On slavery, propaganda, and “apolitical” history

To celebrate its death throes, the other week the lame duck crypto-fascist Trump government came up one of the worst historical takes yet seen, a horrifying little dossier that they call the 1776 project. You can no longer read it, as it was rightly removed from the White House website, largely because it was a bit of racist lunacy that one can only come up with by specifically eschewing the works of any historians. I, however, am compelled to write about it, with the help of handy screenshots because I am one of those pesky historians that they decided to exclude while coming out with bangers like this:

Yikes.

I introduce this particular passage because it is a perfect oxymoron of a goal – it seeks to say that to “demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes” is to “promote political agendas”. Conversely, asserting that America’s “heritage” is unproblematic and its “heroes” are, well, heroes, is somehow apolitical. This is both childish and impossible. All history is by its very nature political because history as a discipline is about interpreting and contextualising past events. We all have to interpret from within our own societies, meaning that our work is always politicised in the same way that our entire lives are. History is not just a straightforward list of dates and names, otherwise it would have no “heroes” in it, because they never would have had the chance to be interpreted as such.

Indeed, there is nothing more political than insisting that one’s interpretation of history is somehow apolitical. This indicates that there is an a priori truth, which is absolutely not the case. It is especially not the case when that truth just magically happens to be populated with a bunch of white guys who we are meant to interpret as “heroes” even though they (oopsie!) were a bunch of slave owners who were actively involved in mass genocide against the native population of an entire continent.

When confronted with the very real fact that owning slaves and doing genocide has never been OK initiative like the 1776 Project rely on one very bad argument almost in exclusion. In a nutshell it is this, “Actually you cannot say these people were bad for owning slaves and doing genocide because everyone was doing it at the time, so it was OK.” Friends, I say to you once again that this is a very bad argument.

Why? Well two reasons: First it states that the only opinions that matter are of the guys who were holding the enslaved and doing the genocide. Just because the group of people doing all the atrocities were cool with it doesn’t mean it was OK. Cuz guess what? The people who were enslaved and being genocided? Not big fans! Turns out people don’t like to be killed and owned as property! Wild, I know. And they were pretty clear about that fact throughout history.

Every major slaveholding society experienced slave rebellions, which should give you a hint about the enslaved felt about their lot. Spartacus? A real guy! Who led a real slave revolt! The Zanji Rebellion? Real, brutal, and understandable. Hell, Rei Amador’s revolt against the slave holders on São Tomé pretty much happened as soon as Europeans started the whole moving Africans to the New World thing. The views of enslaved people on the matter are therefore a) pretty clear, and b) are as important as those of the people who had enslaved them. Yes! I assure you they are! If you do not think that enslaved or murdered people get a say in the morality of an event, I encourage you to maybe do some introspection about why you feel that way! (The answer is that you have been born into a society which has inculcated you from birth to believe that black and brown people do not matter as much as white people. Work on that.)

The gladiator mural at the Galleria Borghese, or, this is how you get a massive slave revolt and the Third Serville War.

Secondly, even if we were only going to count the feelings of white people as important in this discussion – which I absolutely am not going to – no matter when you confront genocide and slavery you also encounter people who do not think it is good!

This is true from the ancient period. Enemy of the blog Aristotle, pretty famously argued for slavery, because he had a whole gross justification about how the enslaved had a totally different nature to free people. Even when he makes unsavory arguments like this, however, he ends up admitting that there were some philosophers who “maintain that for one man to be another man’s master is contrary to nature, because it is only convention that makes the one a slave and the other a freeman and there is no difference between them by nature, and that therefore it is unjust, for it is based on force.”[1] Unfortunately, we don’t really know who those people arguing against Aristole were, but their complaints were common enough that he had to acknowledge them while he was busy being a d bag. We do know that at least one stoic philosopher, Dio Chrysostom, argued against slavery some time in the first century AD though.[2]

In the medieval period the fact that slavery was bad and being enslaved sucked is evidenced in numerous ways, but it crops up repeatedly in saints’ hagiographies especially. Time and again we are treated to tales where Christians are saved from slavery through the miraculous intercession of saints. My man St Wenceslas, in particular saved a lot of slaves, for example. These stories are always kinda spicy as well because they tend to highlight cultural differences between slaves and those who hold them. A lot of the time it is not just a problem that someone is a slave, but the issue is that they are a Christian slave being held by a non-Christian.

Wenceslas attending a banquet, being holy, getting ready to free some enslaved people after his death, presumably. Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 11,2 Augusteus 4, fol. 20 v.

Concerns about this were echoed early on in European legal code as well. The Pactum Lotharii signed between Venice and the Carolingian Empire established that it should be illegal to sell Christian slaves to non-Christians. This was later reiterated at several Church councils, starting with the Council of Koblenz in 922.

We also have smaller-scale examples of the freeing of slave, such as the remarkable Cornish Bodmin Gospel which individually records some fifty-one acts of manumission over the period from 950-1025, which show us how Christians considered it an important part of their practice.

Take this inscription, for example:

British Library Add MS 9381 f. 13r

The British Library’s blog helpfully tells us that it reads:

Hoc est no[men] illius mulieris .i. medguistyl cum p[ro]genie sua .i. bleiduid, ylcerthon, byrchtylym; quos liberaverunt cleri s[an]c[t]i petroci sup[er] altare illius petroci, p[ro]
remedio eadryd rex, & p[ro] animab[us] illor[um]; coram istis testib[us] comayre p[re]spiter grifiud p[re]spit[er] etc..

(This is the name of the woman Medguistyl with her offspring Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym who were freed by the clerics of Saint Petroc on the altar of this St Petroc’s for the souls of Eadred the King and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc…)

These acts are specifically meant to be imparted to us in a religious context. We are meant to understand that freeing these salves is a Christian act and that doing so enobles the soul of the King. That is not nothing.

All in all slavery largely fell out of favour across Europe in the high and late medieval period. By 1315 King Louis X of France famously allowed serfs to buy their freedom and also stated that any slaves who set foot in France would be freed.

King Louis X, a nice dude. from BNF MS 12148 f. 19 r.

Did people still hold enslaved people in medieval Europe. Yes, though it was not a widespread practice. They were usually traded by intermediaries or captured in battle, and they always had to be non-Christian. This is an important point because the fact that one could not enslave a Christian is a tacit admission that being a slave fucking sucks and you shouldn’t do it to people. You had to enslave people whose souls were already lost to God in order to justify such a crushing and unsavoury practice.

In the early modern period when the chattel and trans-Atlantic slavery thing began to take off in the Americas, there were immediately people writing against it. As early as the sixteenth century, the sailor and naval strategist Fernão de Oliveira made it known in his Arte de Guerra no mar that slavers were involved in an “evil trade” making it clear that this shit was not OK with him. By 1571 the city of Bordeaux declared all “blacks and moors” in the city free, a decisive indication that the people there definitively did not accept that slavery was just something that happened.

Abolitionism and the moral rejection of slavery continued throughout the early modern period, and indeed when the founding fathers were doing their whole slavery and genocide but white dudes are free thing in the Americas, the Quakers in the country were already lobbying for abolitionism.  

All of these examples are things which I literally just pulled off the top of my head in a fit of rage. A serious study of abolitionist thought would include dozens if not hundreds of such examples because they are ample. This is because throughout history there has never been a time when slavery was not opposed by some people. Just because that did not always hold sway over the moral flaws of the dickheads who stood to profit from it does not mean that they were never challenged on it.

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt because being enslaves sucks, actually. Morgan MS M.677 fol. 134 r.

What Trump and his little circle are asking people like me who teach history to do is, therefore, to lie about history. We are meant to create a version of the past where all the great white heroes are innocents. Where Americans had no idea what they were doing was wrong. Where morality is relative. This is not an accurate representation of history.

Is admitting that political? Yes, it absolutely is. Crucially, however, pretending that a false version of the past is also political as well. Not wanting to feel bad about the fact that we have benefitted from a horrifying past and therefore trying to prevent people from acknowledging it is as political a move as there is possible to make.

Everyone knows that slavery is bad. That is why there’s a whole story line about it in the Old Testament. That is why pro-slavery jams like “Rule Britannia”make it clear that British people exclusively “never, never, never shall be slaves”. That is why we have to pretend right now that maybe some people didn’t think that at one point in order to assuage our own guilt. That is why stupid ass projects like whatever it is that the Trump people were trying here exist.

As a general rule of thumb, if you have to attempt to prevent the teaching of an historical reality in order to preserve your own ideas about “heroes” then perhaps you are lionizing myths rather than making a critical study of historical personages. On the other hand, what do I know? This is just my job.


[1] Aristotle, Politics, 1253b [1] Accessed at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:tlg,0086,035:1:1253b 28 January 2021
[2] Ilaria Ramelli, Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 75-76.


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For more political takes, see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
Religious iconography has always been a prop
Medieval policing and race reading lists
On Odious Debt
On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
Emergency Post: That is not what the “good” in Good Friday means
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On Q Anon and systems of knowledge
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

4 thoughts on “On slavery, propaganda, and “apolitical” history”

  1. There was a very similar thing in Britain a few years ago and I think it got further into school curricula than this US version. This is the programmatic extension of the familiar whine about “identity politics.” Somehow the whiner’s identity isn’t an identity at all, it’s a Fact of Nature. But the unmarked category is a category too, innit? And when I hear the phrase Fact of Nature I reach for the safety-catch on my copy of Gramsci’s Prison Diaries…

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  2. I have to say I agree entirely with your arguments and thanks for pointing out examples of resistance to slavery down through the ages, especially Bordeaux freeing “blacks and moors”. Would love to know the background of that. Howard Zinn wrote that the poorer emigrants in early colonial America married freely regardless of colour until whites were offered the deal of being always at least one rung above the bottom, provided they participated in racism.
    However, regarding Rule Britannia, I thought the comment on slavery referred to the fact that North Africans were taking slaves in lightning raids from the south coast of England until the 1500s. Perhaps I have been misled.

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