Hugh Thomas
(Simon & Schuster)
Long ago, when I was down-and-out in London, I volunteered to work for the Anti-Slavery (and Aborigines Protection) Society.

It operated out of an ancient building, Dennison House, in a run-down section of London. Part of our job, apparently, was not only to track down the few remaining slavers in the world, but --- since our director knew some of the new leaders of the newly emerging African nations --- to write constitutions for these countries.

I was one of the few in the office who could make the cranky 1935 Underwood typewriter work, so I was commissioned to translate the illegible notes of our director, Commander Fox-Pitt, into appropriate legal documents. It was the constitution of Botswana, I believe, in which there was described "a protectorate" that was to be set up by the new government.

Commander Fox-Pitt had written "the Prot." I, good Episcopalian that I was, assumed that this referred to "Protestants." It was only shortly before the document was to be released to the world that my transcribing error was caught --- and thus, barely, in the nick of time, the new country of Botswana was saved from an eternity of stewardship under the aegis of those flinty Protestants.

When I started to work for the Anti-Slavery Society, I thought that slavery had been long out of business --- but, evidently, it was and is still practiced in many poorer nations, especially in the Muslim world. One of the most common forms was the selling of daughters when a family of Islam made the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca. Because the journey is long and expensive, the daughters are simply sold off, one-by-one, to pay for the expenses --- what Commander Fox-Pitt called "living traveler's checks."

§     §     §

Hugh Thomas is no minor historian. He has produced major studies of the Spanish Civil War, Cuba, and, most recently, the conquest of Mexico. His writings are lively --- if heavy --- and authoritative. As any good thoughtful historian must, he adds facts that give one pause. Pause in what we had accepted, up to now, was the truth. For one thing, and it is a fact that he emphasizes again and again, Christianity was slow, painfully slow (350 years!) to question the morality of the slave trade, slave holding, slavery in general:

"One can wonder why the condemnations of Pope Pius II and three other popes were ignored in Catholic countries," he says: and "how the Jesuits managed to be as deeply implicated as anyone." Slavery had died down in the West starting in the eleventh century --- not because of any moral pangs --- but because it was uneconomical. It was the Islamic nations that continued to propagate slavery during the late Middle Ages, "Indeed, Mahomet took over the system of slavery upon which ancient society was based, without question."

And the Africans themselves practiced active slavery long before the Europeans came on the scene, and long after: "Most slaves carried from Africa between 1440 and 1870 were procured as a result of Africans' interest in selling their neighbors, usually distant but sometimes close, and more rarely, their own people." Voltaire's words should be better remembered, says Thomas: "While it was difficult to defend the conduct of Europeans in the slave trade, that of Africans in bartering each other was even more reprehensible."

The Protestant religions of Europe and America were not given to condemning slavery or the slave-trade until goaded into it by the contributors to the Encyclopédie --- Marivaux, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rosseau. In the English-speaking world, it was Horace Mann, George Wallace, the Foxes and the Pitts (ancestors of my friend Commander Fox-Pitt --- who thus merged their abolitionist blood), and, most of all, the earliest Quaker abolitionist, Anthony Benezet.

Commonly, and popularly, talk of abolishing slavery was opposed because (according to articles in the press), to be a slave in "civilization" was much to be preferred to being free among the heathens. "For by purchasing, or rather ransoming, the negroes from their national tyrants," said London Magazine, "and transplanting them under the benign influence of the law and the Gospel, they are advanced to much greater degrees of felicity..." One could be slave, and as long as it was under the umbrella of Christianity, it was acceptable.

When abolition finally arrived, starting in the late eighteenth century --- it was not the mainstream churches that came to fight against it, but the Quakers of England and the United States. Additional opposition in the United States came about not because of any great moral upheaval, but because of fear that if too many slaves were congregated together, there would be dangerous uprisings. Indeed, in 1698, an act was passed in South Carolina to use white servants, "because of the 'great danger' of revolution." Thomas points out that "after 1770, this opinion had as much influence over the growth of the abolitionist movement as did philanthrophy."

§     §     §

The voices we seldom hear, Thomas observes, are of the slaves themselves. Obviously, since it was in the slavers' interests to keep their workers ignorant, there is little in the way of written literature by them. The first known document comes from one Olaudah Equiano, of the West Indies, in the 1760s. He reports in vivid terms the major fear that all slaves universally had of the whites --- the knowledge that they, the slaves, were to be eaten:

"Equiano testifies to the widespread suspicion, throughout Africa, of the white (or "red") people --- presumably followers of the lord of the Dead, Mwene Puto (or African devil) --- had seized the slaves in order to eat them. Some Africans were certain that the red wine which the Europeans drank so merrily derived from the blood of the blacks, that the olive oil which they used so carefully came from squeezing black bodies, and even that the strong-smelling cheese of the captain's table derived from Africans' brains."

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is a listing of the famous names over the centuries who either participated in the slave trade themselves, or who were direct beneficiaries of it: names like John Locke, Amerigo Vespucchi (for whom America was named), Edmund Burke and the many leaders of the American Revolution --- Thomas Jefferson, Richard Oswald, a partner of Benjamin Franklin (who said that the end of slavery might "open a source of serious evils"), Samuel P. Savage (who presided over the meeting that fomented the Boston Tea Party), Robert Morris ("financier of the revolution"), Esek Hopkins, (commander-in-chief of the Rhode Island revolutionary forces), and the heroic John Paul Jones. Hugh Thomas even finds the name of one Hugo Tomás, of Liverpool, captain of a slaver that landed in Havana.

§     §     §

Reading about slaves and slavery is a painful task. Thomas never shies away from the wretchedness of it: but he, as well, keeps his perspective. "In seeking the truth, I have not thought it necessary to speak of outrage on every page." But even with his reasoned words, there come times when they are so painful that one must shut the book, seek other diversions, be away from the facts.
The simple animal brutality of one human chaining another; the self-blinding that made it possible for our ancestors to think that slavery was acceptable because "it was in the Bible;" worst of all, the gruesome truth about those patriots we call "the Founding Fathers" --- Americans who had a dark side that can never be explained away, no matter how jingoistic we may choose to be.

--- L. W. Milam

Go Home     Further readings on slavery        Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up