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Web Letters | The Nation

Inhuman Bondage: On Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Not just a Western institution

“Among the many virtues of Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible is its demonstration that slavery must be at the center of any account of Western ascendancy.”

And Eastern ascendancy. Up until 200 years ago, China vied with Indian for the role of richest nation on earth, and both of those two cultures not only depended on a huge underclass of slaves and serfs to hold up their societies and aristocratic minorities but did so with a vicious gusto. Similar situations obtained throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania, as well as the Americas, and had since the dawn of civilization. Furthermore, while Western merchants bought African men, women and children, the sellers were usually either Arab slavers or other Africans who had taken the slaves as spoils of war.

So, if slavery was in fact the underpinning of every sizable society, Western or Eastern, for most of recorded history, then why did the West really start to overtake the East round about the fifteenth century? There are quite a few, but at the moment three, key factors come first to mind: The Black Death, a somewhat more fluid caste system (particularly in England thanks to the quirk of Magna Carta) and firearms.

The Black Death hit China and India severely as it later would Europe, but it didn’t damage their feudal structures the way it did those in Europe. There was a greater chance for surviving peasants to become free, and then to take possession of the properties left behind even by dead nobles. This, coupled with the Western adoption and rapid development of firearms (which, ironically, the Chinese had invented), led to the West’s being able to make more profit from war and slavery over the last six centuries than has the East—though if by chance the situation was reversed, and the Chinese, Indian or Japanese aristocratic classes had been less fearful of the gun (and especially of small arms, the great class leveller that doomed Europe’s armored knights and would have done the same to the samurai had not Japan moved to severely restrict them), then it would be the conquering and enslaving armies of sixteenth-, seventeenth and eighteenth-century China and India we’d be discussing here.

Tamara Baker

Saint Paul, MInnesota

Aug 24 2011 - 10:57am