Saturday, May 29, 2010

Grasping the past (5): Slavery

This extends a comment I made here.

The comment was made that:
The transatlantic slave trade was unique because it made a slave into an inescapable caste. Slaves in Africa or the Arab world would within a generation or two often be no different than the rest of society. In the New World, slavery meant Blackness (even if one intermarried), giving one permanent second class status. Its effects, in the inequality between Black and White in societies across the Americas, persist to this day, a legacy not present in African or Arab slavery.
This is a less than adequate depiction of reality.

(1) The first anti-black discourse was a North African Arab-Muslim one, justifying enslaving blacks en masse rather than converting them to Islam.

(2) A major factor in the lack of a black underclass in Islam was that so many male slaves were turned into eunuchs, a process that had a horrific death rate.

(3) The Muslim world slaved wherever it could, which did indeed limit the association of skin colour with slavery. White slaves, however, always had higher status and higher prices: due to a mixture of greater scarcity and higher skills. So, even within slaves, blacks were looked down on.

(4) The death toll from Muslim slavery was, almost certainly, much greater than the Transatlantic slave trade: it was at least comparable.

(5) The Transatlantic slave trade "piggy-backed" off the already existing slave-taking-and-selling infrastructure from the Muslim slave trade.

(6) That only blacks were slaves in the Americas did, indeed, lead to noxious racism. But that was in large part because it was such an affront to "all equal in the sight of God" and "All men were created equal" that the humanity of the blacks had to be attacked to justify their exceptional treatment.

(7) There were free blacks in the American South, even at the height of slavery. It was always possible to manumit slaves: this was done on occasion. So it was not an “inescapable caste”.

(8) The first countries to permanently abolish slavery were all European. The last countries to abolish slavery were all Muslim.

(9) There is evidence that mass slavery does undermine social capital in a society for generations: but this is true regardless of whether the slaves are of a different ethnicity or race or not. Indeed, it can be argued that the American South is actually making a faster recovery from the curse of slavery than other regions did historically.

It is important to acknowledge all the past, not create selective fairy stories about it. Racism is not even remotely the worst of the horror of slavery. It is particularly perverse to, in effect, give the Muslim world a “pass” for the horrors of the market for eunuchs.

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