Saturday, January 24, 2009

History 112: Brave New World of Economics (Part II)

(Part I)

I would to turn to the darker side of this economic revolution, slavery. Like tobacco, the trans-Atlantic slave trade is something whose effects are still with us today and which we are still paying a price for. Those who concocted the trans-Atlantic slave trade could not have imagined the sort of problems they would be passing on to future generations.

In your reading you had a passage from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, an African slave who bought his freedom and served as a leading abolitionist in late eighteenth century England. How is someone like Equiano useful in understanding the slave trade? As a white person living a comfortable existence in middle class America, I might be inclined to downplay the horrors of the slave trade. “It could not have really that bad. The Africans who came over must have really wanted to come, just like other immigrants to this country.” Reading Equiano might serve to shake me from such a view, just as many comfortable middle Christians in England were shaken in their views of slavery by reading Equiano. The problem, though, is that Equiano is clearly a biased source. He was an abolitionist, writing with a polemical purpose. “He must have been exaggerating and making up lurid details in order to get people to sympathize with the plight of African slaves.” What might convince me otherwise? In addition to Equiano you read a passage from a Dutch slave ship captain, Willem Bosman. His account describes pretty much the same sorts of things that we find with Equiano. Bosman had no interest in making up lurid horror stories to bring down his own profession. This makes him very believable. Ironically as this might sound, when dealing with the horrors of the slave trade, our best source are the slave traders themselves, who confirm the nightmarish picture painted by abolitionists.

Equiano appears in the film Amazing Grace, which deals with the English abolitionist movement in the eighteenth century. The main focus of the film is on William Wilberforce, a member of parliament and an abolitionist. What this film does really well is capture the strongly Evangelical motives of abolitionism. We are trying to establish the kingdom of God here under King Jesus here. All this drinking, gambling and whoring, which England is full off, has got to go. While we are at it, slavery also has to go since all men are supposed to be equal in this kingdom of God. Those people owning slave are not just not nice people, they are serving the cause of Satan and holding back the kingdom of God. If you deal in slaves you are going to go to Hell. The title of the film, Amazing Grace, refers to the famous hymn. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a mentor of Wilberforce. John Newton was a slave ship captain until he had a religious experience and became an Evangelical preacher. Amazing Grace is probably the greatest summation of Evangelical thinking. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound” – how great is that free and unearnable gift of grace to be able to know God and accept his salvation. “That saved a wretch like me” – Grace even saved a wretched sinful slave trader like me. “I once was lost” – I used to be lost in the web of my sinful slave trading ways. “But now am found” – Now Christ has revealed himself to me and showed me that slavery is wrong. “Was blind” – I used to think that my godless slave trading ways were not an offense to God. “But now I see” – Now I have been enlightened by scripture and see that slave traders are hellbound sinners.

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