Monday, 22 June 2009

Waugh on Slavery

Was He Right to Free the Slaves?

by Evelyn Waugh

Published in the Daily Express, 15 July 1933

The celebrations now being organized for the centenary of William Wilberforce are likely to command very tepid enthusiasm in the countries principally affected by the philanthropist’s work. On the one hand, the present generation of negroes would sooner not be reminded of their antecedents, while the few responsible whites are well aware that the emancipation of the slaves created a series of economic, social and political problems that are no nearer solution now than they were a hundred years ago.

If William Wilberforce could return to public life today and see the effects of his work, the speeches shortly to be made in his honour would ring in his ears with peculiar irony. None of the great movements of the nineteenth century is more typical of its age than that for the freeing of the slaves. It depended on all those fallacies that are being abandoned today: the idea of a perfectible evolutionary man, of a responsible democratic voter, of the beneficial effect of mechanization, and, above all, on sentimental belief in the basic sweetness of human nature.

There are always honourable exceptions in any general racial condemnation, and, heaven knows, the white people of the north have not made such a success of their own civilization that they can afford any extravagance of phrase. But it is not too much to say that in general character the descendants of the Negro slaves in the British Empire are a thriftless and dissolute lot. It is an unexpected development from the simple, woolly-headed, golden-hearted Bible-reading old darky that was held up as an example to European subscribers - the good old Uncle Tom who was to grow in the air of freedom in to an educated, prudent and pious family man and citizen. The sugar plantations have been ruined or mechanized, and the Negroes, instead of following the example of the indentured coolies and becoming small proprietors, working long hours in the country, drift to the intermittent employment of the towns. They have proved quite unfit for retail trade: they are clumsy mechanics, a superstitious and excitable riff-raff hanging round the rum shops and staring listlessly at the Chinese, Madeiran and East Indian immigrants, who outstrip them in every branch of life.

In Liberia, where they have been put in political power, they have erected a rigid racial bar between the immigrant and the aboriginal Negroes, and have introduced a system of forced labour more onerous than the slavery from which they were themselves freed. It was interesting, when the report on conditions in Liberia was published, to notice the concern that it aroused. The greater part of the British public had no idea that slavery existed anywhere in the world. We had so often been told in school that the British people had stamped out slavery that we had come to look on it as something wholly obsolete - as until a few weeks back we imagined the persecution of Jews was obsolete. I have no first-hand experience of Liberia, but from all accounts I should say that slavery there exists in a far more offensive form than anywhere else, for it is the process of degrading a free people in their own country.

It is not the state of slavery so much as the process of enslavement that is intolerable: and it is worth noting that the European slave trade was principally for the transport of people already enslaved. That is to say, the traders purchased captives from the warrior tribes. Undoubtedly the trade stimulated the raiding, but free blacks first captured other free blacks and then sold them to the whites.

I have seen slave-owning communities in Abyssinia and Arabia and got the impression that the slaves are far better off than wage-earners in those countries. For one thing, there is no unemployment. In a country which is not socially organized on an industrial basis - that is to say, with old-age pensions, free hospitals, unemployment relief, etc. - the employer of free labour uses his workers on a subsistence wage for the best years of their life, and then turns them off without further obligation. In the houses I visited in Abyssinia the courtyards were full of decrepit old men and women, long past any useful service, who were fed regularly and sufficiently, and had no other duties than to prostrate themselves once or twice a day when their master went in or out. It is a matter of prestige to support a large household. In the old days of West Indian slavery the charge of ill-treating his slaves was one of the most odious that could be brought against a planter, and in many islands was tantamount to a challenge to a duel.

William Wilberforce was inflated by the true nineteenth-century arrogance of thinking a little local uplift could reverse the development of centuries. Slave raiding has from remotest times been the hobby of the warrior tribes of Africa: slave ownership has been one of the postulates of every civilization. British wealth and British sentiment were strong enough to upset a system which, like any other, had abuses but also many redeeming virtues, but British intelligence was not up to anticipating the problem it created.

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