When we examine the tensions between White and Black lifestyles in contemporary America, we are tempted to ask what sort of country would this be if slavery had never come to our shores in 1619?
Without the availability of cheap and dependable labor, the South could never have attained the wealth and status it possessed. Although slaves were a relatively expensive commodity, they proved in the long run to be worth far more than their initial investment at auction.
In the North, which had little need for agrarian laborers or field hands, the abolitionists invoked Christian principles of compassion and the equality of human beings in their condemnation of the inhumanity and brutality of slavery. The Southern proponents of slavery, on the other hand, while avoiding the ethical issues of servitude, underscored its importance to the economy; as a patriarchal society, it provided slaves with the nurturing and guidance they needed to adjust to a more advanced civilization than the one they had been taken from by force. As Rudyard Kipling once said about colonialism’s purpose and justification, it was “the White man’s burden” to enlighten less knowledgeable subjects under British colonial rule and thereby introduce them to European values that would upgrade the quality of their lives.
This reasoning was also applied to the task that faced the White plantation owners of the Deep South in America. Their dark-skinned “barbarians” would be treated with understanding and fairness provided they adhered to the rules and regulations that governed enslaved peoples. They would be fed, clothed, and upon occasion given tasks of a less strenuous nature as household servants. They were, after all, chattel of the master — mere units of commercial value. They were not considered legally or socially worthy of true human status. They were the offspring of a dark and uncivilized continent. Slaves that rebelled against these restrictions would be severely and at times brutally disciplined as an example to others. This way of life — master-slave — was not tenable in the long run. Slavery had been disbanded and outlawed in a number of countries prior to the American Civil War. Its last bastion in the Western hemisphere was Brazil where in 1888 it was finally declared illegal.
The concept of the Black as inferior and incapable of being assimilated into Western society was rampant in America before and even during the height of the Civil War. It is interesting that Abraham Lincoln himself, after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, convened Black leaders in the Oval Office at the White House to offer them, once the war was over, a means of returning to a tropical existence that they had known in their African homeland.
However, Lincoln’s choice — British Honduras or Belize — was not to their liking even though slavery had been outlawed by Britain in 1838. Most of the former slaves in Belize had been imported directly from Africa, many of whom were of the Ibo tribe. For the freed American slaves it meant adapting to a new environment and being outside the protective umbrella of the United States government and military power.
Lincoln’s proposal was summarily rejected; American Blacks were determined to stay put no matter what obstacles lay ahead. The vast majority had known no other land during their lifetime. Discrimination and segregation seemed minor when compared to the hardships they would confront in a fertile but undeveloped jungle territory.
After the recent string of riots against police “brutality” in the summer of 2020 protesting the arrest and subsequent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the government of Ghana, which had been granted its independence from British rule in 1957 — oddly enough the country where slavery was initiated and promoted — placed ads in American newspapers and periodicals encouraging American Blacks to return to the land of their ancestors (“The Year of the Return”) which was devoid of racial prejudice of any sort. After 400 years, America would always be a country where racial prejudice would prevail, so they stated in the advertisement. In essence, returning to Ghana was an opportunity to thrive in a country where racial injustice against blacks was unknown.
Although there are a relatively small number of American Blacks living in Ghana (circa 3,000) and who seem to enjoy their expatriate lives, very few African Americans were receptive to this immigration appeal from Africa. The Ghanaian government was primarily interested in well-to-do American Blacks who could invest in the country. The native Ghanaians would discourage less fortunate blacks from immigrating.
Given the fact that American Blacks would be welcome in an English-speaking country where their skills and training would be valued, one has to wonder why this invitation was not more widely accepted. One answer is obvious: there would be few if any government subsidies in this foreign land that had been colonized by the British in the nineteenth century. What little social assistance they might receive would be insignificant when compared with the generous subsidies and privileges granted to minorities by the American government. There would be no Bill of Rights and the legal system would be completely different including the nature of government itself. The concepts of “White privilege” and “systemic racism” would seem foolish if not incomprehensible in these areas. Basically, Blacks would cease to be “victims of White patriarchy” and become ordinary citizens of a racially unbiased country.
Nonetheless, Nigeria and Liberia are also English-colonized countries that would be receptive to American Black immigrants. So far very few have taken up the challenge and embraced the opportunities offered by a new way of life in Africa. Nigeria requires health vaccinations and work permits to receive immigration visas. Crime in Lagos, Nigeria’s major city, is an ongoing safety and social problem that discourages foreigners. Liberia, a country settled by freed American slaves in 1847, is more understanding about visas (which can be obtained at the airport upon arrival) although it is not as wealthy a country as Nigeria. These are religiously diverse nations where Islam plays a major role.
The English-speaking countries of Africa, especially those on the Western coast, have a much lower standing of living than their American counterparts. There would be both advantages and disadvantages: the American dollar would have more purchasing power but the amenities that Americans might expect would not be as plentiful in a Third World country. Understandably, American Blacks would be hesitant to give up their economically privileged status in the United States when compared to their host country in Africa.
Slavery has been the subject of numerous books and critical studies that analyze the various aspects of this “peculiar institution” or a “positive good” as John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician, labeled it prior to the Civil War.
One advantage for the Southern agrarian elites was the relative absence of labor costs in producing cotton and tobacco crops. The plantation system was a well-organized means of exploiting human potential for commercial gain; in the process, human beings were confined and at times mistreated with impunity and inhumanity. Many plantations were no more than small or medium-sized farms where both the slaves and masters worked together in the fields to bring in the crops. Some slave holders treated their workers with compassion and understanding; many did not. Large plantations punished slaves that did not meet quotas and consequently did not permit them to leave the premises or even to keep their own children. These children became slaves and were sold at auction with no restrictions. Entire families were thus broken up and prevented from forming a unified whole. Any sort of formal education was prohibited as a means of keeping slaves intellectually subservient.
Prior to African-American slavery, indentured servants in the South, normally fulfilling a fixed term of servitude, had to perform forced labor in the fields; however, due to the extreme heat and working conditions, very few were able to withstand the stress of slavery. There was also the ever-present threat of malaria and disease that decimated their ranks. American Indians or indigenous peoples were also enslaved to harvest crops together with the indentured servants. Even though they were physically able to perform this back-breaking field labor, Indians were not easily enslaved: once the foremen or field masters were not paying attention, the Indians would escape and blend into the general population. Native Americans were also used in warring sorties between tribes to enslave other natives. In certain cases, they were given beneficial conditions of enslavement and used as scouts in the area. On the other hand, African Blacks did not have the ability to disappear in the local populations unnoticed. They also carried a natural immunity to malaria from their African heritage which made them valuable assets in southern agriculture.
Cotton was the major crop that turned the South into one of the most prosperous regions of America during the period preceding the Civil War. Stately antebellum homes were constructed, many of which are tourist sites today (e.g. the Natchez trail et al.). Large fortunes were made in the cotton trade markets. Charleston, South Carolina, vied with New York as being one of the wealthiest cities in America. The British were heavily dependent on the cotton trade from the American South to provide thread for their factories.
All of these conditions exerted pressure on the South to be economically productive. Without “King Cotton,” a large portion of the region would have been relegated to small-scale land cultivation. Farmers would have lived off the land and the exportation of local crops would have been minimal at best. As a result, lacking an extensive agricultural base, the South would have been ill-equipped to fight a much stronger northern army.
Slavery permitted the plantation system to flourish and create provisions necessary to feed Confederate troops. Southern prosperity also permitted the construction of man-o’-war for maritime warfare, artillery pieces fabricated in small steel mills, railroads for transporting war materiel, and other infrastructure projects that helped to supply military units throughout the war.
In summary, we can assume that, deprived of a vast cotton empire and its riches, the South would not have ventured so quickly into combat with a vastly superior industrial nation that had the manpower and logistics to wage a long and devastating war against a weaker opponent. The spontaneous attack on Fort Sumter in 1861 by the Citadel cadets that ignited the war would most likely not have occurred. The concerns of the slave states over western expansion and the status of slavery in new territories would have been resolved by negotiations in Congress rather than by means of military aggression that crippled the South for many decades afterwards.
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) was the forerunner of an industrialized movement towards a more efficient means of picking cotton. It was Whitney’s wish that this invention lessen the need for slave labor in the South. Bit by bit, technology would have rendered slavery of little economic value. Indeed, the importation of slaves from abroad was done away with in 1808 by federal law although slaves could still be exchanged between states. Even though (without the Civil War) slavery would have lasted for a longer period of time, it would have soon met with economic and social deterrents leading to its abolition. In Brazil, slavery was outlawed in 1888 (“The Golden Law”); serfdom, a form of European servitude that was gentler than chattel slavery, was abolished by the Russians in 1861 — at the onset of the American Civil War.
Thus, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved if the war had been avoided. The South’s economic viability would have been preserved without the massive destruction of its farmlands and cities by northern troops under General Sherman. As a result, it took the South more than ninety-three years to recover economically (1865-1958) from the war and its punitive measures (Reconstruction and many restrictions imposed by Congress to control its military and political development). Very few industries wished to build plants in the South before segregation had been abolished.
Even today in 2022 White and Black relations are still contentious in spite of continuous media propaganda to demonize any critics of current racial policies. Government subsidies to create a black middle class (“Affirmative Action,” created by John F. Kennedy and signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973) have cost the national treasury trillions of dollars ever since the l950s when it was unofficially initiated. There are advocates in the Black community that demand additional “reparations” for past wrongs in slavery and segregation even though it would be impossible to devise an equitable plan for reimbursement.
At the slightest provocation, we are witness to riots that break out if a Black is mistreated and/or killed by police force, no matter what may have caused the incident. These so-called protests with their ill-founded demands are fully supported by the national media. In this regard, it is interesting to note that very few, if any Asians have rioted in the streets to protest police brutality against their community. Japanese immigrants and citizens were interned during the Second World War by order of President Roosevelt who feared they constituted a “fifth column” on the California coast. Italian and German citizens were not treated in this manner even though Germany and Italy were our enemies during the conflict. By custom or choice Japanese citizens do not riot indiscriminately in the streets of their cities.
Hispanics have been surprisingly absent from these so-called “justice” demonstrations even though they have also been subject to discriminatory laws and harsh treatment. There are many reasons for this hesitation on their part to get involved in open protest. Primarily, they fear deportation if arrested and prefer to live in a clandestine manner to escape being expulsed from the country. In addition, the vast majority of migrants and nationalized citizens are grateful they can now live in a society where opportunity and safety are guaranteed.
An America that had never known African Blacks and slavery would be a country along the lines of Scandinavian nations where minorities are only a small portion of the population. The absence of The Civil War and the ongoing civil, political, and social unrest that ensued would have given rise to a country and region that were more prosperous and cohesive. Racial animus would be non-existent and the need to compensate millions of Blacks for centuries of slavery and discrimination would not be a valid concern. In a word, it would have been a country of racial and social harmony.
Just as colonialism forever changed he political and social landscape of Europe, slavery has perpetually altered the way Whites and Blacks relate to one another in our time. The desire for cheap and readily available labor in the South gave birth to centuries of disorder and unnecessary strife. Slavery and its attendant evils were the tainted fruit of greed and the docile nature of tribal villagers that were brutally kidnapped and sold into servitude by African chieftains and European merchants who amassed fortunes by trading slaves in the Americas.
What would America look like today without slavery? It would be a totally different but less populated country, devoid of white guilt, gratuitous crime, decaying urban cities, and wide-spread social unrest. We would be a land more in keeping with the Jeffersonian dream of freedom, democracy, and justice for all. In all likelihood, America would not be the military and economic giant it is today, serving as the world’s financier and policeman — a role we inherited from the aftermath of the Second World War. We might look to Canada and Australia for examples of what we could have been. America was sheltered by geographical isolation and founded by unregulated waves of immigration. Its most egregious error was bringing African tribesmen and women to our shores by force and establishing an anti-democratic and inhumane system of servitude for economic reasons only.
We are still dealing with the social and political fallout this choice foisted upon our nation in 1619. It cannot be undone nor can it be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Although slavery has plagued human societies since ancient times, white America’s encounter with Black African enslavement has splintered our nation into hostile factions that view Caucasian leadership through deformed lens. Blacks have enjoyed freedom from discrimination of any sort for many decades and yet racial animosity still percolates at every social level.
As white advocates, we are condemned to endure the consequences of those unfortunate decisions of the past that planted the seeds of social unrest that haunt us today. Our punishment for these errors will be harsh as our numbers decline and our authority weakens in every domain. Rather than encourage compromise and reconciliation, our enemies in Congress and elsewhere will seek retribution and atonement for the “grievous sins” of past generations. Nonetheless, our resistance must be strong and determined against these forces that will delight in our eventual elimination from American society. Unless we react as a unified voice of self-preservation, miscegenation and unvetted immigration will shift the demographic needle towards minority rule.