Posts Tagged ‘caribbean’

Was Wissen Sie von England, Die Nur England Kennen?

November 21, 2013

This is my schoolboy German for ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’

One of the major problems facing this country is the British refusal and apparently inability to learn other people’s languages. Having a second language can be immensely personally enriching, as it gives you a greater access to nations and cultures beyond your own. British visitors to the Continent, for example, can be pleasantly surprised and delighted by the way their stumbling attempts to speak the language of the country they’re visiting is appreciated by its people. Even if what you’re trying to say is halting and stumbling, the people you’re saying it to generally appreciate you’re making the effort, rather than arrogantly assuming that everyone speaks English. There have also been concerns for a long time that British industry is being held back by our collective reluctance to learn other tongues. Industrialists have long pointed out that if we want to sell our products to other nations, we have to persuade them to buy British in their own languages. And unfortunately, too few of us are studying another tongue.

This problem was being earnestly debated on breakfast television Tuesday or Wednesday morning. The Beeb were talking about the personal and professional advantages of speaking foreign tongues. One of their guests in this matter was a gentleman, one of those veritable ‘Briareus of tongues’, who could speak very many of them. In this case, the man could speak about eleven fluently. This is rather less than the eighteenth century Italian cardinal, who had mastered fifty, and who was therefore given the above nickname. Unfortunately, despite such multi-lingual experts as the Beeb’s guest a day or so ago, few people are following their example.

And it does shows, especially in some of the ideologues of the Right, who argue we should be following the employment practices of other nations, like the authors of Britannia Unchained. This bunch denounced British workers as lazy, and urged that the nation’s workforce copy those of the powerhouses of the developing world like China and India in working 19th century hours for miserable pay in the kind of conditions described and denounced by Charles Dickens and the other 19th century reformers. They are also doing the workers of the Developing World no service with their book either. Just as Britain and the rest of the Developed World has increased hours, so the working hours in India, China and the other developing nations have been massively extended. It’s a vicious circle, which seems to profit no-one except the multinational business elite now exploiting workers across the globe.

Of course, the author’s of Britannia Unchained seem unaware of this. If they are aware, they certainly don’t want you to be. And they also appear to be stunningly ignorant of business cultures much nearer home, like Germany.

In recent years the Germans have been doing their level best to challenge their image around the world. There has been a flow of steady articles and pieces in the German and foreign press challenging their image as the staunch incarnation of the Prussian virtues of hard-work and efficiency that created the Wirtschaftwunder. Rather than the dour, humourless drones slaving away all hours in the name of ruthless efficiency, the Germans are keen to point out that they do, in fact, enjoy a good joke. A few years ago there were adverts for Berlin, which boasted that it was the place where the art of living was practiced 24 hours a day, complete with a photo of a German rock star strumming out a mighty power chord on his electric guitar. The new Germany, the adverts said, stands for fun.

The punishing labour regimes of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships are similarly an image from the past that the Germans are increasingly challenging. Rather than spending their entire time grafting away at the workplace, German writers and commenters have pointed out that Germany has one of the shortest working weeks, and gives its workers longer holidays than many other countries. I can remember reading a piece by one German journalist in one of the British newspapers, which said that nothing contradicted the image of the hard-working German that the typical modern office in the Bundesrepublik. There, the staff quietly worked in comfort, with the coffee machine bubbling away to itself in a corner. And in such a relaxed, comfortable employment environment, it’s almost inevitable that someone would be going on about how lazy they all were. A few years ago, one of the German magazines ran a feature entitled ‘The German National Hobby: Krankfeiern‘, which I assume means ‘throwing a sickie’. The piece was accompanied by a photo showing an office worker crouched on a desk, surrounded by water, presumably to indicate the way German industry was being drowned by a flood of lazy workers, all skiving off work.

To Anglo-Saxon audiences, the idea that the Germans are all fun-loving with a relaxed attitude to work is almost comically bizarre. It runs directly counter to everything we know, or think we know, about the German character. After all, northern European nations are expected to be sober and hard-working, while it’s the Mediterranean south that’s all about fun and relaxation. It’s like the comment Badvoc made about the difference the Romans and ancient British in the 1980s Channel 4 comedy, Chelmsford 123: ‘We’re not like these hardworking Romans with their roads and efficiency. We have a more relaxed attitude to life. We say ‘manana!’ Yet, believe it or not, this was the German national image before the Prussian kings – one of whom had such a foul temper he was called ‘Die Bose Wetter von Hohenzollern’ took over the country. I was taught at school that in the 17th century the Germans were considered to be the most easy-going people in Europe. That was shattered by the rise of Prussia, the Napoleonic, Franco-Prussian Wars, and World Wars I and II. This has passed, on the Germans are going back to their national image in the 17th century, despite the horrors of the Gradgrinds of German industry.

So how does this new generation of relaxed funsters regard us across the North Sea? Well, as far as the work ethic is concerned, the attitude is now very much reversed, or so it seems. A few years ago a group of German financial workers and banking whizzkids from ‘Manhattan am Main’ were sent off to work in the company’s London branch. They were reported as making jokes about how, in England nothing worked properly. This seems to be pretty much a constant since Britain’s disastrous industrial performance in the 1970s. Unlike the 1970s, when we were the strike-ridden ‘sick man of Europe’, other jokes were about how hard we worked. We had, at least in the opinion of these employees, swapped places with their country as the nation, whose workers slave away driving themselves into the ground at work. Only without the efficiency and product quality.

All this appears to have been excluded from Britannia Unchained. After all, it would undermine their case if they compared us to the Germans, who now know how to combine a strong economy with a reputation for quality products and have a good time. After all, you can’t tell a country of miserable wage-slaves that they’re all skivers and malingers compared to their fun-loving EU counterparts across the Nordsee, regularly clocking with ruthless efficiency at a reasonable hour every day.

Way back in the 1980s Channel 4 briefly held won the rights to broadcast the cricket from the BBC, before they, in turn, were trumped by Murdoch and Sky. Their trailer for the test match season against the West Indies was, in its own small way, a work of art. It opened with pictures of sun-drenched beaches and tropic rainforests, while a female Caribbean face lilted the Kiplingesque lines ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’ Hence the title of my piece. One of their innovations, I believe, was a female commentator, who had a West Indian accent. They take cricket extremely seriously over that side of the Atlantic. The University of the West Indies in Kingston has a department of Cricket Studies. One of the course’s professors appeared on TV over here a little while ago talking about how the West Indies team’s sporting excellence had boosted the region’s self-image and pride. And the quote used by the advert is still a very, very good question. Kipling himself held some extremely Right-wing views. In the 1920s he formed a group to fight the General Strike. This collapsed when their treasurer ran off with their funds. He wrote the poem with the lines ‘What should they know of England, who only England know?’ in response to riots in the north of England against working conditions there. Nevertheless, the question is a good one, and can be asked of the Right as well as the Left. ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’ Going by the authors of Britannia Unchained, very little.

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Further Observations on Workfare, Slavery and Negro Apprenticeship

November 10, 2013

Yesterday I put up a piece comparing George Osborne’s proposed expansion of workfare to the system of ‘apprenticeship’ imposed on former slaves in the British Caribbean after the official abolition of slavery in 1837. Under this system, the slaves remained tied to their former masters and forced to work on their estates, ostensibly in order to make them self-reliant and industrious, and so able to take their place as responsible members of society. Workfare is similarly supposed to train the unemployed to be self-reliant and industrious, and so prepare them for proper, paid work and their place as responsible members of society. In practice, both of forms of servitude in which nominally free men and women are forced to work as cheap labour for big business – sugar plantations in the 19th century, Sainsbury’s and so on in the 21st.

Now let’s look at some possible objections to this comparison, and see if they invalidate the statement that workfare constitutes a form of slavery.

1. Slaves have no political rights, and cannot hold property. Workfare does not interfere with the individual’s political freedoms, and their property remains theirs. Therefore, workfare cannot be seen as a form of slavery.

This argument does not refute workfare’s status as a form of slavery. The statement that slaves have no political rights and have no property was horrifically true of western chattel slavery, such as transatlantic Black slavery in Britain, the Caribbean and America. It is not true of other forms of slavery and servitude. For example, in the ancient world and in some forms of African slavery, the slave could own property and rise to high office. The viziers in the Ottoman Empire were slaves. Free men are known to have sold themselves into slavery to become public slaves in the Roman Empire, because this gave them power over their cities’ treasuries. In early medieval Germany under the Ottonian dynasty, crown lands were administered by a class of royal servants called ‘ministeriales’. Although their status as slaves has been called into question, they were nevertheless unfree servants held by the Crown. These men held immense power, and when freed, were knighted to join the ranks of Germany chivalry. Similarly, in African slave states such as Calabar, kings frequently found their slaves far more trustworthy than their own sons, and so frequently bequeathed their kingdom to them rather than their sons on their deaths.

2. Slavery is the result of the forcible capture and sale of people against their will, or else of people, who have been born into it through their parents being slaves.

Again, the above describes how historically the majority of people fell into slavery. Not all slaves or serfs were the victims of capture or were born into it, however. In the ancient world, and the early Middle Ages, many people, apparently of their own free will, sold themselves into servitude as a way of saving themselves and their families from starvation. Their land and their lives would no longer be there own, but their lord was obliged to feed and protect them. Similarly, people generally sign on for unemployment benefit and so pass into workfare in order to avoid poverty and starvation.

3. Slavery and related forms of servitude, such as serfdom, were the products of pre-modern, agricultural societies. They therefore cannot and do not exist in developed, industrial nations.

Medieval serfdom and transatlantic slavery certainly were based in agriculture. This does not mean that they were not also linked to what could be described as a capitalist, market economy. The growth of villeinage in medieval Europe and in Europe east of the Elbe in the 16th and 17th century was based on the cultivation of wheat in a market economy, rather than simply to support the villagers themselves. Similarly, transatlantic plantation slavery arose to provide the labour to cultivate the similarly highly profitable cash crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slavery and serfdom could thus certainly be part of a modern, capitalist economy.

It is also manifestly untrue that slavery is purely agricultural, and has not and cannot be used in industrial society. Peter the Great in Russia began his nation’s industrialisation using serf labour. The first industrial metal furnaces were set up when he draft about 200 or so serfs to work in them. In the 20th century, the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia both used slave labour from the concentration camps, gulags and P.O.W. camps to build massive industrial plants and complexes. There’s a chilling passage in the book Black Snow: Russia after the Fall of Communism where the American author interviews a former KGB responsible for running one of the gulags – the political slave labour camps in Siberia. Living in his luxury apartment in Moscow, the man confesses that most of the inmates were completely innocent. He is, however, completely unrepentant, telling the author that they needed to use slave labour in order to industrialise the country. Without it, the great Soviet heavy industrial complexes would simply not be built. Even when the prisoners were released from the gulags and technically free, their freedom was extremely limited. Other employers would not take them on because they were still considered to have been traitors and political criminals. The result was that they remained tied to the towns and working in the same factories and furnaces that the gulags served, long after they were formally free men and women. These cities were themselves closed to outsiders. There were thus cities with populations of hundreds of thousands that were, in origin and in practice, vast prisons. Osborne’s, IDS’ and McVey’s workfare similarly serves as the basis for what remains of British industry, however much they may disguise it.

4. Slavery and serfdom are for life, although in most societies manumission – the freeing of a slave by their masters – was a possibility. Workfare is not intended to last for life, and in fact is deliberately arranged so that the individual on it will eventually leave it for better, paid employment.

Again, this point does not necessarily mean that workfare does not constitute a form of slavery. Most slaves in the ancient world at one time were freed before they were forty, in order for their masters to avoid the cost of paying for their upkeep in their frail old age. When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, now New York, in the 17th and 18th century, slavery then was only intended to last 25 years. If the slave was able to live that long, then he or she was automatically free.

Workfare and Feudal Forced Labour

There is a closer similarity between workfare and some forms of forced labour, than the state of slavery per se. In many feudal societies in Europe and around the globe, the peasants are forced to provide customary unpaid work on behalf of their masters at certain times in the year. This was a feature of villeinage in Europe. The corvee remained a feature of French peasant servitude until it was abolished during the Revolution. Similar forms of collective, unpaid forced labour were also used in Fijian society, and in ancient Egypt. While not necessarily a form of literal slavery, such forced labour is still now considered an illegal form of servitude and in that sense classed as it.

Workfare and Roman Colliberti

Contemporary workfare could also be compared to the status of the colliberti – the freedmen – in the ancient world. These were men, who had been freed by their masters. They were technically freemen, and were frequently extremely rich, due to their employment and membership of vital industries, like fulling, that were below the dignity of free Roman citizens. They could not, however, hold political office, although this was possible for their children. They were also dependent on their patrons for legal protection, although this relationship did not exist in law. The rank of collibertus in Roman society, with its dependence on the patronage of one’s master, that eventually formed one of the roots of medieval serfdom. Similarly under workfare, the jobseeker is technically free, but in fact reliant and under the direction of the decision makers and clerks in the Job Centre.

5. In slavery, the power of the slave’s master is absolute. Under workfare, however, the jobseeker still possesses full legal protection. Moreover, workfare is in theory contractual. The jobseeker signs a formal agreement at the Job Centre, which binds him and the state into a particular relationship, each with obligations. This is completely unlike slavery.

This argument too is invalid. Many societies had laws limiting and protecting slaves and serfs from abuse. The medieval villeins were protected under feudal law in Britain. Spanish medieval law contains provisions protecting slaves. In the early 19th century prior to abolition, Britain attempted to ameliorate the condition of slaves in its colonies by passing laws stipulating the amount of rations they were to be fed, and limiting the number of lashes masters could inflict on their slaves as punishment. These were based on the Spanish slave code. The British also set up an official, the Guardian and Protector of Slaves, based on the Spanish alcalde, whose job was to protect slaves from abuse by their masters. These had the power to investigate allegations of abuse made by the slaves themselves. Beating and cruelty would result in the slave’s being compulsorily sold to another master. The murder of a slave was punished with the death penalty. The Islamic shariah similarly limits the punishment a slave may receive for particular crimes. Where the punishment for an offence is whipping, the number of lashes is frequently less for a slave than for a free man. He may also wear some kind of shirt instead of his bare back to protect him. These legal protections for slaves do not mean that slavery as an institution did not exist, or prevent it from being degrading.

As for workfare being contractual, and thus not a form of servitude, this is also false. Feudalism was also based on a contract between the lord and peasant. Under the contract, the peasant gave his life, land and labour, while the lord was obliged to protect him. Similarly, modern forms of slavery, such as bonded labour in Brazil, are frequently disguised as legal employment under a long contract.

It is therefore clear that the formal legal freedoms, which still exist at the moment for job seekers under workfare, are nevertheless comparable to other forms of slavery and servitude, which contain some elements of freedom, legal protection and even political power. Workfare can still therefore be reasonably compared with some forms of servitude and force labour, at least in the forms under which George Osborne plans to expand it.

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.

Christianity, Atlantic Slavery and Abolition

February 13, 2008

‘We will be slaves no more

Since Christ has made us free

Has nailed our tyrants to the cross

And bought our liberty’,

– Popular slave song.

 Last year, 2007, was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire in 1807. A number of British cities involved in the trade staged special exhibitions and events marking abolition. At the beginning of the year, there was a special service of remembrance attended by the Queen and leading British politicians held at Westminster abbey. Frank Walton over at Atheism Sucks mentioned that last month, January, was Black History month. In Britain Black History month has been October for the past couple of years. Given the immense importance of the abolition of slavery has had in shaping American and European attitudes towards slavery, freedom, race and human dignity, I thought I’d also review the immense contribution Christianity made to regulating the trade in an attempt to make it more humane, and finally to abolishing it all together. This was done by Christians of a variety of denominations – Roman Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and Moravians.  There had, it is true, been revolts by slaves long before Christians campaigned for the abolition of slavery, but these were revolts by slaves against their own enslavement, not against slavery as an institution. The 18th and 19th century abolitionist campaigns went beyond this, demanding not just the liberation of slaves, but the complete end to slavery as a social institution.

Regulation of Slavery by Roman Catholicism

As plantation slavery emerged with the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans, so the Papacy attempted to regulate it and ameliorate its excesses for Roman Catholics. The Church condemned either the trade itself, or slavery, in 1462, 1741, 1815 and 1839. 1 In the Spanish empire, the legal position of slaves was essentially a continuation of the medieval legal provisions established in the common law code of 1250, Las Siete Partidas. This included rights for the slaves, and their masters’ obligations towards them. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church recognised slaves’ humanity and demanded their humane treatment. 2 A Roman Catholic Caribbean synod of 1622 further codified the legal position of slaves, establishing sanctions for masters who prevented their slaves from attending mass or receiving religious instruction on Feast Days. 3 The Spanish law code of 1789 stipulated that masters had to encourage their slaves to marriage and provided for the slave’s purchase of their freedom in instalments in a process termed coartacion, although even after liberation the slave remained a second-class citizen, unable to carry arms, and forced to wear a certain type of dress and with some legal obligations towards their former masters. 4 Slaves were also able to gain their freedom through co-operation with their masters or the authorities in certain criminal cases. Slaves accused of crimes, even murder, enjoyed the same rights of prosecution and trial as free people. There was also a limitation on the punishment inflicted on slaves who failed to perform their duties. By law a slave could only be given a maximum of 25 lashes, in such away that they did not bruise nor draw blood. Slaves who escaped to Cuba to embrace Roman Catholicism were protected by a royal order of 1733. 5 Slaves also often enjoyed the same rights to holidays and free days as the rest of society. In Brazil slaves were free on Sundays and all holidays, and were allowed to work for themselves to build up money in order to purchase their freedom. 6 Furthermore, in Brazil slaves were married in church. Slave families could not be separated by sale. Their murder at the hands of a sadistic master was prohibited. 7 Blacks and people of mixed race enjoyed a freedom in Spain that they did not have further north. They weren’t just labourers, but were also skilled craftsmen, soldiers, musicians and even became priests and judges. ‘All these things were possible to the slave before the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and it was for this reason (amongst others) that emancipation in Iberian domonions occurred without violence, bloodshed or civil war.’ 8

Protestant Insistence on Equality of Christians Regardless of Race

The Protestant churches too initially insisted on the full humanity of the slave. The Dutch Reformed Church at the 17th century synod of Dort declared that slaves who converted to Christianity ‘ought to enjoy equal rights of liberty with other Christians.’ 9 This racial equality even existed in Cape Colony, long before the rise of apartheid. In the 17th century the mixed race children of European fathers were freed when they reached adulthood, provided that they spoke Dutch and were confirmed members of the church.  ‘During the early the period freed slaves of mixed ancestry were not viewed as a separate ethnic group; they had all the civil rights of whites, with whom they intermarried, although this situation changed in the 18th century.’ 10

Denial of Slaves’ Equality 

This situation changed in the 17th and 18th centuries as the planters became reluctant to see their slaves enjoy the possibility of liberty that could be offered by conversion to Christianity. In Jamaica slaves were given very little free time to cultivate their own plots of land, and were discouraged from Christian, or indeed any other religious practices. 11 Marriage was discouraged and promiscuity encouraged, in order to increase their numbers and their profitability by selling members of a slave family separately. It was also feared that family life would give them a place in society and give them ideas above their station. 12 Initially, the churches collaborated with this attitude. ‘In the meantime, the Anglican clergy generally took the path of discretion and exhorted the slaves to please their masters by working hard, and to accept with resignation their earthly lot which, whether predestined by God ornot, had somehow devolved upon them.’ 13 The Anglican Thomas Secker declared in 1740 that ‘Scripture, far from making any alteration in civil rights, expressly directs taht every man abide in the condition wherein he is called, with great indifference of mind concerning outward circumstances.’ 14

Christian Opposition to Slavery and the Slave Trade 

This was not the attitude of other Christian denominations, however. Although George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, in his visit to Barbados in 1671 had told the slaves he tried to convert to ‘to be subject to their masters and governors’, by the late 17th century Quakers were opposed to slavery. 15 This was not such a great step for them. Although Fox accepted slavery, he strongly believed that masters had a duty to treat their slaves humanely, and that they should be freed after a certain period of time. 16 They came to this view from their conviction that Christ had died for all humanity, regardless of colour. ”Christ died for all,’ declaimed the great Quaker Geroge Fox, ‘for the Taiwanese and for the blacks as for you that are called whites.” 17 In 1680 the Quaker Morgan Godwyn stated that ‘Negro’s are men, and therefore are invested with the same right … that being thus qualified and invested to deprive them of this right is the highest injustice.’ 18 In 1727 the Quakers resolved that involvement in slavery or the slave trade ‘is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.’ 19 Nevertheless, some Quakers continued to own slaves, although many firmly rejected their personal involvement with the trade. Dr. John Lettsom, for example, who had been born into a slave-owning family in Tortola, freed his slaves in 1767 after his return from England, where he had gone to receive his education and medical training. 20 In 1776 the Quakers requested everyone who participated in the slave-trade to resign their membership of the Society. 21 Other Christian leaders also stressed the common humanity of slaves. The Boston judge Samuel Sewall, a Presbyterian, wrote an early anti-slavery tract explicitly based on the Bible, The Selling of Joseph in 1700. 22 The Methodist preacher George Whitefield exhorted Whites to consider slave children as the equals of their own. ‘Think your children are in any way better by nature than the poor negroes? No! In no wise! Blacks are just as much, and no more, conceived and born in sin, as white men are; and both, if born and bred up here, I am persuaded, are naturally capable of the same improvement.’ 23

The greatest opposition to the slave trade, however, came from the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1756. This group won a major victory in the 1772 legal decision regarding the slave, James Somerset. Somerset had been brought to England by his master, from whom he escaped. He was then recaptured, and faced export for sale in Jamaica. After a lengthy trial, the court ruled that there was no provision supporting slavery in English law, and Somerset was freed. Although it was not a victory for abolition, it did reinforce opposition to slavery in Britain. 24

The leaders of the British anti-slavery campaign were William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship and Anglican priest. Wilberforce had been elected an MP for Hull in 1780. 25 A favourite figure in British high society and a gambler, Wilberforce experienced a profound religious conversion in 1785 and contacted John Newton, then the rector of Olney, about becoming an Anglican priest in 1785. 26 Newton persuaded him to continue in his political career, but combine it with his Christian principles. In a letter to Samuel Cowper of January 1786, Newton stated ‘I hope the Lord will make him a blessing, both as a Christian and as a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible.’ 27 Newton was not to be disappointed. Convinced of the fundamental evil of slavery, Wilberforce began a long parliamentary campaign against the slave trade, submitting bills against it in 1788, 1791, 1795, 1796, 1797, 1798, 1798, 1799 and 1802. 28 The Quakers had, already, called for the formation of a committee at their London Yearly Meeting in 1783 to draft a petition to parliament to outlaw the slave trade. 29 Another pillar of the British anti-slavery campaign was Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson was the son of an Anglican curate, was going to enter the church himself before he turned his energies to attacking the slave trade. 30 Indefatiguable in gathering information on the ‘abominable trade’, Clarkson travelled to slaving ports around Britain and even several times to Africa interview the captains and crew of slave ships. In his career he searched 317 to find a willing witness to the slave trade. 31 Wilberforce and Clarkson were supported in their efforts by John Newton and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Newton, the reformed captain of a slave ship, supported the Abolitionist campaign with the 1788 pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. 32 In it, Newton vividly described the appalling death rate among slaves and crew aboard the slave ships, and the rape and sexual abuse of slave women. Attacking notions that the abuse of African women was acceptable, as they lacked the sensibility of White women, Newton stated firmly ”I dare contradict them in the strongest terms … I have lived long and conversed much among these supposed savages. I have often slept in their towns … with regard to teh women in Sherbro where I was the most acquainted, Ihave seen many instances of modesty and even delicacy which would not disgrace an English woman.’ 33 Newton’s pamphlet was strongly supported by the Anti-Slavery Society, then called The Society for Effcting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which sent unsold copies of it to every MP, both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 34 In February, he gave his personal testimony on the slave trade to a Privy Council established by parliament to investigate it. 33 Newton further corresponded with Phillips, the president of the Society, and gave further evidence before a parliamentary select committee in 1790. 35 For Newton, the people of the Sherbro district ‘are in a degree civilised, often friendly, and may be trusted where they have been previously deceived by the Europeans. I have lived in peace and safety amongst them when I have been the only White man amongst them for a great distance.’ 36

 18th Century Materialist Scientific Racism

Although this may strike contemporary readers as rather patronising, it is very far from the racist views of Black Africans generally held in the 18th century. The 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica declared that ‘vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race: idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness adn intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.’ 37 Freethinkers shared this prejudiced. M. Le Romain’s entry ‘Negre‘ in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie declared that ‘they appear to constitute a new species of mankind’, describing them as the ‘wicked people that inhabits the African meridian’ before going on to describe scientific attempts to discover the cause of their darker complexion. 38 The great sceptical philosopher David Hume also assumed that Blacks were inferior, once describing a Black Jamaican who was admired for his great intellect as ‘admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.’ 39 The racist language of European secular intellectuals like Hume was in sharp contrast to the Christian abolitionists, such as John Wesley, James Ramsay and Granville Sharp, who identified this racial inferiority with materialistic philosophy and Hume and Voltaire, and viewed their campaign for abolition as a vindication of Christianity, moral accountability and the unity of humanity. 40 Sharp was a lawyer who specialised in representing slaves, and was a vigorous opponent of those who denied the divinity of Christ. 41

The Anti-Slavery Society and John Wesley 

The abolitionists also included the notable evangelical Anglican poet and educationalist, Hannah More. Their badge, showing a chained African slave wearing only a loin cloth, kneeling with the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’, was designed by the great porcelain manufacturer William Wedgewood. They also had the full support of John Wesley. On the journey to and from Leatherhead in London to deliver his sermon of Wednesday, 23April 1791, Wesley read the autobiography of the former slave, Olaudah Equiano, known in his day as Gustavus Vassa, the Interesting Narrative, which he helped finance. 42 As Wilberforce was preparing for the 1791 antislavery debate, Wesley wrote him a letter of encouragement. The letter gave a frank statement of Wesley’s view of slavery, and of the righteousness of Christian opposition to it:

 ‘But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God: O be not weary of well doing. Go on, in the name of God, and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Reading this morning a tract wrote me by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance, that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redess; it being a law in all our Colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this!’ 43 Wesley had become convinced of the iniquity of slavery in 1772 after reading a work by the great Quaker anti-slavery writer, Anthony Benezet. He expounded his opposition to it in the book, Thoughts on Slavery, asking ‘did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this? … I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.’ 44 In 1784 the Wesleyan Connexion in America threatened to expell slave-owners, though it later backed down. 45

Success of Wilberforce’s Campaign against British Slave Trade 

As well as acting against the prevailing sceptical, scientific view of Black’s racial inferiority, Wilberforce and his Christian allies against the slave trade also faced opposition from the secular political establishment. Lord Melbourne declared that ‘things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’ 46 Secular opinion viewed the abolitionists very much as do-gooding religious fanatics. In the 1820s and 1830s opponents of the anti-slavery campaign described it as ‘philanthropic’ and ‘visionary’ in a pejorative sense. In 1805 Wilberforce succeeded in persuading the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to outlaw the selling of slaves to Dutch Guinea and a group of French islands. Then, due to the efforts of the evangelical James Stephen, the slave trade was finally outlawed in the British empire on the 1st May 1807. The Duke of Norfolk declared it to be a ‘humane and merciful act’ and considered it no accident that the slave trade had been outlawed during Holy Week, which celebrated ‘that stupendous instance of mercy towards mankind, the redeption of the world by His death upon the Cross.’ 47

Christian Missions to the Caribbean

After the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce and the Anti-Slavery Society turned their attention to attacking slavery itself, aided by Black Christians themselves who drew on Christianity to resist slavery. Although the planters in the Caribbean had been unwilling to allow Christian evangelism amongst their slaves, this changed during the 18th century. Christian missionary work amongst the slaves in the British Caribbean effectively began in 1753 when two Jamaican planters invited the Moravians to teach their slaves Christianity. 48 The Moravians were then followed by missionaries of other denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The Wesley Missionary Society was founded in Jamaica in 1789. They were especially active in attempts to bring the Gospel to Jamaican slaves, and improve their physical condition and material environment. 49 In Antigua Wesleyan Methodism was run between the death of its founder, Nathaniel Gilbert and the arrival of his official replacement, by a series of gifted female slave preachers, very much in the spirit of the early Christian church. 50 They were joined by two Black American Baptist preachers, George Lisle and Moses Baker, who founded the Native Baptist Movement. Concerned at the mixture of orthodox Christianity and what was perceived as African paganism in their doctrines, the Jamaican government invited the Baptist Missionary Society in England to send more orthodox preachers and missionaries to the country. This resulted in the formation of the Jamaican Baptist Mission in 1814. A decade later, in 1824 the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica was founded, soon followed by the Congregationalists. 51

Missionaries’ Concern to Protect Slaves and Improve their Conditions

In general, the Nonconformist denominations in Jamaica worked together to protect slaves from excessive cruelty and to improve their condition by instructing them on the sanctity of human life and personality, the importance of self-respect and individual responsibility. The result was antagonism between the planters, who saw the missionaries as a threat to their interests, and the missionaries themselves. 52 There was initially opposition over the provision of education by the missionaries because it was feared that this would enable the slaves to read revolutionary tracts preaching insurrection. 53 The missionaries in their turn began to formulate plans for the eventual abolition of slavery. When a slave revolt broke out in Demerara in 1824, it was blamed on the preaching of the missionary, John Smith. Smith was arrested and died in custody. Although he himself and his widow claimed they had not encouraged the slaves to revolt, this nevertheless demonstrates the potent force Christian mission posed as a challenge to contemporary dehumanising conditions in slavery, and its encouragement of slaves to challenge their enslavement. 54

The Baptists were particularly active in the campaign to improve conditions for slaves. In Jamaica, the Baptists established a form of church membership distinguished by the ‘Baptist ticket’. This was a printed card issued every month to each member of the congregation, recording their weekly attendance and offerings. They also acted as passes to church meetings, which were regarded as private, and which sometimes included plans for emancipation. The freedom preached by these missionaries were blamed for the slave revolt which erupted in December 1831 and raged through Jamaica the following year. The leaders of Moravian and Baptist Missionary Societies, H.G. Pfeiffer, William Knibb and Thomas Burchell were arrested on the charge of inciting the revolt. However, the government found that there was nothing to incriminate them, and eventually they were acquitted and released. 55 Jamaican Baptist slaves could face intense persecution for their faith. In 1831 Samuel Swiney, a deacon of the Baptist missionary, William Knibb, was prosecuted for illegal preaching , after he led a prayer meeting while Knibb was ill. 56 In that instance, Swiney was acquitted and the two magistrates who attempted to prosecute him, Harden and Finlayson, were struck off the Commission of the Peace. 57 One of the leaders of the slave rebellion of 1832 was reputed to be the preacher, Box, who had incited it with his preaching. 58 The missionary work of the Methodist and Baptist churches were especially important in creating the popular campaign for emancipation that began in 1823. 59 Historians of the 19th century anti-slavery movement, such as David Brion Davis and Hugh Thomas have stressed that the central motivating force behind the campaigners were their religious convictions, and that the backbone of the campaign was the Quakers, with their capacity for organisation, and the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. 60 The great historian of the campaign of Black Jamaicans for freedom, Dr. Richard Hart, the author of Blacks in Bondage and Blacks in Freedom, notes the immense role the missionaries played in educating and preparing Black Jamaicans for their freedom, and in challenging and denouncing slavery.

Christian Black Slave Resistance and Abolition

William Wilberforce retired as MP in 1825. 61 On his retirement, leadership of the Anti-Slavery Society passed to Thomas Fowell Buxton, another Christian reformer, whose efforts resulted in the passing of the Abolition Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. 62 This act resulted in the emancipation of 780,000 slaves throughout the British empire. The British authorities were also active patrolling the oceans to prevent the importation of further slave and their export from Africa. Between 1820 and 1870 the royal navy intercepted 1,600 slaves ships and freed over 150,000 slaves. 63 Like Black Jamaicans, Afro-American slaves also found in Christianity a way to resist slavery. In particularly, they expressed their longing for freedom by strongly identifying with the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt. 64 This was expressed in Spirituals, such as ‘When Moses Smote the Water’, ‘Did Not Old Pharaoh Get Lost’, ‘Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep (Pharoah’s Army Got Drownded)’ and ‘Go Down, Moses’. 65 Black American Christianity also focussed on Christ’s suffering under injustice, in the words of the historian Julius Lester, ‘someone who had suffered as they suffered, someone who understoood, someone who offered them rest from their suffering.” 66 Jesus was also for American slaves, ‘King Jesus’, who would return, as promised in the Book of Revelation, to lead His people to freedom and destroy slavery forever. 67

Black Americans also actively formed their own churches. These grew out of the work of Black Methodists under the direction of Richard Allen (1760-1831) in Philadelphia, resulting in the formation of the first Afro-American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816, followed in 1824 with foundation of teh African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1824. These sent missionaries to the south, where they competed with the mainstream Baptist and Methodist churches, which already had a very high slave membership. 68 These churches, ran for free and slave alike, ran Sunday schools and Bible classes, prayed for the sick and buried the dead. As in the Caribbean, they acted to nurture Black autonomy and self-organisation. From them emerged the great preachers, editors, educators, orators and organizers for the Black community, talented people who turned their attention to the campaign against slavery. 69 The Bible inspired many slaves to take up arms against their oppression. In 1800 Gabriel Prosser led a revolt after taking on the role of a ‘Black Samson’, inspired by the Bible to lead armed resistance against slavery and set up a Black kingdom in Virginia. Denmark Vessey, a Black Methodist, in 1822 was inspired by the Book of Joshua and the battle of Jericho to attack Charleston, believing he was guided by God in the form of an angel with a blazing sword. Nat Turner, the Black Baptist preacher who led a holy war against slavery in 1831 that resulted in hundreds of deaths, when he was being led to the gallows said ‘Was not Christ crucified?’ 70 ‘These three revolts, therefore, suggested that AFrican-American leaders – a Black Samson, a Black Joshua, a Black Messiah – could translate Christian resources into political action against the conditions of slavery. Rather than a system of social control, therefore, Christianity appeared in these slave revolts as an impetus for liberation.’ 71 Revolts were rare, but nevertheless ‘under the bondage of slavery, Christianity provided a religious vocabulary for liberation in the formation of supportive communities and social networks. In response to the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, Christian church represented a recovery of humanity.’ 72 

Christian Abolitionism in the US

American anti-slavery campaigners also included Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Unitarians, as well as Methodists and Baptists. After the Revolution a number of states abolished slavery, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780. They were followed by a process of gradual emancipation in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. As with Lord Melbourne in England, secular politicians decried the Christian basis of the abolitionist movement. In 1790 a Maryland congressman complained of ‘the disposition of religious sects to imagine that they understood the rights of human nature better than all the world besides.’ 73 The Second Great Awakening also had an effect on slave consciousness. Not only did it encourage slave-owners to support religious instruction and church attendance amongst their slaves, but the conversion experience itself, the personal feeling of God’s saving grace, allowed slaves to forge their own relationship with God independent of any other third party. In an 1835 church conference in Maine, 80 per cent of the Baptist clergy there identified themselves as ‘decided abolitionists’. 74 Many Roman Catholics also supported the abolitionist cause, such as John Purcell, the Bishop of Cincinnati. 75

Although southern Christians generally considered slavery to be justified by scripture, nevertheless certain oppressive details were challenged and subverted by Christian ministers and their congregations. In antebellum Amite County in Missippi, White ministers appear to have married slaves and in 1822 caused the state legislature to revise a law restricting Blacks’ religious freedom and the rights of Black preachers. In Georgia, some clergymen advocated Black marriage and family rights, while other Whites openlhy taught slaves to read the Bible in direct contravention of the state law. When the Civil War broke out, reforming clergy then turned to demanding the legalisation of Black education. 76

Lyman Beecher founded Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1832 with a deliberately colour-blind admissions policy. Although the board of trustees became so alarmed at the abolitionist opinions of the students that it banned anti-slavery activities, this resulted in 53 students moving to Oberlin College, where they continued their activities. These reforming clergymen were immensely influential in their religious and political activities in the mid-West. Stanley Elkins, a historian of slavery, considered that the abolitionists were motivated by the Puritan notion of collective accountability that made every man his brother’s keeper. They preached necessity of turning away from sin and for its elimination from society. For them, the most heinous social sin was slavery, as Black souls were as valuable as Whites, and for one of God’s children to enslave another was a violation of God’s highest law. 77

Congress passed a law in 1807 outlawing the importation any Black or mixed race slave into America from 1 January 1808. 78 1834 saw the foundation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, funded by Arthur and  Lewis Tappan, wealthy merchants in New York and Boston. They also funded Black education along with a number of other reforming projects. Lewis Trappan declared that they did so because ‘we owe it to the cause of humanity, to our country and our God’. 79 It was not only northerners who embraced Abolitionism, however. They included southern Americans such as James Thome, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The Grimke sisters came from slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina. Angelina had been converted to the anti-slavery cause after reading a tract on it in 1835, and her letter to her sister explaining the reasons for her conversion was included in an abolitionist pamphlet, ‘An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South’. 80 Perhaps the most famous of all female Abolitionists, however, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and her husband was a Congregationalist professor of the Old Testament. A strong believer in sin, guilt and atonement, she incorporated these sentiments into her book, rebuking the American nation for the sin of slavery. 81 Even the leaders of the secular anti-slavery movement, John Quincy Adams, Joshua R. Giddings and Salmon P. Chase, were deeply religious people who recognised the importancy of the evangelical movement as a constituency for anti-slavery activism. 82 Christianity also inspired Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the Underground Railroad, who freed over 300 slaves. Of her mission, she said ‘I must go down, like Moses into Egypt, to lead them out.’ 83 The religious character of Black troopers in the Civil War was noted by one of their commanders, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who remarked on the religious nature of their songs and that ‘behind the gentle worlds in praise of God lurked the spiritual armor of people long at war with oppression.’ 84 Indeed, after the War broke out, Abolitionist Christians were responsible in a large part for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. Victor B. Howard, in his book, Religon and the Radical Republican Movement, notes how the anti-slavery churches marshalled support for Lincoln, with the effect that the Republicans had almost all of the evangelical Christian vote. The Abolitionist paper, the Christian Advocate and Journal, declared that ‘There probably never was an election in all our history into which the religion element entered so largely, and nearly all on one side.’ 85 Thus, ‘antislavery Christians ensured that the election became, in effect, a referendum on whether to abolish slavery for good.’ 86

Christian Campaign Against Global Slavery

The Christian campaign against slavery did not end with the outlawing of the slave trade and slavery. Despite it’s prohibition, slaves continued to be illegally exported from Africa and elsewhere. In its campaign against the global slave trade, the British government drew on the testimony of Christian missionaries in Africa. The 1848 parliamentary select committee on the slave trade, for example, heard testimony from members of the American Episcopalian Church active in Sierra Leone, a Baptist missionary from Fernando Po and Bimbia, as well as missionaries from Jamaica, Demerara, Barbados and Abeokuta. 87 The parliamentary commissions also heard testimony from Africans themselves, including former slaves, such as Thomas Maxwell, now a citizen of Sierra Leone. Maxwell described the appalling murder of his father and uncles by the African slavers who had carried him off. His slave ship had, however, been intercepted by the royal navy, and he and the rest of its human cargo freed. Maxwell had converted to Christianity, and was studying to be a missionary to bring spiritual and physical freedom to his people. 88 As the British empire expanded into the Pacific, Polynesians were kidnapped to serve as slaves on plantations in Queensland and elsewhere. The British government, colonial authorities and planters believed that the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean had resulted in a labour shortage, and attempted to correct this by importing indentured labourers from India and China. Despite their nominally free status, these people were treated as slaves in the infamous ‘Coolie trade’. Outrage at the suffering produced by the system across the globe prompted the British government to introduce legislation regulating the trade and securing something like decent living and working conditions for the indentured labourers and their families. Hugh Tinker’s history of the infamous ‘Coolie trade’, A New System of slavery, describes not only the suffering and protests by Asians against it, but also the Christian clergy who denounced it, and joined Indian nationalists in demanding an end to the trade.

Of critical importance in this campaign was the royal navy, which acted as the ‘global policeman’ patrolling the oceans against slavery. One New Zealand historian has pointed out that the commanders of the anti-slavery vessels in the West African squadron and elsewhere were either evangelical Christians, or had been educated by evangelicals. For this historian, the British navy was the most powerful force protecting indigenous Polynesians in the Pacific. The London Times in 1869 printed a letter by the wife of one Polynesian missionary to the Rev. John Graham protesting against the atrocities against Polynesians committed by British traders in the Pacific. 89 One of the most vigorous campaigners against the enslavement of indigenous Polynesians was the Anglican bishop Patterson. An anti-slavery rally in 1869 in Sydney, Australia, included speeches and condemnation of slavery from the Anglican Bishop of Sydney, bishop Patteson, Rabbi A.B. Davis of the Sydney Synagogue, Rev. John Graham of the Congregational Church, Rev. J.B. Smyth, chaplain to H.M.S. Brisk, Rev. J.P. Sunderland, the Presbyterian minister, Rev. Adam Thomson, the Wesleyan Methodist minister, Rev. G. Hurst, and Rev. G.H. Moreton. These clergymen based their ardent opposition to slavery on the Biblical injunction against man-stealing. 90 The personal efforts of many of the Christian missionaries against the slavers in Africa result in personal assault, injury and possible martyrdom. In 1874 Benjamin Hartley, a missionary student with the Universities’ Mission in East Africa was attacked and seriously injured by Arab slavers when he approached and began talking to their slaves. He was rescued by a group of Zunyamwezi people, and brought back to the mission, critically injured, by his sub-deacon, Francis Mabruki. The Moslem overlord of the district, Seyd Burghash, who had signed treaties with the British against the trade, was investigating the attack in order to procure evidence against the slavers. 91

Persistence of Slavery Today

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Christian clergy and laymen, as well as countless people of other faiths and none, and governments and charities around the world, slavery still persists today around the world, and charities, such as the secular Anti-Slavery International, continue the campaign against it. There are bonded slaves in Brazil, and slave workers in sweatshops in Asia. Slavery also continues in Africa, particularly Mauretania and Sudan. Most of the slaves in Sudan are Christian and pagan Black Africans from the Dinka people. Between 1995 and 2000 Christian Solidarity International, a charity dedicated to the ‘worldwide respect for the God-given right of every human being to choose his or her faith and to practice it’ freed nearly 21,000 Sudanese slaves by purchasing and releasing them. The great defenders of Black Sudanese themselves have been the two bishops, one Roman Catholic and the other Episcopalian. 92

Conclusion

Thus, although Christianity originally permitted slavery, it also demanded its regulation. The enslavement of the great figures of the Bible, like Joseph, and the Hebrews themselves in Egypt and their deliverance from Pharaoh inspired enslaved Christians to resist slavery, while the Biblical insistence on the unity of humanity and their equality before the Lord, along with the sufferings and continued resistance of the slaves themselves against slavery, caused White Christians to demand its abolition. It also created a tradition of Christian opposition to racism of which the Civil Rights campaign was very much a part and a continuation. When Dr. Martin Luther King stood up and declared ‘I have seen the Promised Land’, he expressed the hope and outrage that inspired George Fox, Samuel Sewell, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman and countless others. Odiously, slavery still persists. We’re not there yet, but these people who believed in the God-given liberty of all humanity were instrumental in abolishing it in the West, and creating the campaign against it throughout the world.

Notes

1. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 28.

2. Ivor Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman: Jamaica and Its Religion (Cambridge, James Clarke & Co 1982), p. 25.

3. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 25-6.

4. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 26.

5. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 26-7.

6. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 27.

7. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 26.

8. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 27.

9. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2000), p. 436.

10. John Holm, Pidgins and Creoles: Volume II – Reference Survey (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989), p. 342.  

11. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 29.

12. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 30.

13. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 33.

14. Chidester, Christianity, p. 436.

15. James Walvin, The Quakers – Money and Morals (London, John Murray 1997), p. 126.

16. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 34.

17. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 32.  

18. Walvin, Quakers, p. 126.

19. Walvin, Quakers, p. 127.

20. Walvin, Quakers, p. 127.

21. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 41.

22. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 41.

23. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 32.

24. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 33.

25. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36; Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (London, Continuum UK 2007), p. 226.

26. Aitken, John Newton, p. 226.

27. Aitken, John Newton, p. 230.

28. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36.

29. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 34.

30. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 35.

31. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 35-6.

32. Aitken, John Newton, p. 242.

33. Aitken, John Newton, p. 244.

34. Aitken, John Newton, p. 246.

35. Aitken, John Newton, p. 248.  

36. Aitken, John Newton, p. 239.

37. 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.

38. ‘Negre’ by M. Le Romain, in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire raisonne des science, des arts, et des metiers, in Emmanuel Chadwick, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Oxford, Blackwell 1997), pp. 91-2.

39. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.

40. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.

41. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 31-2.

42. Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley: A Biography (Oxford, Lion Publishing 2003), p. 192.

43. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 193.

44. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 177.

45. Tonkins, John Wesley, p. 177.  

46. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36.

47. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38.

48. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 34.

49. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 35.

50. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 177.

51. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 35.

52. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 35-6.

53. House of Commons Papers 1817: Report of the Commissioners for the Management of the Crown Estates in Berbice, 1816.

54. House of Commons Papers 1824: Demerara – Relating to the Insurrection of Slaves, and the Trials Thereon.

55. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 37.

56. House of Commons Paper 1831: Jamaica Slave Trials and Punishment.

57. House of Commons Pamphlet 1832: Jamaica Slave Trials and Punishment.

58. House of Commons Papers 1832: West India Colonies – Slave Instructions.

59. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 39.

60. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 35.

61. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 39.

62. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38; House of Commons Paper 1834-5: Slavery Abolition Act – Order in Council, dated 31 july 1835, for giving effect to the Act 3 & 4 Will. IV c.73, for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies.

63. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38.

64. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49; Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.

65. Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.

66. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49.

67. Chidester, Christianity, pp. 438-9.

68. Chidester, Christianity, p. 439; Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49.

69. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.

70. Chidester, Christianity, pp. 437-8.

71. Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.

72. Chidester, Christianity, p. 439.

73. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 42.

74. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 42.

75. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 43.

76. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 43.

77. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 45.

78. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 44.

79. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 45.

80. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 46.

81. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 47.

82. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 47.

83. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.

84. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.

85. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 51.

86. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 51.

87. House of Commons Papers 1848: Third Report – Slave Trade.

88. House of Commons Papers 1850: Report-African Slave Trade.

89. House of Commons Papers 1868-9: Queensland (South Sea Islanders).

90. House of Commons Papers 1868-9: Queensland (South Sea Islanders).

91. House of Commons Papers: Slave Trade no. 5 (1874) Reports on the Present State of the East African Slave Trade.

92. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 52.

Homosexuals and Atheism: An Uneasy Alliance

February 7, 2008

One of the most noticeable features of recent atheist polemic is its deliberate appeal to the gay community. Religion, it is argued, is innately hostile to gays and so the self-respecting gay man or woman should utterly reject it. While it is entirely understandable why many gays object to what they feel is religiously motivated prejudice and persecution, nevertheless it is not necessarily the case that atheism offers better protection.

Now my own opinion is that the debate about homosexuality has already gathered more attention and taken up more time than it deserves. While I believe that it falls short of the ideal set for us by the Lord, I don’t like the culture of hate that exists in certain parts of society, such as the violently homophobic lyrics in some Rap. I also feel that the desire to avoid being seen as homophobic has deterred entirely legitimate criticism of certain aspects of gay culture. For example, the reckless hedonism and promiscuity portrayed in some of  the novels of Edmund White would be seen as irresponsibly dangerous and self-destructive if done by heterosexuals. At that level, the sexuality of the people involved is immaterial: it’s squalid regardless of whether it’s done by gay or straight people. I don’t wish to discuss the morality of homosexuality or the prohibitions against it here, but to challenge the assumption that atheism promises a better attitude towards gay men and women.

Pro-Homosexual Attitudes in Paganism

While many religions have prohibitions against homosexuality, there are others which include the ‘queer’ in their conception of the sacred. Babylonian and Canaanite paganism included male as well as female temple prostitutes. There were particularly associated with the goddess of love, Ishtar. ‘There is no doubt, however, that the temples of Ishtar, the goddess of carnal love, were the sites of a licentious cult with songs, dances and pantomimes performed by women and transvestites, as well as sexual orgies’. The male participants in these rites, called assinu, kulu’u or kurgarru, included passive homosexuals. 1 Amongst the gods of Polynesia is one who presides over gay love affairs. 2 The Roman writer Apuleius, was gay as well as a devout member of the cult of Isis. Homosexuality was entirely acceptable in Graeco-Roman culture, a situation that has strongly influenced contemporary Neo-Paganism’s positive view of homosexuality. In the 1905 novel, The Garden God, by Forrest Reid, recounts the discovery by the gay hero that he and his boyfriend were lovers in previous lives in ancient Greece. Confessing their emotions to each other on a beach, they call upon the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. 3 Many shamans in the world’s indigenous religions may be gay or transvestites, their sexuality a sign of their deep connection to the uncanny and numinous. This was recognised by the ancient Greeks, who noted the presence of such individuals, and the respect in which they were held, by the ancient Scythians. The author of the Hippocratic medical treatise, Airs, Waters, Places specifically mentioned them, stating that ‘the Scythians themselves attribute this to a divine visitation and hold such men in awe and reverence, because they fear for themselves.’ 4 Here a rational, materialist explanation for their sexuality has been a challenge to the high status in which such people were held since ancient Greece. The above Hippocratic author was himself critical of the supposed supernatural origin of their sexuality. In an explicit statement of early rationalistic scepticism, he stated that ‘indeed, I myself hold that this and all other diseases are equally of divine origin and none more divine nor more earthly than another. Each disease has a natural cause nothing happens without a natural cause.’ 5 For this early exponent of sceptical medicine, the transvestism of this part of the Scythian people was due to varicose veins brought on by their constant horse riding and their highly dangerous attempts to cure it by cutting the carotid artery. 6 Thus, while individual religions may condemn homosexuality, theism as such does not, and some gays have found in those Neo-Pagan religions that accept it a more positive attitude towards their sexuality than may be found elsewhere in society.

Lack of Basis for Tolerance to Gays in Atheism

There is also the problem in that atheism, as a rejection of theism and its values, does not necessarily lead to a more tolerant or positive attitude towards gays. In the controversy surrounding the establishment of civil partnerships by the British government a year or so ago, the BBC noted on one of its news programmes that three quarters of the British public were opposed to gay marriage. This would seem to include many secular individuals who would not see their opposition to it as religiously based. A documentary by a British Black gay writer and broadcaster on Britain’s Radio 4 into the violent hatred of homosexuals in Caribbean culture, The Roots of Prejudice, while interviewing some Christian ministers whose preaching strongly condemned in very strong tones, nevertheless also considered that it was due to the very strong emphasis on masculinity in Caribbean culture. My guess is that the hatred in such lyrics may also act as a general redirection for the anger and bitter hostility generated by tensions elsewhere in some Caribbean societies. Despite the high hopes for prosperity and social advancement and improvement after independence, Jamaican politics has been tainted with corruption since the 1980s when politicians made alliances with the notorious Yardie gangs to advance their ambitions. In a climate when politics could be mixed with real gang violence, it’s possible that the anger and disillusionment at the contemporary situation, which could not be voiced because of the real danger of personal violence, could find an outlet instead in a common hatred of homosexuals.  

It is also the case that some of the postmodern philosophies that have become fashionable in recent years, despite their ostentatious promise of tolerance, actually offer the opposite. A few years ago some of the self-appointed arbiters of what was fashionable in Britain made statements highly supportive of Nihilism. One gay style guru got into Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’ for his declaration that nihilism was not enough, and that right-thinking gays should go beyond this, apparently not realising that if you go beyond the mere negative, you come back to embracing a positive view. Nihilism here seems to have had an attraction to those who saw themselves as courageous adversaries of oppressive social convention, preaching personal liberation and tolerance. However, there is the situation that in order to argue that gays also have the right to life, liberty and property, it has first to be accepted and recognised that there are indeed transcendent rights to life, liberty and property, rights which Nihilism implicitly denies, along with all other conventions. The persecution of homosexuals can only be condemned as immoral if it is considered that there are transcendent morals which are necessarily true beyond mere human opinion and social convention. Nihilism, by definition, entirely rejects this view. In the Brothers Karamazov, Doestoyevsky observed that without God, anything was permissible. Thus, just as some homosexuals believe that atheism will allow a greater acceptance of their sexuality, so nihilism also leaves open the possibility of renewed and greater persecution as morality becomes nothing more than individual opinion or social convention. This was one of the problems the British journalist and agnostic, Rod Liddle, in his The Trouble with Atheism on Britain’s Channel 4, pointed out with Richard Dawkins’ conception of morality in The God Delusion. Liddle remarked on Dawkins’ revised commandment, ‘You shall enjoy your sexuality, as long as you don’t harm others’ that it was all very wishy-washy. Dawkins replied that that was it’s advantage, as it could be revised and updated with the zeitgeist. The problem with this attitude is that, if morality is only the product of the zeitgeist, then the tolerance Dawkins was advocating may be totally rejected in favour of intolerance and persecution.

Hostility to Homosexuality in Atheist and Anti-Christian Ideologies

It’s also been the case that many atheist ideologies themselves have been hostile to homosexuality. Freudianism traced homosexuality to problems in a person’s upbringing, and attempts by Freudian psychiatrists to correct what they saw as a dangerous inclination towards it amongst their patients and charges could be cruel. A few years ago the BBC screened a documentary series, The Century of the Self, on the profound influence Freudian psychiatry has had on Western political, social and commercial attitudes, and the way Freudian psychiatrists were hired by governments, politicians and businesses to manipulate popular opinion. Amongst the chilling stories recounted in the series was the account of how one particular Freudian psychiatrist had attempted to bring up the perfect, well-adjusted family according to a strict Freudian regime. She was particularly worried about one of the boys, whom she feared would grow up to be gay, and so paid particular attention to preventing this from occurring. The result was a harsh, bizarre system inflicted on the children, with the result that far from being happy and well-adjusted, many of them became emotionally scarred and neurotic. The vehemently antichristian totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany both criminalised homosexuality. Twenty years ago the British theatre produced a play, Bent, about the Nazi persecution of gays and their incarceration in the concentration camps.

Materialistic Conceptions of Humanity No Guarantee of Tolerance

As part of the campaign to remove the perceived prejudice against gays, some scientists and activists have suggested a genetic, sociobiological origin for homosexuality in which it is viewed as an advantageous evolutionary strategy. For example, it has been suggested that homosexuality arose, as it allowed homosexual males to assist the early proto-hominid group in protection and foraging, while allowing the dominant heterosexual male to mate with the females. A variant of this view is that the homosexual gene exists to allow gay children to help their parents with child-rearing. Such sociobiological theories have been criticised by scientists for both their lack of evidence and their reductionist attitude to human psychology, sexuality and society. ‘Any of these ideas could be true, but they are mutually exclusive, and there is absolutely no evidence for any of them. This kind of reductionist analysis of something as complex and manifestly socially conditioned as human sexual preference causes anthropologists, psychologists and others to despair.’ 7

These evolutionary theories of the origin of homosexuality also suffer from the naturalistic fallacy of turning ‘is’ into ‘ought’. The problem is that there are many things that occur in nature that human society rightly condemns and prohibits. Science may explain the origin of homosexuality, but it still requires a philosophical justification through moral theory. Moreover, these sociobiological theories of the origin of morality generally miss the point. People don’t just behave altruistically from an evolutionary strategy to allow the survival of their children in the co-operative group in a way that can be simply calculated scientifically, as J.B.S. Haldan is supposed to have done on the back of an envelope in a pub. According to the story, after performing his calculations Haldane declared that he was willing to die for four uncles or eight cousins, this being the number required to replace a person’s own genes in the gene pool. 8 People act altruistically and with compassion not from a desire to protect their genes, or those genetically similar to them, but from a belief that what they are doing is transcendentally and objectively right.

Materialism a Threat to Human Dignity

Indeed, the materialism on which much atheism is based actually undercuts morality. For some very reductionist philosophers and scientists, such as Daniel C. Dennett and Sue Blackmore, consciousness is an illusion and people really are nothing more than organic automatons. Yet people’s everyday interactions with each other is predicated on the idea that there is indeed a ‘ghost in the machine’, and a transcendent self, an ‘I’, within their heads experiencing pleasure and pain. A good starting point for morality and altrusim is the belief that the suffering experienced by people is not an illusion experienced by an equally illusory, unreal self, but real pain suffered by a real person. This is traditionally the view of the theist religions, and so one of the forces that may actually protect gays, as well as heterosexual people, from dehumanising conceptions of humanity is actually this aspect of theistic religion.

Reproductive Technology and Children’s Right to Life, regardless of Predicted Sexuality

Similarly, Christian objections to the morality of genetic engineering and ‘designer babies’ may also protect homosexuals. For Christians, as well as very many other people of faith and atheists, recent developments in reproductive science threaten to devalue the sanctity of human life as people are offered the ability to choose their children’s heredity, including, possibly, their sexuality. A few years ago there was much hoo-ha about the supposed discovery of a ‘gay gene’. Suddenly the possibility that parents would choose their children’s sexuality seemed all too real. The Christian pastor, Albert Mohler has been strongly criticised on the internet for his suggestion in his blog that if it was found that an unborn child would grow up gay, then gene therapy should be used to prevent this. Long before he made these comments, however, I can remember Quentin Crisp causing similar outrage when he said something similar in the British media. What made this particularly surprising is that Crisp is a gay icon, and the dramatised treatment of his life, The Naked Civil Servant, a landmark in the campaign for greater tolerance towards homosexuals in British society.  Now Christianity considers that people are not simply the products of their genes. They have free will and a genuine moral choice. And for many Christians, the rights of the unborn to life and their inherent biological integrity and dignity means that such genetic tampering should be rejected regardless of which sexuality those doing the tampering intend to fix in the child. Again, Christian moral attitudes here towards the unborn may also protect those who could be suspected of growing up gay.

Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality: A Middle Way

At the moment there is a strong debate in Christianity over the morality of homosexuality, with some urging its acceptance while others are very strongly opposed. It is possible to find a middle way, however. Christian theology makes a distinction between the sin and the sinner. God hates sin, but loves sinful humanity, and gays do not deserve any greater condemnation than other people. This attitude was clearly displayed a few years on British television by a Baptist pastor in a documentary series on Channel 4. This was a mixture of reality TV and history as it followed a group of men and women and their children as they attempted to recreate the life of the very first colonial settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, in the first decades of the 17th century. The people themselves were a mixture of Britons and Americans, with the Baptist Pastor taking the role of the colony’s first governor. Part of his duties was to lead the community in Christian worship in the colony’s church, just as it would have been performed by the colonists nearly four centuries earlier. One of the guys in the party was secretly gay. Tormented, and unable to hide his sexuality any longer, the man stood up in church one Sunday morning and publicly declared his anguish and his sexuality to the rest of the community. The Pastor was unfazed. He simply remarked that while it was a sin, ‘all men have sinned, and fallen short of God’s glory’ and simply carried on with the service. A condemnation of the sin does not necessarily translate into hostility towards the sinner, and while traditional Christian morality rejects homosexuality, amongst the mainstream churches in the West it will lead also to a condemnation of violence against gay people as persons. Some of those who campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain were liberal Christians who felt that the punishment was worse than what was punished. Atheism offers no guarantee of this, and its conception of humanity as a mere automaton whose notions of morality are merely the products of an evolutionary history designed to ensure the propagation of genetic material actually weakens this. Thus, while traditional Christian morality rejects homosexual, its concern for the person as a transcendental subject, made in the image of God, may offer to protect gays as well as heterosexuals from the dehumanisation inherent in a purely atheistic, mechanistic view of humanity.

Notes

1. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London, Penguin 1992), p. 213.

2. G.H. Luquet, ‘Oceanic Mythology’ in Felix Guirand, ed., Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, trans., New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1968), p. 451.

3. Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 48.

4. ‘Airs, Waters, Places’ in G.E.R. Lloyd, ed., and J. Chadwick, W.N. Mann, I.M. Lonie and E.T. Withington, trans., Hippocratic Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), p. 165.

5. Lloyd, Chadwick, Mann, Lonie and Withington, Hippocratic Writings, p. 165.

6. Lloyd, Chadwick, Mann, Lonie and Withington, Hippocratic Writings, p. 165.

7. ‘Homosexuality’ in Anna Hodson, Essential Genetics: Genetics Clearly Explained and Defined (London, Bloomsbury Publishing 1992), p. 142.

8. Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 121.