Thursday, September 14, 2006


Whilst on holiday I read a couple of books about slavery - as one does.

The first was White Gold by Giles Milton, in which he describes the experience of an Englishman, Thomas Pellow, abducted by North African pirates in 1715 and sold as a slave in Morocco, and also the larger story of how around a million Europeans and Americans were captured and sold into slavery in North Africa in the 250 years or so up to the start of the 19th Century (when the British sailed into Algiers, issued an ultimatum demanding an end to slavery and then blew the place to bits).

The second was Rough Crossings by Simon Schama, which is specifically about the American Revolution and the offer made by the British that any slave that made it to British lines and fought for the British would get their freedom - and what happened to them after that. One of the fascinating bits is about how, before the American Revolution began, there was already an anti-slavery movement in England and a number of court cases had effectively ruled that ownership of slaves could not be enforced in England because slavery was not recognised in Common Law, this was widely believed to mean that slavery was illegal.

As you'd expect the Blacks who fought for the British was despised by the slave-owning American 'patriots', quite a few of them were owned by signatories of the American Declaration of Independence ('all men are created equal') and by George Washington. After the war, they were relocated to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada, where they were fairly abominably treated - especially by the slave-owning Empire loyalists (Americans who were against the rebellion and chose to go to Canada). In the end, many of them were relocated voluntarily to Sierra Leone, where they were repeatedly let down and badly treated but did eventually find a measure of freedom.

The book ends with the anti-slavery movement growing in strength on both sides of the Atlantic until the British banned the trade, then (some years later) freed the slaves (compensation went to their former owners rather than the slaves themselves) and then actively closed down the slave trade of other countries - which is where it ties in to the end of the other book. Sadly, slaves in the southern states of America had to wait another generation before they were freed.

Which all goes to show what a perculiar muddle history is; progressive concepts that we take for granted now, such as democracy, the rule of law, personal liberty, freedom of speech and other basic human rights, were once just tentative ideas competing against other, completely regressive, ideas - and in some countries they still are.

Is freedom something that would just have happened of necessity as human society got larger and more complex (particulary the devlopment of capitalism) - or is it a specific legacy of a combination of historical events and traditions (Athenian democracy, Roman law, Christianity, English Common Law, Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution...) Personally I think it's the former, freedom develops when people are sufficiently well-off to have choices and that's the only way to successfully run highly developed countries.


dB said...

But are you certain that freedom is an endpoint rather than another step on the journey?

There are sufficient 'manipulators' in the system (greedy politicians, oil companies, tobacco companies, arms companies) in the 'Free world' at the moment who are very wrapped up in their own agendas and, more to the point, their own wealth and power.

Its reasonably easy to see that something like the "War on Terror" as it escalates out of control could be a trigger for a fundamental change to the system. There certainly are examples where people have used 'a threat to national security' as a means to take firm control of the whole country - often with the consent of the populace (at least at first).

The facts are:
1) An awful lot of wealth and power resides in the hands of a very small percentage of the population.
2) The freedom we have at the moment suits them because they still have wealth and power.
3) Some of those people would happily see the majority of us killed to protect what they have.

HistoryElephant said...

Hasn't your list facts always been true? They didn't stop these freedoms developing in the first place.

The War on Terror is much less of a threat than the Cold War was: no rogue nation will ever come close to the destructive power that the USSR possessed. The current restrictions of freedoms in the West are nothing compared to those operating during the 2nd World War.

I would argue that countries which try to prevent the rule of law, individual freedoms and democracy from developing ultimately fail (as the USSR did) or never get anywhere (countless Latin American and African countries).

The interesting question is how long will China be able to retain its archaic one-party structure? You know that ordinary people have no respect for the lower levels of the communist party machine and their respect for the upper echelons depends on them providing stability and economic growth. When the economy gets rocky, will a government without any democratic mandate be able to sustain itself without fatally undermining the stability and foreign confidence that the economy depends on?

dB said...

True enough, but are you really suggesting that the balance between good and evil (simplifying dramatically) is really a damped sine wave and that ultimately the whole system will come to rest in its default state, which is freedom?

What I'm suggesting is that this sytem will never reach equilibrium.

HistoryElephant said...

I think I'm suggesting that E (success in a modern, developed economy) and F (freedom, including the rule of law and respect for property rights) tend to be related over the long term.

Changes to either will usually cause some economic or social termoil and undermining one usually undermines the other (e.g. the economic depression in the 30s led to anti-democratic governments in Germany and various other countries; the lack of freedom in the USSR fatally undermined it's ability to compete econmically.)

China's current success is based on having gradually permitted certain freedoms - mainly related to a free market; in the long term they will have to go the whole hog if they want continued economic success - but there will be lots of fairly bumpy alterations along the way both politically and economically.

So, getting back to your point, I think that the more sophisticated our economies get the more damping there is to the sine wave, as people have more to lose from upsetting the system, but that doesn't rule out a major disturbance significantly altering the system e.g. economic depression triggered by large-scale climate change or dearth or key resources.