Slavery, a vile trade that has shamed the world for millenia

One of the many unacceptable episodes to come out of European trading arrangements with Africa was the distasteful slave trade between that continent and North America. Slavery was not new to Africa by any means. It was not developed as a result of European endeavour as the Arabs had been slaving in Africa for a long time before Europeans got in on the act. The native Africans had also enslaved each other for millennia via the incessant tribal warfare that afflicted the continent. The Europeans simply took advantage of an existing trade and purchased the slaves that were brought to the coast by fellow Africans. It was one of the vilest examples of raw, unfettered and rampant capitalism imaginable where all that mattered was pure profit, no matter how it was made. Sadly, that ethos still holds true today for the worlds global multi-national corporations.

Indentured Servants

In addition to the black slaves from Africa that were being brought to the America’s, the early settlement of North America saw many indentured servants from the UK sent to the Virginia colonies and the islands of the Caribbean. They were people who had been transported for such petty crimes as stealing a sheep or even a simple loaf of bread. Indentured servitude was just another form of slavery given a more palatable name. It was a way for the British ruling elite to ‘shovel out paupers’ for petty crimes committed in the course of finding enough food to stay alive. The minimum sentence for transportation was seven years, and in the harsh conditions of Virginia, many did not even last half that long. They were often worked to death by plantation owners and driven on by generous applications of the lash.

We should also never forget that slavery has a very long history of misery, stretching back into the mists of time. It wasn’t the invention of any particular race of men but was used by all of them at one time or another. The Barbary Pirates of North Africa for example raided the coastlines of Europe right up until the 16th century, and there are records of people from the south coast of England being enslaved by these pirates well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

I recall when I lived in Iceland at the turn of the century a law was discovered still on the statute books of the nation, that gave an Icelander the legal right to kill any ‘Turk’ found in the country. By ‘Turk’, they meant specifically, Barbary Pirates who had raided Iceland for slaves to sell in the lucrative slave markets of North Africa where white slaves, especially women, fetched high prices. This law has since been removed and it is no longer legally permissible to kill a ‘Turk’ on sight.

Slave Reparations

There is today an ever growing movement in the USA amongst African-Americans for 'Slave Reparations', but this has not been extended to the descendants of the indentured servants mentioned above. I do not know why they make the differentiation between slavery and indentured servitude, as the two are just different sides of the same misery. A fuller account of this servitude can be found in the excellent book ‘White Cargo’ by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh.

Another problem arising from such a demand for slave reparations is deciding who exactly would be entitled to them. This is not as simple as it might first appear. In American Heritage of Feb/Mar 1993 volume 441, under the title, 'Selling Poor Steven', beginning on page 90, the official US Census of 1830 is cited. This clearly shows that there were 3,775 free blacks who owned 12,740 black slaves.

The story also outlines the history of slavery in the US, and surprisingly the first slave owner was Mr Anthony Johnson, of Northampton, Virginia, who was a black African. His slave was called John Casor, who had the sad misfortune to be the first known slave for life and also a fellow black African.

Additionally outlined in the article is the fact that there were cases of free black women owning their husbands, free black parents selling their children into slavery to white owners, and absentee free black slave owners who leased their slaves to plantations. Most US libraries carry back issues of American Heritage, so this story should be freely available for reference and research purposes.

There is another very interesting book on the subject of black on black slavery in the US, written by the noted black historian, Carter G. Woodson. The title of the book is, Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830. In this book are listed the names and addresses of free blacks who owned slaves, among them was a certain, George C. Washington of Washington DC.

Defining the owner and the owned

In any claim for slave reparations, it will of course be necessary to define who is descended from a slave and who is descended from a slave owner. Given the facts above, this could prove to be a highly complex and probably impossible goal to achieve. In addition to all that, what about the descendants of the horribly mistreated indentured servants who were fortunate enough to survive their bondage and exploitation?

For any reparations scheme to be comprehensive and fair it must include the descendants of white indentured servants, who in the early days of colonial settlement formed the bulk of available slave labour on the cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations of North America and the islands of the Caribbean.

One sad example in particular of these descendants can be witnessed on the island of Barbados, where these people, now known as ‘red legs’, still live today in poverty on the margins of Barbadian society. Many of their forebears were Scots Jacobites, sent out as slave labour after the crushing of the uprising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. Modern Scotland with its devolved parliament has washed its hands of them it would seem, and that to my mind is shameful.

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