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Saturday, February 18, 2023

The History of Slavery You Probably Weren’t Taught in School

Slavery cannot be justified or excused by enlightened people, but it can be studied, explained, put in context, and understood—if all the facts of it are in the equation.

Image Credit: iStock

In “Recognizing Hard Truths About America’s History With Slavery,” published by FEE on February 11, 2023, I urged an assessment of slavery that includes its full “historical and cultural contexts” and that does not neglect “uncomfortable facts that too often are swept under the rug.”

The central notion of both that previous essay and this follow-up is that slavery was a global norm for centuries, not a peculiar American institution. America is not exceptional because of slavery in our past; we may, however, be exceptional because of the lengths to which we went to get rid of it. In any event, it is an age-old tragedy abolished in most places only recently (in the past two centuries or so). As British historian Dan Jones notes in Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages,

Slavery was a fact of life throughout the ancient world. Slaves—people defined as property, forced to work, stripped of their rights, and socially ‘dead,’ could be found in every significant realm of the age. In China, the Qin, Han, and Xin dynasties enforced various forms of slavery; so too did ancient rulers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and India.

Milton Meltzer’s Slavery: A World History is both comprehensive and riveting in its presentation. He too recognizes the ubiquity of human bondage:

The institution of slavery was universal throughout much of history. It was a tradition everyone grew up with. It seemed essential to the social and economic life of the community, and man’s conscience was seldom troubled by it. Both master and slave looked upon it as inevitable…A slave might be of any color—white, black, brown, yellow. The physical differences did not matter. Warriors, pirates, and slave dealers were not concerned with the color of a man’s skin or the shape of his nose.

The indigenous populations of both North and South America, pre-European settlement, also practiced slavery. Meltzer writes,

The Aztecs also made certain crimes punishable by enslavement. An offender against the state—a traitor, say—was auctioned off into slavery, with the proceeds going into the state treasury…Among the Mayans, a man could sell himself or his children into slavery…The comparatively rich Nootkas of Cape Flattery (in what is now northwestern Washington state) were notorious promoters of slaving. They spurred Vancouver tribes to attack one another so that they could buy the survivors.

Perhaps because it conflicts with race-based political agendas, slavery of Africans by fellow Africans is one of those uncomfortable truths that often flies under the radar. Likewise, industrial-scale slavery of Africans by nearby Arabs as well as Arab slavery of Europeans are historical facts that are frequently ignored. Both subjects are explored in The Forgotten Slave Trade: The White European Slaves of Islam by Simon Webb and Slavery and Slaving in African History by Sean Stilwell.

Slavery cannot be justified or excused by enlightened people, but it can be studied, explained, put in context, and understood—if all the facts of it are in the equation. It’s a painful topic, to be sure, which is even more reason to leave nothing out and to prevent political agendas from getting in the way.

The widespread sin of “presentism” poisons our understanding of such hot-button topics as slavery. As I wrote in August 2020,

Terms for this way of looking at the past range from intertemporal bigotry to chronological snobbery to cultural bias to historical quackery. The more clinical label is “presentism.” It’s a fallacious perspective that distorts historical realities by removing them from their context. In sports, we call it “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Presentism is fraught with arrogance. It presumes that present-day attitudes didn’t evolve from earlier ones but popped fully formed from nowhere into our superior heads. To a presentist, our forebears constantly fail to measure up so they must be disdained or expunged. As one writer put it, “They feel that their light will shine brighter if they blow out the candles of others.”

Our ancestors were each a part of the era in which they lived, not ours. History should be something we learn from, not run from; if we analyze it through a presentist prism, we will miss much of the nuanced milieu in which our ancestors thought and acted.

Watch this 8-minute video, Facts About Slavery Never Mentioned in School and you might ask, “Why didn’t I hear this before?”

The answer may simply be that the facts it lays out are politically incorrect, which means they are inconvenient for the conventional wisdom. They don’t fit the “presentist” narrative.

What I personally find most fascinating about slavery is the emergence in recent centuries of ideas that would transform the world’s view of it from acceptance to rejection. Eighteenth Century Enlightenment ideals that questioned authority and sought to elevate human rights, liberty, happiness, and toleration played a role. So did a Christian reawakening late in the 18th and early 19th Centuries that produced the likes of abolitionists William Wilberforce and others.

The Declaration of Independence pricked the consciences of millions who came to understand that its stirring words were at odds with the reality many black Americans experienced on a daily basis. And as capitalism and free markets spread in the 19th Century, slavery faced a competition with free labor that it ultimately could not win. Exploring the potency of those important—indeed, radical—forces would seem to me to be more fruitful and less divisive than playing the race card, cherry-picking evidence to support political agendas, or promoting perpetual victimhood.

The prolific economist and historian Thomas Sowell has written about slavery in many of his voluminous articles and books. For Conquests and Cultures: An International History, he devoted fifteen years of research and travel (around the world twice, no less). Though the book is about much more than slavery, the author reveals a great deal about the institution that few people know.

I close out this essay with excerpts from this Sowell classic, and I strongly urge interested readers to check out the suggestions for additional information, below:

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Inland tribes [in Africa] such as the Ibo were regularly raided by their more power coastal neighbors and the captives led away to be sold as slaves. European merchants who came to buy slaves in West Africa were confined by rulers in these countries to a few coastal ports, where Africans could bring slaves and trade as a cartel, in order to get higher prices. Hundreds of miles farther south, in the Portuguese colony of Angola, hundreds of thousands of Africans likewise carried out the initial captures, enslavement and slave-trading processes, funneling the slaves into the major marketplaces, where the Portuguese took charge of them and shipped them off to Brazil. Most of the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were purchased, rather than captured, by Europeans. Arabs, however, captured their own slaves and penetrated far deeper into Africa than Europeans dared venture….

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Over the centuries, untold millions of human beings from sub-Saharan Africa were transported in captivity to other parts of the world. No exact statistics exist covering all the sources and all the destinations, and scholarly estimates vary. However, over the centuries, somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 million people were shipped across the Atlantic as slaves, and another 14 million African slaves were sent to the Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa. On both routes, many died in transit.

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The horrors of the Atlantic voyage in packed and suffocating slave ships, together with exposure to new diseases from Europeans and other African tribes, as well as the general dangers of the Atlantic crossing in that era, took a toll in lives amounting to about 10 percent of all slaves shipped to the Western Hemisphere in British vessels in the eighteenth century—the British being the leading slave traders of that era. However, the death toll among slaves imported by the Islamic countries, many of these slaves being forced to walk across the vast, burning sands of the Sahara, was twice as high. Thousands of human skeletons were strewn along one Saharan slave route alone—mostly the skeletons of young women and girls…In 1849, a letter from an Ottoman official referred to 1,600 black slaves dying of thirst on their way to Libya.

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The prime destination of the African slave trade to the Islamic world was Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, where the largest and busiest slave market flourished. There women were paraded, examined, questioned, and bid on in a public display often witnessed by visiting foreigners, until it was finally closed down in 1847 and the slave trade in Istanbul moved underground. In other Islamic countries, however, the slave markets remained open and public, both to natives and foreigners…This market functioned until 1873, when two British cruisers appeared off shore, followed by an ultimatum from Britain that the Zanzibar slave trade must cease or the island would face a full naval blockade.

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From as early as the seventeenth century, most Negroes in the American colonies were born on American soil. This was the only plantation society in the Western Hemisphere in which the African population consistently maintained its numbers without continual, large-scale importations of slaves from Africa, and in which this population grew by natural increase. By contrast, Brazil over the centuries imported six times as many slaves as the United States, even though the U.S. had a larger resident slave population than Brazil—36 percent of all the slaves in the Western Hemisphere, as compared to 31 percent for Brazil. Even such Caribbean islands as Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba each imported more slaves than the United States.

For Additional Information, See:

You Can Never Again Say You Did Not Know by Lawrence W. Reed 

Uniquely Bad—But Not Uniquely American by Kay S. Hymowitz

Recognizing Hard Truths About America’s History With Slavery by Lawrence W. Reed

No, Slavery Did Not Make America Rich by Corey Iacono

Shackles of Iron: Slavery Beyond the Atlantic by Stewart Gordon

Slavery, A World History by Milton Meltzer

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Conquests and Cultures: An International History by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell on Slavery and This Fact: There are More Slaves Today Than Were Seized from Africa in Four Centuries by Mark J. Perry

Facts About Slavery Never Mentioned in School by Thomas Sowell (video)


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.