Two hundred years after the House of Commons voted for the abolition of the slave trade (although not of slavery itself) a number of books are being published to celebrate the anniversary. If their focus is largely on England, that is because slave trading became a thoroughly English business. Half of the ships crossing the Atlantic with their infamous cargo came from English ports, the three most prominent being London, Bristol and Liverpool. They left carrying goods for African merchants; in return they acquired slaves, the remnants of conquered tribes. Once the human merchandise had been sold in the Americas, the ships returned laden with sugar and tobacco. In the 1780s alone, 794,000 Africans were transported. It can safely be estimated that many tens of millions made the fatal journey.
Not all of them arrived. Approximately 15 per cent of them died during the Atlantic voyage. They were chained together in the holds of the ships, trussed up like bundles of kindling wood. They died from dysentery and a host of other infectious diseases. They died of thirst, when the drinking water ran out. They died of despair. Those left alive were often in mortal peril. There is a famous case of one English captain who threw overboard many living slaves, so that he could claim on insurance.
And this is from an essay-reply to another book review, Timothy Garton Ash’s review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book in the NYTBR, which provoked an attack on Ash and Ian Buruma (who wrote a book about the murder of Theo van Gogh) by Pascal Bruckner. Various replies and counter-replies are piling up on the Sight and Sound Site. This one is by a Dutch professor of jurisprudence, Paul Cliteur:
For many years, the official credo of the Dutch government was multiculturalism, an approach that fitted well with Dutch history and culture. Multiculturalism is nowadays affiliated with a postmodern outlook. The pivotal ideas of this vision of life are relativism (cultural relativism, in particular), a negative attitude toward Western political tradition, the cultivation of collective guilt for the transgressions of the colonial past, and other real or presumed black pages in Western history.
For multiculturalists, European civilization has been fundamentally on the wrong track since the Enlightenment. The Holocaust, Nazism, communism, slavery - these are seen not as deviations from the generally benign development of Western culture but as inevitable products of the European mind, which is inherently oppressive.
Multiculturalists also reject the universality of Enlightenment ideas of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, viewing them instead as isolated preoccupations of no universal appeal. It is preposterous and a manifestation of cultural arrogance, on this view, to invade foreign countries to export democracy and other Western ideals; it is likewise ridiculous to expect that religious and ethnic minorities in Western societies should be expected to adopt these ideas and integrate into liberal democracy. Minorities should live according to their own customs; and, insofar as national culture is at variance with non-Western ideas, the national culture should adapt itself to new conditions. This attitude has grave consequences for the way liberal society is organized. Think of the principle of free speech. The answer of postmodern cultural relativism is: refrain from criticism. Be reticent to comment on unfamiliar religions. Let reform come from within and avoid provocation and polarization.
he owners of slaves were no less brutal. They raped, mutilated or murdered the human beings in their charge. We know this from their own testimony. One of their number, Thomas Thistlewood, arrived in Jamaica in the summer of 1750; he kept a diary, in which inadvertently he left a record of his slow degradation. "Had him well flogged and pickled," he wrote on May 26, 1756, of a slave who had been caught eating sugar cane. "Then made Hector shit in his mouth." To be "pickled" was to have raw wounds marinated in a concoction of pepper and lime juice.
The bodies of all the slaves were at Thistlewood's disposal. He whipped and tortured the recalcitrant, raped any woman who caught his eye and, as a matter of routine, maltreated every slave as if by right. The bodies of the abject and dispossessed were simply another commodity to be bought and sold. It was a matter of commercial economy. Yet he feared his slaves. Blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of ten to one. Any successful uprising would have led to great slaughter on both sides. So the whole system was of fear compounded by brutality. It was corrosive and destructive.
Postmodernism does not hold the Western tradition of rationality in high esteem, but would it also deny the right of the Western world to defend itself? The whole outlook that advocates the ideals of the Enlightenment, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, is to be replaced by the glorification of "otherness," by non-Western cultures, and especially by the conviction that all cultures are equally valuable.”
It was a thriving trade, AS newspaper advertisements from 1787 can testify. "To be sold for want of employment. A healthy Negro wench of about twenty-one years old .
. . she has a female child of nigh three years old, which will be sold with the wench if required." Or the reader might have preferred "a well-made good tempered black boy, he has lately had the small-pox, and will be sold to any gentleman".
A good illustration of this outlook on life can be found in the work of Stuart Sim, a professor of critical theory at the University of Sunderland (UK). The core of the problem is fundamentalism, a concept he was inspired to analyze after the attack on the World Trade Center. So far, so good. But, like other postmodern cultural critics, Sim has a very broad definition of fundamentalism. In his book "Fundamentalist World: The New Dark Age of Dogma", alongside religious fundamentalism, Sim discerns "market fundamentalism," "political fundamentalism," "national fundamentalism," and more. For Sim, every single set of ideas that is not completely relativistic is fundamentalist. So the only way to escape from the indictment of "fundamentalist" and "fundamentalism" is to adopt the postmodern relativistic outlook that Sim himself favors.
Of course, LI should declare a parti pris. We consider Cliteur a complete and utter idiot, who seemingly doesn't even understand the "multiculturalism" he is criticizing, and gives the most far fetched account possible of its origin and influence. Multiculturalism doesn’t come out of some mass hypnotic reading of Orientalism, but out of the material history that made it the case that a small piece of land shored off from the ocean was able to control, for three centuries, and much to its profit, a large piece of land, now called Indonesia. Or rather, it started in the system that made that possible, a complicated process of empires battling empires, with poor European states leveraging small advantages in arms and transport technology and a large hunger for the wealth that the Europeans couldn't produce themselves into global colonial empires. It wasn't Edward Said, but Christopher Columbus, who started multiculturalism as an ongoing and ever present global fact.
Somehow, nobody in Holland was worrying about the immigration problem in 1800 or 1900. See, there were a lot of emigrant Dutch. They were immigrants in, say, Java. Instead of congregating in small ghettos and competing for menial jobs, however, they were overthrowing the government, killing native Javanese, taking control of their land and produce, and shipping the profits to Amsterdam. In comparison, the Muslim immigrants to Amsterdam today are models of civilized behavior. Never has an immigrant community been so polite, so peaceful, so full of good will. They ahve arrived as a result of the fact that, uh, the labor market is global. It is mobile, flexible, revved up by capitalism. Cliteur doesn't like it, and to that LI sayS: tough tittie.
As for the image of the world turned upside down promoted by Bruckner and company, it would be to laugh if it wasn’t all so sad. Let’s see. We have the Soviet attack on Afghanistan. We have the Russian attack on Chechnya. We have the Serbian attack on Bosnia. We have the American attack on Iraq. By my count, in this horrid uprising of those Islamic beasts, somehow the casualty count at the moment stands in a ratio of Christians 1 to Muslims 10. The colonialist mentality of the Bruckners (oh so Leftist in his anxiety to spread, uh, secularism, that’s it – the secularism of the bulletjacket and the phantom fighter jet) and the Cliteurs is the icing on the mass murder cake.
Not that LI would call them fundamentalist, because … we don’t care! These are sticks and stones that are not even worth throwing. But we did like Cliteur's use of "benign" to describe the rise of the West. So fucking benign we are all in awe.
One scholarly note, however, is in order. The enlightenment was as relativistic a movement as any Cliteur deplores. The Early modernists - from Leibnitz to the great Orientalist, William Jones - had a deep appreciation of non-European cultures. As well they should. The stupid universalism of the Cliteur type is actually a reaction against that relativism, which began in the romantic, conservative reaction to the French Revolution. Please, if you are going to defend Europe's intellectual history, at least learn a little bit about it.