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Slavery and Indifference — Global Issues

  • Opinion by Jan Lundius (stockholm, sweden)
  • Inter Press Service

Niels Ryberg sits on a bench watching the young couple with a benevolent smile, full of love. He was a successful and admired man. By his diligence, perseverance and punctuality, the Ryberg Insurance Company had quickly become on of the leading enterprises in Denmark. Ryberg began his activity by insuring the human cargo of the huge slave ship Juliane Haab, followed by several others. Eventually, Ryberg’s excellent skills for trading made his company the wealthiest in Denmark, having monopoly on the Icelandic, Faroese, Greenlandic and Finnmark trade. Ryberg was inspired by a zeal to counteract poverty and to help the poor, sick, weak and helpless in the most appropriate manner. As a landowner, Ryberg had the opportunity to work for the public good. He bought large estates, helping freeholders to build new farms, or improve the old ones by giving them free timber from the forest and stone from his brickworks He had mills and schools built, rebuilt his estates’ churches, while distributing useful books for free and paying district doctors and midwives.

He was also propagating for the abolition of slavery, though unbeknownst to the general public Niels Ryberg profited from his own private slave trade. Between 1761 and 1810 Denmark exported about 56,800 African slaves, manly to sugar plantations on their colonized West Indian islands – Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Croix. An important source of income for Danish traders, but relatively small compared with the British slave traders who during the same period exported 1,385,300 chattled human beings, followed by the French with 1,381,400, the Portuguese with 1,010,400, and the Dutch with 850,000. Sugar was the prerequisite of many of the great fortunes earned by a number of the Copenhagen merchants in the 18th century, constituting between 80 and 90 percent of the value of the total Danish industrial exports in the second half of the 18th century.

In 1770, the Danish government asked Niels Ryberg to give his opinion on the Kingdom’s state of commerce. After having characterized the West Indian islands as “by far the most important branch of the Danish commerce”, he went on to call the Danish colony of St. Croix ”one of the most splendid jewels in Your Majesty’s crown”.

The extent of Ryberg’s slave trade is known to have been quite big, but was mostly hidden from Danish view. However, insurance claims for losses of human cargo indicates that he was a “packer”, filling his slave ships above their capacity, counting upon making a profit in spite of deaths among his human “merchandise”. One example – his frigate Emanuel did in 1758 force 449 slaves onboard in Guinea, but only 181 were alive when the ship arrived in the West Indies. Just before the Danish king in 1802 forbade his Danish subjects to transport enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean, Ryberg crammed 221 people on a small brig and over 50 perished before the journey’s destination, Santiago de Cuba, was reached. The ship’s name was Engelke. Ryberg had named his last slave ship after his pretty daughter-in-law, who can be seen at Jens Juel’s charming painting.

How could a well-known, “kind-hearted” philanthropist like Niels Ryberg without any kind of remorse dedicate himself to such an incredibly cruel activity as the cross-Atlantic slave trade? One explanation might be the one that the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton presents in his The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Lifton developed an explanatory “model” he called “doubling” to account for the capacity of some human beings to commit atrocities in one compartment of their lives, while continuing to maintain normal social relations in their domestic sphere. A phenomenon Lifton had encountered both in interviews with former medical doctors working in concentration camps and with the state controlled euthanise programs, as well as with their surviving victims. He intended to reach an empathetic understanding of acts of extreme violence carried out by individuals who did not present symptoms of psychiatric disorder and maintained normal existences, but nevertheless were prepared to kill for a cause that conferred on their lives a sense of purpose, in spite of the tremendous suffering they instigated. An enigma that calls to mind the ongoing brutalities motivated by people like Putin and Nethanyahu, who in their private lives assumably are unaffected by the bloodshed committed on their orders.

Slavery and the underlying practice of treating human lives as commodities is indeed a moral dilemma. Nevertheless, people like the outwardly kind-hearted Niels Ryberg had no problem sacrificing their high and recognized morals for profits being made from the slave trade. The fundamental issue of the slave trade is thus not only an issue of how to better treat other human beings, but also how to more effectively bar temptations of greed. The slave trade is a prime example of how greed can shape people’s lives for the worse and change the way we approach issues of labour. Humans will always have to fight their greed and there is still much work to be done today.

Today’s slave trade is about the subjugation of vulnerable, often poor, people lacking basic protections afforded by a functioning legal system. Slavery remains a profitable business. Present day slaves are coerced to work, or to sell their bodies, or even part with their organs. It might be argued that they are not strictly chattel, or property. However, their freedom is constrained and they might be considered as being “owned” by an employer and treated as a commodity. They might be construction workers employed under “slave contracts”, girls trafficked into prostitution, or slaving in private homes.

With slavery’s global profits estimated at USD 150 billion a year, it has become a criminal industry on a par with arms and drug trafficking. The outlook is bleak. Unrelieved poverty, wars, caste discrimination and gender inequality are fertile ground for slavery. Under-regulated labour markets, where for example workers cannot form trade unions, help to enable that “wage slaves” have become embedded in the global economy. Something some of us might be pondering upon while relaxing in a luxurious, pastoral environment, like Ryberg and his kin in Jens Juel’s beautiful and tranquil painting.

Main Sources: Green-Pedersen, Svend E. (1975) “The History of the Danish Negro Slave Trade, 1733-1807. An Interim Survey Relating in Particular to its Volume, Structure, Profitability and Abolition”, in Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire and Lifton, Robert Jay (1986) The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service




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