A Textbook Explains the Slave Trade

Published:January 10, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

After worrying through the issue of John Lewis, sharks, and the slave trade, I was curious how Virginia history textbooks handle the issue. (This was in part provoked by the fact that one of the disgruntled Internet commenters I quoted mentioned that his own nephew’s history textbook got it all wrong.)

The above image is from Five Ponds Press’s Our America: To 1865, and to everyone’s relief, I’m sure, there is no mention of sharks. Or of John Lewis. However, what is there is not entirely accurate. Here is what students (fifth-graders?) are told about the slave trade:

The Enslaved African Americans

Between 1700 and 1800 more than ten million Africans were dragged to North and South America. About half a million ended up in England’s American colonies—mostly in the South—where slave labor became a way of life.

Many newcomers from Africa were either Muslim or prayed to the spirits of nature, so laws were passed that said that since the Africans were not Christians, they did not have any rights. They could not marry or buy homes. The dark skin that protected them from Africa’s hot sun soon became visible proof that they “belonged” to someone else. They were now property for life with no rights.

Numbers first: they are slightly exaggerated here, but only slightly. The height of the slave trade lasted from 1698 until its abolition in 1807–1808, during which time about two-thirds of its total traffic was conducted. If 12.5 million Africans were put on ships between 1500 and 1866, that means about 8.25 million (as opposed to more than 10 million) made the journey at the trade’s height. And instead of half a million making it to England’s American colonies, only a little less than 400,000 did. (Only 128,000 total ever came to the Chesapeake, by the way.)

So let’s be fair: that’s not bad. I’m not even sure it helps fifth-graders to have more precise numbers than that. The second paragraph, however, is a bigger problem. What is interesting about the early days of the slave trade—including in Virginia—was that many of the enslaved Africans were Christian. The first Africans in Virginia likely were from the kingdom of Ndongo, which, by 1619, had been receiving Portuguese missionaries for a hundred years. If not all its people were Catholic, neither were they Muslim. The Kongo, meanwhile, was located just to the north and was recognized by the pope, no less, as a Catholic kingdom. It’s hardly surprising that one of the slaves to arrive at Point Comfort in 1619 was named Angela, suggesting that she, like many of the other Africans with her on that terrible journey, had been baptized.

Still, this business of whether these enslaved people were Christian or non-Christian was important. That’s because it was a tradition in Western Europe to enslave only non-Christians. Does this mean that African Christians were exempt? Actually, no. Europeans (and especially the English) more or less assumed, even against the facts, that all non-Europeans were non-Christians. And that’s the point: religion, over time, became a euphemism for race. Early on, Virginia defined slaves-for-life as non-Christian servants brought to the colony “by shipping”—Africans, in other words. Angela was a Christian servant brought to the colony “by shipping,” but this law did not free her, nor was it intended to.

Anyway, getting back to that paragraph in Our America: Virginians did not look at the slaves, notice they were non-Christian, and therefore deny them any rights. Instead, they looked at the slaves, noticed they were slaves, and then passed whatever laws were necessary to keep them that way. By assuming their slaves were non-Christian, white Virginians prohibited non-Christians from gaining their freedom. Then, when some slaves either converted or proved that they already were Christians, the General Assembly passed a law, in 1667, “declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.”

So why does any of this matter? Because one of the central justifications for slavery during the height of the slave trade was that it saved heathen Africans from eternal damnation. That many of them were already Christian was ignored then—as it is now.

IMAGE: Our America: To 1865, pp. 78–79 (Five Ponds Press)


2 Comments on “A Textbook Explains the Slave Trade”

  1. Pierrette Wolfe

    This is an interesting subject and I would like to hear ideas on how to avoid being brainwashed. Fortunately the textbooks are so boring and bland that none of us retained much of what the history books told us. We later learned to think and read critically — and I really don’t know how or when that happens, or how you encourage it. My son calls himself a red-diaper baby, so maybe we were just brainwashed in a different direction.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Pierrette. When I have written social studies/history textbooks (for third-, fifth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders), I have attempted to emphasize the following:

    1. History is a story with many different viewpoints. All of us are standing in different spots and have different takes on the world around us. That’s why primary sources sometimes contradict one another when reporting on the same event.

    2. Even historians don’t always agree about what happened or why. In fact, history is less about what historians agree about than it is what they disagree about.

    We can participate in history by joining the argument. This is what I think happened …

    This avoids two huge problems with history curriculums, in my view: force-feeding students a series of disconnected but “important” facts and/or providing a prefabricated “narrative” that explains to students what it all “means” without giving them the tools to enter that conversation.

    I would like to see textbooks spend more time explaining a few ideas and concepts and then revisiting and building on these throughout the text, even if this is done at the expense of some of those “important” facts. Provide students with a framework for understanding how they can engage with history … That is so much more important than getting the slave-trade numbers correct.

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