What 400 years of slavery?

That Kanye West has said something foolish – along the lines of 400 years of slavery being a choice – I’ve simply put down to the normal PR demands of having a new album out. But it has led to pondering – what 400 years of slavery in the US?

Obviously, no one does mean actually in the United States as the nation isn’t that old as yet. So, where does this 400 years come from? It must be true as Salon tells us it is:

It’s a failure to fully appreciate history to repeat a platitude like “slavery was so long ago!” when the Emancipation Proclamation was a mere 155 years ago, and blacks were enslaved in this land for well over 400 years.

Note the claim there, blacks, this land, 400 years.

Something that just doesn’t seem to be true.

The first recorded landing of Africans in what became the US seems to be 1519. But they were not slaves – they had been captured from the Spanish who probably did intend to use them so but they were freed – but they were treated just like many while immigrants of the time. Indentured then freed and set up with their own land and tools etc.

The first known shipment of intended to be African slaves was 1619. Which doesn’t give us 400 years until abolition in 1865 (?) does it?

We could say that next year marks the 400 th anniversary (is there some other word for “remembrance of bad history” instead of anniversary with its connotations of “celebration of a good bit”?) of slavery in the US therefore. Or in the land area that became it. But that’s still not 400 years of slavery.

So what’s Kanye on about?

Kanye West has said that 400 years of slavery is “a choice” in a TMZ interview that resulted in a confrontation.

What 400 years? There’s at least one attempt to sort this out:

Myth Two: Slavery lasted for 400 years.

Popular culture is rich with references to 400 years of oppression. There seems to be confusion between the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1440-1888) and the institution of slavery, confusion only reinforced by the Bible, Genesis 15:13:

Then the Lord said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.’

I think I’d worry about some who argues that the transatlantic anything began in 1440. But yes, I think I do like that commingling with Old Testament stories of exile. There are many references in the spirituals to Babylon and the equation of either the slave life, or this life more generally, to that exile. I can see the one number hardening peoples’ ideas of the other.

There is one other attempt to justify the 400 years:

Thus, there was an Old World imposed tradition of slavery in Americas as early as, say, 1493/94 (Taino in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, etc), until 1888 when Brasil emancipated its remaining slaves. That’s approximately 400 years.

tl;dr: Native Americans were enslaved as early as 1493/1494. Native American and African slavery ended in the Americas in 1888, when Brasil emancipated all of its slaves. That’s 395 years of slavery in the Americas by old world slave owners.

That’s a justifiable number, certainly. But in that very justification is an explosion of the insistence upon either the Transatlantic Trade being unique, or the African American experience being so, for this reason:

Slavery was not unique to the United States; it is a part of almost every nation’s history, from Greek and Roman civilizations to contemporary forms of human trafficking. The American part of the story lasted fewer than 400 years.

Not that it’s all that polite to mention it but Mali only recently abolished slavery. Having done so before as well, in 1984 if memory serves correctly. And there was an Arab slave trade as well, one that was of the same sort of volume as the transatlantic one. Fewer per year but over many more years, and it certainly went on long into the 1920s, the Royal Navy was still running rescue missions at that time. You can go see the slave pens in Zanzibar today. The Ottomans enslaved across the Balkans for centuries as well, the Mamelukes who became the rulers of Egypt for a time being those very enslaved soldiers. And the homophones of Slav and slave are not a coincidence – the slavic lands and tribes were major source of slaves for centuries. There’s even a good argument that the stronger forms of serfdom were in fact slavery. A Russian landowner owned not just the land but the serfs upon it. Really owned, as property – perhaps not quite chattel slavery but most certainly not far off it.

That is, if we’re to accept that 400 years as being true by widening our definitions then we’ve also got to conclude that there wasn’t anything all that unusual nor unique about it.

Yes, of course it was vile, disgusting and we’re all vastly better off for its abolition. But there still wasn’t anything unusual about it in any historical sense. Well, actually, there was. The American ex-slave population was higher than the number of slaves imported, something that didn’t happen in any of the other systems. The Arabs being likely to castrate males slaves before the journey for example, something which tends to reduce the number of descendants. But we should be careful about this argument given that it was used by Jefferson Davis. There are still times when who has used an argument makes it wrong, whatever the truth of the matter.

Support Continental Telegraph Donate


  1. And the Kanye quote getting more people hot under the collar is that slavery was a choice. Well post emancipation it was. Pre emancipation not so much. But post emancipation is a long time.
    I did read some accounts from freed slaves that basically said the life was ok for a poor man. Without any form of welfare state they probably had a point.

    • Workers Arts program, whatever it was in the New Deal, went around and interviewed the last surviving slaves – rather, those who had been slaves. Book’s free on Amazon. That was the general tone of it. Sure, slavery was bad but the physical living standards didn’t change much, possibly even downwards, on emancipation.

  2. Kanye West is certainly not a scholar of history, and is as unlikely to know the exact extent of slavery in North America than he was capable of assuring the nation that “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

    Lately, however, Kanye has stated that African Americans need not vote in lockstep for the Democratic Party; someone slipped him some of the works of Dr. Thomas Sowell, which he has retweeted, though mostly just pithy quips; and Kanye’s assertion that slavery was continuous through the present day seems to mean that modern blacks who think of themselves as victims of a white conspiracy are making a choice.

    Not clear whether this epiphany will last, as Kanye makes his money as a black leader, and there is no money in telling his audience to get over it and get on with living.

    But proving that Kanye got the “400 years” wrong misses the point as badly as the people who say Trump was lying as he was not literally “wiretapped.”

  3. I took the 400 years of slavery being a choice as being about the mindset, rather than literal slavery. When you read it that way it makes a great deal of sense, Black America is held back by constantly looking at the past, at what happened to their ancestors, and using it as an excuse for the present.