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Slavery & the Western World

Huzaima Bukhari

“There’s this sense that whiteness is the default and does not need to be questioned. That you’ve got a race if you’re black, or any kind of Asian, or any kind of Native American, but that you have no race if you are white”—Celeste Ng, an American born Chinese origin fiction writer

“Slavery was, in a very real sense, the first international human rights issue to come to the fore. It led to the adoption of the first human rights laws and to the creation of the first human rights non-governmental organization. And yet despite the efforts of the international community to combat this abhorrent practice, it is still widely prevalent in all its insidious forms, old and new. The list is painfully long and includes traditional chattel slavery; bonded labour; serfdom; and forced labour, including of children, women and migrants, and often for the purpose of sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and ritualistic and religious reasons.” Kofi Annan

The White race has never ceased to amaze. If supremacy, dominance, authority, hegemony and adventurism are the hallmarks of a particular race then undeniably, the White race, better known as Caucasians, will finish first. ‘White race’ is a socially coined term during the seventeenth century and principally refers to Europeans with light complexion although within Europe, supremacy mostly existed on the basis of nationality. Bruce David Baum, author of “Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race” while citing the work of a sociologist, Ruth Frankenberg says, “the history of modern racist domination has been bound up with the history of how European peoples defined themselves (and sometimes some other peoples) as members of a superior ‘white race’.” However, according to Alastair Bonnett, Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University, ‘white identity’, as it is presently conceived, is an American project, reflecting American interpretations of race and history.

Whatever be the argument, the fact remains that the world today is divided into two large groups—the whites and the coloured, with the former being ‘superior’ and of course the latter ‘inferior’ for whatsoever reasons social scientists may have propounded, propagated and eventually negated. Anyways, one thing is explicit that in the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: “race is a social construct, not a biological attribute.” It can be averred that advent of colonialism did flare up racial biases and despite global efforts to tone these down the germs are yet alive. As per Vivian Chou:

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been marked by the brewing storms of racial conflictsA rise in racial incidents ensued in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory in November 2016. Since the beginning of 2017, over 100 bomb threats have been made against Jewish community centers and schools. Trump’s travel ban, signed in late January 2017, initially affected about 90,000people from seven Middle Eastern countries; 87,000 of those banned were Muslims. Minorities such as American Muslims and black Americans have expressed fears over racial relations under Trump. Undeniably, the topic of race—and racism—has gripped America and the world throughout.” 

With this background in mind a dig in the past would reveal that slavery has been in existence from times immemorial but the slaves were usually people from the lower social stratum of the same regions unless some foreigners got inducted as a result of wars or human trade. With the discovery of Americas in 1492 and mass relocation of white Europeans there in later years, a whole new breed of nation began to emerge. These comprised the gold seekers, entrepreneurs, cultivators, especially those who were owners of large farmlands. Surprisingly, they were unable to find hard working farm hands capable of labouring long hours under the burning sun in the sweltering summers and during harsh winters.

Expeditions into Africa brought them face to face with tough, dark, ‘ugly’ looking ‘uncivilized’, naked group of people who they found similar to animals rather than human beings.  Considering themselves to be superior, they thought that these apparently ‘lowly’ species would be useful as ‘beasts of burden’ and would provide the much needed relief for the ‘delicate’ white-skinned employers. The problem was that in the absence of a world human rights organization, the only choice for these white masters was enslavement. Hence hundreds of thousands of captured, purchased and kidnapped African males and females were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in extremely sub-human conditions, to be sold as slaves.

Slaves were purchased as assets. They were not paid as regular employees nor were they entitled to any benefits. They could have families but that was a bonus for the master as he got more hands to work for him. The issue here is not talking about master-slave relationship but to understand that in its frenzy and short-sightedness, the white race failed to perceive the consequences of its bizarre actions. It also indiscriminately snatched suckling mothers from their infants, separated husbands from their wives, disrupted families, caused irreparable emotional and physical damage and the worst cruelty was dislocating a large population from its native environment forcing it to make a home in a foreign land. Nothing can invoke so much restlessness than to be torn away from the comfort of one’s home no matter how crude or unattractive it may be for the onlooker. In the words of Kevin Bales: “It’s as if all identity has been stolen from them, except their identity as slaves.”

One such slave was Omar Ibn Said, a writer and Islamic scholar who was born in 1770 in present day Senegal, who was kidnapped at the age of 37 and sent off to America where he died in 1864. A man of no mean standing, he was rendered as one, by the forefathers of present day proponents of human rights and who was compelled by circumstances to disguise his Islamic faith by conversion to Christianity. Renowned for his fourteen Arabic manuscripts, he has gained better appreciation for his autobiography, “The Life of Omar Ibn Said.” His agony of being a slave, being forced to live an undesirable and abusive life can be felt from his opening lines that are a quote from Surah-i-Mulk from the Holy Quran which says: “Only God has sovereignty over human beings.” By using divine words, he actually slapped his captors for their inhumanity. While writing about his stay in America he says: “I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians.” Although he spent his last days in the company of very humane people, he could not obviate from memory his earlier difficult times. How ironic that in today’s world of UNHRC, there are still remnants of those yester years!


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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