[p. 122>] Slavery was destroyed within the United States at staggering costs in blood and treasure, but the struggle was over within a few ghastly years of warfare. Nevertheless, the Civil War was the bloodiest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, and more Americans were killed in that war than in any other war in the country’s history. But this was a highly atypical—indeed, unique—way to end slavery. In most of the rest of the world, unremitting efforts to destroy the institution of slavery went on for more than a century, on a thousand shifting fronts, and in the face of determined and ingenious efforts to continue the trade in human beings.
Within the British Empire, the abolition of slavery was accompanied by the payment of compensation to slave owners for what was legally the confiscation of their property. This cost the British government £20 million—a huge sum in the nineteenth century, about 5 percent of the nation’s annual output. A similar plan to have the federal government of the United States buy up the slaves and then set them free was proposed in Congress, but was never implemented. The costs of emancipating the millions of slaves in the United States would have been more than half the annual national output—but still less than the economic costs of the Civil War, quite aside from the cost in blood and lives, and a legacy of lasting bitterness in the South, growing out of its defeat and the widespread destruction it suffered during that conflict.
While the British could simply abolish slavery in their Western Hemisphere colonies, they faced a more daunting and longer-lasting task of patrolling the Atlantic off the coast of Africa, in order to prevent slave ships of various nationalities from con- [p. 123>] tinuing to supply slaves illegally. Even during the Napoleonic wars, Britain continued to keep some of its warships on patrol off West Africa. Moreover, such patrols likewise tried to interdict the shipments of slaves from East Africa through the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Brazil capitulated to British demands that it end its slave trade, after being publicly humiliated by British warships that seized and destroyed slave ships within Brazil’s own waters. In 1873, two British cruisers appeared off the coast of Zanzibar and threatened to blockade the island unless the slave market there shut down. It was shut down.
It would be hard to think of any other crusade pursued so relentlessly for so long by any nation, at such mounting costs, without any economic or other tangible benefit to itself. These costs included bribes paid to Spain and Portugal to get their cooperation with the effort to stop the international slave trade and the costs of maintaining naval patrols and of resettling freed slaves, not to mention dangerous frictions with France and the United States, among other countries. Captains of British warships who detained vessels suspected of carrying slaves were legally liable if those vessels turned out to have no slaves on board. The human costs were also large:
The heavy drain, physical and mental, in keeping squadrons on the East African coast was reflected in the loss of 282 officers and men in the ten years 1875-85; and this did not include these invalidated home. Naval personnel, wracked by fever, sunstroke and dysentery, were forced to retire prematurely and live on a small pittance. The cost of upkeep of the squadron over the twenty years prior to 1890 was estimated at four millions sterling, and this did not take into account the large amount of work imposed on consular and judicial staff at Zanzibar in trying cases and dealing with reports, etc.
Even so, the results were slow in coming. More streamlined slave ships were designed, in hopes of being able to outrun the ships of the Royal Navy in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the dogged persistence of the British eventually reduced the shipment of slaves across the Atlantic and across the waters of the Islamic world. Although the French flag was for many years widely used as protection from the boarding of ships on the high seas by the [p. 124>] British navy, even by slave traders who were neither French nor authorized to fly the French flag, eventually France itself turned against slavery, outlawed the institution and sent some of its own warships to patrol the Atlantic off the coast of Africa to intercept and deter the shipment of slaves to the Western Hemisphere. The American flag was likewise so used and the United States, like France, eventually turned against the slave trade and sent warships to join the Atlantic patrols to interdict slave shipments.
Although by 1860 the Atlantic slave trade had been effectively stopped, the slave trade from East Africa across the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf took longer to be reduced significantly. Off the east coast of Africa, smaller Arab vessels called dhows hugged the coastlines, in waters too shallow for the British warships to enter. One British commodore estimated that he captured one dhow for every eight that escaped. Nevertheless, during the period from 1866 to 1869, 129 slave vessels were captured and 3,380 slaves were freed. When the threat of being boarded seemed imminent, the Arabs would throw slaves overboard to drown, rather than have them be found on board, which could lead to British seizure of the vessel and punishment of those who manned it:
The worst that could befall the slaves was when the slaver was overhauled by a British cruiser, and they might then be flung overboard to dispose of all evidence. Devereaux mentions a case where the Arabs, when pursued by an English cruiser, cut the throats of 24 slaves and threw them overboard. Cololm also states that Arabs would not hesitate to knock slaves on the head and throw them overboard to avoid capture.
Because there were only a few naval ships available to cover a vast expanse of water in this region, British warships would often launch smaller boats to engage the Arab slave dhows. In these cases, as one study put it, “the slave traffickers frequently did not hesitate to attack boat crews in defence of their profits.” Battles between the Arabs’ vessels and the smaller British craft were especially likely when the larger ships that launched them were too far away to reach the scene in time to join the battle. In other cases, the Arabs fled even from the smaller British vessels. An episode in 1866 was typical:
[p. 125>] On 26 April 1866, the Penguin set out after a dhow and fired several shots in an effort to make the crew come to. When the dhow failed to lower its sail, Gartorth felt certain that she was a slaver and ceased firing for the sake of the slaves onboard. However, he managed to close with the dhow which then made for the rocks through a heavy surf. By the time the ship’s boats could be lowered to follow, the Arab crew had fled but the pounding surf made any attempt by the slavers to salvage the human cargo too dangerous. To their horror, the boat crew found that they, too, could not reach the dhow which was rapidly filling with water drowning the slaves. The boat officer decided that he could not risk coming in close to the dhow but several of the crewmen of the cutter recklessly dived in and swam through the surf to the dhow. In a remarkable display of courage, the sailors managed to bring 28 of the slaves back to the boat. But the dhow appeared to have had more [than] 200 slaves on board and most died in the pounding waves.
In another episode, the Arabs’ ruthlessness toward the slaves was further revealed:
When the Daphne’s cutter captured a dhow with 156 slaves on board many were found to be in the final stages of starvation and dysentery. One woman was brought out of the dhow with a month-old infant in her arms. The baby’s forehead was crushed and when she was asked how the injury had happened she explained to the ship’s interpreter that as the boat came alongside the baby began to cry. One of the dhowmen, fearing that the sailors would hear the cries, picked up a stone and crushed the child’s head.
This was not a unique act. British missionary and explorer David Livingstone related a similar incident on land: “One woman, who was unable to carry both her load and young child, had the child taken from her and saw its brains dashed out on a stone.” Dr. Livingstone also reported having nightmares for weeks after encountering Arab slave traders and their victims. Not only was this Christian missionary shocked by the brutality of the Arab slave traders, so was Mohammed Ali, the ruler of Egypt, who was a battle-hardened military commander.
None of this means that the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade should be ignored, downplayed, or excused. Nor have they [p. 126>] been. A vast literature has detailed the vile conditions under which slaves from Africa lived—and died—during their voyages to the Western Hemisphere. But the much less publicized slave trade to the Islamic countries had even higher mortality rates en route, as well as involving larger numbers of people over the centuries, even though the Atlantic slave trade had higher peaks while it lasted. By a variety of accounts, most of the slaves who were marched across the Sahara toward the Mediterranean died on the way. While these were mostly women and girls, the males faced a special danger—castration to produce the eunuchs in demand as harem attendants in the Islamic world.
Because castration was forbidden by Islamic law, the operation tended to be performed—usually crudely—in the hinterlands, before the slave caravans reached places within the effective control of the Ottoman Empire. The great majority of those operated on died as a result, but the price of eunuchs was so much higher than the prices of other slaves that the practice was still profitable on net balance.
The British governor-general of the Sudan, C.G. Gordon, estimated that, between 1875 and 1879, from 80,000 to 100,000 slaves were exported through his region. General Gordon imposed the death penalty on those convicted of castrating slave men to market them as eunuchs. His attempt to stamp out slave trading in the Sudan cost him his own life as an opposing army, raised and led by Mohammad Mahad, defeated his troops at Khartoum in 1885 and killed Gordon—after which the slave trade flourished again. British control in the region was firmly re-established in 1898 by the crushing victory of troops led by Lord Kitchener at Omdurman and including a young officer named Winston Churchill.
On the issue of slavery, it was essentially Western civilization against the world. At the time, Western civilization had the power to prevail against all other civilizations. That is how and why slavery was destroyed as an institution in almost the whole world. But it did not happen all at once or even within a few decades. When the British finally stamped out slavery in Tanganyika in 1922 it was more than half a century after the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, and vestiges of slavery still survived in parts of Africa into the twenty-first century.
[p. 127>] The unique position of the Western world in the history—and especially the destruction—of slavery need not imply that there was unanimity within the West on this institution. In addition to whites who defended the enslavement of Africans on racial grounds, or who opposed general emancipation on social grounds, there were many whites—and even blacks—who defended slavery as a matter of self-interest as slaveowners. Although most black owners of slaves in the United States were only nominal owners of members of their own families, there were thousands of other blacks in the antebellum South who were commercial slaveowners, just like their white counterparts. An estimated one-third of the “free persons of color” in New Orleans were slaveowners and thousands of these slaveowners volunteered to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Black slaveowners were even more common in the Caribbean. In short, there were many defenders of slavery in the West, even in the nineteenth century—and, outside the West, slavery was too widely accepted to require defense.
Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2005), 122-127.
[APA] Sowell, T. (2005). Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco, CA: Basic Books.
[MLA] Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Basic Books, 2005. Print.
[Chicago] Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Basic Books, 2005.