The trinidad Guardian / Kevin Baldeosingh
Among a certain cohort of commentators in this place, it is conventional wisdom that the Industrial Revolution would not have happened without slavery in the Americas.
This assertion is usually trotted out around Emancipation by people who pretend to have read Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. But, while Williams did indeed write that, “The profits from this trade fertilised the entire productive system of the country,” he added, “but it must not be inferred that the triangular trade was solely and entirely responsible for the economic development. The growth of the internal market in England, the ploughing of the profits from industry to generate still further capital and achieve still greater expansion, played a large part.”
The Industrial Revolution is probably the most analysed phenomenon in human history, since it created the modern world. The central question, of course, is why did this advance in human knowledge occur only in one island off the coast of continental Europe in the 19th century? Several causes have been posited, ranging from the presence of accessible coal in Britain; to the Black Plague wiping out one-third of the English population in the 14th century; to a higher-than-average fertility rate among British aristocrats. Rarely do scholars focus on slavery since, were this the key factor, technological advances should have happened in Portugal, which started the Atlantic slave trade; or France with its strong philosophical traditions; or even in Africa, where slavery was widespread before the Europeans arrived.
Even if one argues that it was not slavery per se, but the immense profits generated by the sugar industry, the argument doesn’t quite fly. After all, Spain entered the slave trade right after Portugal and took over the New World territories, gaining immense wealth from silver and gold. But as economist Thomas Sowell points out in his book Wealth, Poverty and Politics, “Spain is today one of the poorer countries in Western Europe, surpassed economically by countries like Switzerland and Norway, which never had comparable empires…As late as 1900, more than half the people in Spain were still illiterate, while most blacks in the United States were literate, despite having been free for less than 50 years. A century later, in the year 2000, the real per capita income in Spain was slightly lower than the real per capita income of black Americans.”
But there are two sub-texts to the insistence that the modern world would not exist without the labour of enslaved Africans: first, that Africans are responsible for this intellectual advance and therefore themselves intellectually advanced; and, secondly, that Africans as a race have not benefitted from the fruits of modernity. This is the racial perspective, but Williams himself warned of the intellectual defect of this approach. “Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly defined with the Negro,” he wrote. “A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”
It is this racial mindset which creates a skewed perspective of the history of slavery in general, and African slavery in particular. That is why one rarely hears about the Mideast slave trade, even though the death toll there was 18.5 million, as compared to the 16 million who died in the Atlantic slave trade. Moreover, as researcher Matthew White notes in his book Atrocities, half-million of those people were Europeans enslaved by Moors during their occupation of Spain. And, since the Mideast trade has not been studied as extensively as the Atlantic, White applies the one in three ratio to make his estimate. But this sidelines the fact that there is now an African-descent population in the Americas, whereas there is none in the Middle East.
This racial perspective also underlies the call for reparations, even though its proponents claim to be making a purely moral argument. Curiously, the lobbyists have focused on Britain, which actually abolished the slave trade and forced other European nations to do so. But the other main slave-trading nations were Portugal, Spain, France, United States, and the Netherlands. And, if all of them are to pay reparations, then so too must the descendants of the slave supplying kingdoms of Benin, Oyo, Ashanti, Dahomey, Kongo, and Lunda.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 17th century that enslaved Africans began to be referenced as inferior in terms of their race; before that, their inferiority was posited on the basis not being Christians. The initial bigotry was therefore religious, not racial. It is not irrelevant that the Bible-and, indeed, no holy text in any religion-condemns slavery. The modern antipathy towards slavery is therefore a wholly secular value, whatever the antecedents of the British abolitionists whose lobby made Britain the first society in the world to reject slavery-an unprecedented event not unconnected to the Industrial Revolution, which created a wealthy and influential class who did not own land. It was that capitalist class which helped end slavery in the Western world.
These are the facts: but, of course, facts never make any difference to those intellectually enslaved by fashionable ideologies.
Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer, author of three novels, and co-author of a history textbook.