published by Monthly Review Press, 2020, $27 paperback, 214 pages plus 88 more of references and index
review by Jack Kittredge
This book is a historian’s dream. It takes a vitally important current subject, subjects it to an erudite analysis illuminating many crucial aspects not widely discussed, and enables us, the readers, to understand how the subject fits into a much broader context.
Horne demonstrates how, during what he calls the “long 16th century”, slavery was transformed from a practice of selling captives of any race into bondage (with antecedents going back to ancient Mesopotamia in 3500 BC) to one of white supremacy specifically enslaving non-white Africans and Indigenous Peoples as a way of building settler colonialism and, ultimately, capitalism.
You need to hold onto your hats for this demonstration of historical prowess. Horne simply amazes with his knowledge of church schisms and treaties, the politics and diplomacy of Ottoman/Spanish/English relations during the crucial decades, the rise of gunpowder and professionalism in western military affairs and the almost continual examples of slave/indigene rebellions and revolts throughout the New World.
You have to read this guy slowly because he packs more reasoned argument and obscure factual data to back it up into a sentence than anyone I can think of. And he doesn’t walk you through it like a Michael Pollan or a Jared Diamond. You pretty much have to read every sentence twice to unpack it. But it is worth it.
Take yourself back to the Mediterranean in mid-1400. Islam is still the most dynamic movement in the Western World. For the last 800 years it has expanded, first roiling out of Arabia, sweeping over North Africa and crossing into Iberia to contest for control with the rulers of a divided Spain, sending merchants east along the Silk Road and dominating the lucrative trade with Central Asia and beyond, carrying with them the seeds of a powerful religion which would convert all who heard it preached. The ancient empire of Iran succumbs, as do many of the areas dominated by Alexander and Hellenistic culture a thousand and more years before. Even Russia is affected as the Ottomans replace Genoese traders in the Black Sea and purchase thousands of Slavs each year as slaves from the Crimean Tartars. Western Europe is still largely depopulated, recovering from years of the Black Death, and resistance is ineffective. Now, in 1453, Constantinople itself, the unconquerable bastion of Christianity on the Bosphorus, falls to the infidel.
This moment of triumph for Islam, as so often happens, is the apex of its historical arc (at least to date). Defeats at the gates of Vienna and disaster at Lepanto soon come, followed swiftly by the outlawing of Islam in Iberia and a new energy on the part of Christendom to expand (expelling whole Moslem populations), to explore (Columbus and the Portuguese Navigators) and to expound (the Protestant revolution and Catholic counter Reformation).
Horne argues that during the “long sixteenth” century (his dating — from the Columbian event in 1492 until the first African slaves permanently introduced into the future US in the early 1600s — varies somewhat from other historians also using this term) the “equal-opportunity enslaving” practiced by the Ottomans and virtually all conquering forces to date changed to a largely English race-based white supremacy system more suited to developing the New World. Only with such an approach, he says, were settlers able to avoid the customary decencies to which slaves were previously entitled.
In 1452 Pope Nicholas V sanctified the Portuguese practice of enslaving captured “heathens” and “foes of Christ” (principally Moslems). This led to self-serving misrepresentations such as that in Valencia of West African mercenaries being identified as North African Moors, thus Moslems and thus enslavable by conquering Spaniards. But it also allowed the “conversion” of slaves, which required a loosening of their bonds. This faith-based standard lacked sufficient rigidity to be of use in the Americas. Faith is more malleable than skin color, which is given to us with a life sentence. It was this latter race-based white supremacy justification for slavery that began to be of most use, casting Africans and Native American Indigenes into the same pool from which workers to power the sugar mills of the Islands or the plantations of the mainland were taken. Differences among the “whites” (Catholic vs Protestant, Lutheran vs. Calvinist, English vs Spaniard) proved far less important than simply their race.
The idea of this transition is proposed and defended by Horne in over 200 pages of closely argued history which is lavishly laden with scholarly details given a new interpretation. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, the invasion of the Songhay Empire in sub-Saharan Africa, the earliest examples of slavery and slave rebellions in North America all had their role to play in the origins of this new and even-more-bitter variant of an old practice.
Already, in discussions of white privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement, I have seen contemporary references to the arguments made in this just-released book. Horne’s work will be a significant addition to our understanding of slavery and the ways the practice has been fundamental to the history of the Americas.