Reflection on “The Subject of the Slave Trade”

Reading John Sweet’s essay, “The Subject of the Slave Trade”, has provoked several questions regarding the values that were assigned to enslaved people. Throughout our study of slavery in the Americas, we have frequently circled back to the question, “Was slavery in the Americas primarily an economic phenomenon, or a racial phenomenon?”. Sweet’s essay highlights the connection between these two phenomena, by discussing how enslaved people were treated as number values. In the essay, Sweet explains how, 

. . . the Zong massacre was a sign of how far the modern financial revolution had come. . . . As Lord Mansfield rules. . . the people thrown off the Zong could not be seen as the murder victims: in the eyes of the law [it was] ‘the same as if horses had been thrown overboard’ (p. 25).

From the moment people were captured, they were no longer treated as people. The “African captives were exported so that their labor power could fuel the plantation economies of the Americas” (p. 31), meaning they were seen as capital rather than people. We see this conveyed through the very layout of the Brookes slave ship. The “schematic plan of the slave ship Brookes [shows] the vessel’s hold crammed with tiny black figures, each representing a captive” (p. 31). The slave trade was entirely detached from any humanitarian sentiment. Perhaps, this inhumane treatment was a method used to save the slave traders from guilt. Or, perhaps, this was due to the slave trade’s revolvement around economics. Sweet’s essay provides extensive justification for slavery being an economic phenomenon. However, it could not have been purely economical, because it was only black people who were being valued as inferior capital, and it was primarily white oppressors reducing them to those positions. The combination of economic and racial motivations led to the values that were assigned to enslaved people, and this created the extreme maltreatment that is widely recognized.

One of the fundamental takeaways I had from this essay is the involvement of sympathy and humanitarianism in the abolition of slavery. When discussing the motivations behind abolition, it is fairly clear that morality influenced this movement. The effect that morality had on the abolition of slavery was evidently important, but to what extent? Sweet explains that the Anglo-American conversations surrounding abolition have shifted from “self-flagellation [to] self-gratulation” (p. 16). Thus, many historians have begun “emphasizing the role of humanitarian sentiment” (p. 16) in this movement. This shift leads to dangerous territory. Once we begin congratulating people for supporting abolition, we begin to accept the bare-minimum. For instance, Baucom demonstrates the,

. . . many pitfalls and paradoxes of a politics of empathy, such as its emphasis on cruelty and suffering rather than justice and equality. . . . First, there is the inherent tendency of sentimental spectatorship to slide from empathy to self-gratulation, inaction, and even to self-pity”(p. 25).

As humans, we have the tendency to applaud ourselves for sympathizing with others. But in doing so, we are distancing ourselves from the real problems. We are excusing ourselves from taking action, because we begin to feel that our sympathy is enough to consider ourselves “allies”. It is imperative that we do not become “historical spectator[s] impressed by the idea of [our] own sympathy for the suffering” (p. 26), because people want real change, not sympathy. We see heavy remnants of this theme in our current society, as explained by the term “performative activism”. Performative activism occurs when people “advocate” to increase their social status, rather than to support a cause. Having “humanitarian” motivations can prevent change from occurring, or can slow down the process. It would be interesting to know whether sympathy and humanitarianism accelerated or obstructed the abolition movement. And beyond that, how it still affects equality for black people today.

To summarize, Sweet’s essay prompted me to question the significance of economics in slavery, along with the motivations behind the abolition movement. This essay discusses several fundamental questions that arise in the study of trans-atlantic slavery, and it is heavily supported by evidence. Though it is quite lengthy and dense, it serves as an excellent document that raises numerous questions on the slave trade.

One thought on “Reflection on “The Subject of the Slave Trade””

  1. Hi Amy, excellent job on the reflection! I strongly agree that solely feeling sympathetic is “excusing ourselves from taking action.” I’m curious to know if you would think slavery between tribes in West Africa was also a combination of both racial and economic phenomenon? How should we view slavery in the same race? Nevertheless, great job!

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