John Arnold’s view on history and the slave trade is that historians have a duty to assess historical events in the context in which they occurred. Too often, people interpret the events of the past through a lens that is colored by their own personal experiences or morals. This is an incorrect view due to the fact that morality is relative, changing from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. It is incorrect to judge the past based on the morals of the present because the people of the past had different ways of looking at and viewing the world. Only by understanding the moral code by which people of the past operated can their actions be viewed in a sensible and appropriate light.
For example, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while justifiably abhorrent to modern people, was perfectly acceptable within the context of the era in which it occurred. European slavers viewed Africans as chattel and less than human, which justified their enslavement of Africans to work on plantations throughout North and South America. Similarly, the Africans who kidnapped other Africans for sale to European slavers had no regard for their fellow man. Slaves were captured from rival tribes, a part of the internecine struggles that define human existence, and stronger tribes viewed the sale of victims from weaker tribes as a justifiable action because it made their tribe more powerful. In effect, the morality of both European slavers and the Africans they did business with saw no problem with forcing human beings into bondage. This is a large part of why slavery took centuries to abolish: it was only after a long period of philosophical development that Europeans and Americans began to view Africans as human beings and slavery as a crime against humanity, a shift in the moral code that persists to this day.
- Eltis, David. Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade. Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Eltis, David. “The volume and structure of the transatlantic slave trade: a reassessment.” The William and Mary Quarterly 58.1 (2001): 17-46.
- Eltis, David, and Stanley L. Engerman. “Fluctuations in sex and age ratios in the transatlantic slave trade, 1663‐1864.” The economic history review 46.2 (1993): 308-323.
- Rawley, James A., and Stephen D. Behrendt. The transatlantic slave trade: a history. U of Nebraska Press, 2005.