Example Of Essay On Slavery And Christian Ethics
One of the most repeated term in the lexicon of slavery is the “Middle Passage,” which refers to a triangular route that slave ships would go on in order to transport African slaves from Europe to West Africa and then from Africa to the so-called New World. Once the ships arrived in the New World after a heinous and perilous journey during which slaves were subject to deplorable conditions, slave traders would auction of slaves in exchange for goods such as tobacco and maize in order to sell those products once they returned to Europe. When viewed through a business lens, such human trafficking made perfect sense, as European traders were able to reap profits on both journeys that traversed the Atlantic Ocean. While some personal narratives described slavery from an ethical point of view, others lamented the tensions between the morality of the heinous institution and its profitability within capitalism, a profit-driven economic system. Proponents of slavery such as John Barbot, a Frenchman who was involved in the African slave trade for a protracted period of time, invoked religious imagery and sentiments in order to justify the morality of slavery as an institution that commoditized Africans in order to reap handsome profits. Many Christians did, however, also oppose slavery because they argued that it violated fundamental Christian principles. Many Christians and non-Christians alike decried slavery predicated on moral principles, as they viewed it as an affront to human dignity. Barbot consciously referenced Christian ethics in order to alleviate his guilt regarding his role in condoning and perpetuating the institution of slavery for its profitability. Equiano conversely described in meticulous detail the grim realities of life as a slave in the Middle passage, and he appealed to Christian ethics in order to gain a wider and more diverse audience.
It is clear that John Barbot viewed slavery in economic terms, and he reconciled the intrinsic barbarity of the institution of slavery by arguing that European slavery was far more humane and compassionate than the brand of slavery that he purportedly witnessed amongst the African peoples and tribes in West Africa. Barbot juxtaposed the African slaves with other commodities that are useful for trading. He notes that slaves were one of the “principle goods” that the French had to trade with the Dutch in exchange for their necklaces, musket balls, cloves, and spices, among other goods. Barbot further described slaves as Blacks who were sold into slavery as prisoners of war by their own people as a result of ethnic fights or incursions made into the territories of their enemies. Some families even sold their own children or neighbors into slavery for trading purposes. Kings punished unruly subjects if they committed certain offences regardless of one’s rank in society. Barbot perceived the original purpose of slavery as purely economically motivated, and slavery was just because it was punishment for unruliness. The exchangeability of African slaves, whom Stephanie Smallwood refers to as saltwater slaves because of the perilous journey they endured across the Atlantic Ocean, rendered the market ubiquitous. The commodification of African slaves required both “physical alienation” and “social death,” which meant that their kinship ties, which were the “institutional glue that most immediately bound the self to society,” were severed.
Although Barbot explained that the humane treatment of slaves aboard the ships was directly related to their profitability as commodities, he also highlighted the “inestimable advantage” that the institution of slavery reaped for the Europeans in terms of proselytizing and spreading the Christian faith. Deploying paternalistic language, Barbot made it clear that slavery facilitated the salvation of their souls if the slaves made “a true use of their condition.” He shares an anecdote about a family of slaves who were happy and grateful to preserve their kinship bonds in bondage. Painting an idyllic picture of this family’s gratitude towards him, Barbot portrayed himself in a favorable light as compassionate and empathetic slave trader. Black families were usually never sold together in order to lessen the likelihood of slave insurrection. Rather, slave traders broke up kinship bonds and sold slaves from geographical areas in Africa in order to ensure that language and cultural barriers would drive a wedge amongst them. Thus, Barbot discursively painted himself as humane and Christian rather than heartless in order to reconcile the tensions between the commodification of Africans and the Christian discourses invoked for justifying the trafficking of humans and the guilt of those who perpetuated the practice such as Barbot.
In a far different and seemingly antithetical account, Olaudah Equiano, an educated slave during childhood, recalled the institution of slavery as a morally bereft institution demarked by a profound sense of displacement, anxiety, despair, dejection, and fear. It is clear that Equiano struggled to make sense of his incarceration on an English slave ship, as he asked his fellow shipmates what would become of them. He feared that those in charge of the ship with “complexionsdiffering so much from ours,” would kill all of the African slaves or eat them. Debunking Barbot’s account, Equiano recalled that he preferred to remain a slave in Africa rather than be taken to the so-called New World because he was now “deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered friendly.” This profound sense of displacement permeates Equiano’s account along with an overwhelming sense of trepidation over his imminent demise and the fact that his captors came from distant lands.
Equiano did not view slavery as a business that merchants sought to reap the maximum profits by ensuring that the slaves aboard their ship were virile, well-treated, and cared for in the paternalistic fashion that Barbot described. Rather, slaves were flogged and beaten severely if they refused to eat food. Equiano reiterated that his grief and fear eradicated any desire to eat food, which was perceived as an act of rebellion that his captors feared and punished. Equiano’s desperation is evident when he talked about his desire and desperation to escape his situation by jumping overboard. He was unable to do so because the slave traders vigilantly kept watch in order to ensure that precious human cargo was not lost. The precise language and word choice used by Equiano in his account effectively subverted the hegemonic narrative regarding the slave experience by discursively portraying the European man as a savage, cruel and barbaric figure. This perspective starkly contrasts that of Barbot’s perspective who discursively limns slaves barbaric, heathen, and uncivilized in order to alleviate his guilt in perpetuating slavery through a moral and ethical defense. The slave ship was to Equiano a “hollow place” occupied by these white people who came from a distant land. He observes how one white man aboard the ship “flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast” that he died because of it, and Equiano expected to be treated in the same manner that he had just observed. The lived experiences of the slaves aboard the ship starkly contrasted the account proffered by those in charge of perpetuating the institution of slavery.
Equiano brilliantly weaves in religious discourses and principles in order to depict slavery in a way that moved his narrative from the subaltern periphery to the hegemonic center. Religious lexicon functioned as a way to present a discursive identity that eschewed Equiano’s subaltern status as a former slave and black male. While it is impossible to know whether the use of Christian lexicon and principles functioned in order to appeal to a European audience, such a a revisionist branch of history nonetheless still is significant for understanding the complexities of Equiano’s experiences as a slave and how they transformed him. Equiano alluded to the Christian Golden Rule, “Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you,” in order to question the moral grounds of slavery within a Christian worldview. Critics often point to the contradictions that permeate Equiano’s narrative regarding his racial consciousness, thereby complicating the documentary significance of a work that blended together themes of identification and alienation that seemingly suggests a denial of his blackness and the “adoption of the false racial identity of the White Other.” Equiano’s depicted a moral canon through a multicultural framework within his autobiography using Christian rhetoric in order to move from the margins to the center. In doing so, Equiano gained more credibility and authority as a writer against the morally bereft institution of slavery.
John Barbot and Equiano both penned personal narratives about their experiences during the Middle Passage and the nascent years of slavery in the New World. Barbot viewed slavery as a profitable business, and he justified human trafficking by deploying religious lexicon and principles. Slavery resulted in the conversion of these “heathens” to a more civilized religion under which their souls would be saved. Equiano’s scintillating account of his displacement and the diaspora of the African slaves to the New World was striking in how it used precise language to underscore the puzzling experience of the Middle Passage endured by so many African slaves. He articulated his concerns about the intentions of the Europeans, which fomented anxieties and fears despite the fact that some aboard the ship claimed that slavery represented a form of labor recruitment. Equiano’s text was unequivocally a product of the eighteenth century and the strong antislavery sentiments in Britain. Historical contingencies undergirded his narrative that brilliantly weaved together moralism and a sense of Enlightened humanism in order to present a tale about diaspora and displacement in a way that would have been familiar to European audiences and the burgeoning genre of travel literature by using specific tropes and Christian lexicon. The corpus of slave writings and writings about the slave experiences together form a nuanced picture that nonetheless underscored how social status, personal biases, and hegemonic epistemologies all have played a role in shaping personal narratives themselves.
Bourke, Joanna. Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Earley, Samantha Manchester. “Writing From the Center or the Margins? Olaudah Equiano’s Writing Life Reassessed.” African Studies Review, 46.3(2003): 1-16.
Law, Robin. “Jean Barbot as a Source for the Slave Coast of West Africa.” History in Africa 9(1982): 155-173.
Paul, Ronald. “I Whitened My Face, That They Might Not Know Me’: Race and Identity in Olaudah Equiano’s Slave Narrative.” Journal of Black Studies, 39.6(2009): 848-864.
Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery a Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
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