A bitter triumph

illustration from the book: The Black Man's Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826) (Wikipedia)

August 28 is a day to celebrate bitterly. Which might seem odd but remember we are talking about human beings here and we are an odd bunch. And what’s on my mind for this date is Royal Assent to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which finally got rid of this blight through the British Empire (except Ceylon, Saint Helena and East India Company territories, where it was abolished in 1843).

On the one hand, it is of course much to be applauded that slavery was abolished. But how can it have taken so long. August 28 is also the anniversary of the discovery of Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, some 500 kilometers in diameter. In 1789. How can it have taken longer to discover that slavery is evil, that racial slavery is even more evil and that the obvious answer to Josiah Wedgewood’s abolitionist pottery “Am I not a man and a brother?” is yes?

Various glib answers can be given. But it is not the sort of topic where glibness will suffice. It is not surprising that humans should have invented slavery. Hitting someone hard on the head, dragging them off and making them do your bidding is an incredibly simple wrong idea and humans have a gift for wrong ideas, simple or complicated.

What is surprising is that a people dedicated to liberty should have overlooked that slavery was wrong. And that it should have been more or less eliminated in medieval Europe, especially the north and west, only to reappear in an unprecedented and unprecedentedly ghastly form, based on race, in the Enlightenment.

One might perhaps not be surprised that slavery persisted in primitive societies where it seems to have been an almost universal institution, periodic prattle about noble savages notwithstanding. One might not be surprised that it persisted in large empires built on denial of human dignity in various parts of the world. Even the Romans were oddly blind to its essential wrongness, and even the coming of Christianity was slow in opening their eyes.

In the modern world one might even find it unsurprising in, say, Imperial Spain, whose acknowledgement of human dignity was more than a little grudging and far more evident in theory than practice. But Britain? And in Britain’s proudly free colonies that became the United States?

It did exist in what became Canada. It was rare, as much for geographic and economic reasons as anything else; it just didn’t make sense as a means of production here. But then the determined action of reformers, including those in high places, abolished it because whether or not it paid it was wrong. It should have happened anywhere.

Now to be fair, Britain gets credit for abolishing it long before other places did. Some still have not, though they are at least sufficiently shamed to lie about it except the maniacs of ISIL. And others were dragged slowly and reluctantly into following the British example, sometimes with the active encouragement of Royal Navy guns. And yet to give credit for doing so in 1833 is to admit that for some reason what we see today with such clarity was hard to see.

Especially in the United States, which really was a land of liberty and an inspiration to the world. And yet also the most important, and in a certain perverted sense successful, slave society of modern times or indeed of any times. Even as the United States navy was helping the British stamp out the oceanic slave trade worldwide (I am not making this up, a squadron of American warships was engaged in an admittedly largely ineffective patrol around Africa that only stopped about 100 slave ships despite continuing for 42 years, from 1819 to 1861), the “peculiar institution” was flourishing domestically.

To attribute it to hypocrisy has some merit. But to start tying that hypocrisy to some particular set of socioeconomic arrangements one dislikes on other grounds is glib. And if it were pure hypocrisy it would have vanished sooner. There was a genuine element of delusion about it, a conviction that it was somehow inevitable, natural, even right.

Whatever explanation one devises, taking into account the facts of the case including the greater suitability of the southern United States and Caribbean islands to slave agriculture than, say, New England or Nova Scotia, we must in the end surely admit that the jagged dividing line between good and evil that runs through every human heart is responsible both for it being abolished so late, and for it being abolished at all.