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E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)
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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)
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Thursday, March 09, 2006
Demise of slavery - another installment, possibly the last. JEM writes:
I've found it!I hope I don't unduly annoy JEM, whose emails I value, but I don't think so at all. This is not because I disbelieve the information quoted from A Distant Mirror, which I also own. It's a fine book. Rather it is because I think that what ARC has been saying is not invalidated by the evidence Tuchman provides.
Re-reading some earlier posts by JEM, ARC and others, it seems to me that although there are significant differences as to points of fact (for example, was the Black Death more or less severe in Britain than elsewhere, was serfdom significantly different from slavery), nonetheless neither side disputes that serfdom had gone by around 1500 and that this was not brought about by moral scruples or religion. Correspondents differ as to how big a role various non-moral causes such as the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, various wars or the invention of the horse collar played.
JEM then goes on to say that, whereas this or that economic or environmental cause could end slavery in this or that country, only for the institution to rise again later, it was the Industrial Revolution that put the stake through its heart wordwide. Short term it may not have done, but long term it did.
But whereas ARC agrees (I think) that the Industrial Revolution and its Siamese twin, capitalism, had the long term effect of finally making sure slavery did not pay, he says that one of the reasons that the Industrial Revolution happened in England was that England had been a non-slave society, until it was "re-infected" with the slavery virus via the African trade. Mere circumstances had taught them that a non-slave society could work just fine. Then they had the moral choice whether they wanted that sort of society or not. It is true that eventually mechanical inventions would, in Adam Smith's words, produce "their legitimate effect, that of abridging labour" and "effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish". It is true that this destiny was widely predicted, as evinced by the famous prediction from Smith himself that I just quoted. But it wasn't obvious to everyone. And the prospect of just allowing this outrage to continue for decades or even centuries while the glacier of economic necessity inched its way to the sea was unbearable to good men.
This brings me to a recent Samizdata post by Johnathan Pearce, "A good man who made a difference." It is about the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson. Pearce writes:
But even though there is some truth in ascribing changes to these things [economic forces], as this Wikipedia entry accepts, it still requires the energy and commitment of actual people to force the pace of change. We do not know, for instance, how long slavery might have persisted under the British Empire had people like Clarkson not bothered to campaign against it. It is fair to assume, however, that it ended a good deal sooner than otherwise and hence millions of people probably owed what freedoms they had to people such as this fellow.I am conscious that I have, perhaps, both put words into the mouth of ARC (whose opinions on this are close to mine but not identical to mine) and given a slightly rough ride to the words of JEM. It is clear from many other emails of his that JEM has no desire to denigrate those who campaigned against slavery, he just thinks that economics came first.
Guys, I just don't think we are going to agree. Unless anyone feels really hard done by I think the destiny and futurity of this thread is to be put to bed for a while.