Short Takes

by Fred Ray on April 25, 2010 · 0 comments

Henry Louis Gates, perhaps better known for his role in the “beer summit,” pens an excellent article on the slavery “blame game.”

While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. …

For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. Exploration of the interior, home to the bulk of Africans sold into bondage at the height of the slave trade, came only during the colonial conquests, ….

How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

Worth reading, and while you’re at it take a look at the massive Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which showcases the accumulation of years of scholarship about the Middle Passage. The scholars who assembled it used the existing records of most of the European powers, not just the English-speaking ones. Impressively, they have documented four-fifths of the slaving voyages.

Did you know, for example, that only about four percent of the thirteen or so million slaves brought to the New World came to North America? And that the United States had the only self-sustaining slave population? Or that most went to sugar plantations in Brazil or the Caribbean? I applaud them for correcting the serious underreporting of the Latin world, and my only criticism is that I think they underestimate the number of slaves shipped to the Muslim world (which went of for millennia before the Atlantic slave started) on the Indian Ocean/East Africa route. (A Wikipedia article—not always the most reliable source—puts the figure at 11-18 million, but sources are sketchy.)

While on the subject it’s worth noting that Europeans were often enslaved; by the Romans and later by various Muslim powers, notably the Moors in Spain, the Barbary Pirates (who raided as far north as Iceland and are estimated to have abducted over a million Europeans), and the Ottomans.

Overdue library books seem to be in the news lately, with George Washington being tagged with a $300,000 fine for a books borrowed in 1789. As far as we know Washington’s books are lost, but recently a four volume set of military history books were returned to Washington and Lee University 145 years after being “borrowed” by a Union soldier in 1864.

Those of us in the publishing world

It was returned by a college coach from Illinois who inherited it from a Union soldier’s descendants and then tracked down the library where it belonged.

“We were astounded to get something back with the history that it has,” Laura Turner told the Post. “It’s invaluable to us because of the historical connection to the university. We’re just so grateful that he decided to return it.”

Those of us in the publishing world follow articles like this one, which says that book sales are down, but ebook sales are “busting out all over.” I haven’t done anything with it yet, but it may be the future.

If you have a spare moment drop by the Civil War Preservation Trust web site for a look at the animated map of the first day at Chancellorsville and at Bob Krick’s stirring account of Stonewall Jackson’s flank march the next day.


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