When activists posit that the British should confront the past, they are implicitly admitting the perpetual victimhood of blacks whose dignity must be restored by white conscience. Such falsehoods then mature to become a national creed because serious thinkers are afraid to state the obvious: whites do not owe blacks anything.
The recently completed British royal tour of the Caribbean has provoked debates about Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Political hustlers are characterizing the slave trade in racial terms, using propaganda to justify divisive ideologies.
Yet the issue is more nuanced, and such conversations obscure the complexity of the slave trade. Indeed, when activists posit that the British should confront the past, they are implicitly admitting the perpetual victimhood of blacks whose dignity must be restored by white conscience. Such falsehoods then mature to become a national creed because serious thinkers are afraid to state the obvious: whites do not owe blacks anything.
Throughout history powerful states have devised strategies to subjugate weaker territories. The transatlantic slave trade was no different, and whites as well as blacks faced subjugation.
The European slave trades that trafficked whites are underexplored, yet they are equally important in the moral reckoning over historical atrocities. The failure to discuss the Eastern European slave trades and the Swedish slave trade that lasted from the 6th century until the Middle Ages suggests that current discussions are motivated by anti-white animus rather than a desire to correct historical wrongs.
The victimhood narrative that focuses on black enslavement while ignoring that of whites paints an unfortunate picture of African slave traders. They are the innocent bystanders, the story goes, who were co-opted into the slave trade by white Europeans.
But in their quest to present whites as villains, activists only succeed in infantilizing blacks by belittling their proclivity for agency. The fact is that African traders were astute businessmen. They compelled Europeans to comply with local trading terms, and to maintain their trading posts, Europeans had to follow the rules stipulated by local leaders.
Places like Dahomey and Galinhas became major powers because of the slave trade, and for many Africans the slave trade was such a lucrative endeavor that its collapse was greatly resented. Hence downplaying the involvement of blacks in the slave trade by caricaturizing Africans as instruments of Western oppression to reinforce the rhetoric of black victimhood is a disservice to black history.
Furthermore, failure to discuss the atrocities meted out to enslaved whites by their fellow whites perpetuates the harmful stereotype that blacks are less resilient and incapable of overcoming trauma. The truth is that except for North Africa in the Common Era and the ancient empire of Aksum, Africa was always behind most of the world. Indeed, if Britain and other European powers failed at pacifying African empires, then today many in Africa would still be living in slavery or genuflecting to their imperial overlords.
Clearly, I am not advocating the resurgence of colonialism, I am merely pointing to reality, and that reality is that Europeans introduced many benefits to Africa. Under colonialism life expectancy increased, medical care improved, and infant mortality declined, Niall Ferguson points out in his bestselling book, Civilization: The West and the Rest.
Furthermore, British colonialism tamed the aggression of African powers like the Sokoto Caliphate, Asante, and Benin. If Britain and other European powers had failed at pacifying African empires, then today many in Africa would likely still be living in slavery or genuflecting to their imperial overlords.
Western blacks are culturally divorced from Africans and most would not exchange their comfort in the West for life in Africa. As African practices like trial by ordeal, inheritance traditions disfavoring women, and the killing of disabled children are outrageous to blacks in the West, it’s hard to say that blacks are suffering cultural losses because they are not in Africa, for there is no guarantee that they would even appreciate African culture. And since living standards in the West are also higher than in Africa, one can also point out that the descendants of enslaved Africans are better off than their African peers. However, this observation is not contending that slavery is beneficial, but rather that a brutal system has produced indirect benefits.
The crux of the matter is that we cannot undo history. As such the only sensible alternative is for all parties to move on and desist from projecting current sensibilities onto historical characters. Enabling blacks to perceive themselves as victims will be detrimental to all interests in the long term.
Image Credit: Flickr-Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.06 comments