1619 and The Sexism Riddle

An old riddle illustrates the need for greater context to combat the biases underlying The 1619 Project. The promoters of 1619, which is the year the first ship carrying enslaved Africans reached Virginia, believe that slavery is what makes the U.S. special and is the essential element of white supremacy and predatory capitalism. The 1619 Project not only gets history wrong, it reinforces harmful biases and perpetuates myths of white supremacy.

Psychologists have used an old riddle to illustrate one class of harmful biases. A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he is about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain.

Mikaela Wapman and Deborah Belle of Boston University have shown that people still have trouble with this riddle. Presumably, it is gender bias that prevents people from considering the doctor is the child’s mother and the father’s spouse. Even though women are now more commonly doctors, the riddle still stumps many people. http://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/

Trigger warning: potentially offensive historical observation follows. OK, here we go. Africans chose slavery. Explain.

Reading “Africans chose slavery” may have offended you. Similar to the doctor riddle, there are biases and stereotypes that may prevent people from considering Africans as masters. Now re-read the observation as “African (masters) chose slavery.” Had you been assuming that the Africans were the slaves?

“Americans chose slavery” is the basis of the 1619 Project. It is accurate and has been a centerpiece of American history for at least my lifetime. Slavery is one of America’s original sins. This older view that America chose slavery and that slavery is an original sin should remain a centerpiece of American history. But it needs context that the 1619 Project omits.

“America chose slavery” assumes the perspective of the masters. What are the implied uses of ‘some’ and ‘all’? The children of American slaves were Americans – did they choose slavery? The statement “Americans chose slavery” does not assume that abolitionist Americans chose slavery or American slaves chose slavery; rather, it notes that American society had slavery, that many slave masters certainly supported it, and many non-masters benefited from slavery. In calling that an original sin, is it a sin that originates in America? Or is it a sin that was part of the originating of America? There is a difference and it matters.

Americans made a conscious choice for slavery, the Founders did not just accept it as an inherited institution. Philosophical debates of the time questioned slavery and Americans had moments during 1776-1788 in which slavery and emancipation were explicitly considered as features of what became the Constitution and of individual state governments. John Jay as governor of New York signed that state’s gradual emancipation law. Thomas Jefferson as governor of Virginia at about the same time did not enact a state emancipation law. New York and Virginia chose. The Constitution included provisions protecting the rights of owners of enslaved people. Americans chose slavery probably doesn’t offend many people even though many would disagree with saying “All Americans chose slavery” because of the enslaved Americans.

In contrast, being offended by “Africans chose slavery” can result from either not considering that Africans might be masters, or from being unaware that Europeans were sometimes slaves, or from being unaware of sophisticated urban cultures in sub-Saharan Africa that not only practiced slavery, but discussed it. Pernicious myths of white supremacy rely on incorrect history; specifically the false claim that history shows that Europeans can be assumed to be the masters and others assumed to be the slaves. (See SPLC for description of historical views of some white supremist organizations https://www.splcenter.org/)

The 1619 Project gets some important things right. Promoters of the 1619 Project emphasize that Slavery affected all of America, not just the South. Here are some more facts to support the view that slavery stains even parts of America considered relatively virtuous. Benjamin Franklin, who later went on to lead an abolitionist society, was a slave owner in his youth and the paper he published earned profits from selling notices related to the slave trade. In 1776, slavery was more pervasive in English colonies than commonly portrayed; Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut were slave colonies when Jefferson sat in Philadelphia writing the Declaration of Independence. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/franklin

Even the Quakers were stained with slavery despite the denomination’s reputation for abolitionist writings and efforts. Enslaved people worked William Penn’s Pennsylvania estate, Pennsbury (say that three times fast). Decades later, an escaped slave earning the name Colonel Tye fought for Britain during the Revolution against his former New Jersey master, John Corlies. Corlies was a Quaker. During the Revolution, Britain offered freedom to enslaved people like Colonel Tye who fought against revolutionaries, so Washington and his army were fighting for slavery (although the British did not announce any sort of general emancipation). More examples for educators can be found at a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) supported effort for teaching wider complicity in slavery, which is good history. https://www.tolerance.org/podcasts/teaching-hard-history/american-slavery/slavery-and-the-northern-economy

Unfortunately, the 1619 Project emphasis of the first ship carrying African slaves to Virginia takes American slavery out of context. It inadvertently and erroneously portrays Europeans as historical masters and non-Europeans as historical slaves, which is why people have problem with the historical observation – Africans chose slavery in the same sense that Americans chose slavery. In the 1619 Project view, not only is slavery an original sin of white America, but white America should be held accountable as a purveyor of the sin of world slavery. America provided the demand for foodstuffs sustaining slavery in the Caribbean. White America provided the demand for slaves that disrupted East African kingdoms. White America instigated worldwide White Supremacy. https://pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/1619-project-curriculum

Emphasizing 1619 and American slavery in this way distorts the fundamentals of world slavery. Consider the dominant role of sugar in world slavery as the SPLC supported teaching materials suggest. Sugar was a minor crop in North America. Historically, sugar was the primary cash crop driving the slave trade, not tobacco or cotton. SPLC suggested teaching materials note that sugar was believed to be first cultivated in the Pacific region, made its way to the Middle East, and came to the attention of Europeans during the crusades. In the late middle ages and the renaissance, sugar was produced by slaves on plantations in the Eastern Mediterranean. SPLC suggested materials note that enslaved sugar plantation workers included Slavic Christians captured by Muslims as prisoners of war. https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/2018-02/TT-Teaching-Hard-History-American-Slavery-IDM-How-did-Sugar-Feb2018.pdf

However, teachers relying on these SPLC materials might be misled into thinking that almost all of the sugar plantation slaves of European descent were soldiers in battles between Christians and Moslems captured as prisoners of war. No. The Black Sea slave trade started before the Moslem conquest of the Crimea and the accompanying religious wars. Vikings active on the rivers of the steppes, and Italian shippers from city states like Genoa, carried on the Black Sea slave trade based on kidnappings before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Italian city-states also sold European slaves to Moslems in North Africa, most egregiously inspiring the legend of the pied piper by selling some of the followers Nicholas of Cologne of the so-called Children’s Crusade into slavery in North Africa rather than transporting them to Palestine. Slavic and other Europeans worked as slaves on sugar plantations on Cyprus, as slave-soldiers in Moslem armies, as concubines in Moslem harems, and all the other traditional occupations of slaves in the West Asian and North African world. https://www.history.com/news/the-disastrous-time-tens-of-thousands-of-children-tried-to-start-a-crusade

Kidnappings of Christian Europeans and selling them to Moslems (European and non-European) continued alongside wars between the faiths. Religious wars expanded the opportunity to take advantage of each religion’s laws for enslaving non-believers. According to historian Eizo Matsuki, the Moscovite commercial laws included a national tax for the express purpose of trying to redeem enslaved people, including peasants. “The Russian population on the southern border with the Crimean Tatars was continuously exposed to the dangers of Crimean raider bands, which were usually formed to attack Russian permanent settlements, capture people and sell them to slave-traders, or to give them back to Russia for ransom monies.” https://www.medievalists.net/2014/03/crimean-tatars-russian-captive-slaves/

Focusing on 1619, North America, and Africa may distort proportion if taken out of context. According to Henry Louis Gates, the best estimate of kidnapped Africans during 1502-1866 is 11.2 million, a horrific number. The best estimate of those shipped to North America over the entire three and a half centuries is 450,000, still a horrific number, but less than 5%. Even if the true number is somewhat higher, the overwhelming number of enslaved African people were shipped to Brazil or the Caribbean, primarily to work the sugar plantations.

How does 450,000 over the course of more than three centuries to North America compare to the rest of the world? Just during the first half-century of the 1600s, historian Michael Khodarsky estimates that between 150,000 and 200,000 ethnic Slavs were enslaved and sold across the Black Sea. Alan Fisher estimates that two million Slavs were captured and sold across the Black Sea between 1468 and 1694. Lest people believe slavery in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean is a Moslem feature, many of the slave traders in the Moslem city of Kaffa were Christians and Jews. https://www.npr.org/2011/07/27/138601410/what-it-means-to-be-black-in-latin-america

Slavery was not confined to sugar plantations and the Eastern Mediterranean. North African raiders continued kidnapping and enslaving Europeans to the nineteenth century. Moslem and Christian leaders signed occasional treaties and issued occasional proclamations to deter raids or facilitate negotiations to allow for redemptions, but slave raiding continued. The United States even went to war against the Barbary Pirates of North Africa inspiring the “shores of Tripoli” line in the Marines theme song. Decades after 1619, slavers raided the Irish town of Baltimore kidnapping over 100 of its inhabitants, with most of the men working the rest of their lives as galley slaves and the women in harems.

Nor was historical African slavery only something north of the Sahara or only after Portuguese arrival. Thousands of manuscripts from the library of Timbuktu have survived. Some document the law of slavery as practiced in Mali at the time or describe events in the lives of particular slaves. Other manuscripts examine the law of slavery under Islam. Examples of translations and duplications can be found through the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mali/mali-checklist.html

The point is that context changes the interpretation of 1619. A ship carrying enslaved people arriving in 1619 is a very important date for Americans to teach, but it does not make Virginia special; rather, it makes Virginia like much of the the world. North America inclusion of slavery was not anachronistic in 1619. The proportion of slaves working cash crops on plantations was not anachronistic in 1619. If North America had never had slavery, the viability of slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean would still have disrupted West Africa on about the same scale. European lands were still being raided for slaves after 1619, especially Slavic peoples. Slavery did not make North America different in some way that can explain the rapidity of industrialization compared to other regions. The white supremacists are wrong – Europeans were often slaves and non-Europeans were often masters – so critical race theorists should stop making erroneous generalizations similar to white supremacists.

Bigotry is more sinister and is what should be emphasized. Mediterranean slavery was often an “equal opportunity” employer, at least in terms of skin color. A more dominant consideration was transferring enslaved people to masters of a different religion. Shippers from the city of Genoa participated in both the Black Sea slave trade and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. When the Crimean Khanate took control of the ports of the northern Black Sea in 1441, some of the slave traders supplying sugar plantations on Cyprus were Italians from Genoa. A generation later, Christopher Columbus (from Genoa) transported slaves to establish sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Slavers kidnapped and sold whites on a large scale to work sugar plantations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and slavers kidnapped and sold Africans on an even larger scale to work sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

Transporting kidnapped slaves is a common precaution against escapes. Slavs were kidnapped from Eastern Europe and sold to West Asia and North Africa. Native North Americans were transported to the Caribbean. Africans were transported to Brazil. Certainly these practices can lead to local bigotry, but they need not necessarily become law.

Unlike slavery in most of the Moslem world, slavery in Dutch and English colonies in America became based on concepts of race and infected the law. This bigotry was not a natural consequence of the arrival of a ship carrying enslaved Africans in 1619. Even if some ethnic bigotry existed in the Mediterranean and West Asia, codifying such beliefs in law was not the pre-colonial norm. Fifteenth century edicts by the Pope certifying Portuguese slaving activities in the Atlantic distinguished between Christians, Moslems, and Pagans for treatment. The Black color of the skin of pagans was referenced but the basis of treatment was religious differences, not skin color. In fact, Christopher Columbus was accompanied by a free Black African on a trans-Atlantic voyage, and free Blacks participated in the colonizing of Spanish and Portuguese possessions. Free Black and enslaved Black contributions extended to Spanish Florida in St. Augustine, pre-dating 1619 by six decades.

The year 1619 is not what distinguishes American capitalism from the rest of the world’s economies. If by American capitalism, people mean using plantations worked by enslaved people to produce cash crops, then capitalism encompasses all of the different economic arrangements from Mongol Ukraine, Crusader Palestine, Turkish Asia Minor, Italian-Controlled Cyprus, Barbary Tunisia, Portuguese Brazil, Spanish Cuba, Dutch Antilles, British Jamaica, and French Guadalupe.

If instead capitalism refers to the rise in wealth in England and the United States during the industrial revolution, note that industrialization was most rapid in regions that did not rely on slave labor. Such regions include England, the U.S. North, and what became Germany. It should also be pointed out that the U.S. South was also industrializing rapidly by world standards, just more slowly than the North, so I am not suggesting that free labor was the essential feature of capitalism either.

Perhaps it is not only direct use of slave labor, but also trade with regions that relied on slavery, that supposedly links American capitalist wealth to slavery. If so, why was there wealth acceleration in the United States and England relative to other areas that traded with regions with slave labor? The Moslem world relied on slavery and traded with regions that relied on slavery. Many cultures relied on slavery or traded with regions that did. Starting in the 1750s (prior to the cotton gin), England, the northern United States, parts of what is now Germany, and to a lesser extent the American South, increased in wealth relative to other societies that relied on slave labor, or traded with societies that relied on slave labor. The facts simply don’t support the view that slavery is the essential feature of industrialization.

Summarizing the context, focusing on 1619 and slavery is misguided if the intent is to illustrate what makes the United States special, exceptional, or wealthy. The arrival or departure of a ship carrying slaves was not unusual in the lands encompassing the Black Sea, Mediterranean, Atlantic, or Caribbean. Relying on slave labor during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries is not what distinguishes places that enjoyed the industrial revolution from those that did not, nor does trading with areas that relied on slave labor.

Furthermore, to refute the assertions of white supremacists and avoid reinforcing implicit biases like the doctor riddle, it is worthwhile to note that the enslaved people transported during the 1600s included people kidnapped from Europe who were destined to work as galley slaves, plantation laborers, as soldiers, or in harems for masters in Asia and Africa.

Law is another matter. In America, white supremacy is linked to slavery. Race-based legal codes accompany American slavery. The 1619 Project and the SPLC are right to identify it. Slavery of Africans in America and some other parts of colonial empires were accompanied by legal distinctions based on skin color typically absent in slavery among Mediterranean Catholics and Moslems.

The Mediterranean world had millennia of slavery, and with that came traditions governing the treatment of slaves. Both Islamic Law and Roman Catholic Law included limits on the rights of masters to mistreat slaves and some ability of slaves to attain freedom for themselves or their descendants. Even if such traditions were often abused or ignored, the existence of non-governmental institutions affecting the administration of slavery offered greater opportunity to attain freedom and avoid the worst forms of legalized bigotry. For example, the Catholic Church maintained the tradition that slaves could have some property rights, and of coartacion, a price for purchasing one’s own freedom. Free Blacks participated and excelled in the Spanish Empire even though enslaved Africans worked the sugar plantations.

The activities of free Blacks were restricted in many North American colonies. English and Dutch colonization of Virginia, New Amsterdam, and Massachusetts occurred in the context of the wars of the Reformation. When Virginia and other colonies wrote laws regulating slavery, the traditions of the Catholic Church regarding the rights of enslaved people were not particularly relevant. Over the course of a century, explicit bigotry was written into many colonial slave laws. The children of Black slaves, but not white servants, become perpetual slaves unless freed by the owner. Laws restricted marriage, even of free Blacks. Many areas restricted free Blacks’ participation on juries. These distinctions between free whites and free Blacks, and between the children of white slaves and children of Black slaves, were not the norm in the Moslem or Catholic traditions rooted near the Mediterranean – societies with much more diversity.

In fairness to the Protestant Reformation, many of the leaders of successful abolition movements were Protestants, and their opposition to slavery was rooted in their faith. Some of the most vehement opponents of abolition were Catholics and Moslems, perhaps because of the long traditions.

Much of this blog post emphasizes interpretation, but I want to emphasize a fact again. The 1619 Project and SPLC suggested teaching materials exclude important context about kidnappings of Slavs for sugar production – not just prisoners of war. This would be an obscure piece of trivia but for the emphasis that The 1619 Project and critical race theorists put on whites as masters and Blacks as slaves. Perhaps unintentionally, but that emphasis reinforces racist bias similar to the the gender bias revealed by the doctor riddle. The phrase Africans chose slavery is offensive if you have been trained to assume that the Africans can’t be the masters doing the choosing. It is not offensive if it is considered in the same way that one considers Americans chose slavery, and if one knows that some African societies practiced slavery.

It is easy to mistake context for justification. This blog post provides context. Nothing justifies slavery. If you want to quote this blog post, the quote is – nothing justifies slavery.

2 thoughts on “1619 and The Sexism Riddle

  1. Except you actually justify slavery with this meandering drivel. If you don’t have the courage to put your name in it, thus isn’t much more than some pontification of a white person giving us another version of @nit all white people…”


    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. No, I don’t believe that the fact that slavery in general was widespread in 1619, or that the primary destinations for kidnapped Africans were Brazil and the Caribbean, not North America, justifies slavery. Saying that slavery is what makes America exceptional, like The 1619 Project does, is inaccurate. Correcting that inaccuracy does not justify slavery. Justification is a moral and ethical position, not a collection of facts. Here is the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. My entire life has been after this declaration. Nothing justifies slavery. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights


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