Tuesday, July 6, 2021

On Slavery, Climate, and the Promise of Gettysburg

  To honor their sacrifice in the battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863, President Lincoln later spoke, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Indeed, the American Civil war was a pivotal moment in the battle for human dignity versus thousands of years of worldwide slavery. 

Slavery economically only benefits those in power. Throughout recorded history, captives from tribal warfare were enslaved, as were criminals and debtors. Slaves worked the fields and mines, fought in the conqueror’s military, or became domestic and public servants. Such constant inter-tribal warfare was in large part driven by natural climate change. During favorable climates, to feed a thriving population they expanded into neighboring territories. Similarly, centuries of drought and famines also forced populations to seek out greener pastures to survive. During the last ice age, the unpopulated Sahara Desert was larger than today. But when the climate warmed about 10,000 years ago, causing monsoons and the tropical rain belt (Intertropical Convergence Zone) to shift northward, the “Green Sahara” evolved with bountiful grasslands with scattered shallow lakes, which were rapidly colonized by humans. 

 Then about 6000 years ago, the earth began to cool (the Neoglaciation) and the Sahara quickly reverted to desert, forcing humans to seek productive lands elsewhere. The cooling trend brought increasing drought not just to the Sahara but throughout the Mediterranean and Middle east regions as well as parts of India and China. Some humans migrated to river valleys of the Nile, Mesopotamia, Indus, and Yellow River leading to the great river civilizations. Some moved to higher elevations or were forced southward, while others became warring nomads. The good news is some climate models suggest the current warming could bring more rain to the Sahara region. 

Beginning around 2500 years ago, the Romans were forced to battle their neighbors. With each victory Romans acquired more slaves to work their fields and mines, and to grow a slave army that could further expand the Roman empire. By 1 AD it is estimated approximately one third of Rome’s residents were slaves. Although most cultures that embraced slavery also forbid enslaving people of their own tribe, slavery was not driven by racism. It was driven by economics. Most Roman slaves were acquired from racially identical neighboring tribes in Italy and Europe. 

The coldest period of the Neoglaciation was the recent Little Ice Age, approximately lasting from 1300 to 1900 AD. During that period, a warring tribe of nomads evolved into the Ottoman Empire. In part they also gained dominance via a powerful slave army (Janissaries). The Ottoman’s thirst for slaves also induced robust regional slave markets. Barbary Coast pirates (modern day Morocco and Algiers region) and the Crimean kingdom launched slave raids into Europe for slaves to be sold to the Ottomans. Europeans often lacked the numbers to repel those slave raids because the Bubonic Plague and Little Ice Age famines had decimated many populations. Slavic populations were targeted so frequently, their ethnicity gave rise to the term “slave”. 

West African "Slave Coast"

 The city of Timbuktu (in the modern country of Mali) located just north of the Niger River flourished in the 1300s as western Africa’s trade center for gold, salt, ivory, and slaves. As a result, it was targeted by several competing tribes and empires battling to control the wealth of the trans-Saharan trade routes. West African slave trade was mostly confined to the continent. It is estimated the nearly one third of the Songhai empire consisted of slaves during the 1400s and 1500s. When improved ocean navigation by the Spanish and Portuguese opened the America’s, a very profitable slave trade developed between Europeans and Africans. Enslaved native Brazilians working sugar plantations, were first to generate great wealth for the Portuguese. But native Brazilian populations were soon decimated by introduced diseases like smallpox. Seeking cheap slave labor, the Portuguese and Spanish turned to the ongoing African slave market and African tribal leaders were eager to expand their slave trade for European goods, particularly guns and ammunition to better defend themselves. By late 1500s west-central Africa became known as the Slave Coast

The trans-Atlantic slave trade expanded from Brazil to new sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and then the cotton plantations of southeastern USA. But the slaves never went peaceably. Throughout history from the Spartacus Wars of 73 BC, to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, to Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, slaves fought for their freedom. In America there was also a growing humanitarian movement pushing to abolish slavery led by blacks such as Frederick Douglas and whites such as William Lloyd Garrison. As a result, the Slave Trade Act of 1794 prohibited American ships from engaging in the international slave trade. In 1807 the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves made it illegal to import new slaves. However due to its national economic importance, domestic slavery was still not outlawed. The northern state’s textile industry (as well as England’s) also profited from cheap cotton and indirectly fostered slavery. Given such economic incentives to maintain slavery, the emerging abolitionist movement was a tribute to America’s guiding creed that all people deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Although still falling short of equality, between 1781 and 1804, all states north of Maryland passed laws to gradually abolish slavery. 

 It wasn’t that Southerners were more racist than northerners. Politics were simply driven by highly profitable cotton plantations, and cotton only thrived in the warmer southern climate. Only 25% of southerners owned slaves. Many of the south’s yeoman farmers voted against seceding from the union. Blacks and whites formed the Free State of Jones in Mississippi and the Free State of Winston in Alabama. Some formed the Arkansas Peace Society and many whites, especially from Arkansas and Tennessee joined the union army. Eventually, it was a Union army consisting of 90% white and 10% black soldiers, facing death and mutilation from canons, muskets, and bayonets, as they did at Gettysburg, that began America’s irreversible emergence from millennia of global slavery and step closer to our ideal of equality. Finally in 1865, the 13th amendment to the constitution legislated, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." 

 Nonetheless, still attempting to profit from forced labor, some tried to circumvent the 13th amendment by using convicted criminals to engage in free forced labor. In the past a racist police force could disproportionately and dishonestly convict blacks and poor whites, but today we are weeding out such racists cops. The great majority of police are good people trying to keep our neighborhoods safe and uphold our ideal of equal protection under the law. Likewise, the Jim Crow laws first enacted during the late 1800s were attempts to maintain political control by suppressing black voters, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put an end to that injustice. Unfortunately, others seeking their own political power, introduced a new form racism that dishonestly pandered to black voters and has abandoned Matin Luther King’s universal ideal that we judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. 

For instance, in 2006 when white members of Duke University’s lacrosse team were accused, albeit falsely, of raping a black stripper. It ignited waves of social justice protests. The white attorney general, Mike Nifong seeking re-election, hoped to garner the support of black voters by convicting those white players, despite obvious evidence of their innocence. Nifong was later disbarred for fraud, dishonesty, deceit and making false statements to a judge. And despite an ATM photo of one of the accused that verified his innocence, mobs of students and professors eagerly abandoned our ideal of presumed innocence until found guilty in order to “virtue signal” their anti-racism. Photographs of lacrosse team members were posted around campus while others suggested the lacrosse team had been acting like rich plantation owners of the past. Even now there are professors who similarly virtual signal that Americans ought to abolish “whiteness” and politicians like Georgia’s new senator, Rev. Raphael Warnock gave a sermon arguing the “US must 'repent' for whiteness worship”, all pushing a racist suggestion that all whites think and behave the same. 

 Just as we must work to rid racists from all positions of power, we must also disavow those fabricate racists actions. Activists and politicians ignore America’s great forward strides simply to manipulate white disgust and guilt for the horrific racism of the past. To gain political power, they exacerbate a racial divide that had been healing. Some white politicians claimed you “aint black if you don’t vote for me”; versions of “vote for me and I’ll set you free” only maintain a “ball of confusion”. There are others like actor Jussie Smollet, simply trying to gain personal notoriety by fabricating a racial attack. When the black attorney general Daniel Cameron found no evidence to charge white police officers in the death of a black woman, to maintain the racial divide, politicians and activists denigrated his integrity repeating he was “skin-folk not kin-folk”. Despite bipartisan recognition of past voter fraud, one party has pushed to eliminate the fraud prone practice of ballot harvesting. Although it does not prevent anyone from voting, politicians in favor of ballot harvesting dishonestly call its elimination “Jim Crow on steroids”. All those activists and politicians are only dividing the races and dividing our country.

 Any objective analysis would find America’s system should be praised for our steady, albeit slow, evolution from global slavery engaged in by all races, towards more completely ensuring our ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. Politicians and activists suggesting the USA is systematically racists use backwards thinking to suggest past injustices are still ever present. Yet they ignore the facts that people from the Nigerian region were once brought to this country as slaves in the 1700s and 1800s, but now Nigerians voluntarily come to America and are one of America’s most successful immigrants. Such present-day success repudiates claims of systematic racism. For people who truly want equality for all, our focus should be on those countries where forced labor and modern slavery still run rampant. 


As the Global Slavery Index recently reported, the 10 countries most engaged in today’s forced labor and modern slavery are the African countries of Eritrea, Mauritania, South Sudan, Burundi, the Central African Republic, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Cambodia, and communist North Korea. As in past centuries, those countries are vulnerable to modern slavery due to the constant conflicts which are often driven by environmental crises and corrupt systems. And unlike the USA’s dedication to liberty, those countries suffer politically from highly repressive regimes, such as the Chinese Communist government’s enslaving of Uighur Muslims. 

Similarly, those with a political agenda will wrongly blame a CO2 induced “climate crisis” for Africa’s environmental crises. But it is the naturally shifting of rain patterns since the loss of the Green Sahara and during the Little Ice Age that generated conflicts then and made 21st century Africa vulnerable to inevitable drought inducing natural climate variability. La Ninas periodically bring drought and famine to the east African region of Ethiopia and Eritrea every few years, a region now at war. The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation drove devastating drought in the Sahel region in the 1970s and 80s forcing migrations but reverted to more rains since the 1990s. These natural episodes of drought are predictable and allow governments weeks to prepare and adapt. But in the long run, only improved agricultural systems and vibrant trade will prevent environmentally driven conflicts, and that requires a free entrepreneurial economic system and honest politicians.

Abe and me at Gettysburg June 2021