Tuesday, February 07, 2006


A nice little discussion is ongoing at the wonderful Natalie's site, about the true causes for the end of slavery. Options so far include the horse collar (via Tim Worstall), the Black Death, General Sherman, the Little Ice Age, the Royal Navy and the capitalist system itself. The argument is hampered slightly by an absence of defining terms.

It is of course ridiculous to talk of slavery as an institution being ended by the Black Death, since it continues to this day in Africa. It is equally absurd to credit General Sherman, when slavery on the American continent continued until the 1880s (in Brazil). It is quite reasonable to argue, however, that the required social strata for serfdom in England and much of Western Europe was shattered irreparably by the Black Death and its subsequent social upheaval. It is equally fair to argue that slavery in the United States was ended only by the overpowering military force represented by Wild Bill.

Much of the debate has focused on European slavery, hence the focus on the Black Death and the horse collar. I think it interesting to note that much of Western European antipathy toward slavery concerned only white slaves at home. Black slaves were a common enough sight in ancien regime France. Yet, in mainland Britain, which was after all by far the largest exporter of slaves, and had few scruples in using slaves in the West Indies, slavery was not just illegal, but impossible.

So my nominee for the cause of the end of slavery is Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England, who said in the case of R V Somerset "The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it." This judgment confirmed a general belief that the institution of slavery was immoral, and gave invaluable aid to the nascent abolitionist movement.


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