In his “The Subject of the Slave Trade,” John Wood Sweet provided an extremely insightful and informative overview of recent and notable works regarding the slave trade. Personally, I found his exploration of the differing focal points most interesting, and greatly respected his ability to present and examine so many points of view instead of getting entrenched in a single narrative. Before reading, I knew very little about the slave trade, and I found continual satisfaction in uncovering all the ways in which my vague notions were one-sided and recklessly incomplete.
One thing that stood out to me was his discussion of the slave trade as a moral versus economic issue. He mentions the tendency of many historians to focus “largely on issues of politics and morality and only to a lesser extent on the economic consequences of the slave trade and colonial slavery” (p. 1). This is interesting in two ways: first, it raises the question ‘Was slavery economically or morally motivated?’, and second, it makes me consider the implications of moralizing history. Racism is often, and rightly, seen as a great moral evil. However, just like many other sins, it was more often economically motivated than not. In fact, Sweet mentions, the British anti-slavery movement only really became popular when abolition was made “not merely principled but practical” (p. 21)–that is, when economic motivation aligned with moral motivation. To understand the slave trade, it seems crucial to study the economic situation of the involved parties.
The fact that this has been focused on “only to a lesser extent” makes me wonder to what extent recent politics are affecting how history is being told. Of course, each historical account is inevitably subject to the writer’s biases and societal upbringing–this is easy to see when reading accounts from previous eras. It seems much more difficult, though, to recognize the influences upon a writer of our own era, especially if a majority of writers have the same bias. A topic like slavery seems impossible to demoralize–even wrong, perhaps, to demoralize. Yet at the same time, it seems like this topic, if any, speaks well enough for itself to not require moralization. I’m rather split on the issue thus far and look forward to developing more of an opinion as I learn more.
Just as many seem to focus on moral instead of economic issues relating to slavery, so too do many focus on African Americans rather than Africans. I was embarrassed to realize that I had never even considered the impact of slavery on the numerous Africans who evaded capture. Through Sweet, I have discovered that this impact was truly enormous. According to him, many believe the slave trade “had a negative effect large enough to stunt the growth of Western Africa’s population for several centuries”(p. 33). That’s centuries, as in hundreds of years. It is remarkable to think about. Along with the effects on population size, the slave trade also caused, if not single-handedly then at least in large part, “increases in warfare, more centralized states…, more hierarchical social structures…, social polarization, militarization, and conflict between previously symbiotic groups” (p. 32). Those who evaded capture–excluding the few African elites who profited from the slave trade–really didn’t have it much better than those who were captured. The effects of slavery on Africa were, to say the very least, devastating.
I greatly appreciated the numerous perspectives Sweet offered on the slave trade, and found his account by far the most informative and insightful that I’ve read. The fact that his paper was over forty pages long despite including very little repetition or unnecessary exposition speaks to this topic’s enormity.