Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Why is nobody interested in how the British Empire abolished slavery worldwide?

The (virtual) abolition of slavery was perhaps the greatest moral achievement of humankind, so far. At any rate, I can't think of any superior achievement, and there would be very few people who would openly defend slavery nowadays. Until about the mid 18th century it was universally accepted as an institution, all major civilizations had slaves, and was found in all historically-recorded societies (except simple hunter gatherers). At that point the British Empire was probably the largest slave trading nation (although there was also a huge amont of slave trading in North Africa, magnitude uncertain).

The simplest answer is because most people do not know much about the abolition of world slavery - as I didn't until a few weeks ago when I was reading Thomas Sowell (Black Rednecks and White Liberals). I have since been reading widely to confirm Sowell's arguments and facts - as usual with this scholar, they seem to be correct.
If people do know anything about the abolition of world slavery it is restricted to William Wilberforce and the parliamentary acts in the UK, or black slavery in the USA.
The steps by which slavery was abolished seem quite well established.

1. Around the mid 18th century, English Quakers (Society of Friends) first began to question slavery and decided it was an evil that required abolition. The British were not exceptional in being slave owners and traders - that was universal - what was unique was that the British first decided that slavery was an evil.

2. Late 18th century a group of evangelical protestants in London (The Clapham sect - William Wilberforce being the most famous) began to organize to abolish slavery - initially the tactic was to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire but the goal was universal.

3. Over the next few decades the moral conviction that slavery was wrong spread throughout Britain and became a mass moral movement (a mass pressure-group) leading to a series of pieces of legislation which banned the Slave Trade in the British Empire (1807), then slavery in the British Empire (1833).

4. But that was just the beginning. Making laws does not make it so. The British Empire then embarked upon many decades of of unrelenting pressure to abolish slavery throughout the world - by whatever means necessary: moral persuasion, diplomacy and treaties, and by military force - especially by the Royal Navy.

These decades of effort consumed a great deal of money, and many lives of British sailors, soldiers, missionaries and explorers - as well as slave traders and - tragically - slaves themselves (who were for instance sometimes thrown overboard to drown when slaver's ships were stopped by the Royal Navy - to hide the evidence). But the crusade had massive and sustained support among the British population.

Eventually, the goal was (almost) achieved, and slavery was universally condemned - and (almost) universally abolished.

Why is this successful, heroic and admirable story so little known?

Probably because abolition was initiated by evangelical ('born again') Christians - and these people are not popular among the liberal and leftish commentators who are most-often concerned with issues of slavery nowadays. And - although legislation and treaties were important, and although many abolitionists and abolition societies were pacifists (eg. Quakers) - in practice, world slavery was abolished by coercive force deployed my a major world power. This is an uncomfortable fact for moral activists to swallow.

Probably, the lesson of the abolition of world slavery is one which only relatively tough-minded people wish to take on board. To rid the world of a great evil required a sustained and single-minded moral crusade of a kind which many intellectuals find simplistic and narrow. Maybe slavery could have been abolished without this kind of 'fanaticism' - but in fact slavery was abolished by a kind of moral fanaticism.

To rid the world of slavery also involved military imposition of the will of the British Empire on the rulers of societies who resisted abolition, and who saw nothing wrong in the institution of slavery. Abolishing slavery involved the death and extra suffering of many people of many types. Maybe slavery could have been abolished with less death and suffering, but in fact it was abolished by a kind of 'the means justifies the end' moral reasoning.

Slavery was (mostly, but of course not entirely) abolished as a consequence of the moral conviction of the dominant world power - the British Empire. Critics of other nations, who wished to retain slavery, claimed that the British were hypocritical (in ignoring other major problems of their own - such as the horrendous povery and deprivation caused by indistrialization) and that the British were using abolition as an excuse to pursue their own economic and political interets.

No doubt all of these accusations were true to a varying extent in different times and situations - the British were (like everyone else) hypocrites, and they did turn abolition to their advantage in some ways or even perhaps wherever possible. Nonetheless, it was the British who for more than 100 years kept up the pressure to abolish slavery worldwide, and poured resources into the task until it was all-but accomplished.

The conclusions that I draw from this are:

1. That abolishing a great evil may require a sustained and single minded dedication in mass popular movements that many intellectuals find narrow and simplistic.

2. Abolishing a great evil may require many methods, including the use of coercive force and short/ medium-term sacrifices (including even sacrifice of the group that it is intended to help) to attain long-term goals. Uncomfortable though it is, and open to abuse, we have to accept that the end substanially justifies the means - or else we will probably not attain the end.

3. Abolishing a great evil involves being accused of hypocrisy - and these accusations may be correct. But achieving the primary goal involves sacrifices in secondary goals. It is no doubt desirable that people be morally consistent - but there are worse sins than moral inconsistency. Abolishing a great evil involves focusing on remedying the great evil, but even when the mission is successful it does not abolish all evil. What followed the abolition of slavery was often very bad for the ex-slaves and/or others. Nonetheless, abolishing slavery was a great good.

4. In a nutshell, morality in great things may therefore entail immorality in smaller things. Abolishing world slavery entailed death and suffering of many slaves, and other innocent parties. It also involved the British Empire forcibly imposing its own moral values and laws on other cultures. This is a high risk tactic, it is an argument that can be misused - but it is probably true.

The persistence or resurgence of of slavery in modern life is focused in societies which are isolated from communication with the modernizing world, and the lack of a modern equivalent of the desire, willingness and ability of the British Empire to use whatever means are necessary to abolish slavery wherever it is found.

The lessons of the successful abolition of slavery may apply more generally in the modernization process. For example with respect to abolishing dictatorships and replacing them with democracy. The parallels between the British crusade to abolish slavery and the post 9/11 and emerging US crusade to abolish dictatorships, seem to me very striking. The parallels extend to the kind of people involved in the crusade and their methods, and the people againstof the crusade and their criticisms.

If the similarity with abolition is genuine, this parallel also implies something of the probable nature and duration of the US mission to abolish dictatorships wherever they are found.