Slavery and Moral Relativism

The fact that Europeans enslaved millions of African people and their descendants, over the course of 400 years, has led some to comfort themselves by concluding that the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery was “normal”. This form of moral relativity seeks to whitewash the history of transatlantic slavery as a fixed, inevitable and somehow amoral event. It hopes to paint the participants as blameless. Occasionally you may find the famous line from Hamlet quoted as support, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Fittingly, Hamlet was not referring to moral relativism here, but the wish to be ignorant of unsettling, disquieting knowledge. “Denmark’s a prison” to Hamlet, but only because of his awareness and acceptance of facts hidden from general view. This is the instructive subtext to moral relativist views of the transatlantic slave trade.

What this “it was normal back then” narrative actually means is that Europeans, through the use of fictitious white supremacism encoded through hundreds of laws and enforced by armies, militias, and essentially the entire white citizenry, normalised a genocidal practice that dehumanised, brutalised, tortured, maimed and raped countless numbers of people. This crime’s foundation, anti-black racism, is its poisonous legacy. I agree that historical sympathy is an essential approach to understanding the past, but it must be applied to the oppressed as well as the oppressor. “It was normal back then” is the enslaver’s narrative.

It should be remembered that from the moment the transatlantic slave trade began, there was always opposition, always resistance. Some of it came from within the societies of the enslavers (European abolitionists), but the most important yet conveniently forgotten opposition was from the enslaved persons themselves.

For them, this was never “normal” or “standard” but hell on earth which many resisted, in many ways, whenever possible. There are circa 400 documented cases of slave revolts on slave vessels, we know that some slaves committed suicide, a significant number ran away, others organised and revolted on plantations, others killed their Masters or Overseers. Thus horrendous levels of violence were applied in these various slavocracies to ensure total control. In fact, the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834 was heavily influenced by the Baptist War (the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt) in 1831. Samuel Sharpe, a former slave and Baptist preacher, led this rebellion and was executed afterwards. The enslavers later paid themselves millions of pounds to free their victims, and painted themselves as heroes. Samuel Sharpe is not part of this white saviour narrative. “Denmark’s a prison.” How many of these moral relativists know his name?

Judgement does not need to be shy. The various pro-slavery arguments that were deployed to justify these atrocities were nothing more than the rationalisation of self-interest and this temptation to excuse the crimes of the past with historical sympathy is the unconscious perpetuation of the arrogance of the oppressor, that serves to diminish the voices of slavery’s millions of victims.