How Could They Do It?
HOW did people justify the slave trade? Historians point out that until the 18th century, few questioned the morality of slavery. The book The Rise and Fall of Black Slavery observes: “At the time when Columbus stumbled on the West Indies, neither the church nor the writings it accepted had given future settlers an indication that their use of forced labour could be considered immoral, though isolated churchmen had hinted at misgivings. . . . There was no suggestion that the institution of slavery, entwined as it was with the whole of European society, should be challenged.”
After the transatlantic trade was in full swing, many clergymen used religious arguments to support slavery. The book American Slavery states: “Protestant ministers [in America] played a leading role in the defense of slavery . . . Probably the most widespread and effective religious argument was the simple suggestion that slavery was part of God’s plan to expose a hitherto heathen people to the blessings of Christianity.”
But the often cruel and vicious treatment meted out to slaves required more justification than the pretense of offering “the blessings of Christianity.” So colonial masters as well as writers and philosophers in Europe told themselves that blacks were not the same as whites. Edward Long, a planter who was to write History of Jamaica, observed: “When we reflect on the nature of these men, and their dissimilarity to the rest of mankind, must we not conclude that they are of a different species?” The consequences of such thinking were expressed by a governor of Martinique: “I have reached the stage of believing firmly that one must treat the Negroes as one treats beasts.”
Eventually economic self-interest and humanitarian concerns worked to end the transatlantic slave trade. From the beginning African people resisted their enslavement, and by the late 18th century, rebellions were common. Fearful owners found their situation increasingly precarious. They also came to question whether, instead of supporting slaves, it might be cheaper to buy labor when it was needed.
At the same time, moral, religious, and humanitarian arguments against slavery found growing support in Europe and the Americas. Abolition movements became strong. Despite the legal abolition of the slave trade in many countries from the year 1807 onward, the effects of slavery remained.
A television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, poignantly gave voice to the sons and daughters of Africa: “Long before slave days, we lived in . . . Africa. And then strangers came and took some of us away. Today, we are scattered so widely that the sun never sets on the descendants of Africa.” The presence of millions of people of African descent in North and South America, the Caribbean, and Europe is an obvious result of the slave trade.
People still debate the question of who bears the blame for the transatlantic slave trade. Basil Davidson, a specialist in African history, writes in his book The African Slave Trade: “Africa and Europe were jointly involved.”
“Let Your Kingdom Come”
There is something to be learned—something that concerns human rulership. The wise man wrote: “I considered all the oppressive deeds which were done under the sun,—and lo! the tears of the oppressed, and they have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors is power.”—Ecclesiastes 4:1, Rotherham.
Sadly, those words, written long before the African slave trade began, continue to ring true today. The oppressed and the oppressors are still with us, and in some lands so are the slaves and their masters. Christians know that soon, by means of God’s Kingdom government, Jehovah “will deliver the poor one crying for help, also the afflicted one and whoever has no helper.” (Psalm 72:12) For that reason and others, they continue to pray to God: “Let your kingdom come.”—Matthew 6:10.