A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 5

Zinn dismisses the moral agency of the African slave traders when he writes:

[African slaves] were captured in the interior (frequently by blacks caught up in the slave trade themselves), sold on the coast, then shoved into pens with blacks of other tribes, often speaking different languages (Zinn 27).

No, African slaves were not “frequently” captured by other Africans, unless “frequently” is a synonym for “exclusively.” European could not go in to the African continent. The challenges of the language barriers and threat of being killed by the people’s whose land you were trespassing through aside, Europeans moving through the interior would die from disease if they move across the continent. The Atlantic slave trade was only possible because slavery already existed as an institution in Africa and because warring tribes would enslave each other. For centuries prior to the advent of the Atlantic slave trade by the Portuguese in the slave 15th century, Africans had been moving captured slaves to the northern and eastern coasts of the continent for sale into the Arabic slave trade.

But we don’t get any of this context from Zinn. Instead Zinn glosses over this reality:

The conditions of capture and sale were crushing affirmations to the black African of his helplessness in the face of superior force. The marches to the coast, sometimes for 1,000 miles, with people shackled around the neck, under whip and gun, were death marches, in which two of every five blacks died (Zinn 28).

That “superior force” had nothing to do with European slave traders. These slaves were forced to the coast by other African tribes.

But Zinn doesn’t make that clear, because, as the title of the chapter suggests, for Zinn slavery is a color issue, i.e., a race issue.

Later in the chapter he attempts to psychoanalyze the European settlers of the New World, to discover if their drive enslave Africans was a result of, as Zinn puts it, “”natural” antipathy of white against black.”

But Zinn is dishonest when he writes “We have no way of testing the behavior of whites and blacks toward one another under favorable conditions—with no history of subordination, no money incentive for exploitation and enslavement, no desperation for survival requiring forced labor (Zinn 30).”

Not only does Zinn’s own book include a couple of dry anecdotes about blacks and whites marrying and starting families during that era, as I wrote in this previous post, European’s such as Francis Drake saw slavery as an abomination, not as some natural way.

A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 4

Zinn Page 25:

Everything in the experience of the first white settlers [from Britain to the New World] acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks.

And it was natural to consider imported blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavery would not be regularized and legalized for several decades. Because, by 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves.Fifty years before Columbus, the Portuguese took ten African blacks to Lisbon—this was the start of a regular trade in slaves. African blacks had been stamped as slave labor for a hundred years.

My initial reaction to this point by Zinn was scepticism at how the events unfolding in Spain and Portugal’s slice of the New World could be that influential on a few people from Britain settling the New World thousands of miles away.

Here is from my first notes on this part of Zinn’s book:

How would some shit happens thousands of miles away hundreds of years earlier have any direct relevance on English religious migrants in North America?

I could not have turned out more wrong. But not in the way one might expect. Indeed, the evolution of Spanish colonialism impacted the British explorers of the New World and their backers at home – private and government alike. Spain’s harsh treatment of Natives and Africans alike was turning Britons off to slavery!

Edmund S. Morgan shows how the group that backed the early Virginia settlements were opposed to Spain’s slave practices, not inspired by them:

The various reports of Drake’s activities in the Caribbean suggest that liberating victims of Spanish oppression was part of the plan. With Drake’s help, it seems, the vision of Hakluyt and Raleigh was beginning to materialize: England was bringing freedom to the New World. To be sure, it was coming as a means to an end; Drake and Raleigh were both interested in power, profit, and plunder. But freedom has frequently had to make its way in the world by serving as a means to an end, and it has often proved a powerful means.

When the first permanent English settlers arrived in America in 1607, their sponsors had not given up hope of an integrated biracial community, in which indigent Englishmen would work side by side with willing natives, under gentle English government.