A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line

I put the last part of Chapter 1 on hold for a few weeks. Was getting exhausting correcting every single sentence.

So I’m going to start posting some stuff on Chapter 2. Chapter 2 of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is called Drawing The Color Line. The chapter is Zinn’s imagining of the origins of racism and racial tensions in the United States. It is a chapter about the origins of the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in the New World, particularly in British colonies of North America.

These posts on Chapter 2 will appear over the next couple weeks in no particular order. I may publish a more coherent response to Chapter 2 of Zinn’s book in the future. But, for now, it will just be my initial notes.

One of Zinn’s theses in Chapter 2 is that slavery in the America’s was uniquely bad in all the world. He writes:

African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave. (Zinn 27)

There is a lot to unpack in those few short sentences, so bear with me.

Zinn finds American slavery to be “the most cruel form of slavery in history” for two reasons: it was apparently driven by capitalism or free markets – which I will get to in a minute – and it was underpinned by racism.

My first thought is that Zinn’s argument is a bit of a tautology. ‘Why was American slavery so bad? Because of the racism. Why did America have such a problem with racism? Because slavery.’

Beyond that, I could ask the question posed by Zinn any number of ways. I could say ‘American slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from slavery in Arabia. American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the castration of all men and boys, and the sexual exploitation slavery of the women.’

And really, I could restate this sort of argument a dozen times over with different points.

Stefan Molyneux over at Freedomain Radio has already done several of the restatements for me: 

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While many children were born to slaves in the Americas, and millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the USA to this day, very few descendants of the slaves that ended up in the Middle East survive.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Muslim slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Muslims.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Trans-Sahara and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines, in harems, and military service.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “Most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated; most of the children born to the women were killed at birth.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

Now, if you found yourself reading the paragraphs above and asking “What is the Arabian slave trade?” Then I highly recommend you watch or read Molyneux’s entire presentation on slavery. I will try to avoid completely regurgitating his work here.

Zinn tells readers about the horrifying death count from the Atlantic slave trade, and the tallies are just gruesome:

By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world (Zinn 29).

What we aren’t told is the broader context of the global slave trade. For example that Muslims enslaved over 150 million Africans and at least 50 million people from other parts of the world, and that very nearly every slave taken from Africa to the Muslim world died within a few years of capture. According to Stefan Molyneux,

In about 1810, Louis Frank observed in Tunisia that most Black children died in infancy and that infinitesimally few reached the age of manhood. A British observer in Egypt, some thirty years later, found conditions even worse. He said, ‘I have heard it estimated that five or six years are sufficient to carry off a generation of slaves, at the end of which time the whole has to be replenished.’

And now onto Zinn’s declaration that  it was “capitalistic agriculture” which drove the American slave trade. Let’s put it right up front, capitalism and free markets are the antithesis of slavery. Only with government intervention and backing could slavery exist. Otherwise slaves would simply go find other work. Again, Molyneux:

The Atlantic slave trade, rather being the result of a market process, developed under the confluence of two non-market factors. First of all, slavery already existed in the tribal African societies, which were the sources of the slaves, before the arrival of the Europeans. Second, the slave trade was not founded by private firms but was established by the colonial powers which instituted monopolies to exploit the indigenous slavery. The Dutch West India Company was chartered in 1621, and the Royal Company of Adventurers for the Importation of Negroes was formed in 1662. (Molyneux, Slavery 33:56)

More over, it required all sorts of non-capitalistic, non-free market supports to keep slavery going in the British colonies of North America and later in the United States: government forced slave catching gangs and legal prohibition on manumission to name but two.

So, was American slavery “the most cruel form of slavery in history”? I will leave that to question to someone more wise than I.

What is certain is slavery was NOT a byproduct of capitalism or free markets. Slavery is the exact opposite of free markets.

Beyond that, I’m not sure how much the slaves being forced into mining camps or sugar plantations or cotton fields in the Americas or the slaves in the Muslim world having their penis and testicles removed and their children aborted at birth were concerned with the level of racism in the hearts of their slave masters.

Was it some consolation to the men and women being sold into bondage that their masters still saw them as human beings as they castrated and raped them?