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This article ran in The Textbook Letter for March-April 1995.
It accompanied reviews of Human Heritage: A World History,
a high-school book published by Glencoe.

"Where Did Slavery Come From?"

Charles B. Paul

Glencoe's Human Heritage presents highly misleading passages about the African slave trade, inducing students to believe that it was initiated by Europeans, some 500 years ago, to furnish labor for European colonies in the New World. In fact, the overseas trade in black slaves was established much earlier, was established by Arabs, and was operated with the complicity of black rulers and black merchants.

False beliefs about slavery are evidently popular, but promoting such beliefs in history books is a serious disservice to students. To put this practice into perspective, let me quote from a recent newspaper article by Thomas Sowell:

A history professor wrote to me recently about one of his students who asked: "Where did slavery come from?"

"The real question," he replied, "is, Where did freedom come from?"

Slavery is thousands of years older than freedom. It is so old that no one knows when or how it began. It existed among people of every color on every inhabited continent. The very word "slave" in a number of languages derives from the word for Slavs, who were enslaved for centuries before the first African was brought to the Western Hemisphere. Slavery exists at this very moment in Mauritania [a country in northwestern Africa], where 30,000 Africans are kept in brutal bondage.

The only reason slavery is not still prevalent today is because Western civilization eventually turned against it and proceeded to stamp it out all over the world -- over the bitter opposition of Africans and Arabs, among others.

Such things are seldom mentioned in our schools or colleges because it would not be "politically correct." What is taught leaves the impression that slavery is something created by or for one particular race.

Freedom is even less understood. We take freedom so much for granted that there is little or no sense of what went into producing it -- or what is necessary to maintain it.

Freedom does not just happen. It exists today in a relative handful of nations, and it has existed in that handful only in recent centuries.

(I saw Sowell's article in the San Jose [California] Mercury News for 27 March. Sowell is a syndicated columnist whose work is distributed by Creators' Syndicate, based in Los Angeles.)

Sowell has done well to remind us that the suppression of slavery was a Western endeavor, and that slavery still persists in Africa -- points that are routinely omitted from the history books and geography books used in our schools. I should add that the case of Mauritania is not unique. A recent report in the London Observer described the flourishing slave trade that has been instituted by Arabs in Sudan: The Arabs capture young persons in southern Sudan, force them to accept Islam and Arab names, and sell them for use within Sudan or for export to countries in western Africa or on the Persian Gulf.


Charles Paul, a specialist in cultural history, is a professor of humanities, emeritus, from San Jose State University. He has published scholarly articles on literature and music, and he has written a book, Science and Immortality, about the science and the scientists of 18th-century France.

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