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Slavery. The practice of purchasing and selling humans as a form of property, and a practice having existed since the beginning of time. Towards the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery became a topic of debate. Slavery was attacked on a moral and religious bases by John Newton and John Wesley, both of whose ideals reflected those of the Enlightenment period. Slavery was defended from an economical, religious, and moral standpoint by Malachy Postlethwayt. This essay will focus on each of their arguments, and how each of them fail to recognize factors that have both led to and kept slavery as an institution.
The African Slave Trade began with the purchase of black men, women, and children in Africa. Warring tribes fought for dominance, and those captured during battle or during raids were sold to ship captains along the African coast. Captives were shipped all across the world from the Americas to the Middle East. Africans were resistant to the sickness and death spread by Europeans, and their skills as farmers and artisans made them valuable laborers.
As slavery developed to be essential to the economic development and success of new colonies, slavery became identified with race.
Newton was a staunch abolitionist and strongly condemned the slave trade. In his attempt to sway public opinion, Newton published his “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” in 1788. Newton detailed uprisings on the slave ships to demonstrate the inhumane treatment of slaves. In order for ship captains to maintain dominance, captives were punished, and their punishments were dependent entirely upon the temperament of the ship’s captain.
“I have seen them sentenced to unmerciful whippings, continued until the poor creatures have not had power to groan under their misery.” (Newton) But not all slaves were bound for hard labor or work in the fields. Many prisoners were women and girls, forced into sex slavery on the long voyages back to the European colonies. Newton’s main argument against the rape of slave women main attacks from how none of these men would treat their own wives or daughters this way. He appeals to the reader’s ethos by comparing the women and children to the readers own wives and daughters. Newton appeals to his readers’ logic and emotions by telling how many of his fellow countrymen treat these slaves as savages, yet notes that he has never felt in danger when sleeping in their towns or keeping his goods safe, even in towns without strong doors. When he discusses their nature, he describes them as modest and delicate, “incapable of disgracing a European woman” (Newton), further appealing to the readers’ emotions. Newton aims to illustrate that the people taken as slaves are not the savages they are portrayed as by comparing them to their European counterparts.
Newton was not an innocent man himself. Newton played a role in the slave trade, serving as a first mate aboard a slaving vessel approximately 40 years prior to the publication of Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. His firsthand experience gives a valuable and chilling insight into the slave trade, one that is lacking in the authorship of Wesley and Postlethwayt. Unfortunately, his disposition as a former participant in the slave trade causes his words be taken with a grain of salt. It raises the question as to whether Newton truly developed a moral standpoint after embracing Christianity, or whether his words were an elaborate ruse, and with different incentives in mind.
Among other opponents of slavery was John Wesley, the founder of the evangelical Methodist movement in England. Wesley uses a number of appeals, including from pity towards slaves and instilling fear of God’s judgment. He argued that villainy, and by extension slavery, were unnecessary for the colonies to flourish, and that was better to suffer in righteousness than to profit in villainy. Wesley took Newton’s arguments of morality a step further by directly equating the lives of black and white men, calling them equal. In Wesley’s eyes, white men were just as capable of laboring their plantations as black slaves. Wesley vilifies slavery by asking readers how anyone of good conscience could participate in the slave trade and deaths of thousands of black men in their own country. In doing so, Wesley incites pity towards those of African descent. Wesley asks the reader to consider in what manner taking African persons to the colonies had reclaimed them from evil in their homeland and is successful in making the reader uncomfortable. He further attacks the practice of slavery by asking whether the abuses of slavery could be upheld with the principles of the Bible, citing numerous incongruences between the two. Wesley concludes his attack in a religious manner by claiming that God would judge those who put their fellow men in chains and violated all laws of justice, mercy, and truth.
Wesley’s views are characteristic of the Enlightenment period. The Enlightenment era spanned the 17th century, with ideas encompassing individual rights, liberty, progress, and toleration. Published in 1774, Wesley’s Thoughts on Slavery reflected ideas of progress and toleration. Slavery, specificially the putting of fellow humans in chains through no fault of their own, to Wesley was inconsistent with mercy or justice as described in the Bible, and consistent with the enlightenment ideal of progress and liberty. Wesley’s thought that it was better for no trade than trade procured by villainy is a further reflection of progress and liberty associated with the Enlightenment period.
Malachy Postlethwayt defended slavery from a religious and economic approach. Malachy Postlethwayt, unlike Wesley, saw those of African descent as unequal as evidenced by the significant racial undertones in the passage. Postlethwayt was convinced slavery was a means of elevating the quality of life of blacks. By taking them to European colonies, Postlethwayt argued that slaves were placed in the care of “more humane Christian masters” (Postlethwayt) and thus, was an improvement to their condition. Slavery, in Postlethwayt’s eyes, was a kindness and therefore congruent with the Bible’s ideals. Postlethwayt argued for the economic benefits of slavery, stating that the use of this labor rendered European colonies profitable and could only be beneficial to all parties involved. This will be further discussed below.
Of the three authors, Postlethwayt is the only one to recognize the total dependence of European economies on slave labor. While Wesley has noticed a correlation between trade and slave labor, he does not recognize the dependence of the European economies. Neither Wesley nor Newton reference the skilled farmers and artisans that made them heavily sought after for labor purposes, instead choosing to attack the practice of slavery due to its immoral operations. Postlethwayt states that “traffic only affording our planters a constant supply of negro servants for the culture of their lands in the produce of sugars, tobacco, rice, rum, cotton, pimento and all other our plantation produce.” (Postlethwayt) As many of these are tropical plants that cannot be grown in the cooler climates of Northern Europe, these European economies are heavily benefited by the trade and transport of these goods. Postlethwayt further recognizes that as the slave trade has contributed to the vast wealth of these European countries, so too has the naval and military of these countries grown. Postlethwayt concludes by claiming that not only were the British colonies dependent on African labor, but their future advancements would be as well. This implies and is important to note that Postlethwayt does not view an end to slavery anytime in the future.
Postlethwayt, unlike Newton, does not appear to have witnessed the documented brutalities of slave owners. Postlethwayt assumes that slaves are treated fairly because beneficial treatment is best for the slave owner, yet fails to recognize that slaves are at the mercy of their owners. Some owners may choose to maintain production through fear and threatening to withhold food, water, or shelter if slaves do not meet labor demands. An owner might threaten a slave’s husband, wife, or children as a means of maintaining dominance and control over a slave. Newton recognizes this in his depiction of the treatment of slaves on slave ships: “dependent upon the sovereign will of the captain.” (Newton) In doing so, Postlethwayt’s argument is weakened.
To conclude, the practice of slavery has been heavily debated on moral, religious, and economic grounds. John Wesley and John Newton attacked slavery from a moral and religious standpoint yet failed to recognize the economic dependence on slave labor. However, Wesley’s firsthand experience working on a slave ship provides a valuable insight into the treatment and subjugation of men, women, and children purchased from Africa. Both Wesley and Newton’s ideas about slavery are reflective of the Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, free will, and tolerance. Malachy Postlethwayt defended the practice of slavery, citing that slaves were saved from a worse situation in Africa, and that the beneficial treatment and subjugation of slaves was a mutualistic relationship. Postlethwayt further recognized the total dependence on African labor for the European economy, and would even predict that the future of Europe would be dependent on slave labor. While all authors provide support for their valid arguments, each fail to recognize at least one vital factor in keeping slavery as an institution.
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