Sunday, March 25, 2007

Of Human Bondage

Today is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the UK. Of course slavery didn't actually cease on the 25th March 1807; it just became illegal for British citizens to own or trade in slaves. That is undeniably a good thing, but I have to say I am fairly disgusted with the way that the history is being abused and misrepresented at the moment.

Firstly, the slave trade was not invented by Europeans. Slavery was endemic across human cultures from the very earliest times. The Greek and Roman economies were substantially based on slave labour. On every continent, civilians were captured as part of the 'spoils of war' and carried into slavery, as far back as the dawn of recorded history, and no doubt even before that. The Vikings raided the British isles in the 9th and 10th centuries, and abducted many British and Irish people and sold them as slaves. In the Islamic world, slavery was also endemic. In the Ottoman Empire, everyone, even the Grand Vezier (Prime Minister) was technically a slave of the Sultan. In the early modern period, when European navigators reached Africa, they found a slave trade already in full swing. Certainly they invested money in it, thus encouraging its continuation, but they did not create it.

Nor was it one way. I'm reading a very interesting book at the moment called 'White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves', by Giles Milton (Sceptre, 2005). At least as far back as the Seventeenth Century, North Africa was known to Europeans as the Barbary Coast, and it was home to a substantial fleet of pirates called the Barbary Corsairs. These men were motivated not only by money, but by religion. They saw piracy as a legitimate way of waging war on Christians. European and American ships were attacked and captured, and their crews taken to the slave markets of Morocco, Tunis and Algiers, where they were sold into slavery. At the height of the trade, there were one million white slaves in North Africa and the Islamic World. The first ever national lottery in England was organised during the reign of Elizabeth I in order to raise money to buy back the freedom of English sailors being worked as galley slaves in North Africa.

It is interesting to note that the black slave trade actually ended before the white; after abolishing African slavery in 1807, the British government finally ended the white slave trade in 1816, by sending a large naval force to the city of Algiers. The admiral, Sir Edward Pellew, demanded the release of all Christian slaves and an end to the trade. When the Dey of Algiers refused, the European fleet levelled the city with gunfire. That was the end of it. Other North African leaders quickly fell into line.

There are countless other examples in history. In the battle of Stalingrad, between Hitler and Stalin in 1942-1943, both sides were firing ammunition that was produced by slaves. Both the Communist and Nazi regimes relied heavily on slave labour.

We have received this idea that slavery was something that white people did to black people. That simply isn't true. The racial divide between slaves and masters was a peculiar feature of the American case; in North Africa, it was substantially a difference of religion. If we assume that the whole world consists of nothing but America, then it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that the issue of slavery is somehow inextricably linked to the notion of skin colour. It is not. It was in America, but America is not the world.

Slavery is something that pretty much everybody did to pretty much everybody, whenever it became economically or militarily convenient.

We are treated to the spectacle of Blair being made to apologise for the slave trade. Why on earth should he apologise? No-one alive today, black or white, was even born at the time. Who should he apologise to? The whole continent of Africa? This is absurd.

Should Italy apologise for the Roman Empire? Maybe France should apologise to the British for invading us way back in 1066. Maybe Norway should apologise to us for all those Viking raids in the 9th century. Maybe Morocco should apologise to most of Europe and the USA for the white slave trade. Once you start going down that route, there is no end to it. How far back to you have to go in history before it becomes absurd? Once everyone involved is dead seems like a pretty good cut-off to me.

Nor was Britain the only European power at that time to be involved. Many others, most notably Portugal, Spain and France, were heavily involved as well.

Far from Britain feeling that it should somehow 'take the blame' for the practice of slavery, it should be commended on being among the first countries in the world to abolish it.

Although I do not doubt the sincerity of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, whose anti-slavery idealism was derived from their Christian beliefs, it must be said that the British government's motives for pulling out out of the slave trade were not entirely noble.

Following the loss of its American colonies in 1776, slavery had ceased to be very profitable. The infant USA, whose economy at that time was still significantly based on slavery, was emerging as an economic and political rival, and by condemning the trade, Britain was able to, in effect, place a kind of economic pressure on the USA. British abolitionism had as much to do with international politics as it had to do with humanitarianism.

But the truth is, this week's media circus is not really about the history of centuries gone by at all. It is about the politics of today. The issue has been appropriated by the political Left for its own ends.

I saw a piece today on the BBC about how 'slavery is all around us in London'. This was using the anniversary of abolition as a vehicle to promote an anti-prostitution message. That may not have been such a bad thing in itself, if they had at least bothered to tell the truth. However, it regurgitated many of the myths I have written about previously. It offered us the simple-minded formula 'Prostitution=People-trafficking=Slavery'. It described how a gang of Vietnamese gangsters were busted for smuggling women into this country to work as prostitutes. Were they only smuggling women, one wonders? It seems unlikely. But hey, if men are working as slaves - or even prostitutes - who cares?

I've made some of these points before, but they are worth making again.

This feminist propaganda effort is a resurgence of the 'Myth of the White Slave Trade'; the Barbary Corsairs were finally silenced in 1816, but later in the Century, Victorian moralists reinvented the white slave trade as racist propaganda, and as an instrument of social control at home. The idea was that white virgins were being abducted and sold to Oriental sheikhs for their harems. Historians have debunked this myth already. In the real white slave trade, pirates abducted mariners at sea. Most of the white slaves were men. They were mainly put to work on construction projects in Morocco. The truth about modern people-trafficking is similar; most trafficked people are in fact men.

Most prostitutes are not trafficked.

Most trafficked people are not prostitutes. Most of them are in fact men.

People who get trafficked do so voluntarily. They are economic migrants. Abductions are rare.

Most trafficked prostitutes intend to work as prostitutes.

The only thing that will significantly improve conditions for prostitutes is to legalise the industry.

The actual history of the Afro-American slave trade is interesting. But this week, it is being turned into a political bandwagon by the Left. Far from helping to fight against racism, this attempt to divide black against white is only going to achieve the opposite. However that doesn't matter to the small number of vocal individuals who hope to receive money from the government just for being born into a particular ethnic group, nor their camp-followers such as the feminists, who want to milk the issue for their own ends.