Have your teachers/professors given you the impression that slavery was unique to us? Apparently, this false impression is very common. My own earlier education was deficient in this way. But it is not too late to learn the truth.

Likewise, have you been taught that European imperialism, including the inhumane treatment of the native Americans, was uniquely evil? Actually, imperialism was not unique to the Europeans by any means, nor were instances of cruel treatment of others.

I was not taught the extent of the cruelty that many of the native Americans dealt each other; instead, they were somewhat romanticized. This I feel was at best negligence on the part of my educators.

Putting things into an appropriate context includes the fact that every large and capable group of people has a history of oppressing others, when they had the chance. For instance:

  • 20th Century communism: about 100 million killed.
  • Islamic imperialism: hard to get good numbers, but probably at least 100 million killed if not closer to 200 million or even more
  • Islamic imperialism: likely well over 100 million victims of Islamic slave trade, typically for sexual exploitation and military service. Those who were killed e.g. in transport are included in the number of victims. A great many male slaves were castrated, which also increased the death toll.
  • Approximately 15 million Europeans were enslaved by the Ottoman (Islamic) empire and their allies between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, roughly the same as the European colonial era. So during the same period in which Europeans were enslaving Africans, the Ottomans were enslaving Europeans.
  • Approximately 388,000 Africans were shipped directly to North America as slaves, less than 5% of the total shipped to the Americas. The vast majority went to the Caribbean, Central, and South America.
  • Aztecs: human sacrifice of an estimated 1% of the population of middle Mexico area per year, meaning that in a span of 50 years a resident of middle Mexico would have had about a 50% chance of being a human sacrifice, with the risk being unevenly distributed. (Aztec elites would probably have had zero risk unless they had a major loss of status. Most of the victims were from neighboring tribes.) Beating hearts were often ripped out of chests. Most victims of human sacrifice were cannibalized. (There are accounts of captives held in wooden cages and fed carbohydrates to fatten them up prior to sacrifice). Also torture of children and newlywed couples for certain ceremonies.
  • Mayas and Incas: practiced human sacrifice, and the Mayas also practiced slavery, although they did not rival the Aztecs in barbarity.
  • North American Indian tribes: conquest, slavery, and torture were very much ongoing practices.
  • Anasazi Indians: Evidence of cannibalism has been found at 38 sites, from before Columbus’ journeys
  • According to psychologist Steven Pinker, “Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.”
  • Africa has a history of indigenous slavery.
  • China has an off-and-on history of slavery.
  • Russians have mostly been victims of slavery, but they have also owned slaves.
  • That doesn’t exclude many people but probably most everyone else has also engaged in slavery and/or cruelty.

In addition, since many if not most of the native Americans killed were killed by disease, it’s worth mentioning that disease has not spared Europe:

  • Bubonic plague #1: 25-100 million killed in Mediterranean basin during 200 year period starting 541 AD
  • Bubonic plague #2 “Black Death” 1340-1400 killed about 45%-60% of population of Europe, as many as 50 million
  • It is very likely that syphilis was brought back from the new world to Europe, causing an epidemic in Europe

It is very common for an ethnic group to move into an area that is already settled, displacing the previous occupants. Usually people who have been in one place since pre-history want to think they have always been there, and do not want to entertain the idea that their ancestors moved in from someplace else, displacing the people and/or fundamentally transforming the culture that was already there.

  • The militaristic Carib Indians had apparently begun displacing the more peaceful Arawak/Igneri in the Caribbean, prior to the European arrival
  • Scientists have discovered archeological and linguistic evidence of a race inhabiting South America prior to the arrival of modern native Americans’ ancestors.
  • Japan was once occupied by Jomon hunter-gatherers, some of whom survive today as the Ainu of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. However, the vast majority of the ancient Jomon were displaced during the Yayoi era by a wave of invaders from Korea, who brought farming and metal implements to the islands. Because of their agriculture and superior technology, the Korean settlers soon populated almost all of Japan without leaving a trace of the Jomon, aside from archeological evidence. (This information is very unpopular in Japan.)
  • India has 700 aboriginal tribes, accounting for about 10% of the population. They were pushed aside into small territories starting at least 3,000 years ago, when the Indo-Aryans invaded (or migrated).
  • Europe was once populated by hunter-gatherers. About 7,000 years ago, a massive migration of farmers moved in from the Near East, followed by Bronze Age Yamnaya pastoralists from southern Russia, who probably brought the source of the Indo-European languages spoken in Europe today. In Europe, only the Basque language is unrelated to the Indo-European language family, and thus probably is the sole remaining language from earlier cultures in Europe.
  • The Han Chinese originated as the Huaxia in northern China, and over time, “numerous ethnic groups were assimilated and absorbed by the Han Chinese….”

Some people believe that racial tensions today between blacks and whites in the U.S. are caused by the history of slavery. I do not believe this is true. However, a case could certainly be made that an unbalanced view of history, in which the historical oppression in this country is not put into context, contributes to racial tensions today.

Here’s a metaphor: Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir developed the first commercially viable combustion engine in 1858. “Although it ran reasonably well, the engine was fuel inefficient, extremely noisy, tended to overheat and, if sufficient cooling water was not applied, seize up.” It took about three hours to go nine kilometers—less than two miles per hour.

So, do we compare this early combustion engine with what we have today, and say Lenoir must have been really stupid? Of course not! He was brilliant. However, he was a pioneer in a field that was not yet well-developed. Later inventors and engineers have had the benefit of his work, and could make improvements. And then more modern engineers have had the benefit of even more past developments to make even more improvements.

Likewise, when we look at early American culture and practices, it is unfair and really kind of ignorant to say “those hypocrites, even though they already had the Declaration of Independence, they had slaves! They mistreated the Indians! Oh my!” The early Americans were pioneering the concept that all men are created equal. They didn’t do a great job compared to today, but considering the historical context, it’s great that they took the steps that they did take. They gave us something to build on, and over time, we have reached the point of implementing this concept much better now.

If someone wants to judge the early Americans based on our values today, without considering the historical context, then it is only fair to also judge other cultures and their historical sins based on today’s values, without regard to the context.