Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Half the world enslaved

From The Moral Is the Practical by Alex Tabarrok.

I think Tabarrok has the wrong end of the stick in this argument but this passage struck me for three reasons, entirely unrelated to his argument.
When in 1787 Thomas Clarkson founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade a majority of the world’s people were held in slavery or serfdom and slavery was considered by almost everyone as normal, as it had been considered for thousands of years and across many nations and cultures. Slavery was also immensely profitable and woven into the fabric of the times. Yet within Clarkson’s lifetime slavery would be abolished within the British Empire.
First thing - Is that really true? That in 1787 the majority of the world was in slavery or serfdom? I have on a number of occasions come across historians who make a point of slavery being so much more the norm in centuries past. I think their general point is true - we fail to distinguish just how unique are the circumstances of today compared to what was quotidian behavior in very recent times. I am very comfortable as well with the concept that hierarchies were much steeper and that for all intents and purposes, most people were in near poverty and unfree as we understand it today.

But that the majority were enslaved or serfs in the way we understand those terms today? My first instinct is that that statement is preposterous rhetoric. But possibly it is true. India and China were the big population centers and India certainly had economic and governance arrangements by which one could with some basis regard the large majority as serfs. China I am not as familiar with but I suppose it could be true there as well. Russia, obviously. Much or all of Latin America perhaps. A big proportion of the population of Africa, certainly. The world population in 1750 was about 800 million with the majority in Asia. So I guess you could get to those numbers. More than 400 million either enslaved or in serf-like circumstances. Hmmph. Never quite thought of it like that before.

Second thing - just striking that there were two such major leaps forward in world freedom in 1787 - The founding of The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the start of the constitutional convention for the US in Philadelphia. The world is far freer and people have far more choices directly arising from those two events which coincidentally happened in the same year. Freedom was in the air.

Third thing - I have no problem with big man history, the focus on individuals and their pivotal contributions to history: the George Washington's, Thomas Paine's, the Albert Einstein's. Of course each operated within a context and there were innumerable others contributing to or working in parallel to those individuals. There's a lot more nuance and detail than Big Man history allows. That said though, it is interesting how some truly pivotal big men there were who are so underappreciated or unacknowledged. In this instance, Thomas Clarkson. This guy is so critical to a course of history which is so important to so many people today. And yet, who among how many has even heard of Clarkson and his actions.

A contemporary example is Norman Borlaug. Quiet and unassuming; father of the Green Revolution and the man who saved a billion lives. Quiet men, effective men, consequential men and yet largely uncelebrated men.

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