There’s a good rule that goes: by indirection find direction out. Or, translated from the Shakespearese into nice wooden ideology critique terms: since present injustices rest on past ones, one of the ways to delegitimate the former (otherwise known as “waking up”) is to go after the latter with a blowtorch.
That’s a rule of thumb, natch. It can allow the scholarly type to disappear into the tunnels of history-mongering and never emerge again, blowtorch in hand. Rectifying the past is a painstaking business, and liable to blowback. When you find what you want to find, often you have to ask: is this a poisoned gift? But vanity more often whispers: hey, hypothesis and proof, don’t have nothing whatever to do with the unconscious libido.
So far, I am not describing Abbé Gregoire; I’m merely farting around with ideal types. However, there was, in Gregoire’s capacious C.V., room for activist scholarship – especially when he was on the outs. As he was in 1800.
Before 1800, he’d been one of the great lights of the Revolution. It was Gregoire who first addressed the question of the rights of men in 1789. Gregoire proposed the abolition of the academies of the ancien regime. Gregoire was the first who proposed the abolition of the monarchy to the Convention after the flight from Varenne. But, as an opponent of the death penalty, he voted to condemn the king for treason to the country but not to execute him. Among his causes was that of the abolition of slavery, which was, alas, not at the top of the agenda in France in the 1790s, and certainly not in in the Napoleonic counter-revolution either. But Gregoire persevered, even as the convention, post Thermidor, turned against the abolitionist politics of his organization, the Société des amis des Noirs. Incidentally, the neo-liberal turn in the eighties that saw bigwig French historians – notably Francois Furet – adopt the Cold war view that the French revolution simply foreshadowed Stalinism, somehow leaves out of account the slave trade. It is as if about half a million Africans did not perish in the 18th century under the Ancien Regime. Gotta keep your eyes on the prize – Stalin! And pay no attention to the sound of those chains…
But I digress. To get back to Gregoire, all that activity had left him rather to the side as Napoleon rose. Napoleon was the kind of opportunist Gregoire had no time for, plus a bloodshedder. So Gregoire had time for other things: for instance, striking blows against slavery. In 1800, in the European context, anti-slavery was not a popular position, since of course the bourgeoisie was making money hand over fist on the whip and the steal. So Gregoire looked back to the past for friends. And who did he see at the other end of the inverted telescope but the Spanish bishop of Chiapas, Bathelemy de las Casas.
In 1800 he published a pamphlet, Apology for Barthelmy de las Casas, disputing the idea that de las Casas had originated and promoted the idea of the slave trade. Gregoire saw clearly how de las Casas was being used by supporters of the slave trade (a category into which fell, alas, a number of “enlightened” thinkers): here was a humanist, a protestor against the massacre of the Mexican Indian nations, who turned to slavery as a humane palliative for the pains of conquest. And, more than that, there was a rhetorical gesture, here, that was then and is now a commonplace of conservative boilerplate, which involves an “even the liberal” logic: even the liberal de las Casas saw how necessary slaves are!
So Gregoire decided to do something that was, historiographically, significant: he decided to trace the chain of title, so to speak, that led to the charge against de las Casas.
“The badmouthers, finding they could not discover any faults in las Casas, invented one, and for two centuries the calumny has weighed on his tomb.”
This is an accusation, more than a hypothesis, but as in a defense lawyer’s speech, it contains a hypothesis: the attribution of sympathy for, or even the discovery of, the African slave trade to de las Casas was prompted by propagandists and rests on an invention.
The hypothesis has two parts: importantly, one needs to scan de las Casas’s biography and writings to find out what misconstrual was going on here.
Gregoire first works to put his apology in line with a humanistic historiography that goes back to Secondo Lancellotti, an Italian humanist who was relentlessly modern, whose 16th century book attacking the “impostures” of ancient historians (and arguing against the very idea of a “Golden Age” – was translated in the 1770s into French. I’m going to ignore, here, the tempting bypath showing a certain receptivity to the Renaissance in the Enlightenment, and how that worked – and return to Gregoire. For after high fiving his buds (dead, alas), Gregoire plunges into business of the history of the slave trade. He finds that instead of being an invention of de las Casas, it was an affair that was being pursued by Portugese merchants before America was even discovered. He does not find an onlie progenitor, but he does find that the Portugese, from the 1430s onward, were raiding the coast of Guinea for African bodies, and selling them in marts to the Spanish. And he finds that the Spanish, before Columbus’s discovery, had entered into the same trade in competition with the Portugese. Importantly, then, the slave trade was in existence on European soil before the New World was discovered.
Like future historians, Gregoire was well aware that the slave trade was originally derived from another commerce – that of cane sugar. The European fondness for this psychotrope was such that one could make huge profits on maintaining a labor force for the intensive work of cultivating and refining it; and that the level of exploitation (the level of profit) would be even greater if that force was unwaged and disciplined to one great task.
“Black slavery seems to have followed, in modern times, the transplantation of sugar cane, cultivated successively in Spain, in Madeira, in the Azores, in the Canaries and in America.” Like cavities appearing across the mouth of the Atlantic (sorry about that image, I’m reaching a little), the slave trade, sugar cane cultivation, and discovery all formed a malign triad.
Still, all Gregoire has established so far is that the slave trade pre-existed de las Casas. But did he endorse it? “But did Las Casas, depressed by the cruelties exercised against the Indians, propose to the Spanish government to replace them with negros? Marmontel, Roucher, Raynal, Paw, Frossard, Nuix, Bryant Edward and Gentey all tell us so.”
One should rest, here, for a second, and think about why this is more important than simply a historical observation. In 1800, when Gregoire was writing, the emancipatory moment had passed in Saint-Domingue. Slavers plied the waters of the Atlantic still. Slavery had been accepted and embraced in the U.S. The economy that developed from the sugar cane depended, still, hugely, for the flow of funds that was generated by the work of the slaves and the trade in them. There’s a long and bitter dispute that has its roots, actually, in the Enlightenment, between economists (generally apologists for capitalism) who claim that the slave trade and slave produce wasn’t that important to Europe and that it was actually opposed by real capitalists, and economists (generally critics of capitalism) who claim no, the figures are damning. No side, though, claims that the slave trade and slave produced commerce was minor. Any history of the “rise of the West” that ignores slave labor is a lie, and Gregoire’s work is important for calling out this lie at an early date.
Now, break over, let’s return to the claim about de las Casas. Here’s where Gregoire strikes. Repeated over and over again by soi-disant “liberals” of the 18th century, the claim, it turns out, rests on one source: not on something de las Casas had written, but on Herrara, a Spanish writer who made this claim. Interestingly, after reviewing the European writers who repeat it, Gregoire turns to a non-European writer: the Mexican creole writer, Clavigero. I say this is interesting: it is a gesture that breaks with a line of implicit authority that runs through history as a discipline up to this day. The facts, in this tradition, are generated by (white) Europeans or Americans. White males. And the voices of those speaking from outside the department (even if they are inside the subject which the historians are treating) are given secondary status, if they are given status at all. This is an established habit in 1800 – and it is still an established habit in 2018.
Gregoire, then, turns to the 1601 history by Herrera, where the idea that de las Casas advocated for African slavery was first propounded. He notices that Herrera quotes no source, no text, even though the unpublished works of de las Casas were available to him – indeed, he exploited them for his book.
Then, Gregoire does some nice SherlockHolmes-ery. As in the curious case of the dog who didn’t bark in the night, a clue in The Silver Blaze, Gregoire examines if there were other voices raised about de las Casas in the period between 1517 (when de las Casas supposedly wrote to the King suggesting African slaves for the Americas) and 1601. In fact, what Gregoire finds are other candidates who suggested African slaves, and names them. But none of them are the Bishop of Chiapas.
Finally, Gregoire brings together his ideas on he topic, and introduces a discovery: an anonymous manuscript in the national library in Paris that seems to date from Casas’s lifetime, is addressed to the Court in Madrid, and suggests that the Spanish conquest was entirely illegitimate and that the Spanish should give back Peru to the Incas and that they have to restore ownership of all mines, land and property to the Indians. This, of course, is a ultra ultra radical proposition, but a reasonable, and certainly, for the Bishop of Chiapas, a Christian one. It simply doesn’t fit with the idea of mass enslavement of Africans.
Gregoire rounds out his pamphlet with a summarizing paragraph that I like quite a bit:
Look at how the error established itself and took root. Thirty years after the death of Las Casas, there comes a credulous or malevolent history, who, without proof, directs an accusation, unvoiced up to then, against him. Some repeat it without examining it; others conclude that he was the first to introduce the slave trade: here already we have a commentary that exaggerates on the text. Then one ties these ideas to the barbarities justly thrown at the English, Dutch and French colonists, and [this is how] one elevates a whole scaffold of calumnies.”
Fake news in 1601. Fake news in 1800.