Mar 052021
 

Every so often I encounter some statement online which perpetuates some slavery myth or other. Those myths are not entirely unreasonable – they’re very often applicable to the largest group of descendents of victims of one of the most recent episodes of the slave trade.

But they’re still myths and they distort the history of slavery.

1. Slavery is History

Nope. Estimates of the number of people held as slaves today vary from 25 million to 43 million.

And whilst legal slavery has been abolished world-wide, the last country with legal slavery (Mauritania) didn’t abolish it until 1981, and it wasn’t criminalised until 2007. There are supposedly more anti-slavery activists in prison than slave owners.

2. Only Africa

Slavery has existed throughout history and in every part of the world. For example, the Domesday book (1086) documented that 10% of England’s population were slaves. Indeed the port of Bristol owes its success to the salve trade, but not the one involving African slaves, but Anglo-Saxon slaves – 1,000 years earlier.

3. Slave Traders Weren’t All White

When white dudes rocked up at African ports (yes really) and asked if there were any slaves for sale, the slave trade was already centuries old. It’s hard to ascertain just how many free people were enslaved by each group, but what we know of African history makes it plain that many if not most of the slaves shipped to the Americas were sold to slave traders by other slave traders; native slave traders.

For an example look at the history of Dahomey (and this was not an isolated example).

13th Century Africa Slave Trade Routes (from Wikipedia)

4. Not All Slaves Were Black

In the early modern period the overwhelming majority of slaves traded were African, but the slave trade (even during this period) did include white folk.

For example, the Barbary coast pirates enslaved up to a million Europeans by seizing ship’s crews and raiding coastal settlements (mostly Spain and Italy but England and Ireland weren’t immune). Despite punitive military expeditions from all over Europe (and the US), the slave trade wasn’t finished off until the French invaded.

And that ignores the amount of slaves captured by the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe.

5. It Wasn’t Just The Atlantic Slave Trade

As you can see from the previous map, the trade in African slaves doesn’t just predate the Atlantic slave trade (and predates it by a long time), but it continued even after the Atlantic slave trade. Numbers are understandably somewhat vague, but it seems likely that the Arabian slave trade was at least half of the Atlantic slave trade (~12 million) and some estimates put it at parity.

6. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was Funded By The Slave Trade

This is still open to argument, and there are serious historians on both sides of the debate. It is common to argue that the profits from the slave trade were used to fund the industrial revolution.

But :-

  1. There are not unreasonable arguments to show that the profits from the slave trade were never enough to fully fund the industrial revolution. Some did for sure, but the aristocratic landlords would have far more money to invest.
  2. Those making money from the slave trade would have been more interested in investing in property than a riskier industrial venture. Social advancement in England/Britain (or any European country at the time) was through agricultural land ownership and in the long term it was profitable too.

The other thing that is overlooked is that considerable profits were made by African slave traders; that money didn’t go towards investment in Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

7. Britain Only Opposed The Slave Trade When It Become Economically Redundant

So Britain only started combatting the slave trade when slavery was no longer profitable for the British? Any number of slave traders (including African slave traders) would have begged to disagree – slavery (or at least the slave trade) remains profitable today or it wouldn’t exist.

And Britain didn’t just oppose the slave trade with words; it put its money where its mouth was and funded the West Africa Squadron. Some say it was the most expensive international moral crusade in modern history.

Final Word

Slavery is repugnant to every decent human being well deserved of its status as a crime against humanity. And there is plenty of blame to go around – Britain should have banned the Atlantic slave trade when it began not several centuries later; so should the Portuguese (who shipped twice as many slaves). Hell, why were African kingdoms fighting wars just to capture slaves not also condemned?

This is not supposed to be a political narrative – specifically this isn’t supposed to support “white supremacy”. The only statement I would say on that kind of subject is that evil-doers can be found amongst all ethnic groups.

Of course this is from the perspective of the whole-world, and more geographically localised slavery may well be different in nature.

Feb 132021
 

No not villeins; villains. History’s “bad guys”.

The English did something bad to the Indians (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company although there were a lots of Scots in the East India Company), the Scottish did something bad to the English (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Alnwick_(1093) – and yes it’s not normally that way around), the Irish did something bad to the Welsh (https://www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland/I-III-2.php). And of course the French are always villanous (I’m English after all).

But the more you learn of history, the less easy it becomes to simply classify any nationality as the villains. Sure people did bad things, but a whole nationality? That isn’t so certain.

Take the English-Scottish rivalry for example. It is easy to see it as a simple grab for land; particularly if you’ve watched that Braveheart film and thought it was anything more than simple entertainment. But it turns out to be not quite as simple as that.

Where is the border between England and Scotland anyway? Hadrian’s wall? Or the Antonine wall? Because the border hasn’t always been where it currently is; in fact people have been having rowdy discussions on which bit belongs to whom since before either country existed (and not infrequently using the excuse to make off with each other’s livestock).

In 1018, Malcolm II invaded the northern part of Northumbria, and hung onto it unlike later attempts at a land grab which failed. But was he grabbing land on behalf of Scotland, for his own personal enrichment, or to grant lands to his followers to keep them loyal?

The later was particularly likely as Scotland was not a simple unified nation at the time, and Malcolm II was a high king with several sub-kings giving allegiance.

But were those Northumbrians in the region captured by Malcolm English or Scottish? Did they suddenly become Scottish or did they stay English? Or were they Northumbrian? Or did they think of themselves as Bernicians? Or people of the Hen Ogledd? Because they had been all those within the span of a few hundred years.

But rather than concentrating on destroying the notion of nations created by states for their own convenience, let us switch to something else.

When Malcolm II invaded Northumbria, did he give all his soldiers any choice in the matter? Of course he didn’t; some of his nobles could well have had some say, but the ordinary soldier didn’t. And the same applies for pretty much everything the “English” were responsible for.

Blaming the nation for the crimes of the ruling classes is collective guilt; one step on the way to collective punishment (a war crime). Blame those responsible by all means (and there’s plenty to blame), but don’t condemn a whole country for the crimes of a few.

War Memorial Church
Sep 242020
 

All figures within this blog posting are based on the relevant Wikipedia articles. These are not 100% accurate because no figures are – there are academics who spend their whole career improving estimates of how many were killed.

I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about this – and it has come up recently because :-

  1. I’d encountered a Jew who questioned that the overall total was over double the 6 million Jews killed.
  2. In association with a Twitter thread about the comparison between the ICE forced sterilisation of immigrants and the Nazis, I made a comment mentioning the other victims of the Nazis and neglected to include the Poles.
  3. On another Twitter thread, there was a discussion on US children not being aware that six million Jews had been killed in the holocaust; I don’t see not knowing the exact number (although six million isn’t the exact number either) as being that much of the problem (“millions” is close enough) but denying that Jews were killed in the millions is definitely problematic. But interestingly no mention was made of the other Nazi victims!

But let us get one thing out of the way first. This is not intended to devalue the murder of 6 million Jews – if they were the only victims of the Nazis, it would still be well worth going to war to scrub the Nazi stain from the Earth. And I’m not in general in favour of war.

But the same applies to the other categories of Nazi victims, and it seems they are often forgotten – people make a big deal about how the Nazis killed six million Jews (and it is a big deal) but totally neglect to mention the others.

Pre-War Killings

The first concentration camps were created in 1933 during the Nazis rise to power as a means of controlling political opponents. As the Nazi grip on power solidified, the advantages of a means of holding inconvenient people outside the control of the German judicial system became apparent and the slow decline of the concentration camps was reversed and the number of inmates began to rise again.

The number of political opponents who were killed by the Nazis during this period is not known, but a very rough estimate could be 25,000. Although other religious opponents can be included in that 25,000, Jehovah Witnesses deserve a special mention because almost unanimously they opposed Nazi mandates (including refusing to serve in the military). Approximately 1,400 were killed.

In addition to political opponents, Nazis incarcerated (and frequently killed) criminals and “asocials” (the homeless, alcoholics, unemployed, lesbians, …). At least 70,000 were killed.

Homosexuals (gay men) were also violently repressed and many ended up in the concentration camps. The number killed is unknown – Wikipedia claims “hundreds” but another estimate claims that up to 60% of the 5,000-15,000 sent to concentration camps were killed (for the purposes of the pie chart, I’m going to estimate 6,000). Many of those who survived the camps were re-imprisoned at the end of the war – being gay was still a ‘crime’.

Whilst lesbians were sometimes categorized as “asocials” and could end up in the camps for that reason, but they were not repressed quite as much as gay men.

The Jews and The Shoah

Although this blog article is about the other victims of the Nazis, it is unconscionable to talk about the holocaust without mentioning the Jewish victims. The Wikipedia figure for Jewish deaths is unusually precise – 5,896,577 or a touch under 6 million.

A bit of a distraction from the main topic – the word “holocaust” is Greek in origin and was used before World War II; usually in reference to the genocide of Armenians. “The Holocaust” is of course only used in reference to the Nazi programme of exterminating “sub-humans” which all too commonly is assumed to be only the Jews.

The specific word for the programme of exterminating the Jews is “The Shoah”.

I believe it is helpful to have two distinct (actually more – other groups also have terms) terms to distinguish between the Jews specifically (The Shoah) and the killing of everyone the Nazis considered “sub-human” (The Holocaust). There are those who object to this but given that at least one Jewish camp survivor (Elie Weisel) was of the same opinion it can hardly be legitimately called disrespectful.

Another reason for distinguishing the Jews from the pre-war category is that whilst Jews were harrassed mercilessly, ghettoised, and yes murdered before the war, the systematic killings did not begin until after the war began.

This is also the place to go into some of the issues relating to counting and categorising the victims. Was a Jewish Socialist killed because she was a Jew or because she was a Socialist? If she was picked up in 1934, it seems likely to be the later; if she was picked up in 1942 it would have been the former. And was she counted in both categories?

Do we count those killed outside the extermination camps as victims of the holocaust? If (for example) we exclude the handicapped because they weren’t in the camps, then we must also exclude up to a million Jews killed by the Einsatzgruppen.

During The War

The Roma

The Roma (or Gypsies although the later is regarded as an insulting term by many) come first because they are the closest to the Jews in terms of the level of hatred shown by the Nazis. Hated just because of whom they are rather than what they did.

Determining just how many Roma were killed is particularly difficult for a wide variety of reasons. The Wikipedia estimate of 220,000 killed is almost certainly a massive under-estimate – modern researchers have consistently increased the estimate up to a high of 1.5 million (75% of the total pre-war Roma population). I’ll go with an estimate of 1 million.

The Slavs (Poles in particular)

The third main racial group that the Nazis categorised as “subhuman” were the Slavs of Eastern Europe – Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, etc. The Nazi attitude to the Slavs various widely – from expressing the desire to exterminate the entire race, to ‘accepting’ (with caveats) those Slavs who collaborated, and the wish to use Slavs as slave labour.

I suspect in the long term – if the Nazis had won – the Slavs would have followed the Jews into the ovens.

The Slavs will get sub-divided for various reasons – including to keep the Jews as the single largest group, but they could be categorized as one.

The first sub-group are the Poles. It is clear from the words and actions of the Nazis during the invasion that they intended to exterminate nearly all of the Poles – both Jews and non-Jews.

There is a myth that the Poles enthusiastically welcomed the extermination of the Jews – whilst there were undoubtedly some Poles who hated the Jews, it is also true that Poles represent the single largest group honoured as Righteous Amongst The Nations; yet it is believed that the nearly 7,000 Poles listed is a vast under-estimate of the total who could be listed – the true figure could be 50 times higher.

And many thousands of the 1.8 million Poles killed by the Nazis were killed for helping Jews.

Now we move onto the category of the Soviet Slavs – which comprises many different nationalities which I would be happy to individually identify but accurate figures for each are difficult to find.

First we find that Soviet prisoners of war – 2.95 million were killed (I’ve subtracted the figure of 50,000 Jewish soldiers because they were probably included in the Jewish total and to make this figure consistent with the other non-Jewish casualty figures).

Added to that we have 5.7 million Soviet civilians killed.

To this we should add 300,000 Serbs killed; not by the Nazis themselves but by a client state.

And the handicapped. They were not typically thrown into concentration camps, but “involuntarily euthanized” in or near their care facility. Up to 250,000 were killed.

Endword

The pie chart above visually represents the total of each group killed; from this we can see in purely numerical terms that there were many other groups included in The Holocaust. Any one of which would be a crime against humanity.

For those that doubt the figures … and especially that the “others” added up to more than the Jews, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states “… murdered during the Holocaust at 17 million: 6 million Jews and 11 million others.”

There is currently an issue regarding the education of the young about the Holocaust with surveys reporting that some haven’t heard of it and many others do not know how many Jews were killed.

Not knowing the exact figure is forgivable – as we have seen the usually quoted figure of 6 million isn’t itself accurate – “many millions” is accurate enough for casual knowledge. And I’m a devotee of accurate figures, but when you come down to it, that’s what computers are for.

Not knowing about it at all is not just disrespectful to victims, but dangerous because we see warning signs of something similar happening today. But we need to remember that most teenagers have very little interest in the dry bones of history, and perhaps we need to make it an interesting horror story.

Jul 052020
 

This is inspired by a tweet claiming that something was an example of mediæval blood libel; I remembered it being earlier than that, looked it up, and found the relevant tweet had disappeared off the bottom of the page.

So this blog posting.

The earliest reference to the blood libel in the relevant Wikipedia article was an accusation that Jews sacrificed Greeks in the temple in Jerusalem in the BCE era.

Calling this “blood libel” is mildly controversial – there are those who prefer to stick to a very specific definition which specifies christians accusing Jews. Whilst I’m fine with a definition this specific for a specific instance (“The Blood Libel”), being too pedantic prevents discussions about instances (real or theoretical) of similar accusations by other groups against other groups (“a blood libel”).

In addition, if you prohibit the use of the phrase “a blood libel” in reference to any accusations which don’t meet a specific definition too closely, it makes discussing generic blood libel accusations somewhat tricky – be too quick to dismiss the fictional accusation that atheists use the blood of neo-pagan children to make “holy bread” as not being “The Blood Libel” and you risk implying that it’s not that bad.

Whilst the Jews are a popular target for the evil ones that like emphasising the “us versus them” (frequently as a means of bolstering their own power), they are not the only target – from a Eurocentric perspective those other targets include the Romani, blacks, Irish, Asians, and immigrants of any kind.

This general demonisation of “them” isn’t any kind of blood libel of course, but it is possible that non-Jewish blood libel accusations have been made against “them” ever since religion became a source of power for priests – well before history (the written record) began, and well before the Jewish people called themselves Jews.

The blood libel is specifically a false accusation that Jews sacrifice the children of christians (or Greeks in the earliest examples) to use their blood to make a “holy bread”. Ignoring the ethnic groups, the key elements of a blood libel are :-

  1. The accusation is false (or it wouldn’t be a libel).
  2. The accusation involves blood consumption – blood has been important symbolically since forever.
  3. The religious aspect – consuming the blood is a religious act. Well, religion has been the curse blighting humanity ever since it began.

There is nothing in there that is dependent on the identity of the perpetrator or the target group (because I’ve removed it), but doesn’t it cover the essentials of a blood libel?

Being cynical about human nature, I’m pretty sure that blood libels have been around ever since religion could be used to divide us and them. Which is a good deal further back than the last 2,000 years.

None of this is meant to undermine the seriousness of the blood libel against Jews.

No Fun At The Fair

Jun 142020
 

In the wake of the tearing down of many US statues of Confederate generals and in the UK, the removal of a statue to a slave trader in Bristol, there is an ongoing debate about the status of statues in the public space.

And some pretty daft things have been said about it.

One of the daftest is the notion that they represent our history and destroying them is destroying our history; no they don’t and no it isn’t. History is a lot bigger and more diverse than the handful of historical (in some cases) so-called heroes.

The best a statue (almost always of an old white dude) can achieve in that direction is to spark an interest in history. And replacing the Bristol statue of Edward Colston with a statue of Paul Stephenson would have very little effect on this “sparking effect”. From a purely ancient history perspective, I might prefer one to Robert Fitzharding, but given that there is no shortage of statues to old white dudes, someone else can take centre stage.

The Bare Family

In the US, it is rather peculiar to say the least that many US cities have statues to traitorous (not to mention racist) Confederate generals. Even ignoring the political question of why they are there, a fair few of them have little to no aesthetic value – if I were one of those dead Confederate generals, I’d be saying “Look, I may have been pretty ugly but at least I looked human!”.

But it gets on to an interesting point – we don’t so much worship the real people depicted in statues as our idealised version of them. In the case of Confederate generals (and ignoring the conscious and blatant racists), some view these as heroes of states’ rights which is more than a little invented – those making up the Confederacy were quite happy trampling on states’ rights when it came to achieving things they wanted (such as the return of run-away slaves).

In some cases the myth of the man (and woman in some rare cases) is enough to justify their statue despite what they were like in life – for instance Churchill was a racist and an imperialist but he also represents anti-fascism, Britain’s war leadership, and the initiation of the European state project.

There are those who would point to the Bengal famine of 1943 as a reason why he should not be venerated in statue form. He certainly deserves criticism for his handling of that famine and bears some responsibility for it, but he hardly caused the famine and there was plenty of other things going on at the time.

Back to the Confederate generals … I don’t think their myth is sufficient to justify the continued existence of their statues in the light of their very real crimes.

In the case of at least some statues, their origin story can be more interesting than expected – for instance there is a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the British parliament that was put up in the late 19th century. At the time, it was felt that putting up such a statue was rather provocative given the situation with Ireland at the time.

So no public money went to funding the statue; a ‘benefactor’ paid for the statue, but it was put up in the public space anyway – kind of missing the point!

But is the violent removal of such statues justified?

Normally, no. But in some instances, yes.

In the case of the Bristol slave trader, people have been trying to have the statue removed through official channels for over twenty-years! If you do not have a sensible way of handling reasonable objections to questionable statues in a reasonable time frame you can’t get too upset when people resort to direct action.

There must be a sensible, timely, and semi-democratic mechanism by which statues in the public space can be removed – perhaps if 25% of the local electorate vote to remove it, it should go. Whilst this is not properly democratic, if a statue is offensive to a quarter of the local population it seems not unreasonable to remove it.

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