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The paradox of slavery.

Historians generally agree that the practice of slavery in the Americas was rooted in economics: Slaves from Africa were used because that was the least-costly source of labor for New World plantations. Curiously, observes Eltis, a historian at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, there was an even cheaper alternative: slaves from Europe. There were plenty of plausible candidates--convicted criminals, prisoners of war, vagrants, and the poor--and the cost of shipping them to the Americas would have been low. Yet the Europeans did not even consider it. That "dog that did not bark," Eltis argues, may be the key to understanding the slave trade and the system it supported.

When Columbus arrived in America in the late 15th century, Eltis notes, almost all societies in the world accepted slavery as legitimate--but they differed greatly in their ideas about who could be legitimately enslaved. In Western Europe, virtually all natives of the subcontinent, including some who were nonwhite (but few who were non-Christian), were considered ineligible. A much more limited conception of "insider" had prevailed in Roman times, but the definition had become much broader by the 15th century. Not even criminals or prisoners could be turned into chattel slaves, if they were Europeans. Enslavement had become, in European eyes, "a fate worse than death and, as such, was reserved for non-Europeans." And the line dividing "insider" and "outsider," Eltis says, "was never drawn strictly in terms of skin color or race."

Among Africans and American Indians, however, much narrower notions of who should not be enslaved prevailed; immunity was usually confined to those who belonged to one's own tribe or nation. How, it is often asked, could Africans enslave other Africans and sell them into the slave trade? Nathan Huggins, author of Black Odyssey: The Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery (1977), has replied that the enslavers saw neither themselves nor their victims as Africans.

Paradoxically, Eltis argues, the more Europeans rejected the enslavement of fellow Europeans, the more likely they were to contemplate enslaving non-Europeans. In a profound sense, Europeans' chattel slavery overseas resulted from the expansion of freedom at home. And yet that expansion--the idea that enslavement of Europeans anywhere was a wrong that needed to be righted--may have been the first step toward abolition of slavery generally.

"The central development shaping Western plantation slavery from the 16th century onward was the extension of European attitudes to the non-European world," Eltis writes. "If, by the 16th century, it had become acceptable for Europeans to enslave other Europeans, by the end of the 19th century, it was unacceptable to enslave anyone."

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Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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