Posts Tagged ‘Barbados’

John Locke and the Origins of British and American Democracy: A Reply to Ilion

July 10, 2013

Ilion, a long-term and respected commentator here, made the following comment on my post John Locke and the Origins of British and American Democracy:

“Black Britons, American and West Indians may well consider Locke’s comments on slavery profoundly wrong, considering their own peoples history of enslavement by Europeans.”

Only if they are either:
1) ignorant (which is curable);
2) stupid (which is not curable);
3) intellectually dishonest.

Locke: “‘Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an “English,” much less a “gentleman”, should plead for it.’”

In other words: “How can a man call himself an Englishman, much less a gentleman, if he would argue *for* slavery?“

It’s a good point, and it raises a number of issues, which need to be examined.

Slavery Not Recognised in English Law by 17th century

Firstly, at the time Locke was writing slavery in England had long died out, and villeinage – serfdom – had more or less withered away. The last serf died in the middle of the seventeenth century, as I recall, and Cromwell’s government abolished the last legal remains of feudalism in England. This was important for the abolitionist cause when it arose in the eighteenth century. Abolitionist campaigners like Thomas Clarkeson brought a series of cases before the courts of Black slaves, who had been taken to England. Like the Dred Scott case in America leading up to the Civil War, Clarkeson and the other Abolitionists argued that as slavery did not exist under English law, these slaves were therefore free. They won there case, and during the 19th century a number of slaves came before the British authorities in the West Indies claiming their freedom, because their masters had taken them to England. They also believed that they were free by setting foot in a country that did not recognise the existence of slavery.

Slavery and Indentured Emigration to British Colonies in America and Caribbean

As slavery did not exist in English society, when slave traders turned up in Jamestown in 1621 to try to sell a consignment of Black slaves, the colonists initially did not what to do with them. Emigration to the British colonies in America and the Caribbean was largely through indentured servants, and slavery was not initially needed. Indeed, Hakluyt records in his Voyages and Discoveries the statement by one British sea captain to the African people he encountered that Englishmen did not enslave people, ‘nor any that had our shape’. Unfortunately, this attitude of some mariners did not prevent many others, such as the Elizabethan privateer, John Hawkins, from raiding Africa for slaves, which he attempted to sell to the Spanish in their colonies. By the end of the seventeenth century the British colonists in Barbados attempted to discourage further immigration by indentured servants, as all the available land was now occupied. They thus turned to importing Black slaves to supply the labour they needed on the plantations. These were for sugar in the Caribbean. In the British colonies in southern New England, by the early eighteenth century they were importing African slaves to work on the tobacco plantations.

Locke’s Hierarchical, Feudalistic View of Society

Now Locke, while the founder of modern theories of liberal representative government, wasn’t a democrat in the modern sense. He believed in a restricted franchise, which reserved the right to vote to the wealthy and a parliamentary upper house of landed aristocrats. His proposed constitution for Carolina was quite feudal, in that envisaged a social hierarchy of estates of increasing size, in ‘baronies’ and so on. Now I’ll have to check on this, but I’m not sure that Locke raised any objections to slavery in the New World. In any case, it continued regardless of his comments on how it was antipathetic to the English.

Frederick Douglas and the Irrelevance of the 4th July to Black American Slaves

One of the great abolitionist speeches in 19th century was Frederick Douglas’ ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ Douglas’ point is that the rhetoric of free, White Americans celebrating their liberation from British slavery and tyranny, rang hollow and meant nothing to Blacks, who were still very much in bondage. It occurred to me while I was writing my post on Locke that some people could say the same thing about this great master of British constitutional theory.

17th Century Slaves Treated More Equally than Later On
Now there’s some evidence to suggest that as, as horrific as slavery is, in the 17th century it wasn’t quite as degrading and horrific as it later became. A few years ago I came across a paper on the material culture of slave and free burials in early colonial America in the collection of archaeological papers in Historical Archaeology, edited by Dan Hicks. This found that there was no difference in material culture, and the reverence with which the deceased were buried, between White American colonists and their Black slaves. Both were interred with the same amount of respect, suggesting that in life there was, at least in their case, a degree of equality between masters and slaves. It is a deep shame and pity that this did not continue, and lead to the decline of slavery in America as well as England.

Locke Still Founder of British Constitutional Liberty

As for Locke, his hierarchical views on the structure of society were very much standard for his time. Nevertheless, he laid the foundations for modern representative government and democracy, as opposed to centralised, monarchical absolutism.