Britain’s Struggle to Abolish the Slave Trade

abolition

Abolition: The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies

By Richard S Reddie

Lion Hudson (2007)

Book Review

Reddie devotes most of his book to debunking common myths Europeans perpetuate to justify chattel slavery and the current plight of the African diaspora. First and foremost is the prevailing myth that Africa was a savage and backwards continent prior to the arrival of the first Europeans.

Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of the Nubian, Great Zimbabwe, Ghana, Songhay or Mali civilizations. Archival records suggests that Africa, not the Middle East, was the cradle of civilization. The pioneering Greek scientists Archimedes and Pythagoras both spent their youth studying in Egypt. There’s also fairly strong evidence that East Africans began producing steel before Europeans did.

Of the millions of slaves forcibly transported to the Americas, 40% ended up in Brazil, 40% in the Caribbean, 15% in Spanish territories and 5% in North America. Many Caribbean slaves were subsequently relocated from sugar plantations to North American cotton plantations.

Africans in the New World would outnumber Europeans by five to one until 1820. This population imbalance meant violent slave rebellions were a constant phenomenon.

This is the second myth Reddie debunks: that Europeans were primarily responsible for ending slavery. Citing a wealth of historical sources, he makes an ironclad case that Africans were primarily responsible for liberating themselves.

Even during the horrific Middle Passage, there was a major revolt in approximately one of every ten ships that left Africa. Reddie maintains it was mainly the fear of armed resistance that caused Europeans to terrorize their slaves with beatings, branding and mutilation.

Reddie details the bloody 1791 uprising in St Domingue (now Haiti), in which St Domingue slaves both freed themselves and won independence from France. All the new world colonies experienced frequent slave revolts, with those of Jamaica and Guyana deserving special mention for the number of Europeans killed.

Abolition! also discusses the grassroots organizing led by Quakers, evangelical Methodists and other religious groups leading to the 1807 law banning the British transatlantic slave trade. Although men such as William Wilberforce receive most of the credit, the abolition movement was mostly led by women.

The fight to end slavery altogether in British colonies would take another 27 years. Wilberforce opposed ending slavery itself as he believed slaves needed to be “properly prepared” before being granted their freedom.

The Ugly History of the War on Drugs

Exile Nation: An Oral History of the War on Drugs

Directed by Charles Shaw (2011)

Film Review

In laying out the sordid history of the US prison industrial complex, Exile Nation helps us understand how the US came to have the largest prison population in the world, far exceeding that of China, which has over four times as many people.

A significant proportion of US inmates are African Americans and Hispanics locked up for “victimless” drug offenses. At present 500,000 of American’s 2.3 million prison population is inside for using heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Thirty thousand are there for cannabis possession.

The documentary intersperses commentary by “experts” (cops, judges, sociologists, psychiatrists, defense attorneys, jail monitors, medical marijuana activists and prison rights advocates) with those of ex-offenders.

The US Invents Mass Incarceration

Crime rates in the US first reached a high point in 1830, largely due to high levels of alcohol abuse. The US would be the first country in the modern era to introduce mass incarceration as punishment for law breaking. The Pennsylvania Quakers believed that locking people up would force them to “repent” – the origin of the word penitentiary. The experiment failed. Studies consistently show that imprisoning convicts neither rehabilitates them nor discourages them from re-offending.

Nixon’s War on Drugs

Nineteenth century crime rates slowly declined, plateauing during the Civil War era. From then on, they remained constant until the 1970s, when Nixon declared the first war on drugs. His primary target was the immense social movements of the late sixties and early seventies. Nixon couldn’t constitutionally punish hippies for opposing the Vietnam War nor African Americans for demanding the right to vote. Instead he targeted their behavior, ie the widespread use of marijuana, LSD and cocaine that accompanied these movements.

In doing so, Nixon deliberately ignored the recommendation of a 1972 bipartisan commission that recommended that marijuana use be criminalized.

Reagan’s War on Drugs

The prison industrial complex received a second major boost in 1984, when Reagan declared a second war on drugs. Unlike Nixon, who envisioned drug arrests as a form of social control, Reagan used the drug war (particularly against crack, a new bargain basement form of cocaine) to demonize African Americans and win votes from white blue collar workers.

The Mainstream Media Revolts

The media turned against the drug war and prison industrial complex in the 1990s, with Ted Koppel producing several excellent documentaries highlighting the drawbacks of mass incarceration. The resulting shift in public opinion would lead the federal government and many states to begin downsizing their prison populations. Sadly 9-11 and the War on Terror interrupted this process.

A high point for me were the interviews with medical marijuana activists describing the history of their movement (leading to the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in 23 states sates).

I also really liked the sections on the medical use of MDMA (ecstasy) in treating post traumatic disorder and the psychedelic ibogaine in treating heroin addiction.