Today in 1688, a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania staged one of the first formal protests against slavery in the “New World”. Celebrate this fact by reading up about #blacklivesmatter and who the freaking Black Panthers were before you start going off on Beyonce being disrespectful to the hallowed, sacred temple that is the freaking Superbowl.
Slavery may have been a part of many human societies going back to ancient times, but the way slavery developed in the west following the Renaissance was unique, if only because of the industrialization of oppression and the sheer scale of the movement of peoples. After all, Anglo-Saxon culture was rife with the use of slaves, which only came to an end when the Norman French invaded England in 1066. Theoretically between 1100 and the early modern period, there weren’t supposed to be slaves in the English sphere of influence, save exceptional cases such as when a diplomat brought in their “servant.”
That isn’t to say that there weren’t people of African descent in Elizabethan England. On the contrary, we keep finding more and more of them appearing in the records. The vision of Tudor England as a land awash in white faces is simply wrong. For more on this, look at the work of Duncan Salkeld and Imtiaz Habib and their work on the historical trace left by the Reasonable family in Southwark just around Shakespeare’s time.
Henry VIII had black trumpeters playing at his court and they were paid as a part of the regular groups of musicians. Less than 100 years later however, as a part of his marriage celebrations, James I watched African dancers perform acrobatics in the snow. Something had obviously changed. Personally, I blame John Hawkins, who was the first English man to get involved in the slave trade.
That said, by the time slavery was being abolished in the English speaking world, there were not just a handful of exceptional cases, but literally millions of individuals, mostly of African descent, who served as slaves in homes, on plantations, in manufactories, and elsewhere. To give you an idea… Census figures in the US don’t really exist for the early days of settlement, but there are some stats on the populations of slaves following the Revolutionary War:
|# Slaves||# Free
In short, please take some time today to remember that the history of race relations in the English speaking world is far more complex than the rather bone-headed narrative of “Things were bad back then, but they’re just fine now!” There are deep histories of suffering and integration that we are only just beginning to understand. Let’s explore them.