Remembering the World of 1619

Captain John Smith, mercenary, founder of Jamestown…. slave

In 1602, five years before he led the Virginia Company expedition to found a colony in the new world, John Smith fought as a mercenary in a war against the Ottoman Empire. Wounded in battle, he was captured by Crimean Tatars. He and his comrades were sold as slaves — “like beasts in a market,” as he later put it. Taken to Crimea, Smith escaped into Muscovy, from where he made his way to Poland, and then circuitously back to England in 1604.

It is worth remembering Smith’s brush with slavery as we ponder the significance of the founding of the New World’s first representative assembly in 1619 at Jamestown as well as the importation of the colony’s first African slaves. There is an increasing tendency in America’s intellectual class to view the United States as irredeemably stained from its inception. It may be true that Virginia established representative government, some suggest, but who was represented? White male property owners. According to this narrative, white Americans prospered through the oppression of native Americans and black slaves. Conceived in sin, some say, the American experiment was illegitimate at its birth.

Such a perspective commits the error of viewing the American colonies in isolation from what was happening in the rest of the world and then condemning the colonists for failing to live up to the standards of 21st-century values. Before adopting such a view, let us recall what the world was like in 1619. Slavery and other forms of servitude were nearly universal. What made England and its American colonies remarkable was not their sufferance of slavery for 200 years or more but their eventual willingness to abolish it.

Slavery was especially common in Muslim lands. The Ottomans and their vassals the Tatars routinely enslaved the Slavic peoples of what is now the Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans. (The word “slave” is derived from “slav.”) The potentates of the North African coast, known to history as the Barbary Pirates, raided European ships and coastal communities in the Mediterranean. Historian Robert Davis estimates that the white slave trade between 1500 and 1800 enslaved as many as 1 million to 1.25 million Europeans (although it must be noted than any estimates are somewhat conjectural). Even Americans were not immune to this horror. James Riley, a Connecticut mariner, wrote a best-selling narrative of his 1815 shipwreck on the coast of Mauritania, his capture by local nomads, and his ordeal as a slave. Thomas Jefferson, it might be remembered, launched the United States’ first foreign intervention in its war against the Barbary pirates.

While Americans focus on the Atlantic slave trade, in which whites purchased black slaves on the western Africa coast, we cannot forget the Arab slave trade, which began in the Middle Ages and penetrated deeper and deeper inland over the centuries. Arab slavers conducted razzias for the express purpose of acquiring slaves, capturing literally millions of Bantus (the cultural-linguistic group from which most African-Americans are descended), and shipped them along Indian Ocean trade routes to the Middle East. Historians estimate that the Arabs enslaved as many as 17 million people. By comparison, the Atlantic slave trade shipped an estimated 12.5 million Africans to the New World — about 338,000 to North America.

Of course, the Africans themselves practiced slavery. It wasn’t the same kind of slavery as in the Western hemisphere, which was based upon a plantation economy that did not exist in Africa. More commonly, the practice among clan- and chieftain-based societies in Africa (and among American Indians, among others) was to capture women and children in raids on neighboring groups and enslave them as domestic servants. However, as demand increased in the Western Hemisphere for involuntary labor, some Africans saw in the slave trade a route to wealth and power. In West Africa and Angola fast-expanding kingdoms traded slaves (and sometimes ivory) for guns that provided military supremacy. Just as the Arabs did, these kingdoms acquired slaves by raiding weaker populations around them. Ironically, Europeans, who suffered high mortality rates from diseases along the West African Coast — known as the “white man’s graveyard” — did not enslave anyone. Rather, based in coastal fortresses, they purchased the slaves from local potentates. (The situation in Angola and southern Africa was more complicated. There the creole offspring of Portuguese and Africans dominated the slave trade.)

In the discussion of America’s “original sin,” most of this context is forgotten. “Progressive” revisionists never mention the millions of white Europeans who were enslaved. They never mention the Arab slave trade, which surpassed the Atlantic slave trade in the number of people enslaved. And they never mention the role of Africans in enslaving other Africans. The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., which I recently visited, glides over all of this, referring obliquely only to the fact that millions of Africans were “kidnapped” and transported to the New World, without saying who did the kidnapping!

Finally, the “progressive” narrative  never mentions how the trade in African slaves, and slavery itself, came to an end. Only in one nation, Haiti, did slaves free themselves through armed revolt. The abolitionist movement arose from a principle common to Christianity (mostly Protestant Christianity) and the European Enlightenment that all men were equal before god. First England abolished the slave trade, and then France, and then the United States. Then England abolished slavery, then France, and then, after a bloody civil war, the U.S. (Abolition of slavery in Spanish and Portuguese territories came later.) No African kingdom voluntarily abandoned slavery. No Middle Eastern potentate voluntarily abandoned slavery. The trade in African slaves ended only when England (and other European powers) militarily conquered the African and Arab slave states in a long-running commitment to end slavery around the world. 

Yes, slavery was a part of Virginian history and American history, and we cannot ignore it. But so, too, was the fight for representative government, and so, too, was the extension of the rights won by Englishmen to other races, cultures and ethnic groups. Virginia was the place where the universal ideals of the Enlightenment were applied, at least philosophically, to all men. Rarely acknowledged, abolitionists came close during the great slavery debate of 1831-32 to ending slavery in the commonwealth. That effort led by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, eldest grandson of Thomas Jefferson, ultimately did not succeed, but it represents a current of history of which all Virginians can be proud.

Virginia did not emerge from the violence, oppression and intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages as pure and refined as a modern-day democracy. The struggle of equal rights for all took centuries — as it did throughout the world. Virginians are right to celebrate that struggle and the contributions, however limited or imperfect, of those who led that struggle each step of the way.

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20 responses to “Remembering the World of 1619

  1. Jim, that is a fine summation of an important part of long history of slavery.

  2. “What made England and its American colonies remarkable was not their sufferance of slavery for 200 years or more but their eventual willingness to abolish it.” Oh please, it took the bloodiest war in American history to abolish slavery, and for a century and a half afterwards the racist justifications for it (it was beneficial…their descendants are better off now…the “science” of eugenics) continued, and continue in some circles to this day. Once the Declaration of Independence was published, the continuation of legal slavery for another 90 years, the Jim Crow laws and economic discrimination for a century after that and the lingering racism today are a stain on this country. Who are you trying to convince, Jim? Because of the high ideals we claim in our history, our founding principles, slavery here became our Original Sin. We can’t hide behind the Romans or the Caliphs or the Czars.

  3. As stated above, I fully respect Jim’s post. I also fully respect Steve’s. I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive. Indeed, quite the reverse, I believe they fit together, like a hand in a glove. It’s what makes America, America.

  4. White male landowners. Let’s qualify that Anglican white male landowners.

    But Jim is correct about the sales of black Africans by other black Africans.

  5. It’s easy to view slavery in its most extreme form, lifetime slavery (descending also to their children), as all there ever was. But from Roman law and accounts through medieval times we know there were far more gradations including voluntary ones, and these remained common in 17th and 18th century England. Here are two: voluntary contractual servitude (for example, the years of apprenticeship arranged by parents for teenagers in need of a career) and voluntary indenture (for example, a commitment of years of servitude, commonly auctioned at the port of arrival by a ship’s captain in order to pay the cost of an indigent’s passage to the Colonies). Indeed the concept of involuntary servitude as a way of working off a debt, the alternative to jail or the poorhouse, was also common into the 19th century.

    Open-ended servitude also had a long tradition. The perpetual slavery into which New England settlers committed many Indians among the losing tribes during “King Philip’s War” in the 1670s was modeled on what happened to the losers in any war in Europe over territory between different cultures, notably during the Crusades, and then in the 15th-16th century Turkish and Venetian raids around the Mediterranean to capture galley slaves. Likewise the Spanish treated many Indians in the New World as only fit for slavery. Those were the traditions of servitude that persisted along the Barbary Coast until those brash Americans fought back.

    But these forms of slavery could be ended; a slave could buy his freedom; a former slave might become a household member, a full citizen, a slave owner. Greek slaves were sought after to educate the Romans. What was different about black slavery in America was its identification with race, its justification increasingly premised on racial inferiority, even dehumanization — not on the basis of voluntary servitude, or indenture for indebtedness, or military conquest, of individuals otherwise the equals of their masters. Certainly in Virginia we had our slaves who were freed or bought their own freedom, our free black communities — moreso than further south.

    It took Virginia many decades before the GA enacted laws intended to deprive even freed blacks of the full rights of other free men in the Colony. But Virginia eventually did do so. I agree with Steve, Virginia did not willingly atone for its sins. We fought a bloody civil war here in Virginia over slavery; the winning side demanded an end to the practice, yet segregation and slavery-lite aka Jim Crow made a resurgence and in far too many quarters the underlying racial animus embedded during those years still persists. But I also agree with Jim, the idealistic notion of the equality of all men was given voice here, within the Colonies, sometimes most loudly by Virginians, in ways that led to the abolitionist movement in the North. The logic that led Virginians to say all men are created equal, also led them to say that blacks are not entitled to the equality of men because they are not men at all, but subhuman creatures. We are still working to undo that way of thinking in its crudest forms.

  6. Rationalization. Cognitive dissonance. The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew full well that those powerful words and their slave economy were in direct and total conflict, so they moved to the myth of racial superiority and slavery as a benign, even beneficial, practice to quiet the discord in their souls and keep the gold in their pockets. Yes, enlightenment moved Franklin and others to a position of full abolition, along with many people in the slave states even, but economic greed overcame rational thinking for far too many and for far too long. The wages of sin is death. The bill came due.

  7. How did Americans come to believe that slavery was an evil institution? Not because of the Africans. Not because of the Arabs. Not because of other civilizations, all of which were afflicted by their own forms of servitude and oppression. We came to believe slavery was an evil institution because Americans — several of them from Virginia — applied Protestant Christian/Enlightenment principles to declare that all men were created equal by god and all men were entitled to the same rights.

    Did Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason and others struggle to reconcile their philosophical principles with their material self interest as slave owners? Yes, they did. But cite me one other example of a ruling class anywhere in the world at any time in history that articulated philosophical principles that were antithetical to their material self interest.

    • Whatever gets you through the night….

      But if still kept awake, learn a bit of history:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_abolition_of_slavery_and_serfdom Americans, led by the sainted Virginians, didn’t just wake up one morning and realize this might be a moral evil….That might be the worst myth of all.

      • So…. am I fair to assume that you cannot cite another example of a ruling class anywhere in human history that developed an ideology of equality that was antithetical to their material self interest?

      • “Americans, led by the sainted Virginians, didn’t just wake up one morning and realize this might be a moral evil….”

        Steve, you’re sounding like LarryG, imputing to me beliefs that I never expressed and do not hold.

        • See, you keep ignoring the fact that the political majorities south of the Mason Dixon line didn’t surrender slavery to a philosophical argument, but to a conquering army that won in large part with the sacrifice of former slaves. Then they built a legal structure to regain and maintain much of the political and economic advantage they had enjoyed ante-bellum. They DIED to keep their slaves, Locke and Wesley be damned. And until we are at least honest about that, moving forward is harder.

          • Of course the South had to be conquered before slaveholders gave up their slaves. But nobody’s denying that. No one is trying to legitimize Southern slaveholders. Rather, what’s happening in the country today is a widespread effort to de-legitimize America’s founding fathers, especially those who were slave holders, along with the entire American experiment. That’s the larger context of my post. In understanding America, it is critical to recollect the Medieval mire from which our philosophies, institutions and practices emerged.

    • Jim is right.

      Distilled evil festers then runs wild in a vacuum. Absalom Absalom. T. Jefferson, G. Washington, P. Henry, G. Mason and others quarried the rock and iron that filled the vacuum, and forged the tools to displace it.

  8. Acbar has the first half right … “What was different about black slavery in America was its identification with race, its justification increasingly premised on racial inferiority, even dehumanization — not on the basis of voluntary servitude, or indenture for indebtedness, or military conquest, of individuals otherwise the equals of their masters.”

    The second half of the equation is the 100+ years of Jim Crow, etc that followed the US Civil War. Some of that is still evident today. For example, the status of Harry F Byrd on the grounds of the Capitol was erected in 1976, not 1876. In my living memory a statue to a racist, undemocratic, economic illiterate was put up for the world to see. I wonder how Virginia’s African Americans think about the architect of massive resistance being memorialized with a statue erected in 1976? Delegates to the General Assembly walk past that statue twice a day when the Assembly is in session. They should spit on it each time they pass.

  9. Of course you are seeking to legitimize the practice. That’s your whole argument, America inherited the infection. Agreed. But it also knew better by 1776, and as that timeline showed, the rest of the world was getting it, too. We were late to the party.

    One of our friends of the Democratic persuasion the other day tweeted out a photo of a plaque honoring Jefferson he found in a fairly obscure location in Southern France. As a French guide explained to me in Lyon, while talking about the resistance and collaborators in unoccupied France, the French are comfortable with how things get complicated. I love how history gets complicated. Like you I will not reject the Founders or their principles, but we must do as they said, not as they did.

  10. OK, we agree on something. History is complicated. We need not reject the Founders or their principles. And we must do as they said, not as they did.

    • “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country”

      Robert E Lee, in a letter to his wife, 1856

      William Jones – the name of Ulysses S Grant’s slave.

      Yes, history is complicated.

    • “We came to believe slavery was an evil institution because Americans — several of them from Virginia — applied Protestant Christian/Enlightenment principles to declare that all men were created equal by god and all men were entitled to the same rights.”

      “The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew full well that those powerful words and their slave economy were in direct and total conflict.”

      As Reed said yesterday, “I don’t believe they [Jim and Steve’s views] are mutually exclusive. Indeed, quite the reverse, I believe they fit together, like a hand in a glove.”

      For an indispensable read on this apparent “cognitive dissonance” which so many still practice, focused on Richmond’s own experience: https://brandylanepublishers.com/wp/book/list-all/history/richmonds-unhealed-history-by-ben-campbell/

  11. Dear Jim,

    The collapse of religious authority and the embrace of equality have torn our society into shreds. There is no cure from these erroneous principles embraced by the participants on this thread, and those in the larger society, but only impending desolation. The hatred that fills Don, Larry, and Peter ultimately is irrational and will seek to be enacted in deeds, and so I do no longer seek to parley with them in such a state. There is no point to be gained when the soul is so sickened, when vile, bitter words so spew forth like hot lava. We are at the Troilus and Cressida stage, of derangemeent, as voiced by Shakespeare, where all elements of society have been unloosed to disrespect and devour one another, though first it will be Whites Christians, but later, others, who will fall under the same blade of irate madness:

    “O, when degree is shaked,
    Which is the ladder of all high designs,
    The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
    Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
    Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
    The primogeneity and due of birth,
    Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
    But by degree stand in authentic place?
    Take but degree away, untune that string,
    And hark what discord follows. Each thing
    In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
    Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
    And make a sop of all this solid globe;
    Strength should be lord of imbecility,
    And the rude son should strike his father dead;
    Force should be right, or, rather, right and wrong,
    Between whose endless jar justice resides,
    Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
    Then everything text from the Folio not found in the
    Power into will, will into appetite,
    And appetite, an universal wolf,
    So doubly seconded with will and power,
    Must make perforce an universal prey
    And last eat up himself.”

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  12. Last lines should read: “Then everything includes itself in power,
    Power into will, will into appetite,
    And appetite, an universal wolf,
    So doubly seconded with will and power,
    Must make perforce an universal prey
    And last eat up himself.”

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