The Subject of the Slave Trade: reflection

John Wood Sweet’s The Subject of the Slave Trade revealed to me more complex, and broader perspectives of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I appreciate how Sweet discussed different perspectives of the Slave Trade at different “scales.” Since reading the 1619 Project, I realized how difficult but important it is to pay attention to the scale of history we examine. It is easy to forget about West Africa, and even other European countries when the majority of voices telling the story of slavery is American. But it is understandable; slavery did play a considerable role in shaping America to the country it is today. However, if the scale of historical interest remains confined, it can potentially turn history into moral sentiments. For telling a nation’s story it is useful, but to understand why the world is the way it is today, we need to look beyond that.

On a narrower scale, we focus on the sufferings of slaves. As a result, it is tempting to categorize people into “victims” and “villains.” But as we know, the slaves “were not passive victims…but rather crucial players decisively shaping events and outcomes.” (p. 34) The victims are also the oppressors, and oppressors are also subject to oppression. In desire for political power, tribes of West Africans contributed to the capturing of slaves before they themselves could potentially be captured. As Sweet points out in Markus Rediker’s The Slave Ship, the members of the crew were also susceptible to oppression and death. (p. 12) The sailors oppressed the slaves, but the Captains oppressed the sailors. The Captains who threw the slaves off the ship in the Zong massacre ensured the maximum profits they could get from one voyage, but they also reduced the witnessing of unnecessary sufferings. The slave owners were not an exception; the accounting system in plantations gave market values to the slaves as commodities, not as humans. By dehumanizing enslaved people, they can choose to ignore the trauma they imposed on the slaves and consequently, on themselves too. The colonialists and capitalists are in constant competition for power and dominance over the global market. Therefore, if “logic of finance capital and the logic of empathy” work along, I think fear of suffering also plays an important role.

That’s why I don’t completely relate to Katrina Browne’s Traces of the Trade. There is a sort of moral pressure and responsibility for the De Wolf descendants to find out about their family’s history in the Slave Trade. But sympathy is weak and cheap in a sense that they are still doing what reduces the most suffering for themselves.

There will always be people that suffers from exploitation. Who suffers in place of the slaves in today’s world? It is easy to blame slavery to ignore the challenges imposed by a global economy. Slavery created impacts that continued (and will continue) “for several centuries.” It isn’t just a period of human moral decay that has been left in the past to be examined for. It is crucial to investigate the Slave Trade’s history, and therefore, the history of the modern global economy. In this case I agree with Sweet that it is “hard not to wonder whether the universal agreement to condemn slavery is not still a part of an attempt to reassure the world that, having abolished this one form of exploitation, the modern economic order has been redeemed.” (Pp. 30-31)

The thing I appreciate the most from Sweet’s essay is that it reviews multiple perspectives from lots of sources. I think this is how history should be told; which is, multiple versions of the same story being told at the same time. One can easily focus and sympathize on the sufferings of the slaves. However, placing it in a larger scale, from another perspective; the Slave Trade can be more than the treatment of a single slave, of a ship of slaves, of slavery in America, or of commerce between several countries. It is essential to understand each perspective of the Slave Trade at the same time.




One thought on “The Subject of the Slave Trade: reflection”

  1. Hi Cecilia, this is an excellent post! I agree that this document was valuable due to the range of perspectives it showcased. I also love how you said, “But sympathy is weak and cheap in a sense that they are still doing what reduces the most suffering for themselves”. That is so true, and I really enjoyed how you said that. You also made an interesting point about “victims” and “villains”, and I definitely agree that it’s more complex than that. Great job!!

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