Slavery Studies

Should Canada and the USA apologize for slavery and “systemic racism”?

“It should be clear with these recent events that African Canadians deserve an apology for slavery from the Canadian Government immediately. The systemic racism in Canada is a direct result of slavery in this country. African Canadians have been denied genuine equity in economic growth, social standing, legislative justice and proper regard for our health and well-being throughout Canada’s history.”

The writer is Elise Harding-Davis, an “African Canadian Heritage Consultant,” from Harrow, Ontario, in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau published in the June 15 Windsor Star.  In Canada and around the world, people might wonder what the consultant is talking about.

Canada officially became a nation in 1867, a full 34 years after the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act that freed more than 800,000 slaves in British colonies. In 1815, only 18 years before the Act, Islamic Barbary pirates snatched 158 people from Sardinia.  

“Europe was on the receiving end of slavery,” writes Roger Crowley in Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto and the Contest for the Center of the World. After the 1571 battle of Lepanto, Europe witnessed “another two hundred miserable years of endemic piracy that would funnel millions of white captives into the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli.”

As Crowley explains, “the numbers slaved to Islam far exceeded the black slaves taken in the sixteenth century.” Atlantic slaving was a matter of “cold business,” but in the Mediterranean it was heightened by “religious hatred.” The Islamic raiders set out “to damage the material infrastructure of Spain and Italy, and to undermine the spiritual and psychic basis of Christians’ lives.” In Africa, it was a slave “trade,” with buyers and sellers. 

“Slavery begets slavery,” wrote John Hanning Speke in Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, published in 1863. “To catch slaves is the first thought of every chief in the interior,  hence fights and slavery impoverish the land.” Those caught in tribal wars were “made slaves and sold to the Arabs for a few yards of common cloth, brass wire, or beads.” The Arabs took the slaves to the Zanzibar market where they were “resold like horses to highest bidder, and then kept in bondage by their new masters.” Some were taken away on ships and many died in “the most disgusting ‘ferret-box’ atmosphere.”

On the other hand, African leaders such as Chief Mbumi “knew that the English were opposed to slavery.” As Speke explains, “slavery had received a severe blow by the sharp measures Col. Rigby had taken in giving tickets of emancipation,” even to slaves secretly kept by Indian subjects. The Muslim enslavement of black Africans flowed from the practice of Islam itself.

Mohammed kept 17 male slaves and 11 female slaves, explained Edward Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Abubeker, the first caliph after Mohammed, kept black slaves, and other caliphs and sultans likely followed suit. The seraglio of Abdalrahman, of the Umayyad dynasty, numbered 6,300, including his wives, concubines, and “black eunuchs.” Christians who fell under the control of Muslims were “slaves of despotism,” and condemned to groveling dhimmitude. Subjection of Christians was also the object of the Muslim slave raids in the Mediterranean.

“It took the New World Americans finally to scotch the menace of the Barbary pirates,” notes Roger Crowley. Back at home, those Americans also fought a war over slavery and 30 years after the British Slavery Abolition Act, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. By contrast, the Islamic world did not fight a war over slavery, and in Muslim nations the practice continued.

Saudi Arabian Slavery Persists Despite Ban by Faisal in 1962,” headlined the New York Times in 1967. In 2011, the Atlantic outed Mauritania as, “The Country Where Slavery Is Still Normal.” In Mauritania, slavery “remains pervasive, with an estimated half million Mauritanians enslaved, about 20 percent of the population.” Mauritanian slaves, the article explains, are “forbidden from owning property, a last name, or legal custody of their own children.”

Jump ahead to 2017, when CNN reported on a Nigerian man in his twenties, offered for sale with a group of “big strong boys for farm work,” for the price of 1,200 Libyan dinars, about $800. “Does anybody need a digger?” cried the slave salesman. “This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig. What am I bid?” Within minutes, the men are being “handed over to their new ‘masters.’”

In 2018, NPR reported on “a pattern of slave-trade abuses of migrants detained in Libya.” These are people from across Africa and Asia, now detained and sold at “open slave markets.” Since non-blacks predominate among the buyers, racism is surely involved.

Denunciations of existing slavery are hard to find in the United States, which abolished slavery 157 years ago in 1863, and in Canada, where slavery never existed. Much easier to find, in two of the freest, most affluent countries on earth, are claims of slavery as the driver of “systemic racism.” If those now enslaved in Libya or Mauritania thought that was uninformed, and even perverse, it would be hard to blame them.

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