Thursday, April 05, 2007

Hispanic America & the end of slavery

A friend and colleague of mine offers a useful historical supplement to my discussion of the abolition of slavery in my post on Slavery today last week.

I noted that "Outlawing slavery has been one of the great and distinctive accomplishments of the modern era" and that "This long-term effort to abolish slavery was a project initiated in one specific civilization, namely modern western civilization, and was extended to other civilizations in large part through western influence, pressure, and example."
The abolition of slavery—or at least its outlawing—was the work of the past three centuries. The abolition of British slave trade in 1807 (properly celebrated by the recent film Amazing Grace) and the abolition of slavery itself throughout the British Empire in 1834 were important milestones in this process, though some European societies had already begun to declare slavery illegal in their home territories (as opposed to their overseas possessions) during the 1700s. In the 1790s there was a massive slave revolution in Haiti that, for the first time in history, successfully and permanently ended slavery through rebellion by slaves themselves. The abolition of very large-scale systems of slavery in the US in 1865 and in Brazil in 1888 are other well-known milestones. This process of formal abolition was eventually completed in the 20th century. (I believe that the last country to declare slavery illegal was Saudi Arabia in 1962.)
=> My friend, who comes from Latin America, pointed out to me via e-mail that any account of this historical process should also include the pioneering role of several new Spanish-American republics in the early 19th century, which abolished slavery right after winning their independence from Spain. He's right. I also agree with him that there is "widespread ignorance" about this record and that part of the reason is indeed, as he complains, that "people never think of looking to Latin America to find anything positive."

His outburst about these matters was a little irritated, but I think there's some justification for that. The points he raises are significant, and his analysis—which emphasizes the crucial role of democratic revolutionary ideology—is worth sharing. So, with his permission, his communication is posted below (without his name, since he figures that he gets too much e-mail already).

—Jeff Weintraub
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Dear Jeff:

The article you send on slavery shows very well just how shamelessly European- and U.S.-centric people's historical images and understanding are.

The first countries in the world to abolish slavery—where it was used economically or where the slave trade was profitable, i.e., not Haiti where there was a slave revolt, or 18th-century Europe where the few domestic slaves were freed but where slave traders continued to make money—were several newly independent Hispanic American Republics. In particular Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico.

Yes, abolition was a "Western" notion, but this "Western" notion began to be applied where the newest theories of democratic government were taken most seriously as an ideological blueprint in the Western world, that is, in the new Hispanic American Republics. In the U.S. the process of independence did not change much of anything in the society, or even in politics. The U.S. constitution was the result of a series of pragmatic compromises. In the Hispanic American Republics the new institutional setups were created by political leaders who believed firmly in the new democratic political doctrines, and this is what led to an early end (the first in the world) to slavery.

[JW: Well, yes and no. The northern states of the US abolished slavery during and after the American revolution, beginning with Vermont in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, and Massachusetts in 1783, followed more tardily and gradually by states like Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. And in 1787 the US Continental Congress pre-emptively banned slavery in the Northwest Territory that later became the new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Within a generation after the American revolution, slavery was effectively illegal in all US states north of the Mason-Dixon line.
However, it's true that slavery was not abolished in the country as a whole until 1865. Furthermore, the abolition of slavery in the new Spanish-American republics was more radical, thoroughgoing, and immediate than in most of the northern states where slavery had already existed. And the Fugitive Slave Act meant that the northern states remained, in principle, directly complicit in enforcing the southern slave system.]

In Chile at the time of independence (1810) there were 14,000 slaves. They were freed (in 1812 through a law that had that effect without seeming to do so, and in 1822 in peremptory terms when all had already been freed in fact) without any compensation to owners or to slave traders. Former slaves were accepted as citizens immediately. And they married into the population, producing descendants from which the African phenotypes slowly faded.

The widespread ignorance of this record regarding the abolition of slavery stems from the fact that people never think of looking to Latin America to find anything positive. Hence the focus is on the shameful record of the Brazilian empire, as if all of Latin America is (of course) more belated in adopting a measure "pioneered" in the Americas by the U. S.! But remember that Brazil never had a process of independence that opened the way to an abrupt democratic revolution.

What´s amazing about your discussion is that it does refer to the "western hemisphere", and it calls the abolition of slavery in the U. S. an important "milestone." And yet it does not indicate that the first important milestone in the abolition of slavery occurred in a select number of Hispanic American Republics!

Best,
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