July 26, 2005

The Differences Slavery Made A comparison of two communities near the Mason-Dixon Line "designed to isolate the role of slavery in shaping societies of similar location and histories", "an applied experiment in digital scholarship".
  • Interesting stuff, Abiezer, though at the moment I don't seem to be able to see all the pages. What always puzzles me is how Westerners were able to spend the medieval period believing that slavery was immoral and incompatible with Christianity (I think even unscrupulous thugs like the Normans regarded outright slavery (as opposed to serfdom) as beyond the pale) and then suddenly decide it was OK after all when they rediscovered it in Africa, and even suitable for 'bringing home' to Europe and, on a grander scale, America.
  • That's a thought provoking question Plegmund, and not something I'd been thinking about. I came across this link because I was reading around on some themes suggested in CA Bayly's book 'The Birth of the Modern World' sample chapter (PDF) I'm not very far in yet, but Bayly seems to be emphasising the role the Atlantic slave trade had in giving a competitive edge to European industrious revolutions (PDF), hastening their rise to economic dominance in the archaic and proto-globalised orderwhen the more likely candidate on the face of it would have been China. Following up the 'slavery' references in the index, I see he goes on to say that 'one reason slave-traders were able to stave off the growing attacks of abolitionists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was that practically every set of legal or religious traditions in the world gave it some degree of legitimacy'...and that 'far from losing power in the nineteenth century, classical systems of law and normative codes were widely reinvented, sometimes providing justifications for the proponents of slavery', but that '[a]bove all, racial difference was invoked by white Europeans and Americans, and to a lesser extent by Asians and Africans, to justify slavery.' So my crude summary would be that slavery was found to be 'the most advanced form of economic specialization and the long-distance deployment of capital' (p. 40 and should be in the linked sample chapter) and as so often in human affairs, the morality was bent to what was found to be expedient or profitable.
  • Gah, typed out that long screed and forgot my point about this link! So I searched on the economics of slavery and came across this, which seems to be down-playing the special role of slavery in modernisation. As they say in their conclusion:
    The difference slavery made is widely recognized to be profound and yet study after study has shown that slavery did little to create differences between North and South in voting patterns, wealth distributions, occupation levels, and other measurable indices.
    I've not finished reading all the material on the site yet, but it seems like a well-presented, rich resource and (in my case) a good counterpoint to (the very impressive and enjoyable) Bayly work.
  • I read a study a while ago which I cannot now track down, on the impact of abolition on the British sugar trade. It has been argued, apparently, that unwilling slave labour was actually less efficient than willing paid workers; unfortunately the study vindicated the common sense view that the opposite is true - abolition in the British West Indies actually led to a large chunk of the trade switching to French plantations which still, at that stage, used slaves. That would tend to support the contention that slavery gave Britain in particular at least a temporary economic boost. There must surely be other reasons, however why China didn't have the Industrial Revolution first - social, technological (though mentioning technology sort of begs the question, I realise).
  • I first read this as "The differences saliva made". I'm very tired. /contributing nothing to the discussion