A Brief History of Slavery in Islamic Societies.

March 21, 2014

The Synod of Gangra held in 340AD was formed to criticise and condemn the practices of the followers of the Iranian Prophet Mani. Manichaeism – as it became known – was a gnostic faith of late antiquity that among other things, preached the freedom of slaves. A revolutionary concept that Christian slave owners were not about to accept. The Christian Synod of Gangra wrote to condemn Manichaeism and insisted that slaves disobeying their masters was unlawful before the eyes of God. The Synod thus set a precedent – absorbing Roman, Greek, and Egyptian social structures that thrived on slavery – for the next 17 centuries of western Christian supremacy, that included the brutality of slavery throughout.

Sixteen centuries later, and Westminster was preparing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The new Queen would become the head of state over a vast empire built on conquest, that had only abolished the horrendous practice of slavery – upon which the British empire owed so much of its power and privilege – 120 years earlier. The guest list for the coronation was vast and included dignitaries from across the World. Among them were a number of Sheikhs from Qatar, whose retinues included slaves. As late as 1952 Sheikhs in Muslim countries were slave holders.

Imperialism and slave holding isn’t unique to the west, nor has the west been the sole benefactor of imperialism and slave holding. Indeed, slave holding in all major societies – Islamic societies included – is as old, and as widespread as civilisation itself. Pliny claimed the Spartans invented slavery, though there’s no reason to suspect he’d carried out a thorough investigation to come to that conclusion. Much later, the Ottoman empire appropriated structures already in place when they found it, so as to not upset the order of things; this included slavery. They established slave markets in Constantinople, in Cairo, in Tana-Azov. They levied taxes on the sale of slaves. Slavery had helped build and maintain economic and social structures of Islamic empires, it had decimated eastern Africa, and it enshrined Islamic privilege through Ottoman law that forbade slave ownership by non-muslims.

A lot of Muslims I speak too, feel a great deal of unease at confronting or accepting that slavery did not just afford the Christian West a great deal of power and privilege that it continues to benefit from to this day, but also the Islamic East. I would perhaps suggest that this unease exists because it doesn’t fit a modern narrative designed to paint the muslim East as a harmless victim of centuries of western imperialism. The fact is, the Arab muslim east was as imperial, colonial, and reliant on slavery as the Christian west. For Islam, the lives of those captured belonged to the victors. When one group assumes supremacy of its own ‘kind’ – be it racial, religious, sexuality, or gender supremacy – over all others, oppression necessarily follows. A supremacist system that deviates beyond secular democracy, is sustainable only by institutional violence. This is how Christian and Islamic societies operated.

It’s important to note at this point that I am not going to mention verses of the Qur’an or Hadith. Islamic empires and societies since the dawn of Islam had undoubtedly absorbed cultures in which slavery already existed – including pre-Islamic Arabia – and continued the practice. It was a part of the fabric of most powerful empires and cultures. The Qur’an and Hadith reflect that, and so are used to justify slavery through fourteen centuries. This is religious supremacy, not a trait of Islam specifically. That is more than enough than my own reading of certain passages – of which interpretations are abundant – of the Qur’an and Hadith, which seem to me to be a reflection of late Antiquity more than anything. I also find it irrelevant. An ideology that specifically sets out to control the liberty of others – whether less harsh than what came before or not – is oppressive and supremacist by its very nature. This is wholly illegitimate and so even if a holy text called for a slave to be given the comfiest bed in the house, and an elaborate breakfast every morning, it’s irrelevant, because it’s still slavery. For example, a 1332 decree of appointment notes:

“The people of Damascus are often in need of a judge from the Hanbalite school in most contracts of sale and lease, in certain sharecropping contracts, in assessing settlements when contracts are frustrated by natural disasters, in marrying off a male slave to a free woman with the permission of his master….”

– The life of a human being here, is considered property, in at least Hanbali jurisprudence of the 14th century. The master – a muslim – is considered supreme by the simple fact that he is muslim. Again, this is supremacy and it is by definition, oppression. Whether the slave is treated well or not is irrelevant. Owning the life and liberty of another human being is the issue. In any case, slavery in Islamic societies wasn’t always more humane that its western counterpart. Often ‘Eunuch stations’ were set up across trade routes, that included the genital mutilation of young boys in such unsanitary conditions, most died. Punishment for trying to escape often resulted in execution. A popular punishment for not satisfying the desire of the ‘master’ was the immensely painful practice of foot whipping, used also on young criminals in Massachusetts as late as 1969, as a way to obtain confessions from prisoners in Czechoslovakia during its communist period, and reportedly by the Assad regime against rebels.

With that in mind, we begin in the first century of Islam. Muhammad bin Qassim was a young general embarking on a mission to conquer India for Islam in 711. On his expedition, he stopped in the Markan region to kill rebellions against Umayyad rule in Arman Belah among others. Pushing east across the Indus river, towns succumbed quickly to Qassim’s invasion. His armies collected and sent back spoils of war, including hundreds of slaves, to Qassim’s paternal uncle, Umayyad governor Al-Hajjaj. Expansion of the imperial Arab Muslim empire, right from the beginning, benefited hugely from slavery.

This continued into the 8th century, with military leader Hasham bin Amru invading Kashmir and collecting slaves to send home to the Caliph al-Mansur.

Later, in the 9th century, manual labour – such as draining the marshes – was considered demeaning for muslims in certain parts of the empire. In southern parts of modern day Iraq, just to the east of Basra, slaves from Africa were imported to fill the gap left by a lack of muslim labour. Over the years, and as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, the slaves in southern Iraq mounted a massive rebellion. After taking al-Ubullah in 870, and defeating the forces of the caliphate, the slave rebellion was eventually crushed by al-Muwaffaq – the brother of the new caliph, and leader of the armies of the caliphate – in 883. The incident shows us that regardless of new ‘protections’ afforded slaves as offered by interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, despite manumission encouraged by Islamic tradition, slaves were still recognised as slaves. The Qur’an acknowledges and so legitimises slavery, and this was all the justification that was required. People still owned and controlled the lives of others as a master and slave relationship, and those considered slaves fought back.

A few centuries later, the slave trade had gone beyond the spoils of war, and now became a key ingredient in muslim economies. The National Library of France shows a 13th century slave market in Zabid, Yemen:

Slave market in 13th century Yemen. Credit: BnF (National Library of France).

Slave market in 13th century Yemen.
Credit: BnF (National Library of France).

– This practice continued for centuries. We can imagine scenes like that depicted in the picture above, playing out across markets full of slaves imported from Africa. Zanzibar was perhaps one of the most important and largest slave ports dominated by Arab muslims. The slave traders – including Europeans – managed to get as far west as the Congo, forcing African people young and old to carry ivory and other goods across Africa – many died on the way – to be chained and thrown onto boats to be escorted to Stone Town in Zanzibar. At this point, there were kept in cramped, dark, underground prisons, chained to the floor, before being sold on. The London Maritime Museum has this utterly horrendous photo on display, of a chained child slave, on Zanzibar, controlled by the Arab Muslim slave trade:

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– The slave trade in Zanzibar did not come to an end until 1873.

It is true that racial supremacy was not the presumed authority upon which Islamic slavery existed – religious supremacy was the motive – but racial supremacy was a factor. The 14th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldūn wrote:

“The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and proximity to the animal stage.”

– From this, we get the sense that Arab racial supremacy existed, and was used to justify slavery by at least the 14th century.

Also in the 14th century, the Ottoman Sultan Murad I instituted the practice of Devşirme. Every four years, the Ottoman Empire kidnapped and enslaved young boys from families in the Balkans, converted them to Islam, and prepared them for military service. This is elaborated on by Çandarlı Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, the Grand Vizier under Murad:

“The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession”

By the 17th century, Barbary raiders had the potential to become immortalised. On the sunny island of Rhodes stands the Murat Reis Mosque. A charming temple built a few decades after the Ottoman’s took over Rhodes in the 16th Century. It is named after former slave, and convert to Islam, Murat Reis. Reis was a pirate that led a group of Turks and Algerians in a 1631 raid on Baltimore in West Cork in Ireland. At 2am that morning, the raiders – having slowly made their way to the village – stood outside of the doors of the inhabitants sleeping inside. On a given signal, they burst into the houses with iron bars, beat the confused and frightened people of the town, murdered a couple, and took the rest captive. The unprovoked raid ended with 107 men, women and 54 children herded onto the Corsair boats – on which the men were beaten to ensure conformity – and sold into slavery in northern Africa. Upon arriving in Algiers, the captives were taken to an official of the state, entitled to 10% of all booty. They were then chained and stripped and shown to potential buyers throughout North Africa. Reis continued capturing slaves to be sold throughout the Ottoman Empire and neighbouring Islamic states for years, before being made Governor of Oualidia. It is also suggested that he was so admired, that he married the daughter of Mawlay Zidan el Nasir; the Sultan of Morocco.

A few decades later, another Sultan from Morocco, Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif was building a private protection force made up of African slaves captured as children – a practice echoed in the 21st century by the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army among others. These guards were made to swear allegiance to the Sultan on a copy of Sahih Bukhari’s Hadith book. Among more of his 25,000 slaves working on manual labour projects, included Christian Europeans captured and forced to build Moulay’s new capital city.

Two centuries later, Hamdan bin Othman Khoja wrote from Algiers in the 1830s condemning the French invasion of Algeria as a free country intent on enslaving the muslim population. Khoja failed to point out that Algiers was home already to hundreds of European slaves held by muslims, and was a key outpost for Barbary pirates dropping off their spoils including slaves. Apparently this wasn’t worthy of condemnation.

Interestingly, the great US abolitionist Charles Sumner noted in “White Slavery in the Barbary States” that Algiers fell on the Parallel 36°30′ north, the parallel of latitude that marked the Missouri compromise line between free states and slave states in pre-civil war US. He goes on to say that Virginia, Carolina, Mississippi and Texas, are the American version of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Sumner was writing a number of decades after President Jefferson (himself a slave holder) was forced to go to war with the Muslim Berber states over his refusal to pay such high ransoms for American ships being hijacked and their crews enslaved. It is estimated that between the 16th and 19th centuries, 1.25 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved by Barbary pirates, enriching the rulers of the semi-independent Berber states, and subjecting the crews – with families back home – to torturous slavery.

At the turn of the century that I was born in, slaves in Islamic South East Asia had a range of ‘duties’. According to W. G. Clarence-Smith:

“A Malay master around 1900 expected his slaves to: ‘plant his field, weed and tend his crops, to wash and guard his cattle, to punt his boat, to attend to him upon his journeys, to cook rice, and to serve in his house'”.

– As well in South East Asia, throughout the Ottoman empire most slaves were domestic slaves. The male slaves would perform domestic chores and – as noted in the Clarence-Smith quote – attend to the ‘master’, whilst the female (including children) slaves were quite simply, raped. They were there to be used as sex objects. Often young female slaves would be offered as gifts to people in positions of power for the sake of political favours, as noted by one 16th Century traveler:

“…the governors and other officials in the provinces take as their own slaves the most beautiful. They send a portion of these to the Sultan to gain his favor. These are usually sent at between the ages of ten and fifteen.”

– Mehmed II rebuilt the lands surrounding Constantinople using slave labour. At the end of the 1400s, around 1200 slaves lived surrounding Istanbul.

In the 1840s, Tunisia was importing and selling slaves in the Sūq al-Birka slave markets. This was happening, regardless of Mo Ansar’s revisionism in which he appears to be under the odd impression that imperialism began when the French invaded Tunisia, choosing to ignore the Islamic imperialism that led to Tunisia being a “Muslim country” held together by slaves in the first place.

In the 1860s, Egypt – run as an eyalet of the Ottoman empire – experienced a boom in cotton exports owing to the sudden outbreak of civil war in the US. The export of cotton in 1860 stood at 500,000 cantars, compared to 2,000,000 just five years later. According to Kenneth Cuno’s study:

“… during the cotton boom (1861–64), some 25,000 to 30,000 slaves were brought to Egypt each year to satisfy the demand for labor generated by the rapid expansion of cotton cultivation.”

– This wasn’t new in Egypt. It wasn’t an imitation of how the US south managed cotton cultivation. Slaves in Ottoman controlled Egypt was not new. It was simply increased in order to meet demand and enrich the privileged Islamic inhabitants.

In 1866 – two years after the Egyptian cotton boom – Dr David Livingston writing from Africa noted the horrifying treatment of slaves by their Arab ‘owners’:

“We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead, the people of the country explained that she had been unable to keep up with the other slaves in a gang, and her master had determined that she should not become the property of anyone else if she recovered after resting a time. . . . we saw others tied up in a similar manner . . . the Arab who owned these victims was enraged at losing his money by the slaves becoming unable to march, and vented his spleen by murdering them.”

The decade following the Egyptian cotton boom, a report following an expedition to Afghanistan in the 1870s noted:

“…A slave, if a strong man likely to stand work well, is, in Upper Badakshan, considered to be of the same value as one of the large dogs of the country, or of a horse, being about the equivalent of Rs 80. A slave girl is valued at from four horses or more, according to her looks. The men are, however, almost always exchanged for dogs.”

– A decade after that, and staying in Afghanistan, the ‘Iron’ Emir, Abdur Rahman Khan smashed a rebellion in Urozgan Province, and according to S.A.Mousavi:

“…thousands of Hazara men, women, and children were sold as slaves in the markets of Kabul and Qandahar, while numerous towers of human heads made from the defeated rebels as a warning to others who might challenge the rule of the Amir.”

In 1924, the Somalian anti-colonial leader Shaykh Hagi Hassan wrote to the Italians:

“All our slaves escaped and went to you and you set them free. We are not happy with the [antislavery] order. We abandoned our law, for according to our law we can put slaves in prison or force them to work…
The government has its law and we have ours. We accept no law other than our own. Our law is that of God and of the Prophet.”

– As late as the 1920s, incredibly hypocritical anti-colonial leaders were using Islamic tradition to justify the owning of other human beings as slaves. Notice also the justification by religious freedom? Hasan’s tone is one of indignation that his religious freedom to control others has been abused, by breaking the shackles of those he thought he had a divine right to oppress. His presumed “right” to oppress others, he considers more important than a human being’s right to control his or her own life and body. The argument for ‘religious freedom’ is often a not-so-subtly-masked argument defending religious supremacy and privilege.

Abolitionism in Islamic societies did exist. Though it gained very little traction or philosophical reasoning and support, until the 19th century. Prior to that, the debate surrounded who could and who couldn’t be enslaved, and how they should be treated. This shouldn’t be considered abolitionism in any sense of the word. That being said, in the late 19th century the great Ahmad Khan used the Qur’an to argue that slavery was anti-Islamic and must be abolished. The poet and politician Muhammad Iqbal in the early 20th century condemned slavery.

In the later 20th century – particularly after Zia-ul-Haqq took power in Pakistan – slavery advocates began to make their voices heard again by insisting that abolition denies the “right” of future muslims to free slaves.

The historian Paul Lovejoy estimated that the Islamic slave trade was responsible for the enslavement of around 11,500,000 African people alone, from the 7th century, to the mid 20th century.

Today, 20% of the population of Mauritania are today considered slaves. A new proposed Iraqi law allows the marriage of girls as young as 9; modern day sexual slavery. In the apartheid state of Saudi Arabia, slavery was officially abolished in 1962, when the country still had over 300,000 slaves. That hasn’t changed much in Saudi. Human Rights Watch reported:

“Over 8 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, constituting more than half the national workforce. Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions.”

– It is a curious misrepresentation of history to believe that ‘imperialism’ and slavery are anchored to the western colonial powers only. It is doubtless a narrative that complements anti-western sentiment, but it is wholly false. From the 2nd Century BC until around 1949, institutionalised slavery existed in China, it existed in Japan, it existed throughout the Joseon dynasty of Korea, Angkor Wat was built by slaves. It is the product of imperial conquest. Arab Muslim societies were not immune to this, nor did they take great efforts to end the slave trade. The spread of Islam relied on conquest and enslaving populations. They established the institution through Islamic jurisprudence and enforced it through violence. At the same time that the Atlantic slave trade was beginning to take shape, and slowly morphing from Christian supremacy, to racial supremacy, the Arab muslim slave trade was already in full swing. Those societies enshrined slavery into law using holy texts and traditions to justify it. Their economies relied heavily on slavery, and – as with the US, Europe, and China today – the Islamic world owes much of its success and privileges to the often violent oppression of the lives of those they deemed to be slaves.

The narrative must be re-framed. Human liberty protected by a secular and democratic framework, granting no special privileges according to race, beliefs, sexuality or gender is not a ‘western’ colonial value, it is not a political ideology, but a universal human value, and that universal value has to be the great cause of the 21st Century.

References used:
http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Heaven_on_Earth.html?id=gQ5lhoj2io0C&redir_esc=y
http://al-qantara.revistas.csic.es/index.php/al-qantara/article/download/41/35‎
http://africanhistory.about.com/od/slavery/a/IslamRoleSlavery01.htm
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nQbylEdqJKkC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uHNddAz5cfAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
http://www.h-net.org/~fisher/hst373/readings/fisher2.html
http://faculty.ksu.edu.sa/archaeology/Publications/Islamic%20Archaeology/Islam,%20archaeology%20and%20slavery%20in%20Africa.pdf
https://www.academia.edu/4170761/African_Slaves_in_Nineteenth_Century_Rural_Egypt
http://wrfnet.org/resources/2010/09/tainted-legacy-islam-colonialism-and-slavery-northern-nigeria-wrf-member-dr-yusufu
https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/4968/second%20chapter%20dissertatie.pdf


The Photography of the US Civil War.

August 27, 2013

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“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
The New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862

The great US Civil War historian Shelby Foote, once commented that the Civil War fundamentally changed the US linguistically from ‘the United States are…‘ to ‘the United States is…‘. A rather perfect outline of the result of the war. But there’s another interesting result of the conflict. The Civil War also introduced photography to journalism.

Lincoln recognised the power of photography, having joked that he may never have been re-elected without Mathew Brady’s portrait. Lincoln knew by 1865 the importance of photography, because its use in the US Civil War helped to diminish northern support for the Union forces, the moment hundreds of photographers invaded the battlefield at the end of a battle.

It was one thing to read letters from the front line (this also struck a blow to Northern support for the war, given the growth of the postal service at this time), but it was a completely different thing to see broken and torn corpses strewn across the battlefield, from a quiet house in northern towns and cities, far from the frontlines. The birth of Photojournalism at this point brought images of hell, to every American house in the country.

Today, they give us an incredible documentation of that four year period that cost so many lives, made so many political careers, and gave birth to ‘the United States is…‘.

Here are a few that caught my attention. Click the images, for larger versions.

A Confederate soldier, killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse:

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The inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 1861:

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Union War General, and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S.Grant. 1863:

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Confederate troops killed at Antietam:

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A slave family on a cotton plantation in Georgia:

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President Lincoln, with the Glaswegian Allan Pinkerton on the left, and Union General John McClernand:

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A regiment in formation, in Missouri:

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The 8th New York State Militia:

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Confederate Commander Robert E.Lee:

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Union Troops at Fredericksburg:

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Union General, and scorched Earth enthusiast, William Tecumseh Sherman:

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Confederate Soldiers killed, at Spotsylvania Court House. 1864:

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The camp of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry, outside of Fort Slocum. 1862. A lot of wives and children insisted on joining their husbands at camp:

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Confederate Soldiers of Louisiana’s Washington Artillery, preparing for the Battle of Shiloh. 1862:

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President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

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A Union camp:

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The flag of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. 1864:

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Civil War Photography was used for a duel purpose. Firstly, we see from the horrendous images of those killed in battle, those young men who lost their lives so early, for a war that shaped the US ever since; as the New York Times pointed out in 1862, those images brought the horrors of war to the doorstep of every American. Secondly, the photography of the Civil War was used to create heroes out of its leaders. Tecumseh Sherman is sitting mightily, back straight, in a leadership pose atop his horse, in eerily similar pictures to early paintings of George Washington similarly used to convey a sense of majesty and honour. Similar images from the Mathew Brady collection show us Lincoln, as a towering figure, looking purposeful. Civil War photography helped propel the face of Ulysses Grant into the minds of millions. Photojournalism was a key component of the US Civil War and its legacy can be seen whenever we are presented with the horrors of war and conflict, and the images of World leaders appearing to look determined and thoughtful. US Civil War Photojournalism is an often forgotten, but vastly important contribution to the modern World.


Racism in America: Today

April 13, 2011

When the United States was beginning to form, there was a hierarchy of oppression that kept everyone subservient to someone above them. The King of England demanded goods from the Jamestown white elite who exploited and controlled the white frontiersman who, in order to appease the elite with money and land, slaughtered Indigenous people and brutalized African slaves. Many whites joined Indigenous and African rebellions. The white elite worked to stop this because they knew such an alliance would become too powerful and would succeed at overthrowing the control that the elite and the King had. So in order to separate the whites from everyone else, they started giving more privileges (land and better treatment) to the white servants. This worked. The working class whites effectively abandoned the movements for change and to this day these groups have problems working together.
– Howard Zinn, 1980.

46% of American Republicans in the State of Mississippi believe that interracial marriage should be illegal. I will elaborate on and explain this later.

After my blog on the racism of Abraham Lincoln, I wondered whether race is still a divisive issue today as it has always been, in America. In the UK, race is still an issue, though it is far more subtle and much less noticeable, but it exists nonetheless. There isn’t this notion of white supremacy, nor do we have the history of the “founders” being slave owners or massive racial segregation up until very recently. We don’t have a KKK equivalent and we didn’t fight a civil war to protect the rights of States to own slaves. Race is certainly a problem in the UK though. We tend to become far more Nationalist during times of economic hardship and the need to blame immigrants or anyone who doesn’t happen to fit the narrow band of what it means to be “British” becomes an almost accepted narrative. Political parties push immigration reform to the top of their agendas, giving credit to such racial tension. Race is used as a divisive mechanism to subvert attention away from a failing class system.

Here in the UK, with talk of economic austerity, it was only a matter of time before the issue of race was introduced into the equation. We know that poorer areas like inner city Liverpool, Manchester, and Hackney are going to face the toughest council cuts. Low socio-economic areas are predominantly mixed race or black and Asian. So it was only a matter of time before David Cameron would bring race into the mix. He then suddenly made a speech against multiculturalism, in which he mentions the words “islam” and “muslim” 36 times, and “Christianity” once. Race is yet again being used as a divisive wedge.

Back to the USA, and the 19th Century, before the Civil War. It has long been argued by the rather hermetic Southern America that the Civil war was a war between the States (the South) and the big bad Federal Government (the North). Yes. The States rights to own and perpetuate slavery. The charge against a big bad Federal Government invading the lives of its citizens does not hold up when you look at the evidence, and is actually rather rudimentary.

The American lawyer and journalist William Walker, in 1854, after a failed attempt to set up a Republic of Sonora in Mexico, with the intention of it becoming a State of the Union; invaded Nicaragua for control of a vital trade route between New York and San Francisco. He succeeded in his efforts, and took control of Nicaragua, renaming it “Walkeragua” (seriously, i’m not making this up). In 1856, President Franklin Pierce, officially recognised Walker’s regime in Walkeragua as legitimate. His regime began to Americanise Walkeragua, by instating slavery, using American currency, and making English the official language. He advertised his new Country to American Southern businessmen by advertising the fact that his new quasi-State was pro-slavery and would remain so. By the time Walker revoked Nicaragua’s 1824 Emancipation Act, the rest of Latin America took note, and invaded. He fled and was bought back to the U.S where he was welcomed as a hero of the South. As “States rights” go, invading another sovereign nation and revoking its anti-slavery laws, is about as big and as bad as a Federal Government can get. He died before the Civil War kicked off, but the South referred to him throughout the Civil War as “General Walker“. The South did not just fight to preserve the institution of slavery, they wanted to expand it, on a grand scale, to the point where Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky proposed that the 36°30′ parallel north be a line that separates the northern free states, and the southern slave states, all the way down to the tip of South America. American racism has always been rife.

In 2011, membership of white supremacist organisations has increased tremendously. According the the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white supremacist organisations in the US, the number of members is up by 48% since 2000. Jeff Schoep, head of the National Socialist Movement (the Nazi Movement) in America, who the FBI classify as terrorists, said:

“The immigration issue is the biggest problem we’re facing because it’s changing the face of our country. We see stuff in England and Spain like this. … They are turning those countries into a Third World ghetto.”

Well, I live in England, and he’s right!!! Here is the River Thames in Central London a few years back:

Here is the River Thames in Central London today:

Sad times.

The largest white supremacist group in America; Stormfront have a website with a forum, which includes systematic attacks on white jewish people. They appear to use “Jew” as a term of race. White, black, Jew. On a discussion about the economic crises, a member called “Crowstorm” whose nationality he has set as “Jewnited States of America” says this:

The problem is, Jews look White so when people see a Jew do evil, they don’t say “look at the evil Jew”… no, they say “look at that evil White man.

– It is an odd statement to make for a variety of reasons. First, a Jewish person is not the colour “Jewish“. It isn’t white, black, jew. If he’s a white man and Jewish, then he’s a white Jew. Jewish is not a race. But not just that, but race itself is not biological. It doesn’t exist. It is a fantasy. An abstraction. Like Nationality and Religion. All man made abstractions, meaningless nothingness used to create tension between low socio-economic groups to ensure disunity. If poor white people are blaming poor black people for all the trouble in New Orleans after Katrina hit, then their attention is on each other, and not on the very rich folk in Washington (both white and black) who washed their hands of the plight of anyone who isn’t a very wealthy lobbyist decades ago. And lastly, no one says “look at the evil white man”, because for the vast majority of people, race isn’t an issue; if you’re evil, I don’t care what colour you are.

Another quite extraordinary post on Stormfront was from a school teacher who taught apparently in black schools. Here are some of the quotes from it:

I was away about two minutes but when I got back, the black girls had lined up at the front of the classroom and were convulsing to the delight of the boys.

Many black people, especially women, are enormously fat.

Blacks, on average, are the most directly critical people I have ever met: “Dat shirt stupid. Yo’ kid a bastard. Yo’ lips big.” Unlike whites, who tread gingerly around the subject of race, they can be brutally to the point.

When a black wants to ask, “Where is the bathroom?” he may actually say “Whar da badroom be?”

Many black girls are perfectly happy to be welfare queens.

There is something else that is striking about blacks. They seem to have no sense of romance, of falling in love.

Pregnancy was common among the blacks, though many black girls were so fat I could not tell the difference.

My white students came back with generally “conservative” ideas. “We need to cut off people who don’t work,” was the most common suggestion. Nearly every black gave a variation on the theme of “We need more government services.” One black girl was exhorting the class on the need for more social services and I kept trying to explain that people, real live people, are taxed for the money to pay for those services. “Yeah, it come from whites,” she finally said. “They stingy anyway.”

It is impossible to get them to care about such abstractions as property rights or democratic citizenship.

– The “teacher” goes on to say he doesn’t understand why his black students think he his a racist. Surely it isn’t racist to think that black students are inherently lazy, fat, illiterate, racist, anti-democratic, communist sluts who just don’t understand why being indoctrinated in Conservative ideology is a wonderful learning experience and are incapable of love?

The days of burning crosses and wearing silly costumes are over. White supremacists tend now to fight their cause with mainstream language like “We just want to protect our children and live in a safe environment“, the language is manipulative because they are simply masking the fact that they blame anyone with slightly darken skin for why their neighborhood isn’t safe.

A study by the American economic review between July 2001 and May 2002 entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” , found that job applicants with a white sounding name are 50% more likely to be asked back than an applicant with a white sounding name. The researches sent out 5000 applications in sales, marketing, clerical and customer service positions. The names they used were a mix of white sounding names, and black sounding names. The report showed that white applicants with stronger resumes than other white applicants received 30% more callbacks, whereas black applicants with stronger resumes than other black applicants received just 9% more callbacks. It proved that regardless of credentials, black applicants were 50% less likely to get a callback than a white applicant.

Institutional racism is particularly subtle, and so less noticeable. If you are black, you are three times more likely to be pulled over in your car and searched for drugs than if you’re white, despite the fact that if you’re white, on the few occasions when you are pulled over you are four times more likely to have drugs on you. If you are white and you drive past the police without them pulling you over, you are experiencing the privilege of being white. The war on drugs then, is not a war on drugs, if it were, those statistics would be a hell of a lot different. The war on drugs would go where the drugs actually are, not where the people with dark skin are. It is a racist institution.

Christopher Columbus is hailed as the founder of America. He has a day named after him. It is not taught in any history class at American schools the true horror that started the day that Columbus found an island in the Lucayan Archipelago in the Bahamas that he named San Salvador, though it was actually already named, by the population who lived there, as Guanahani. Within years, Spanish adventurers had captured thousands of the native Taino population, enslaved them, and took their women captive as wives/sex slaves. The Spanish had utterly devastated the Taino population by the turn of the 16th Century. Epidemic disease brought by the Europeans was bad enough, but the Spanish settlers placed too much strain on local crop farmers, and the survival of the Spanish was considered more important than the survival of the Taino’s and so the food naturally ended up in the hands of the Spanish. Columbus when he landed, wrote of the natives:

“We can send from here, in the name of the Holy Trinity, all the slaves and Brazil wood which could be sold.”

– We know what he had planned. Nicolas Ovando, the governor of the Indies from 1501 to 1509, decided he needed to ensure the Taino’s knew their place once and for all. He did this by inviting the much loved Taino queen Anacoana and local tribal chiefs to a dinner to celebrate his governorship. When they were all in the room, the Spaniards set it on fire, killing most of those inside. The ones who got out, were tortured for days on end and then killed. Queen Anacoana was tortured and hung. By 1510, the Taino’s were virtually extinct.

To be honest, there really isn’t much you can celebrate about Columbus. Apart from bringing with him the biggest genocide in history, he was a rather simple man. He believed Cuba was in Asia, that he hadn’t discovered a new land, that the entire continent of South America was an Island, and to pay his debt to the Spanish crown he raped his way across Central America taking as many as 1200 women and children slaves for Europe; children who had, without a second thought, been stripped away from their families. But don’t take my word for, take it from the man himself:

“We shall take you and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault .”

I cannot think of a worse man to idolise.

Back to the present day, as if Stormfront and institutional racism and selective history aren’t enough to convince a person that racism is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, certain lovely little advertisements have deep racist connotations, still.

Aunt Jemima, a trademark for breakfast food owned by Quaker Oats is still going today. Aunt Jemima represents the notion of a good little black ex-slave girl who just loves her servile role as servant to a white middle class consumer.

Equally as subtle, is Uncle Ben’s rice. It would be ridiculous for a company now, to have as its fictional spokesperson, a black man using the name “Uncle” which was a term used by the children of white slave owners to refer to their slaves. If a newly formed rice company were to say “Well, you know that we white people used to ship Africans in to farm our rice fields, as slaves? Well why don’t we make our spokesmen black?” they would be lambasted as a hugely racist company. But Uncle Ben is a tradition, and so it appears acceptable, though the stereotype behind it perpetuates the racist sentiments it subtly encourages. This kind of subtle cultural racism has not gone unnoticed. In an episode of the Sopranos (the greatest show on TV) Tony warns a black guy away from his daughter. Tony then has an anxiety attack when he sees a packet of Uncle Ben’s.

Public Policy Polling of Raleigh North Carolina, found that 46% of Republican voters in Mississippi think interracial marriage should be illegal. 14% said they weren’t sure. I cannot comprehend that number. It does indeed show that race is an issue, and especially with Republican voters. There is still the essence that the white race is superior and should be protected. This sentiment has found its outlet with the Tea Party movement of recent months. Whilst Glenn Beck spews his bullshit, insisting on top rated “news” channel that Obama has a deep seated hatred for the white race, his equally as vacant and mind numbingly moronic viewers stalk the streets with signs like this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

Now I wouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the Tea Party is an inherently racist organisation, it is mainly a vehicle to promote the incoherent ramblings of an uneducated economically far right puritanical Republican group wholly run by Corporate America to advance its interest at the behest of even the idiots who indirectly fight for the rights of Corporate America, now slowly morphed to include racism as part of their base.

It is sad to see notion of race being such an issue in 21st Century America. One would have hoped that the social wedge of racism, placed to draw attention away from class and a deeply unequal wealth system would have crumbled away, or intellectually and politically dismembered for the disease that it is. Race is not real. Class is.


Racism in America: Lincoln

March 2, 2011

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought with it the utopic notion that racism in the United States of America was over. I certainly do not the doubt the momentous appointment of an African American man to the office of President of a country that was built on racial genocide and slavery. A country that less than a century ago, during the life time of my grandparents, did not allow a white child to attend the same school as a black child simply on the basis of race. The elevation of a black man to the highest office in American politics is symbolically another step on the road to tackling the evils of racism.

This blog isn’t meant as an analysis of Obama. He is essentially part of an establishment that favours financial institutions, oil companies and private health insurers above the lives of the less wealthy, and panders to the apparently widespread American belief that the very wealthy deserve massive tax cuts at the behest of the most vulnerable. He is no different in that respect regardless of his skin colour.

I wanted instead to focus on the beliefs of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, and his complex and often contradictory approach to slavery. Like Jefferson before him, it is almost impossible to figure out where Lincoln stood on the issue, and conflicting books are widespread. Lincoln’s party politics and his true beliefs seem to be confused much of the time, and yet history tends to stick entirely to his party politics regardless of the motives. I wanted to explore those motives more in depth.

Yesterday I went along to see an hour long lecture by Professor Richard Carwardin, the President of Corpus Christi College Oxford and winner of the Lincoln Prize for his book “Lincoln: A life of purpose and power“, a favourite of George W.Bush. Obviously there is a very limited and narrow version of Lincoln’s life one can present in just an hour, but Carwardin alluded to Lincoln as a great emancipator, as if he had been way a head of his time and the progressive champion for the freedom of black slaves, willing to fight a war for its eradication.
I would argue differently.

Lincoln wasn’t happy with the fact that slavery had become an issue by the time he took office. Lincoln told the esteemed journalist Henry Villard;

“I will be damned if I don’t feel almost sorry for being elected when the niggers is the first thing I have to attend to.”

Lincoln was not prepared to go to war for the abolition of slavery in itself. He had agreed to back an amendment to the Constitution, penned by the Representative from Ohio, Thomas Corwin, that would have made it Unconstitutional for Congress to amend rules or abolish slavery. Lincoln backed it.
The Corwin amendment read:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State

In his inaugural address, Lincoln referenced the proposed amendment, stating:

“Holding such a provision to now be implied Constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Interestingly, the amendment passed Congress by the two-thirds majority needed, but was never fully ratified in the State legislatures, and is still up for ratification, as it was never thrown out. If it had been fully ratified, one must wonder just how different the U.S would look today. The fact remains though that up until the outbreak of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln supported a Constitutional Amendment rendering it impossible to abolish the institution of slavery.

The worry from the Republican Party of the Lincoln years, was not so much the moral implications of ethical dilemma of the owning of slave labour, but the economic problems it creates. They worried that slave labour merely worked to undermine wages of the poor white working classes, and just created a new dominant class known as “Slave Power”. They worried that the Slave owning classes in the South were just violent and expansionist people with a goal of Empire. This paranoia wasn’t without merit, but it was borne out of the relatively new Nation’s deep suspicion of Empire and too much power. Lincoln charged that the Southern Democrats and slave owning classes were out to take over Cuba and the war on Mexico seemed to confirm those suspicions. The Civil War Confederate cry of “States rights!!” was simply the right for the very wealthy land owners in the South to keep and abuse people with darker skin, and the right to centralise power within very few hands. Only the free States were fighting for States rights.

Lincoln’s famous signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is doubtful whether the proclamation actually freed any slaves whatsoever. Depending on your source, it was either the greatest achievement of the short Presidency of Lincoln, or it was useless. No one really knows. One thing is for sure, Lincoln signed the proclamation as a further attack on the South (rightfully so). In September 1862, he demanded they return to the Union or he would free their slaves. Not “and i’ll free your slave“. It’s an ultimatum. If you rejoin the USA, you get to keep your slaves… if you don’t, we’re freeing them. He is more concerned here with preserving the Union – an abstract concept – than ending slavery. The Proclamation not only didn’t free slaves in the Confederacy, it didn’t free slaves in the slave holding States in the Union – Kentucky and Maryland.

The Proclamation looked good for Lincoln, as it put real pressure on the Confederacy. France and Britain were very anti-slavery, and he needed support and recognition of the legitimacy of the USA in a war that at the time, no one knew which way it might go. With the support of France and Britain, and so legitimacy, it helped Lincolns case. It was similar in a way, to how old European powers gained legitimacy. When Henry Tudor took the Kingship away from Richard III, he was a nobody on the European stage and England was at civil war, much like America. Tudor needed an air of legitimacy, so he married Elizabeth of York; she happened to be the niece of Richard, and daughter of King Edward IV. This was the legitimacy Henry required, and won. He rather secured himself, by marrying his son – Arthur – off to the daughter – Catherine of Aragon – of the most powerful family in Europe; the King and Queen of Spain. The marriages and alliances were all about protecting himself, and securing his throne, not about love nor about the wellbeing of his Kingdom. Lincoln signed the Emancipation declaration, to protect his Throne by winning the support of the English and the French. Up until the Proclamation was signed, it seemed Britain was on the side of the Confederacy, having been involved in the provision of the British made warships the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida.

Lincoln knew the Proclamation, which freed black slaves in Confederate States that fell to the Union forces, would compel black slaves and freed slaves to help the Union armies. He stressed in a letter to his friend James C. Conkling:

“I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union.”

The freedom of the slaves with the passing of the 13th Amendment was a tiny ripple in the water. Saying to a group of people who have had no access to education, to family ties, to survival, to anything other than a system that treated them as less than human for so long, that they are now “free”, is worthless. It is not freedom. It would take another 100 years before the real reforms were introduced. Lincoln was not a head of his time. The abolitionists were calling for equality, not just the ending of slavery. Economically, black Americans would be held down for more than a century in place of White privilege. Lincoln may have given them freedom, but he certainly did not give them anything anywhere near equality, and he knew it.

Even the banning of slavery expanding into new territories was a rather obscure policy that was not designed for the sake of the wellbeing of black Americans, rather it was an attempt to keep black people from being shipped to America full stop. It was a white supremacist policy that today would be deplored as vicious and racist. Lincoln, when talking about the banning of slavery expanding to new territories stated that he did not want the United States:

…….to become an asylum for slavery and niggers

The expansion into the West was an opportunity to spread the white race for Lincoln, who had no desire to see black people live there, stating in 1858 in Illinois, that:

in favor of our new territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home … as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over.

Lincoln was therefore using race as an unnecessary social divide. Race had only really became an issue, during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Up until then, nobody really cared what race you were. White slaves existed in the Colonies way before black slaves. The worry was that they would join hands and rise up, so race was used to divide them. Tell a poor white slave that he is more important in God’s eyes than a poor black slave, and suddenly there is no chance they will rise up together and overthrow the economic powers that hold them both down.

In 1853, Lincoln backed the Illinois State law that banned freed black people from moving to Illinois. They weren’t so free afterall. Lincoln it seems, was obsessed with the division of black and white, and even Mexicans, whom he referred to, out of the blue, for no reason, as:

“most decidedly a race of mongrels. I understand that there is not more than one person there out of eight who is pure white.”

He was a power obsessed, white supremacist.

The great emancipators in the Congress and the abolitionist leaders who pressured and pressured for Lincoln to keep to his line on abolition. Thaddeus Stevens, in the House of Representatives, and Chairman of the Ways and Means committee was a committed Abolitionist. This man was ahead of his time. He helped runaway slaves escape to Canada. He protected the rights of Jewish and Chinese Americans and he defended the rights of Native Americans. Stevens was a hero of the Civil War era and should be remembered as such, far above Lincoln. But one man stood out as great, even beyond that of Thaddeus Stevens, and that man was Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts.

Charles Sumner absolutely hated the institution of slavery. As did his father before him. He argued that freeing the slaves would achieve nothing, unless it was accompanied by a raft of legislation promoting equal rights both politically and economically. This was 100 years before equal rights began to take shape. He is responsible for one of my favourite quotes from history, that I tend to live by when shaping my political thoughts:

“The Utopias of one age have been the realities of the next.”

Sumner argued in a court case, that segregation was an abomination. The year was 1848. The case was Roberts VS Boston. It lead to the ban on segregation on the basis of race in all public schools in Massachusetts. It was over 100 years before the rest of the country would catch up.

Sumner’s extraordinary career taught me that it is okay to think radically, even if the rest of your contemporaries think that you are an idealist living in a dream land. The contemporary Senators did not like Sumner for his radical ideas on racial integration and equality, one Senator suggested that Sumner was unimportant and should be ignored:

“The ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.”

It is a myth that Lincoln was a great emancipator and forward thinker and it is a great injustice that men like Charles Sumner go unrecognised and ignored by history.
Sumner’s face should be on Mount Rushmore. Not Lincoln’s.

Anyway, as Sumner argued, The Proclamation was meaningless, the 13th Amendment was the result of much pressure put on the administration. Lincoln himself once remarked quite tellingly:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

He stresses exactly why he felt compelled to free the slaves. It was not on grounds of compassion or freedom or respect for the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, far from it, he did it for the sake of his own power:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Abraham Lincoln was not a great emancipator. Nor was he one of the great forward thinking abolitionists of the time. He was a racist and a white supremacist who put his own position and power above that of the rights of a group of people who had different coloured skin. It is quite extraordinary that history teaches us that President Lincoln was one of the great Presidents who ended the horrific institution of slavery. The reality is far more ambiguous. It is much like the celebrating of Columbus day as a great day in American history, when in fact it simply marked the beginnings of a mass genocide. History should be taught with equal weight to both interpretations, if the subject is as ambiguous as that of President Lincoln and the question of slavery.