If there has been any topic to be left branded on the historical hide of America, it is slavery. From elementary school to general education classes in college, slavery and its grim past have been highlighted time and time again.
Besides its place in education, slavery has been used as a topic for countless Hollywood hits and award-winning novels; Django Unchained, Seven Years a Slave, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and others. Of course, this is not a bad thing considering it serves as a crucial and invaluable reminder of the many ills that man has inflicted on his human counterparts across time and geography.
In spite of all this, a grave error has plagued the overall understanding of slavery’s place in world history, especially when discussing its legacy in America. Rather than understanding slavery as a past ill of human history, it’s commonly referred to as the only historical aspect worth its salt with respect to America’s Identity— almost as if slavery was exclusively an American concept. However, this is far from the truth.
To show that America isn’t the only country guilty for the ills of slavery, it’s worth comparing the history of American slavery with that of other countries. From 1501-1866, America received around 300,000 slaves from Africa. This figure initially sounds large but when compared to Brazil’s estimated 4.9 million obtained between 1501 to 18661, this number eclipse America’s, in comparison. Additionally, Barbary pirates in North Africa are another great, but rarely talked about, example. In fact, between the 16th and 19th century, more than one million Europeans were enslaved by North Africans.2 This would subsequently lead to both Presidents Jefferson and Madison fighting the Barbary Wars on separate occasions*. Given these examples, it is evident that slavery existed throughout the globe, and was not just present in America.
Moreover, the West didn’t start slavery; but rather, the West ended it. Neither in the number of slaves nor the length of time it existed has any country made as quick of strides toward equality as the United States had. From the time of America’s inception in 1776, it took 89 years to end the practice.
Even with being long passed our historical blemishes, Libya is still committing this practice today and while many media outlets have shed immense light on this, the light on America’s history of slavery has yet to dim. This could be in part to race playing a role in the American brand of slavery. Even though slavery didn’t have anything to do with race for much of its history given that Africans, Asians, Europeans, and many other continents enslaved their own people long before America. Instead of focusing on the overall idea of slavery in history, the fixation on race in American slavery has become a lamprey on the belly of America that has never left. Of course, it shouldn’t be disregarded, it did happen and nothing can take that away from history, but it shouldn’t be used as the primary attribute of what America is known for. This would be nothing short of an egregious disservice to the 625,000 Americans who died fighting for this practice to be vanquished in the Civil War.
Without debate, the vast majority would agree that our ancestors carried out countless atrocities. If we could go back in time to stop it, the volunteer line to sign up would be out the door and around the corner. This simply isn’t our reality. Rather than postulate all the things man could have done, they did otherwise. This truth is a hard pill to swallow, but it shouldn’t be one America can’t get past. The U.S. has and will continue to move past history to make a new. The sooner one can come to terms with this fact, the sooner this guilt narrative can finally be put to rest.
ADDITIONAL SOURCES AND NOTES
- “VERGONHA AINDA MAIOR: Novas informações disponíveis em um enorme banco de dados mostram que a escravidão no Brasil foi muito pior do que se sabia antes (“. Veja (in Portuguese).
- Davis, Robert. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800
*The war is between United States, Sweden and the four North African states known collectively as the “Barbary States.” The conflict was over captured European and American citizens respectively.
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