The Specter of Slavery Still Stalks the Land

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Transcribed from the 14 April 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

1776, in many ways, was a rebellion against both the Somerset case in 1772 and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and you cannot begin to understand why there are so many black people in Chicago, or how and why it is that so many black people from the Atlantic to the Pacific are slain by officers of the state without due process of the law, without understanding this background history of the rise of slavery, white supremacy, and capitalism.

Chuck Mertz: The British empire would never have been an empire if it were not for slavery. America wouldn’t have become a superpower; capitalism wouldn’t even exist. Slavery changed the world forever, and that means its hideous legacy still lingers with us today, and will linger with us far into the future.

Here to help us dive deep into the hellish world of settler colonialism, historian Gerald Horne is author of The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: the Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth Century North America and the Caribbean. Gerald is John J. and Rebecca Moores professor of African-American history at the University of Houston. His two previous books were Facing the Rising Sun: African-Americans, Japan, and the Rise of Afro-Asian Solidarity and Storming the Heavens: African-Americans and the Early Fight for the Right to Fly.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Gerald.

Gerald Horne: Thank you for inviting me.

CM: You write, “At the onset of the seventeenth century, the “sceptred isle” was a second-class power. But the Great Britain that emerged by the beginning of the eighteenth century was in many ways the planet’s reigning superpower. It then passed that baton to its revolting spawn, the United States, which has carried global dominance into the present century. There are many reasons for this stunning turnabout, yet any explanation that elides slavery, colonialism, and the shards of an emerging capitalism—along with their handmaiden, white supremacy—is deficient in explanatory power.”

Was that emerging capitalism’s success not due to the genius that is the economics of capitalism, but due to its employment of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy? Is the success of the United States more a success of slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism than a victory for capitalism in the combined outcome with democracy?

GH: The short answer is yes. Of course I’m not the first historian to make this explanation. You may be familiar with a book by Walter Rodney of Guyana, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, or the book by the founding father of modern Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, which actually came out in the 1940s.

Both Rodney and Williams, however, being subjects or past subjects of the British Empire, of London, castigate and point the finger of accusation understandably at London, whereas being a national of the United States of America, I’m more focused on how London laid the foundation for the rise of the United States of America.

Beginning in 1655, England seized Jamaica from Spain, which contributed to the so-called sugar boom, that is to say, growing sugar with the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans. Sugar was not only something to sweeten your tea and coffee; it was seen in some ways as a mark of sophistication, and in some ways as a miracle drug. This pours money into the coffers of London, allowing it not only to expand its navy (which of course needs to be built by workers—and therein we begin to see the incipient nature of the rise of capitalism), but the building of the royal navy also allows London to take down a peg or two the country that might have been seen in 1655 or even in 1660 as the country that would emerge triumphant in the eighteenth century going forward. I’m speaking of the Netherlands.

England seizes what is now New York City and a good deal of what are now the mid-Atlantic states from the Netherlands in 1664. By 1672, the African slave trade has been systematized through the rise of the Royal African Company under the thumb of the monarch, but the rising merchant class is very much interested in gaining a share of the enormous wealth of the African slave trade. Keep in mind that the African slave trade was one of the most profitable businesses known in the history of humankind. You could invest one dollar and get a seventeen hundred dollar profit. There are those today who would sell their firstborn for seventeen hundred percent profit.

This dynamic then leads to a raging conflict between the rising merchant class and the monarch. The monarch loses, taken down a peg or three in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, which is fought (understandably) on the part of the merchants under the guise of liberty, freedom, and democracy—the usual propaganda rhetoric. But what that does is put the monarch on a glide path to being the mere figurehead that Queen Elizabeth of London is today, allowing the merchants to rise and flex their muscles, and thereby empower what emerges as the British Empire.

And then of course the merchants, in 1776, are not finished: their comrades on this side of the Atlantic rebel against London and kick out the British, not least because in 1772 the Somerset case in London had abolished slavery in England. It was felt that that decision would leapfrog the Atlantic, thereby jeopardizing the fortunes of those like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, a murderer’s row of slave owners and “founding fathers.”

Likewise, in 1763, London had issued the so-called Royal Proclamation, which sought to restrain the settlers in North America from moving west, engaging the Native Americans, fighting them, and taking their land—because of course London had to expend blood and treasure in order to effectuate those goals.

1776, in many ways, was a rebellion against both the Somerset case in 1772 and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and you cannot begin to understand why it is there are so many black people in Chicago, or how and why it is that so many black people from the Atlantic to the Pacific are slain by officers of the state without due process of the law, without understanding this background history of the rise of slavery, white supremacy, and capitalism.

CM: It seems like slavery ended, in a certain way, because it challenged the power of the monarchs: it brought about capitalism; it brought about, as you write in your book, bourgeois democracy. That seems like a lot of great things that the west depends upon today. But I can’t imagine that the price was worth it. What was the cost of bourgeois democracy, of ending monarchism, and of capitalism, when we consider that all those things happened due to slavery?

GH: First of all, let’s consider the Native American population, the population that once occupied the territory on which you’re sitting. Not only were they expropriated in terms of their land; not only were they subjected to a genocide—and this not only by what’s usually trotted out, in terms of diseases spread by Europeans, but also in terms of volitional acts by the settlers—but the settlers were not only liquidating the Native American population but also engaging in an early form of ethnic cleansing by selling them into the slave markets of, for example, the Ottoman Turks, in what is now Turkey. You can find Native American DNA all over the world, because they were expelled from their land.

Then, of course, there is the question of the African population, those who were brought over the Atlantic against their will. There were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who perished in that process. Of course, even when the enslaved African population committed suicide, which many of them did, it would be folly not to lay that suicide at the doorstep of those who had enslaved them. Obviously they were reacting, rather violently, to the prospect of being enslaved.

This was the cost of the building of anti-monarchism. This was the cost of building capitalism. Of course there are those who say, “Well, in terms of the ledger, it was still worth it.” Okay, if that’s going to be your ethos, let us imagine, for example, if China, the twenty-first century’s rising power, somehow decided it’s going to come to the Pacific coast of North America, from Seattle to San Diego, and start snatching the computer engineers and the architects and the professors and drag them across the Pacific to be enslaved. In many ways, that’s what happened with the African slave trade. That is to say, the enslaver oftentimes very carefully picked out those who, for example, had knowledge of rice-growing, or of blacksmithing, and then dragged them across the Atlantic to toil for free.

Enslavers oftentimes tried to stoke and engender inter-ethnic conflict, which might sometimes be called “tribal” conflict, in order to divide and conquer so that the losers in these conflicts could then be sold into slavery. That kind of inter-ethnic conflict is still a problem in Africa, and in some ways can be traced directly back to the bad old days of the African slave trade.

CM: You write, “Roughly two to four million Native Americans were also enslaved, from the advent of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s possible that five million indigenous Americans were enslaved. This form of slavery coexisted roughly with the enslavement of Africans, leading to a catastrophic decline in the population of indigenous people.”

To you, what explains why the indigenous role in slavery and the catastrophic impact slavery had on the indigenous seems so often erased from history? And how much can we fully comprehend the impact of slavery or the role that it played in the United States and the British Empire, or even capitalism, when that indigenous slavery—even to the point of the British exporting indigenous Americans around the world as slaves—is erased?

GH: There is a kind of blindness in the United States because many who reside here consider themselves to be patriots, and that leads to step number one: downplaying the tragedies that befell others as the moment arrived to build this country. Number two: this affects the historians, who oftentimes make a choice to downplay the question of indigenous slavery as they tell this uplifting story about the building of the United States of America.

It’s only in recent years that we’ve begun to see Native American historians begin to tackle the fraught and complex history of North America and begin to tell their own story. Likewise, it’s only in recent decades that we’ve begun to see historians of African descent begin to do the same thing. Keep in mind that during the era of Jim Crow, which lasted roughly until the mid- to late 1960s, that only historians who were defined as white were allowed to visit archives—and it is archives where the secrets are kept and oftentimes buried. Therefore it would be very difficult for Native American historians and black historians to tell that story.

Sadly enough, many historians defined as white did not consider this story to be sufficiently important, which of course then led to an explosion, in the 1960s, by angry black students at Northwestern and the University of Chicago to demand black studies departments, more hiring of black professors, etcetera, and then tearful so-called white historians wondering why all this rage is taking place.

CM: How much do you think we realize slavery’s global impact, that it was a unique and unprecedented era in human history that had devastating effects still felt to this day and likely for centuries into the future? To what degree do you think the general public understands the impact of four centuries of African and indigenous slavery on the economic and political development of not only the West and the United States, but the world?

GH: I don’t think it’s very well understood. Oftentimes there is a misunderstanding, because we know—and anthropologists have told us—that there was a kind of slavery that had existed between the first form of human organization, what is called primitive communalism, and the third form, feudalism. The difficulty is that the new form of slavery that arose towards 1492 is different from the older forms of slavery.

The older forms of slavery afflicted and affected every corner of this small planet on which we reside. The newer form of slavery, arising in the late fifteenth century and the early 1500s, was racialized. That is to say, there was the invention of this notion of race, with certain races deemed to be inferior. And then there was the idea that you are a slave forever, and that you carry the mark of slavery forever, which afflicted and affected the black population of the United States. Then, it’s yoked to the roaring engine of capitalism, which creates all this wealth for some, which also leads to a kind of blindness in perceiving the tragedies that befell those who were basically the rungs of the class ladder some others were able to climb.

There’s another story that I tell in this book, which is about the Ottoman Turks, the predecessors of present-day Turkey, and the slave trade in western Europeans (and southeastern Europeans) that was a major emphasis of theirs. However, in 1683, there was another turning point when the Ottoman Turks are turned back at the gates of Vienna, and their sweep westward is detained if not obliterated for all time. This allows western Europeans, to no longer fear that when they sail southwards from Bristol and from Liverpool, for example, to West Africa, that they could be enslaved themselves off the coast of Algeria or off the coast of Morocco. With the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, that particular threat dissipated, and that too gave an impetus to the African slave trade.

CM: Was slavery a chosen path to modernity, or was it imposed upon the world?

GH: Slavery was a chosen path to modernity in the sense that those who perpetrated the crimes involved in dispossession of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans certainly knew what they were doing. Now, in terms of the victims—that is to say, the indigenous population, and the African population—of course, they were victimized by modernity, and it seems to me that we will always have an unsteady and fragile society as long as that basic truth is not well understood. We’ll always have what are being euphemistically characterized as urban rebellions, such as what happened in Watts, Los Angeles, in August 1965, or what happened in April 1968 on the West Side of Chicago in the aftermath of the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We’ll always have these intermittent explosions as long as justice is not meted out, and as long as there is an attempt to cover up the basic tragedy that was involved in the building of these United States of America.

CM: How much does Africa still suffer to this day from the slave trade? How much can you trace conflicts today within Africa back to settler colonialism by Europeans? Often when I have pointed out that whatever issue or challenge we are facing today, well, you can trace its origins back to settler colonialism, people will say, “You say that every time. But that happened hundreds of years ago.”

So how much does Africa still suffer, to this day, at this very moment, from the slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century?

I dare say that if this current project, if this current United States of America is somehow weakened, debilitated, or even toppled, one of the primary reasons will be the nagging issue of economic inequality, which is turbo-charged by the remaining racism and white supremacy that still stalks the land.

GH: Let’s start on this continent. How and why is it that some of the lowest rates of life expectancy take place on Indian reservations? How and why is it that life expectancy of those of African descent is well below the norm here in this most modern, developed society, the United States of America? How and why is it that African-American preschoolers are subjected to harsher discipline than other kinds of preschoolers, thereby stunting their life chances? (There was a response to that latter phenomenon in the New York Times a few years ago, when it was suggested, I assume jokingly, that we’ll reach a time, sooner rather than later, when African infants will be punished more because they will be assumed to be crying louder).

Now, historians have tackled the question that you just mentioned. I’m speaking of Joseph Inikori of the University of Rochester, who has suggested, in painstaking detail involving poring through mounds of statistics, that if you look at the countries that were principally afflicted by the African slave trade—that’s going from the bulge of Africa, Senegal, down to what is now Angola in southwest Africa, rounding the Cape to Mozambique—that you can draw straight lines from the bad old days of the African slave trade to their underdevelopment today.

One issue in particular comes up, which is that the enslavers oftentimes tried to stoke and engender inter-ethnic conflict, which might sometimes be called “tribal” conflict, in order to divide and conquer so that the losers in these conflicts could then be sold into slavery. That kind of inter-ethnic conflict is still a problem in Africa, and in some ways can be traced directly back to the bad old days of the African slave trade.

CM: You write, “The republicans in North America moved towards a new kind of aristocracy—that is, whiteness—by which Europeans of various stripes could be accommodated against the interests of dispossessed indigenous and enslaved Africans. This concern was facilitated by the practical desire of English colonists in, for example, Virginia to trade with the then-antagonist Dutch, engendering a process that led to a new identity—whiteness—or the leapfrogging of ethnic boundaries and constraints.”

To what degree is whiteness a creation of the colonies and colonists of the United States? And didn’t a sense of whiteness exist prior to people from different European countries’ desire to trade with one another in the American colonies? It sounds like what you’re saying is that the concept of whiteness came about because of the United States, and then that concept of whiteness is what allowed slavery.

GH: I wouldn’t say that the concept of whiteness comes about because of the creation of the United States. I would say it comes about through the process of settler colonialism, particularly in the Americas. Scholars today point to the creation of whiteness either in the seventeenth century—particularly the 1660s as the slave trade takes off—or in the early 1500s and the aftermath of Columbus’s voyage, when there was a process to draw a sharp line of demarcation between the indigenous population of the Americas and the invading settlers, so that the former could be more readily enslaved and so that that could be justified.

Scholars, particularly a good number of scholars right there where you are in Chicago, have helped to engender what is considered to be one of the most important fields in the academy right now—I’m speaking of whiteness studies, which goes into this fundamental question: How is it that those who were warring on the shores of Europe—English versus Irish, English versus Scots, British versus French, British versus German, German versus Russian, Serb versus Croat, Croat versus Bosnian, Hungarian versus Pole—all of the sudden when they cross the Atlantic they are magically transmuted into this new politics of identity, the identity politics of whiteness, a militarized identity politics if you will, which helps to facilitate, obviously, the creation of a new and different society than what they had on the shores of Europe, and also allows for the more crass exploitation of those not inducted into the hall-of-halls of whiteness—speaking of the indigenous population in the first instance and the enslaved African population in the second instance.

This whole concept of whiteness cannot be understood or discussed absent a very close and careful understanding of the dynamics of colonialism.

CM: Was race, then, a creation of those seeking empire? There’s this sense that the role race plays within empire is the role race always played; that is, within a framework of racism and white supremacy and privilege. Was it a ploy to get the public to support the government’s imperial ambitions?

GH: Between 1600 and 1700, those crossing the Atlantic to reside in the Americas were overwhelmingly of African descent. The problem was that these were not willing migrants. They had a tendency to rebel, they had a tendency to revolt—which finally, of course, led to their victory in what is known as the Haitian revolution, 1791 – 1804. But even before the Haitian revolution, in the 1600s when the slave trade was taking off, there was this rebelliousness on the part of the African population which led then to what I call the Great Trek from the Caribbean to the North American mainland.

Keep in mind that until the middle of the eighteenth century—that is to say, the 1750s—London thought that the Caribbean islands were more valuable than the North American mainland. However, because of the rebelliousness of the Africans, particularly in Barbados, which could fairly be characterized as the first English colony, we began to see the Great Trek to the North American mainland and the establishment of the settlement that is now known as South Carolina in the 1670s, which was a colony of a colony: a colony of Barbados.

I don’t think we can begin to understand the concept of whiteness, or the concept of how the United States came into being, without first of all connecting the Caribbean to the North American mainland, because they were very tightly linked.

CM: You write, “The Irish and other dissidents who had been conscripted into working in the fields of the Caribbean receded gradually in numbers as they could now be promoted to overseers or soldiers to keep this larger group of Africans in check. Out of this crucible emerged the renewed and more toxic racial identity that was whiteness, which also involved an alliance among Europeans of various class backgrounds, all bound by petrified unity in reaction to the prospect of a slave rebellion that would liquidate them all.”

To what degree is any lack of class consciousness—especially within white America—due to race and the idea of whiteness allying across class divides? Is there a lack of class consciousness in the United States because of the concept of whiteness?

There is nothing keeping us from revisiting this history, going through a reckoning that would not only lead to a clearer historical understanding, but an attempt to repair the immense damage that has been inflicted not least on the Native American and African populations.

GH: In the seventeenth century, race began to replace religion as an axis of society. That is to say, at the onset of the 1600s there were these tremendous religious conflicts, particularly reflected in the Thirty Years’ War, Protestant versus Catholic. Recall Martin Luther, the founder of modern Protestantism—we marked the five hundredth anniversary of the rise of the Protestant faith, 1517, just last fall. Then of course there was antisemitism, that is, Christian versus Jewish. And then of course there was Christian versus Islam. But what happens with the rise of settler colonialism is that race replaces religion as an axis of society. This leads to a cross-class identity between those of European descent.

It also led to a kind of class collaboration between poorer Europeans and richer Europeans, and we saw the most recent expression of that kind of class collaboration in 2016 when a number of those who could fairly be described as white poor, white working class, or white middle class cast their ballot for a so-called billionaire (it’s not really clear that he has all the wealth that he claims) under the premise that he would make America great again.

What does that mean? For some of us, that may mean bringing back Jim Crow. For some, that may mean bringing back slavery. But I dare say that their dreams will not necessarily be realized, although many of us will be harmed in the process of defeating their project.

CM: You write, “This desensitizing is also revealed by the depredations of the English civil war and the Thirty Years’ War which had sent many fleeing to North America in the first place. Those who witnessed mass rape and beheadings were hardly well-placed to display humanitarianism once they came to the United States, especially toward Native Americans and Africans, whom incipient racialization was placing beyond the pale in any crisis.”

How much, then, is the US a creation of Britain’s exporting of the English civil war and Thirty Years’ War to the Americas? We often hear jokes about how Australia is the creation of being a prison state. Is the US the outcome of war? How much do you think being birthed from war still has an impact on the US today?

GH: I’m glad you mention the case of Australia, because they are, I find, much more honest in terms of dealing with the origins of settlers. That is to say, it’s not an accident that Australia was set up as a colony in 1788, shortly after London lost the war to the settlers in North America—therefore London was no longer able to send its poor, its prostitutes, its pickpockets to North America, so it started to send them to Australia.

Likewise, in order to understand how and why it is that so many were crossing the Atlantic from Bristol and Liverpool and London, you have to understand the English civil war; you have to understand the violence between 1640 and 1660 that involved the beheading of the king and the revolt of the incipient merchant class against that monarch—and also, of course, the exploitation of Ireland. That conflict still reigns to a certain degree in Ireland—Oliver Cromwell, the man responsible for the beheading of the king, the so-called Lord Protector, of course, was a fierce anti-Irish Catholic partisan. Many defeated Irish Catholics either fled to or were forcibly deported to the settlements in North America and the Caribbean.

Certainly after witnessing the kind of bloodshed they had seen in Ireland, this to a certain degree desensitized them and made it difficult for them to engage in a kind of class solidarity with the poor, exploited, and oppressed of North America and the Caribbean—and I dare say that we are still having the same difficulty today, in 2018.

CM: You write, “As early as 1633, an observer in Suriname noted that ‘Negroes are the strength and sinews of the western world.’ The enslaved, a peculiar form of of capital encased in labor, represented simultaneously the barbarism of the emerging capitalism along with its productive force.”

Is that the inherent contradiction within capitalism? That it is both productive and barbaric? Is capitalism public tolerance for barbarism in the name of economic productivity?

GH: To a degree, yes. Even Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and by some measures the second-richest person in the world after Jeff Bezos of Amazon, has pointed out that capitalism can produce enormous wealth (he didn’t say ‘enormous wealth for some‘), but he went on to say that it has a problem (and this is a euphemism) in distributing that wealth to all of the citizens, for example, of North America. This is Bill Gates saying that.

Certainly that was the case in the 1600s, where, by dint of slave labor and mass dispossession of the Native American population, there were tremendous amounts of wealth being created. But then, even more so than today, that wealth was not being distributed evenly. We still have that problem today. That’s one of the reasons why economic inequality is one of the reigning issues of today’s United States of America.

I dare say that if this current project, if this current United States of America is somehow weakened, debilitated, or even toppled, one of the primary reasons will be this nagging issue of economic inequality, which is turbo-charged by the remaining racism and white supremacy that still stalks the land.

CM: The thing I kept coming back to while I was reading your book is that this was spanning four centuries of slavery, and that every historical event that happened during those four centuries was touched by this global market of slavery.

To what extent does the United States’ history of slavery, and any accountability it has taken for that history, currently undermined its ability to be a democratic nation? Is there something inherent within the fact that this “democracy” was born out of an era of slavery, meaning that there is something built-in within our democracy that is a failure because it’s born out of an era of slavery?

GH: The short answer is yes, but the good news is that we can circumvent that dilemma. For example, I’ve maintained in a number of writings that even when the United States abolished slavery in 1865, one problem there was the massive expropriation without compensation of property owners, the slave owners. That led to fury on the part of the descendants of those slave owners, who were then cast into poverty as their property was taken without compensation. Then, not only that, there was the former property, which theretofore had been seen as less than human, walking around seeking to claim equality.

Some of the problems we face in 2018 come from that turning point in US history in 1865. However, I think that we can revisit this history. There is nothing keeping us from revisiting this history, going through a reckoning that would not only lead to a clearer historical understanding, but an attempt to repair the immense damage that has been inflicted not least on the Native American and African populations.

I think that despite the perhaps pessimistic thrust of your question, there is a way out. There is an exit. We just need the courage and the organization to follow that particular path. Despite the flawed origins of many of the “democratic rights” of the United States, they can be revivified. They can be imbued with a more democratic content, if you like. I don’t think it’s necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to use that old, old phrase. Though in a sense I agree with the thrust of your inquiry.

CM: Gerald, thank you so much for being on our show this week.

GH: Thank you for inviting me.

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