In 2016, Michelle Obama said she woke up every morning in the White House thinking that it was "a house built by slaves." However, the White House was first rebuilt in 1902 and achieved its present shape in the 1950s, long after the US abolished slavery in 1865 and granted former slaves citizenship in 1869. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Do Western nations, notably the United States and Britain, owe their wealth to black slaves from Africa?
This, and related questions, in circulation for years, acquired a new life in recent weeks thanks to protest marches in the US and Europe.
In 2009, at an international seminar hosted by then French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Evian, we listened with amazement as the American Reverend Jesse Jackson told the audience that African slaves built America as a home that turned out to be a prison.
In 2016, then US First Lady Michelle Obama told TV audiences how she woke up every morning in the White House thinking that it was "a house built by slaves."
Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan brought his own water to the mill. He said: "It is a sad truth that much of our wealth derived from the slave trade."
There are at least two problems with that discourse.
The first is that it assumes that the vast majority of people who were not slaves profited from slavery by sitting pretty, letting slaves do everything.
That would be unfair to millions of non-slave humans, who since the times of the Roman Empire opposed slavery and, on occasions, even fought alongside slaves, to end it.
But the second problem is the key one:
Jackson, Khan and Mrs. Obama are simply wrong.
Let's start with Mrs. Obama's claim, the easiest to dismiss. The White House she lived in for eight years was first rebuilt in 1902 and achieved its present shape in the 1950s, long after the US abolished slavery in 1865 and granted former slaves citizenship in 1869. There may have been some blacks, later to be dubbed African-Americans, among the builders; but they were no longer slaves.
The claim that black slaves built America, by implication almost single-handedly, is also questionable. To start with, black slaves didn't have the numbers to establish control over a huge continent and transform it into the largest economy in the world.
The 13 British colonies that were to become the United States absorbed around 320,000 African slaves. At the time of the War of Secession, which the Americans call the Civil War, black slaves accounted for about three percent of the population, concentrated in slave-owning states. It is only after the Civil War that the black segment of the US population achieves dramatic demographic growth.
Today, blacks account for 12 percent of the US population, with many coming from other parts of the world, including the Caribbean, and thus with no slave ancestry in the US. They include such eminent figures as Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Susan Rice and one of my favorite singers, Harry Belafonte.
American economic power was built on an abundance of natural resources and an endless supply of immigrant workers, until the 1970s mostly from Europe. But the key to American success was free enterprise which, first nurtured in a chaotic context, in time allowed for innovation and gigantic projects, all of which came after the abolition of slavery. (True Chinese coolies, semi-slave workers, played a big role in building the US rail network.)
In the great decades of American economic growth, blacks were not able, partly because they were hamstrung by persisting racial prejudices and lack of educational opportunities, to play their full part in building America.
As for Britain, economic growth started with the enclosure movement, which meant land could be transformed into collateral for raising capital, at a time that there were no blacks on the island. The repeal of the Corn Laws opened the way for free trade and the transmutation of the buccaneers' fleet into the royal merchant navy, which enabled the English, with Scots as their second fiddle, to set the tune for global commerce.
Again, almost no blacks were involved.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Caribbean sugar cane plantations linked to it, did produce huge wealth, but only for a few dozen families, mainly in London, Liverpool and Bristol. The majority of the English people had to subsidize that through taxes to keep Britannia ruling the waves and imposing their rule of law with gunboats.
Corrupt parliaments with "pocket boroughs" and "rotten boroughs," where seats could be bought, perverted British democracy in favor of slave-traders.
Even then, the wealth created by the slave-trade amounted to less than three percent of investments in British economy.
The British economy was not the only one adversely affected by the evil of slavery.
One might even suggest that slavery enslaved the entire global economy until the Industrial Revolution opened a new era from the 19th century.
In his seminal work, A Manifesto for Social Progress, French economist Marc Fleurbaey shows how the end of slavery released massive productive energies across the globe.
In the first millennium, when slavery of all colors existed everywhere, global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased 15-fold, which means it doubled every 66 years. After the abolition of slavery, global GDP doubled every 15 years. The first global economic take-off came in 1892 with the Industrial Revolution. But the second, and more important take-off, began in 1945, after the Second World War. Between 1950 and 2008, the size of UK economy trebled.
Dubbed the "Golden Era," the period in question released the creative energies of capitalism as never before.
Capitalism is by nature anti-slavery because it seeks maximum mobility in the means of production: land, labor and capital. If a piece of land can produce more profits in another way, it would be withdrawn from its current use. If your investment can make a bigger return, you won't keep it where it is now. Slavery, in all its forms, including tied-cottages, serfdom, coolies' work, scheduled castes and so on, precludes mobility. It is thus not acceptable to the capitalist, who wants a hire-when-you-need and fire-when-you-don't system of recruitment.
Other nations also benefited from the end of slavery.
Russia started its industrialization when it came out of the system described in Gogol's "Dead Souls, and achieved growth rates of more than 10 percent per annum in the second part of the 19th century. India did even better and saw the size of its economy increase fivefold in 60 years after shaking its caste system, a form of slavery. In Iran, the slave trade was abolished in 1895 but slaves were not freed and granted citizenship until 1929, which marked Iran's revival as a modernizing nation state.
Slavery was an evil that hampered human progress and thus harmed everyone.
Slaves, most of whom in history were white and not black, were not the only victims. Even people who were neither slaves nor slave-owners paid a heavy price in slow economic development and poverty. When it comes to slavery, no one has a monopoly of suffering.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published in a slightly different version by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.