these racist lies were now blatantly uncovered.

After Haiti, there was no chance a slave uprising could be successful, especially not in the US (let us remind ourselves that the French had to ship their troops across an ocean, which the Americans wouldn’t have to do in case of a slave rebellion.)

So the slaves needed some friends. And what better friends than Quakers? Yeah. Quakers were leading the anti-slavery fight in Great Britain. And so, in 1807, Great Britain outlaws the slave trade (NOT slavery. Just the trade. But it’s a start.)

This started a change in public opinion. The other really important thing was the emergence of Black Churches in the US. All of a sudden, people saw Blacks as their fellow Christians – and wondered why they would be enslaved.

(It rankles me that it took this emergence of religion to make white people see the humanity in Blacks, but I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised, eh?)

In a way, this fight for freedom reminds me a lot of the fight for equality that women are fighting. Whenever someone says that ‘the right to vote was given to women’, I ask myself – who took it from us in the first place?

Because that’s what it balls down to. All this misery and bloodshed and horror that was necessary to restore freedom to slaves around the world – this should have never been necessary in the first place.

I kinda get why slavery does not get mentioned a lot – it is a bit like the dark family secret. But it still has consequences to this day, and eliminating slavery from the conversation and discussion means we are not being honest with ourselves.

So anytime you talk about the history of the world between 1700 and 1900, make sure to include slavery as a factor. Because it was.

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