October 21, 2021

The History of Slavery: What CRT Misses

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

Advocates of Critical Race Theory (CRT) being taught in schools would have an easier time convincing others if they did not start history in the year 1619 and looked at more than one country. But advocates of CRT may not want to look past that year because of what history shows.

Historians have observed the “geographical ubiquity of slavery,” and the “institutionalized unfreedom” of people, including the land that became America, largely populated by indigenous peoples. Christina Snyder’s book, “Slavery in Indian Country: the Changing Face of Captivity in Early America,” noted that “Captivity and its most exploitative form — slavery — was indigenous to North America, it was widespread” among North America’s populations. Theda Perdue’s book, “Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society 1540-1866,” stated that “Early Europeans who came into contact with the Cherokee described an indigenous institution they called ‘slavery.’ In 1540, for example, the chronicles of Hernando de Soto’s expedition reported the presence of ‘masters’ and ‘slaves’ among the natives they encountered.” Another scholar said that “Though the Cherokees practiced slavery, there is no word for ‘slave’ or ‘Negro’ in their language.”

The Encyclopedia Brittanica noted that “some of the best documented slave-owning societies were the Klamath and Pawnee and fishing societies, such as the Yurok, that lived along the coast . . . Life was easy in many of those societies, and slaves are known to have sometimes been consumption goods that were simply killed in potlatches.”

In short: Before Columbus landed and long before the first slave ship landed in what is now America, slavery existed among the indigenous peoples in many regions of what is now America. Defenders of CRT may see it as a quibble, but slavery in the land that became America began more than 400 years ago. And if it is a quibble, then the history of the indigenous populations, the Maya for instance, count for nothing.

The Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas reported that “The Maya had a system of serfdom and slavery . . . There was an active slave trade in the Maya region.” Commoners and the upper class owned slaves. Discounting slavery by the indigenous populations of North America suggests indifference toward the Mayan civilization and other pre-Columbian peoples. 

Before the first slave ship landed on North America, slavery existed on other continents. In the late 1980s and 1990s, many black scholars, and white scholars too, argued that blacks produced Egyptian civilization. But that civilization enslaved Hebrews.

In fact, an active slave trade thrived in Africa prior to the arrival of European slave traders in Africa. George LaRue’s “Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Salve Trade,” from Oxford Bibliographies, observed that “Although slavery and some regional slave trading existed in earlier eras, the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries led to increases in long-distance trading in both the Middle East and Indian Ocean regions, but with initially rather different patterns. Africa became a new source of slaves.” Commenting on the slave trade, another scholar noted 20 years ago that “only the Christian slave trade to America has been studied by archaeologists. The much longer duration (over 1,000 years) of the Islamic slave trade to Asia and of the Dar el Islam in North and East Africa is at present” poorly researched. 

However, African history has been researched well enough to document an energetic slave trade by Africans of Africans before any contact with European slave traders. Keith Bradley’s article for “Historical Essays,” stated that “During the Trans-Saharan slave trade, slaves from West Africa were transported across the Sahara desert to North Africa to be sold to Mediterranean and Middle eastern civilizations.” The geographical history of slavery, including African slavery, has received little attention from the advocates of CRT, which looks only at one country.

Slavery and its consequences involved all continents and all races. That is what a full and more complete CRT curriculum would teach and should teach. Then there would be less hostility and more peace in America.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 



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