20 MISHAPS THAT MIGHT HAVE STARTED ACCIDENTAL NUCLEAR WAR
by Alan F. Philips, M.D. (link)
Ever since the two adversaries in the Cold War, the U.S.A. an the U.S.S.R., realized that their nuclear arsenals were sufficient to do disastrous damage to both countries at short notice, the leaders and the military commanders have thought about the possibility of a nuclear war starting without their intention or as a result of a false alarm
. Increasingly elaborate accessories have been incorporated in nuclear weapons and their delivery systems to minimize the risk of unauthorized or accidental launch or detonation. A most innovative action was the establishment of the "hot line" between Washington and Moscow in 1963 to reduce the risk of misunderstanding between the supreme commanders.Despite all precautions, the possibility of an inadvertent war due to an unpredicted sequence of events remained as a deadly threat to both countries and to the world.
That is the reason I am prepared to spend the rest of my life
working for abolition of nuclear weapons.One way a war could start is a false alarm via one of the warning systems, followed by an increased level of nuclear forces readiness while the validity of the information was being checked
. This action would be detected by the other side, and they would take appropriate action; detection of the response would tend to confirm the original false alarm; and so on to disaster. A similar sequence could result from an accidental nuclear explosion anywhere. The risk of such a sequence developing would be increased if it happened during a period of increased international tension.On the American side many "false alarms" and significant accidents have been listed , ranging from trivial to very serious, during the Cold War . Probably many remain unknown to the public and the research community because of individuals' desire to avoid blame and maintain the good reputation of their unit or command. No doubt there have been as many mishaps on the Soviet Side.
Working with any new system, false alarms are more likely. The rising moon was misinterpreted as a missile attack during the early days of long-range radar. A fire at a broken gas pipeline
was believed to be enemy jamming by laser of a satellite's infrared sensor when those sensors were first deployed.
The risks are illustrated by the following selection of mishap. If the people involved had exercised less caution, or if some unfortunate coincidental event had occurred, escalation to nuclear war can easily be imagined
. Details of some of the events differ in different sources: where there have been disagreements, I have chosen to quote those from the carefully researched book, The Limits of Safety by Scott D. Sagan
. Sagan gives references to original sources in all instances.The following selections represent only a fraction of the false alarms that have been reported on the American side. Many probably remain unreported, or are hidden in records that remain classified. There are likely to have been as many on the Soviet Side which are even more difficult to access.1) November 5, 1956: Suez Crisis Coincidence
British and French Forces were attacking Egypt at the Suez Canal;. The Soviet Government had suggested to the U.S. that they combine forces to stop this by a joint military action, and had warned the British and French governments that (non-nuclear) rocket attacks on London and Paris were being considered. That night NORAD HQ received messages that:
(i) unidentified aircraft were flying over Turkey and the Turkish air force was on alert
(ii) 100 Soviet MIG-15's were flying over Syria
(iii) a British Canberra bomber had been shot down over Syria
(iv) the Soviet fleet was moving through the Dardanelles.
It is reported that in the U.S.A. General Goodpaster himself was concerned that these events might trigger the NATO operations plan for nuclear strikes against the U.S.S.R.
The four reports were all shown afterwards to have innocent explanations. They were due, respectively, to:
(i) a flight of swans
(ii) a routine air force escort (much smaller than the number reported) for the president of Syria, who was returning from a visit to Moscow
(iii) the Canberra bomber was forced down by mechanical problems
(iv) the Soviet fleet was engaged in scheduled routine exercises.2) November 24, 1961: BMEWS Communication
On the night of November 24, 1961, all communication links went dead between SAC HQ and NORAD. The communication loss cut off SAC HQ from the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sites (BMEWS) at Thule (Greenland,) Clear (Alaska,) and Fillingdales (England,).
There were two possible explanations facing SAC HQ: either enemy action, or the coincidental failure of all the communication systems, which had redundant and ostensibly independent routes, including commercial telephone circuits. All SAC bases in the United States were therefore alerted, and B-52 bomber crews started their engines, with instructions not to to take off without further orders. Radio communication was established with an orbiting B-52 on airborne alert, near Thule. It contacted the BMEWS stations by radio and could report that no attack had taken place.The reason for the "coincidental" failure was the redundant routes for telephone and telegraph between NORAD and SAC HQ all ran through one relay station in Colorado. At that relay station a motor had overheated and caused interruption of all the lines.3) August 23, 1962: B-52 Navigation Error
SAC Chrome Dome airborne alert route included a leg from the northern tip of Ellesmore Island, SW across the Arctic Ocean to Barter Island, Alaska. On August 23, 1962, a B-52 nuclear armed bomber crew made a navigational error
and flew 20 degrees too far north. They approached within 300 miles of Soviet airspace near Wrangel island, where there was believed to be an interceptor base with aircraft having an operational radius of 400 miles.
Because of the risk of repetition of such an error, in this northern area where other checks on Navigation are difficult to obtain, it was decided to fly a less provocative route in the future. However, the necessary orders had not been given by the time of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, so throughout that crisis the same northern route was being flown 24 hours a day.4) August-October, 1962: U2 Flights into Soviet
U2 high altitude reconnaissance flights from Alaska occasionally strayed unintentionally
into Soviet airspace. One such episode occurred in August 1962. During the Cuban missile crisis on October of 1962, the U2 pilots were ordered not to fly within 100 miles of Soviet airspace.
On the night of October 26, for a reason irrelevant to the crisis, a U2 pilot was ordered to fly a new route, over the north pole, where positional checks on navigation were by sextant only. That night the aurora prevented good sextant readings and the plane strayed
over the Chukotski Peninsula. Soviet MIG interceptors took off with orders to shoot down the U2. The pilot contacted his U.S. command post and was ordered to fly due east towards Alaska. He ran out of fuel while still over Siberia
. In response to his S.O.S., U.S. F102-A fighters were launched to escort him on his glide to Alaska, with orders to prevent the MIG's from entering U.S. airspace. The U.S. interceptor aircraft were armed with nuclear missiles. These could have been used by any one of the F102-A pilots at his own discretion.5) October 24, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: A Soviet
On October 24, a Soviet satellite entered its own parking orbit, and shortly afterward exploded. Sir Bernard Lovell, director of the Jodrell Bank observatory wrote in 1968: "the explosion of a Russian spacecraft in orbit during the Cuban missile crisis... led the U.S. to believe that the USSR was launching a massive ICBM attack
." The NORAD Command Post logs of the dates in question remain classified
, possibly to conceal reaction
to the event. Its occurrence is recorded, and U.S. space tracking stations were informed on October 31 of debris resulting from the breakup of "62 BETA IOTA."6) October 25, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: Intruder in Duluth
At around midnight on October 25, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center saw a figure climbing the security fence. He shot at it, and activated the "sabotage alarm." This automatically set off sabotage alarms at all bases in the area. At Volk Field, Wisconsin, the alarm was wrongly wired, and the Klaxon sounded which ordered nuclear armed F-106A interceptors to take off. The pilots knew there would be no practice alert drills while DEFCON 3 was in force, and they believed World War III had started.
Immediate communication with Duluth showed there was an error
. By this time aircraft were starting down the runway. A car raced from command center and successfully signaled the aircraft to stop. The original intruder was a bear.7) October 26, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: ICBM Test Launch
At Vandenburg Air Force Base, California, there was a program of routine ICBM test flights
. When DEFCON 3 was ordered all the ICBM's were fitted with nuclear warheads
except one Titan missile that was scheduled for a test launch later that week. That one was launched for its test, without further orders from Washington, at 4a.m. on the 26th.
It must be assumed that Russian observers were monitoring U.S. missile activities as closely as U.S. observers were monitoring Russian and Cuban activities. They would have known of the general changeover to nuclear warheads, but not that this was only a test launch.8) October 26, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis:
Unannounced Titan Missile Launch
During the Cuba crisis, some radar warning stations that were under construction and near completion were brought into full operation as fast as possible. The planned overlap of coverage was thus not always available.
A normal test launch of a Titan-II ICBM took place in the afternoon of October 26, from Florida to the South Pacific. It caused temporary concern at Moorestown Radar site until its course could be plotted and showed no predicted impact within the United States. It was not until after this event that the potential for a serious false alarm was realized
, and orders were given that radar warning sites must be notified in advance of test launches, and the countdown be relayed to them.9) October 26, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: Malstrom
Air Force Base
When DEFCON 2 was declared on October 24, solid fuel Minuteman-1 missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base were being prepared for full deployment. The work was accelerated to ready the missiles for operation, without waiting for the normal handover procedures and safety checks. When one silo and missile were ready on October 26 no armed guards were available to cover transport from the normal separate storage, so the launch enabling equipment and codes were all placed in the silo. It was thus physically possible for a single operator to launch a fully armed missile at a SIOP target.During the remaining period of the Crisis the several missiles at Malstrom were repeatedly put on and off alert as errors and defects were found and corrected. Fortunately no combination of errors caused or threatened an unauthorized launch, but in the extreme tension of the period the danger can be well imagined.10) October, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: NATO Readiness
It is recorded on October 22, that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and NATO Supreme Commander, General Lauris Norstad agreed not to put NATO on alert in order to avoid provocation of the U.S.S.R.
When the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered DEFCON 3 Norstad was authorized to use his discretion in complying. Norstad did not order a NATO alert. However, several NATO subordinate commanders did order alerts to DEFCON 3 or equivalent levels of readiness at bases in West Germany, Italy, Turkey, and United Kingdom
. This seems largely due to the action of General Truman Landon, CINC U.S. Air Forces Europe, who had already started alert procedures on October 17 in anticipation of a serious crisis over Cuba.11) October, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: British Alerts
When the U.S. SAC went to DEFCON 2, on October 24, Bomber Command (the U.K.) was carrying out an unrelated readiness exercise. On October 26, Air Marshall Cross, CINC of Bomber Command, decided to prolong the exercise because of the Cuba crisis, and later increased the alert status of British nuclear forces, so that they could launch in 15 minutes
It seems likely that Soviet intelligence would perceive these moves as part of a coordinated plan in preparation for immediate war. They could not be expected to know
that neither the British Minister of Defense nor Prime Minister Macmillian had authorized them.
It is disturbing to note how little was learned from these errors in Europe. McGeorge Bundy wrote in Danger and Survival (New York: Random House 1988), "the risk [of nuclear war] was small, given the prudence and unchallenged final control of the two leaders."12) October 28, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis:
Moorestown False AlarmJust before 9 a.m., on October 28, the Moorestown, New Jersey, radar operators informed the national command post that a nuclear attack was under way. A test tape simulating a missile launch from Cuba was being run, and simultaneously a satellite came over the horizon.Operators became confused and reported by voice line to NORAD HQ that impact was expected
18 miles west of Tampa at 9:02 a.m. The whole of NORAD was reported, but before irrevocable action had taken place it was reported that no detonation had taken place at the predicted time, and Moorestown operators reported the reason for the false alarm.
During the incident overlapping radar's that should have confirmed or disagreed were not in operation . The radar post had not received routine information of satellite passage because the facility carrying out that task had been given other work for the duration of the crisis.13) October 28, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: False
Warning Due to Satellite
At 5:26 p.m. on October 28, the Laredo radar warning site had just become operational. Operators misidentified a satellite in orbit as two possible missiles over Georgia and reported by voice line to NORAD HQ. NORAD was unable to identify that the warning came from the new station at Laredo and believed it to be from Moorestown, and therefore more reliable. Moorestown failed to intervene and contradict the false warning
. By the time the CINC, NORAD had been informed, no impact had been reported and the warning was "given low credence."14) November 2, 1962: The Penkovsky False Warning
In the fall of 1962, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was working with the Soviets as a double agent for the (U.S.) C.I.A. He had been given a code by which to warn the CIA if he was convinced that a Soviet attack on the United States was imminent. He was to call twice
, one minute apart, and only blow into the receiver. Further information was then to be left at a "dead drop" in Moscow.
The pre-arranged code message was received by the CIA on November 2, 1962.
It was known at the CIA that Penkovsky had been arrested on October 22. Penkovsky knew he was going to be executed. It is not known whether he had told the KGB the meaning of the code signal or only how it would be given, nor is it known exactly why or with what authorization the KGB staff used it. When another CIA agent checked the dead drop he was arrested.15) November, 1965: Power Failure and Faulty Bomb
Special bomb alarms were installed near military facilities and near cities in the U.S.A., so that the locations of nuclear bursts would be transmitted before the expected communication failure. The alarm circuits were set up to display a red signal at command posts the instant that the flash of a nuclear detonation reached the sensor and before the blast put it out of action. Normally the display would show a green signal, and yellow if the sensor was not operating or was out of communication for any other reason.During the commercial power failure in the NE United States, in November 1965, displays from all the bomb alarms for the area should have shown yellow. In fact, two of them from different cities showed red because of circuit errors. The effect was consistent with the power failure being due to nuclear weapons explosions, and the Command Center of the Office of Emergency Planning went on full alert
. Apparently the military did not.16) January 21, 1968: B-52 Crash near Thule
Communication between NORAD HQ and the BMEWS station at Thule had 3 elements:
1. Direct radio communication.
2. A "bomb alarm" as described above.
3. Radio Communication relayed by a b-52 bomber on airborne alert.
On January 21, 1968, a fire broke out in the b-52 bomber on airborne alert near Thule. The pilot prepared for an emergency landing at the base. However the situation deteriorated rapidly, and the crew had to bale out. There had been no time to communicate with SAC HQ, and the pilotless plane flew over the Thule base before crashing on the ice 7 miles miles offshore. Its fuel and high explosive component of its nuclear weapons exploded, but there was no nuclear detonation.At that time, the "one point safe" condition of the nuclear weapons could not be guaranteed, and it is believed that a nuclear explosion could have resulted from accidental detonation of the high explosive trigger. Had there been a nuclear detonation even at 7 miles distant, and certainty much nearer the base, all three communication methods would have given an indication consistent with a successful nuclear attack on both the base and the B-52 bomber. The bomb alarm would have shown red, and the other two communication paths would have gone dead. It would hardly have been anticipated that the combination could have been caused by accident, particularly as the map of the routes for B-52 airborne flights approved by the President showed no flight near to Thule. The route had been apparently changed without informing the White House.17) October 24-25, 1973: False Alarm During Middle East Crisis
On October 24, 1973, when the U.N. sponsored cease fire intended to end the Arab-Israeli war was in force, further fighting stared between Egyptian and Israeli troops in the Sinai desert. U.S. intelligence reports and other sources suggested that the U.S.S.R. was planning to intervene to protect the Egyptians. President Nixon was in the throes of Watergate episode and not available for a conference, so Kissinger and other U.S. officials ordered DEFCON 3. The consequent movements of aircraft and troops were of course observed by Soviet intelligence. The purpose of the alert was not to prepare for war, but to warn the U.S.S.R. not to intervene in the Sinai. However, if the following accident had not been promptly corrected then the Soviet command might have had a more dangerous interpretation.On October 25, while DEFCON 3 was in force, mechanics were repairing one of the Klaxons at Kinchole Air Force Base, Michigan, and accidentally activated the whole base alarm system. B-52 crews rushed to their aircraft and started the engines.
The duty officer recognized the alarm was false and recalled the crews before any took off.18) November 9, 1979: Computer Exercise Tape
At 8:50 a.m. on November 9, 1979, duty officers at 4 command centers (NORAD HQ, SAC Command Post, The Pentagon National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center) all saw on their displays a pattern showing a large number of Soviet Missiles in a full scale attack on the U.S.A. During the next 6 minutes emergency preparations for retaliation were made. A number of Air Force planes were launched, including the President's National Emergency Airborne Command Post, though without the President! The President had not been informed, perhaps because he could not be found.No attempt was made to use the hot line either to ascertain the Soviet intentions or to tell the Soviets the reasons for U.S. actions. This seems to me to have been culpable negligence. The whole purpose of the "Hot Line" was to prevent exactly the type of disaster that was threatening at that moment.With commendable speed, NORAD was able to contact PAVE PAWS early warning radar and learn that no missiles had been reported. Also, the sensors on the satellites were functioning that day and had detected no missiles. In only 6 minutes the threat assessment conference was terminated.The reason for the false alarm was an exercise tape running on the computer system. U.S. Senator Charles Percy happened to be in NORAD HQ at the time and is reported to have said there was absolute panic. A question was asked in Congress. The General Accounting Office conducted an investigation, and an off-site testing facility was constructed so that test tapes did not in the future have to be run on a system that could be in military operation.19) June , 1980: Faulty Computer Chip
The Warning displays at the Command Centers mentioned in the last episode included windows that normally showed0000 ICBMs detected 0000 SLBMs detectedAt 2:25 a.m. on June 3, 1980, these displays started showing various numbers of missiles detected, represented by 2's in place of one or more 0's. Preparations for retaliation were instituted, including nuclear bomber crews staring their engines, launch of Pacific Command's Airborne Command Post, and readying of Minutemen missiles for launch.
It was not difficult to assess that this was a false alarm because the numbers displayed were not rational.While the cause of that false alarm was still being investigated 3 days later, the same thing happened and again preparations were made for retaliation. The cause was a single faulty chip that was failing in a random fashion. The basic design of the system was faulty, allowing this single failure to cause a deceptive display at several command posts.
The following incident is added to illustrate that even now, when the Cold War has been over for 8 years errors can still cause concern
. This particular one could have hardly brought nuclear retaliation.; but there are still 30,000 nuclear weapons deployed,
and two nuclear weapon states could get into a hostile adversarial status again.20) January, 1995: Russian False Alarm
On January 25, 1995, the Russian early warning radar's detected an unexpected missile launch near Spitzbergen. The estimated flight time to Moscow was 5 minutes. The Russian President, the Defense Minister and the Chief of Staff were informed. The early warning and the control and command center switched to combat mode. Within 5 minutes, the radar's determined that the missile's impact would be outside the Russian borders.
The missile was Norwegian, and was launched for scientific measurements. ON January 16, Norway had notified 35 countries including Russia that the launch was planned. Information had apparently reached the Russian Defense Ministry, but failed to reach the on-duty personnel of the early warning system.See article in Scientific American by Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von HippelComment and Note On Probability
The probability of actual progression to nuclear war on any one of the occasions listed may have been small, due to planned "fail-safe" features had failed. However, the accumulation of small probabilities of disaster from a long sequence of risks add up to serious danger
.There is no way of telling what the actual level of risk was in these mishaps but if the chance of disaster in every one of the 20 incidents had been only 1 in 100, it is mathematical fact that the chance of surviving al 20 would have been 82%, i.e. about the same as the chance of surviving a single pull of the trigger at Russian roulette played with a 6 shooter. With a similar series of mishaps on the Soviet side: another pull of the trigger. If the risk in some of the events had been as high as 1 in 10, then the chance of surviving just seven such events would have been less than 50:50.
BMEWS: Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site
CIA: Central Intelligence Agency
CINC: Commander in Chief
DEFCON: Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON 5 is the peacetime state; DEFCON 1 is a maximum war readiness).
ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (land based)
KGB: Soviet Secret Police and Intelligence
NORAD: North American Air Defense Command
PAVE PAWS: Precision Acquisition of Vehicle Entry Phased-Array Warning System
SAC: Strategic Air Command
SIOP: Single Integrated Operational Plan
SLBM: Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile
Britten, Stewart: The Invisible Event , (London: Menard Press, 1983).
Calder, Nigel: Nuclear Nightmares , (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979)
Peace Research Reviews , vol. ix: 4, 5 (1984); vol. x: 3, 4 (1986) (Dundas, ON.: Peace Research Institute, Dundas).
Sagan, Scott D.: The Limits of Safety , (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, (1993).WEB LINKS FROM THE PROJECT OF THE NUCLEAR AGE PEACE FOUNDATION
(link)Arms Control & Disarmament NGO's and Think Tanks
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Magazines and Journals
RELIGION, WAR AND SLAVERY
The Atlantic Slave TradeCatastrophe: "The conquest of the New World set off two vast demographic catastrophes, unparalled in history: the virtual destruction of the indigenous population of the Western hemisphere, and the devastation of Africa as the slave trade rapidly expanded to serve the needs of the conquerors, and the continent itself was subjugated." – Noam Chomsky (Year 501, p5)(link)The Christianizing of America 1750-1850 (link)
Thomas Clarkson, a British abolitionist produced and displayed this image with his 1786 Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of Human Species. The same image has appeared in numerous abolitionist pamphlets and modern history textbooks (link)
by Kenneth HumphreysBirth of a Nation
On the frontiers of the New World Christianity set aside any notions of cheek-turning pacifism and universal brotherhood to embrace the manly notions of rugged individualism and aggressive acquisition. Frontier Christianity was the faith of the Lord's conquerors, untroubled by the fate of those who had to perish to make way. The Good Book, as interpreted by a new breed of itinerant pastors, reassured them that they were Good People. The guiding hand of Divine Providence itself sanctioned their ruthless greed and the more wealth they could amass was surely indicative of God's approval. With the Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other the new Americans were claiming their inheritance.The Making of a Kleptocratic Republic"The plague that killed the kings of Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru – and half their subjects – had struck equally hard in the unknown kingdoms of the north ... The "tribes" the English would find, though still considerable, were remnants of once powerful states. Homes had rotted away and woods had crept back into fields. America seemed a virgin land waiting for civilization. But Europe had made the wilderness it found; America was not a virgin, she was a widow."
– R. Wright (Stolen Continents, p91)
French explorers venturing down the Mississippi Valley only sixty years after De Soto's
rampage found only a few tiny villages. Yet all around they saw the decaying remains of a substantial agrarian civilization. They noted abandoned towns and what once had been fertile agricultural land returning to the wild.
One of the largest centres of this vanished civilization was Cahokia in Illinois, a tribal capital which covered 5 square miles. At its height, probably the 13th century, its population must have been at least 10,000, comparable to London at the same time. So awe-struck by the great mounds of the Ohio valley were the early settlers that Joseph Smith dreamed up a white race of 'Nephites' to explain them and gave his mythical heroes a biblical-style history in the Book of Mormon.
Estimates vary wildly, but before the arrival of Europeans, and more particularly their diseases, perhaps as many as twelve million people lived in what are now the United States. What is certain is that the Europeans arrived from a world wrecked by religious conflict, and salivated at the prospect of extracting limitless wealth from an unexploited land. As the 18th century unfolded the continent became a vast theatre of war as three Christian empires wrestled for the riches of this new world.
The empire of Spain, having dissipated in war the plunder already extracted from much of the Americas, was well into decline. Though the Spanish claimed the entire hemisphere they were in no position to enforce that claim. The French moved cautiously into the interior along the river valleys of the St Lawrence and Mississippi, building forts and claiming a dubious territorial authority over a vast area. By far the more populous settlements were the colonies of England (an estimated 200,000 people in 1700, 1.3 million by 1750
), confined by mountains and her rivals to the eastern coast.Ethnic Cleansing Begins"The ruin of these races began the day the Europeans landed on their shores; it has continued since then; it is reaching its completion at the present time." – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.
The Native Americans, weakened by alien-imported disease for more than a century, were slow to resist the invader. Indeed, their kindness and curiosity had caused them to feed the first desperate settlers (see Christ in the Colonies)
. In return, the invading fanatics gave thanks to their own God for using the savages to effect divine deliverance. So much for Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately for them, the natives who met the intruders were not a single, homogeneous population but were divided into more than 250 distinctive groups, with many different languages, kinship systems and cultural patterns. This disunity allowed the invaders to form opportunistic alliances with particular tribes and adopt a successful divide and conquer policy. In the north, the French struck an alliance with the Algonquin
tribes, which prompted their traditional enemies the Iroquois
to ally themselves with the English.
In the complex struggle ahead, the European intruders were only too willing to supply their native allies with firearms with which to better exterminate each other. Indeed, Jesuits and missionaries offered guns as an inducement to conversion to Christianity
. European weapons transformed the traditional inter-tribal warfare into something far deadlier. Hitherto, "Braves" had always proven their virility in battle but allied to the European invader their wars now became a process of conquest and annihilation which benefitted only the Europeans.
The Christians, joyous that their God had covenanted a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, were ready to fight to the death of the last Indian.Culture clashThe relentless alien assault intruded into every facet of native life, and most fundamentally into the ownership of land
. More than merely territory, the natives held the earth sacred, venerated as a benevolent Mother, a notion meaningless to the intruders who took their own sanctity from a book. Common ownership, as practised by the Indians, was perceived by Europeans as primitive and unchristian
. The migrants were there, after all, not merely to live but to acquire, and that meant essentially personal ownership of land. To the newcomers the land was a "wilderness" to be mastered, tamed and enclosed into "property"
From the first, the guileless Indians ceded tracts of land to these strangely avaricious people but even in a period of "peace" the insatiable appetite of Europeans for pelts and hides destroyed the ecological balance which the native peoples had maintained for millennia
. Thus began the steady eradication of the indigenous wildlife, exacerbated by the horses and cows of the invader which ate the grasslands that had previously fed the deer and caribou. And everywhere was the pressure of more and more settlers, each and every one of them wanting "property".Resistance is Futile
"Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy ... And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein
– (Numbers 33.52-53).
Belatedly, in 1675, the exasperated Indians of New England turned their enmity towards the colonists. Against overwhelming firepower and resources the struggle was hopeless. In a single incident during the so-called "King Philip's War
" some 600 Indians were massacred. A delighted Cotton Mather, pastor of the Second Church of Boston, later referred to the slaughter as a "barbeque". At the end of the conflict most of New England's Indians were either dead or had taken refuge in Canada. Some were sold into slavery in the Carolinas.
With the viability of her American colonies firmly established, in 1684 the English crown replaced the restrictive "Puritan" charter of Massachusetts with one more to its liking. In Boston and the coastal cities the "rule of the Saints" was succeeded by the governance of a practical and corrupt commercialism
. Whaling and pirate vessels were built, fitted out and supplied from the cities of the eastern seaboard. The illicit import of molasses from the French West Indies established another major industry, the distillation of a coarse rum. Whisky and rum not only encouraged local drunkenness and crime: when sold to the Indians it caused serious debilitation. With metabolisms ill-suited to the alien fire water the natives were frequently reduced to addiction and then cheated out of their land.
By 1750 Massachusetts had 63 distilleries. By then the distillers were rich enough to invest capital in slave traders keen to ship captive Africans to the West Indian sugar planters.Religious toleration: Good for business
Before he fled in 1688 James II granted fellow Catholics and French Huguenots religious freedom in Virginia. It was the last defiant act of a religious extremist. The Glorious Revolution which displaced James ended decades of religious intransigence in England and within a generation that liberality spread to the colonies. The Protestantism of an incipient empire was not about to allow differences of religious faith to obstruct global commercial expansion. In 1750 England's Board of Trade imposed "toleration and free exercise of religion" on its American colonies in order to attract new migrants and encourage trade. Anglicans
(but without a local bishop) were thus able to set up shop in the former outpost of Puritan separatism, as were the European Anabaptists
driven out of the Rhineland by the religious wars of Louis XIV.
Along with European migrants and goods came the new science of the Enlightenment. Many intellectuals rejected Christianity entirely, along with its confused nonsense of the Trinity and Calvin's pessimistic notion of man's "total depravity". Instead the Deists
argued for the essential goodness of mankind, emphasising reason and human progress. When it came to souls all might be saved.Reason baffles the hicks
In contrast, settlers on the frontier, outcasts from the sophisticated society of the coastal cities, persevered with a simplistic understanding of the "Kingdom of God", less in tune with a rational God of loving benevolence than with the Old Testament despot of divine retribution.
In the 1740s religious "revivalism" (the so-called "Great Awakening
") brought a campaign of primitive fanaticism to the whites of the frontier zone. Cheek by jowl with the heathen savages, these practical, ignorant folk were suspicious of complicated theology and the "sophisticated" faith of the Eastern seaboard which had mellowed from its puritanical days into a restrained piety.
The fire that had once belonged to the Congregationalists and Quakers
– now pillars of respectable commerce
– passed to a new breed of hot gospelling Presbyterians
. Their "open air" style of sermonizing and use of untrained "lay" preachers servicing a circuit of meeting places can be credited to the Wesley brothers. These maverick English Anglicans (banned from English parish churches for their idiosyncratic theology) ministered in the new penal colony of Georgia in the 1730s and subsequently John Wesley ordained a "Superintendent" in lieu of a bishop for the American colonies.
The itinerant Methodist preachers, able to keep up with, and perambulate between, the isolated frontier settlements, offered nothing in the way of pastoral work. A church house was a luxury, a field might do. Instead they put on a show emphasising fire and brimstone, "spirit healings", and the Lord's "living presence". Having whipped up an atmosphere of emotionalism and hysteria, complete with screaming, shouting and weeping, the call came for personal conversion – and of course a little cash.In the demonology of the frontier zealots the unrepentant heathen were minions of the devil and had to be sent back to hell. Thus it was with the condoning word of the Lord that American settlers could kill natives and hound them from the land. Convinced of their own moral superiority, yet in reality vicious, violent and essentially criminal, the interlopers could take over land already cleared of, and by, its former occupants.
Confronted by such missionaries the Native Americans had little option but to pay lip service to the strange and aggressive religion of the invader.The French DisconnectionColonial rivalry led Britain to declare war on France in 1756, and on Spain six years later
. In the seven year conflict, in which local tribes were deployed as auxiliaries on both sides, Britain wrestled the Ohio valley and Quebec from France, and Florida from Spain. The (1st) Treaty of Paris which brought the Seven Years' War (aka 'French and Indian War') to an end, parcelled out Canada to Britain and compensated Spain with a vast territory west of the Mississippi called Louisiana.
With the defeat of the French, a confederation of tribes in the lands south of the Great Lakes, led by chief Pontiac
of the Ottawa, continued the struggle, attacking forts across a broad swath of territory. Imperial and colonial forces retaliated with overwhelming force. During the conflict Lord Jeffrey Amherst earned eternal infamy by ordering that blankets infected with smallpox be supplied to the Indians, an early instance of germ warfare
. But the war left the British wary of trying to garrison all the lands taken from France. Instead, Britain's Indian allies were "rewarded" by a prohibition on colonists settling west of the Appalachians, although "over mountain men" ignored the stipulation and immediately began crossing the so-called "Proclamation Line". In 1768 the Mohawk valley passed into the hands of Scots
who themselves had been driven from their homes by highland clearances.In 1775, Daniel Boone hacked his way through the Cumberland Gap, opening up a new route into the interior.
With the defeat of French and Indian forces the colonies had little need of British protection – and certainly were not prepared to pay for it.Revolution
By 1776, more than 2 million people
were living in Britain's North American colonies. With the elimination of French power a segment of the colonial population allied itself with the former enemy to throw off imperial restrictions. The thirteen colonies of British North America – perhaps two thirds of their population, that is – rebelled against British rule. France supplied the rebels with 90% of their gunpowder and a Prussian trained their army.
Divided, the disparate and scattered colonies would have fallen one by one to imperial forces. Unity was therefore of the utmost importance and religious discord had to be put aside. A union based upon mutual religious tolerance was a necessary concomitant of the struggle for independence. The new nation, led for the most part by Deists and Unitarians, achieved a shaky federation by ceding rights and liberties to the disparate communities and settlements. An ill-defined "unity under God"
– however understood – and a separation of church from state, was the only formula for success
. It was a formula which particularly appealed to the revolutionary leaders – Paine, Franklin, etc. – who were themselves actually anti-Christian. Thus at its birth, the republic endorsed no official mystical creed nor state-sanctioned church.
In the United States of America, 1776, the Christian religion, for the first time since Emperor Constantine fourteen hundred years earlier, found itself without the power of the state to enforce its will
. The multifarious sects which had set up shop in the new commonwealth had to compete with each other for membership and influence. Entrepreneurial Christianity was born.War's end
"Treaties were expedients by which ignorant, intractable, and savage people were induced ... to yield up what civilized people had the right to possess."
– George Gilmer, Governor of Georgia, c. 1830 (Wright, p202)
In 1783 the (2nd) Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War, had disastrous consequences for Native Americans. Under the treaty the newly formed United States acquired title to all lands west to the Mississippi and the colonial population immediately put unremitting pressure on the tribes in the northwest and southeast.
Abandoned by their allies, the native confederacies were powerless to stop aggressive American expansion.
In what had been nominal "British" territory beyond the Appalachians new states were rapidly organized: Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), and Ohio (1803). Meanwhile, revolution and turmoil in France brought Napoleon to power, and in the small but highly profitable French colony of Saint-Domingue a slave rebellion defeated French forces. The loss of "Haiti" thwarted French plans for a new empire in the Americas and in 1803 Napoleon sold
the vast Louisiana territory, retaken from Spain only three years earlier, to the United States for $15 million.Overnight, the republic doubled in size and laid claim to 800,000 square miles of unknown territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific northwest.
Much of it was rapidly parcelled out – Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Alabama (1817), Illinois (1818), Mississippi (1819), and Missouri (1821). The pressure of white encroachment now passed onto the Plains Indians whilst what remained of the woodland tribes – Saux, Fox, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole – fought their last desperate battles.Ethnic cleansing gathers pace
"The inhabitants of the United States do not hunt the Indians down with a great clamor, like the Spanish in Mexico. But here, as elsewhere, it is the same pitiless sentiment ... 'The brandy which we sell to them cheaply annually removes more of them than our weapons could manage... God, by his refusal to grant its first inhabitants the art of civilization, doomed them to inevitable destruction. The true owners of this continent are those who are able to take advantage of its wealth
.'Pleased with this argument, the American repairs to church where he listens to a minister of the Gospel repeat to him that men are brothers and the everlasting Being has given them all the duty of helping one another
– Alexis de Tocqueville (Two Weeks in the Wilderness, 1835).
Andrew Jackson was a slave-owning backwoodsman from South Carolina, of Irish descent. He was a Presbyterian
. He was also an aggressive and avaricious "second generation" frontiersman and an aristocrat of the New Order, a politico-businessman with "connections", a cotton planter, a land-speculator and a bully. Exploiting his appointment to various public offices (judge, congressman, senator), Jackson dislodged thousands of poor white farmers and sent them streaming into Indian lands, where new "provocations" would provide an excuse for Jackson (also a general in the militia) to renew aggression against the native tribes.
In 1814 "King Andrew" led a savage campaign against the Creek nation long settled in the rich lands of the southeast. Though all the tribes were fearful of white encroachment the Creeks were divided, both on the issue of an alliance with the British (then at war with the U.S.) and on acceptance of the ways of the white man (they were, after all, one of the "civilized" tribes.)
Not that the difference of tribal opinion really mattered. Determined and ruthless, Jackson sequestered lands even from tribes that had fought as his allies
. Vast tracts of Alabama and Mississippi were parcelled out to white settlers, with Jackson taking much of the land for himself.
In 1818, now enjoying the rank of Major General in the regular army, Jackson audaciously invaded the land of Seminole Indians living in Spanish Florida, ostensibly because the Seminole were accepting runaway slaves as members of their tribe. In command of 3000 troops Jackson wiped out several Indian villages and annexed Florida
In 1829 he became President.The Frontier Mentality - Zealots with guns
"The 'assent' of Indians was often nominal; federal commissioners bribed important chiefs and if necessary got them drunk enough to sign anything ... Between 1829 and 1837 several million acres were relinquished, and many thousand redskins more or less unwillingly transferred across the Mississippi." – (Morison, et al p438,9)
The Cherokee had first encountered the white invaders in the 18th century and had moved further west for safety. But they had also assimilated some of the ways of the restless newcomer, building houses, laying out roads, devising their own written language. The tribes adopted a national constitution and even accepted Christian missionaries. For a time an autonomous republic existed on the frontier of the kleptocracy. Unfortunately for the Cherokee in 1828 gold was discovered in their land and the new Americans of Georgia now claimed the Cherokee country for themselves.
Breaking with the policy of his predecessor, and ignoring a ruling of the Supreme Court, Andrew Jackson enthusiastically supported his rapacious countrymen. He vigorously enforced the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which required the relocation of all eastern tribes beyond the Mississippi. In the winter of 1838, the reluctant Cherokee were forced marched 1000 miles at bayonet point to an involuntary exile, an ethnic cleansing known as "The Trail of Tears". At least 4000 died during the journey. The sick, despondent and impoverished survivors were confined to "reservations" on the worst lands of Oklahoma.
The Seminole in Florida were not so readily subdued. Under their charismatic leader Osceola the Seminole outwitted the U.S. army for years. Osceola was eventually captured by treachery, taken under a flag of truce. He died in a South Carolina prison only months later. Embarassed army officers gave him a military funeral.Divine Will made manifest
"We must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save
– Charles Finney (1792-1875), apostle of religious hysteria
and pastor of the First Church in Oberlin, Ohio.
In the wake of the Revolutionary and Indian wars, ever greater numbers of settlers migrated into the newly conquered lands. The practitioners of priestly deceit followed the population westward
. In frontier areas lacking churches, schools and newspapers, a vast clientele might have been lost to heathendom. But, thankfully, the zealots were there to save them.
In a pattern similar to events on the old northeast frontier a century earlier, the notion of "revival" served the divine purpose. Large camp meetings allowed an assortment of competitive preachers – Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist – to peddle their wares and drum up business. Many thousands were drawn to the periodic hullabaloos, as much as anything else enjoying a welcome break from the isolation and drudgery of frontier life.The preachers themselves were often poorly educated, but then the gatherings were no seminars for the close study of theology. On the contrary, intellectual subtlety would have obscured the message. Sermons were energetic and emotional. The illiterate believer was encouraged not to think but to “feel” God through personal experience. In an atmosphere deliberately designed to engender hysterical euphoria, many surely did. Rapidly, the Lord's salesman moved his audience through a cycle of guilt, despair and hope, building to a climax of “born again” conversion, personal salvation – and of course, a little financial gratitude for the furtherance of the Lord's work. To sustain the message in the quieter days ahead, music and hymns took the place of literacy and rational discourse. Songs conveyed enough of the "good news" to suffice and songs had the merit of being easily memorized by all.The breeding ground of cults
In the frontier lands of avarice and toil
any slick-tongued hustler of limited means and unlimited ambition
could "sell the Lord" to the hicks and the hillbillies. By such means he secured his own fast track to fame and fortune
When the first charismatic leaders died and the hot gospel cooled a little, an opportunity arose for new saints and charlatans
to move among the people, restoring the excitement and ecstasy of "old time religion
" and whipping up a profitable frenzy of revival
Thus was born the chronic factionalism in which any forceful patriarch could establish a church and a following, a formula uniquely suited to a land of expanding frontiers and unrestrained enterprise.Entrepreneurial Christianity was about to enter a golden age of creative theology, borrowing freely from Freemasonry, Egyptology, socialism, occultism, spiritualism and plain old fashion nonsense. It would ultimately produce several major corporations in the world of Jesus marketeering. Christianity may have been in retreat in the Old World but in the New World Christianity was on the march, as blood soaked as ever.
J. C. H. King, First Peoples, First Contacts (British Museum, 1999)
Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Simon & Schuster, 1981)
Colin Taylor (Ed.), The Native Americans (Chrysalis, 2004)
Andrew Sinclair, A Concise History of the United States (Sutton, 2000)
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 1972)
Jerald C. Brauer, Protestantism in America (Westminster Press, 1953)
Robert T. Handy, A Christian America (Oxford University Press, 1971)
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (Oxford University Press, 1980)
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America (Norton, 1976)
J. Spiller, et al, The United States 1763-2001 (Routledge, 2005)
Morrison, Commager, Leuchtenburg, The Growth of the American Republic (OUP, 1980)Having laid claim to an entire continent and eradicated most of its native peoples, the Christian conquerors of North America came into possession of an immense land. The rapid exploitation of its potential required a vast labour force and, until a surge in European migration in the later 19th century, this was taken against its will out of Africa, leaving the demography of that continent permanently damaged. On the southern plantations of tobacco and cotton the captive labourers enriched an elite of white landowners who themselves provided trade and custom for the northeast and the Old World. Christianity, malleable as ever, morphed not only into the self-justifying ideology of the racist southern oligarchs, but also into the uplifting faith of freedom and salvation of the slaves themselves.
Quite some trick for the cult of a west Asian sun-god .Slavery – Divine Law
Although the early Church drew support from slaves it never condemned the practice of slavery. On the contrary, Holy Scripture thoroughly endorses the enslavement of lesser races and assures us that the forced conversion of the heathen is a noble Christian purpose, saving souls for the true God. All are "equal before God" but for eighteen hundred years Christianity aided and abetted slavery and taught explicitly the barbarous notion that slavery was in accordance with Divine Will.
"As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from the nations that are round about you.You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property.You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness
."– Leviticus 25.44
The shadowy writer Ambrosiaster of the 4th century, in commentaries on Paul's epistles, compounded the iniquity by concocting the racist notion that slavery originated with Noah's curse upon his son Ham, which actually fell upon his unfortunate grandson Canaan.
Why the curse?
Because at the end of the flood, Canaan's daddy caught sight of Noah roaring drunk and prancing about naked. Is that a sin or what?
Christian fablelizing equated the fearsome curse with the dark skin of Africans, rationalizing that Canaan had turned black before settling in Africa. In the true spirit of biblical justice, the curse was inflicted on all subsequent descendents. Thus the reality of centuries of enslavement and torment of millions of Africans found biblical justification in a yarn about drunken revelry
And they call it a good book?Slave-owning Church
"The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow ... Moreover, when men are subjected to one another in a peaceful order, the lowly position does as much good to the servant as the proud position does harm to the master ... This servitude is, however, penal, and is appointed by that law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance
."– St Augustine, City of God (De Civitate Dei), XIX, 15.By the time the Church came to power it was already a major slave owner, preserving at least one aspect of ancient Roman civilization. But what the Church rapidly jettisoned were pagan Rome's laws concerning the rights of slaves and the possible attainment of their freedom. Slavery in Christendom was for life.
As early as 340 the Church Council of Gangra (today's Çankiri in Turkey), in reaction to rival Manicheans urging slaves to free themselves, adopted as law a slave's "Christian obligation" to submit to the authority of the slave master "as if to God". The Council decreed:
"If anyone, on the pretext of religion teaches another man's slave to despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and not to serve his master with good will and respect, let him be anathema."
Pope Gregory I (590-604), reportedly, had been moved to describe English slaves as "Angels, not Angles" – but not "free those slaves and close down the slave market", markets which continued in a city otherwise rapidly decaying under papal rule. The attitude of Pope Martin I (649-653) was perhaps typical of later pontiffs when he ruled against "unjust slavery" which of course left open the door to a "just slavery" of heathen races and captives taken in war.MONOTHEISM AND SLAVERY (link)
At no time after antiquity did the slave trade ever leave the Mediterranean. Christian Europe was aggressively seizing Muslim slaves with the same pitiless inhumanity that Muslim states were seizing Christian slaves.
"Muslim slaves were at work on the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in 1150, just as Christian slaves were working on the Mosque of Kutubiyya at Marrakesh
." – (Thomas, p39).Muslim traders exported as many as 17 million slaves of all races to the ports of the Indian Ocean, to the Middle East and to North Africa
. For three hundred years, raiders from the Barbary states of Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers ravaged the coasts of Italy and France, carrying off their human prey and extinguishing the last vestiges of "Roman" civilization. As late as the 17th century English captives, taken by Arab corsairs, were being sold in the slave market of Constantinople. In total, perhaps a million Europeans were enslaved by Muslims, most consigned to short and brutal lives in galleys, mines and quarries
.From a very early date, the peripatetic Jews established themselves as slave traders across Europe
. After the Islamic conquests, Jews were uniquely placed to ship human cargoes between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Licensed by Christian princes, and recognized as "people of the book" in the lands of Islam, Jewish slave traders shipped Slav and Germanic captives south in exchange for the delights of Islamic crafts and science, much sought after in the Christian north.All three monotheistic tyrannies
especially prized black skinned "Ethiopians" for their perceived strength and docility, though warfare rewarded the victor with slaves of all races. The legitimacy of "just title slavery" was incorporated into the official body of Canon Law of Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241):" It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture. It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors. All theologians are unanimous on this."– Leander, Quaestiones Morales Theologicae, Lyons 1668 - 1692,Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3.
For centuries, the maritime empire of Venice, whose fleet sailed under the banner of the evangelist St Mark, dominated the Mediterranean slave trade
. Africans bought in Alexandria were sold in European ports, whilst Slav captives taken from the shores of the Black Sea were sold to Turks and Arabs. Professed Christianity made no difference. Venetian merchants were as happy to sell youths of "heretical" Orthodox belief as those who were merely heathen. In the east, these young men were used as eunuchs and Janissaries, the young women as concubines and prostitutes. Many thousands of slaves also served on the patrician estates of Italy, on the galleys that protected the Venetian trade monopoly and on the sugar plantations of Cyprus and Crete.
The lucrative trade in human bondage which enriched Venice, along with the spices, was eventually challenged by other Christian states on the far west of Europe.
Soon after the Portuguese entered tropical waters in the 15th century the shipment of African slaves back to Europe began. In 1488, King Ferdinand of Spain sent a hundred Moorish slaves to Pope Innocent VIII, who passed them on as gifts to his cardinals and cronies. The papacy gave the trade its blessing and the monastic houses took their share of shackled humanity.
Before the century was out, the first European adventurers had reached the islands of the Caribbean and were cruising the coasts of the Americas. At opportune moments, they snatched unsuspecting Indios and took them back to Europe, where they were exhibited as exotic trophies and sold in the slave markets of Seville, Toulouse and Bristol.
Most famously, taken from the shores of New England, was Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian captured by an English gang in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto actually got free of the monks who bought him, worked his way across Europe to England and joined a British ship bound for Newfoundland as an interpreter. From Newfoundland Squanto made his way back to Massachusetts, only to find that, in his absence, European diseases had wiped out everyone in his village. Pathetically, Squanto was able to greet the struggling Pilgrims that came ashore in 1620 in their own language. No Hollywood epic for this guy.
The Spanish pope, Alexander VI, made clear to his Iberian compatriots that they had
" .. full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery."
– Bull Eximiae Devotionis, 1493.
Perpetual slavery did indeed fellow for millions as the Spanish carved out their vast empire in the Americas. The "Requerimiento", drafted in 1510, warned indigenous peoples that death or slavery was imminent if they did not immediately submit to Spain and Roman Catholicism. Of course, the guileless natives would not have understood a word of the imperial rescript declaimed by a priest as the Conquistadors sharpened their blades. Unfortunately, the natives of the Americas made poor slaves – they died at an alarming rate. But "black gold" would arrive to more than make up the loss.
Slaves – White, Red and Black
With the conquest of the Americas, and the annihilation of its native peoples, a vast demand for labour was answered by ramping up supply from Africa. Tribal warlords ("Slattees") on the coasts of Senegambia and Guinea (the so-called "Ivory Coast", "Gold Coast", and "Slave Coast") waged aggressive war against tribes of the interior to service the insatiable export market.
"The Europeans found a more compendious way of procuring African slaves, by prevailing upon them to make war upon each other, and to sell their prisoners. Till then they seldom had any wars; but were in general quiet and peaceable. But the white men first taught them drunkenness and avarice, and then hired them to sell one another. Nay, by this means, even their Kings are induced to sell their own subjects."
– John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, 1774.
The profits to be made from African slaves , the "self-replicating black gold", attracted the avarice of all the maritime nations, not just Portugal and Spain (the major slavers) but also Holland, Denmark, France and England. In 1560 the enterprising English captain John Hawkins began slaving voyages to Spanish America, where he made illegal sales to the Spanish colonies.
Over the course of the next three centuries, 54,000 sailings would carry over eleven million enslaved Africans to the New World (for numbers, see Thomas). Perhaps as many that survived the sailings died in transit. Half a million captives would be sold into the settlements of North America where they became the foundation upon which first the colonial and then the republican economy was built.
The search for cheap labour
"Africans were enslaved not because they were black but because, being nearest to the plantations, they were cheaper to transport, were available in greater numbers and were accustomed to agricultural labour in a hot climate ... But .. it was easier to justify inhuman cruelty when it was employed against people that it could be alleged were a lower form of human life or not human at all." – (Hart, p17)
At first, to tend the "cash crop" tobacco plants of Virginia, "indentured servants" were brought in from England as a source of cheap labour. Orphans were preferred, many of them kidnapped from the streets of London or other port cities of Europe, "servants" who in fact could be sold and traded.
Other, less than willing, migrants joined them: debtors and victims of the English courts, deposited in the "penal" colony of Georgia. In 1652, following the final defeat of the Stuart army at Worcester and the end of the English civil war, a stock of two thousand Scottish prisoners were sold to the plantations of Barbados and Virginia.
Similarly, in the aftermath of the Indian war in New England in 1675, enslaved Indians were transported by Puritan ship owners from Boston to the proprietary colonies of the South. The native Americans however easily escaped or succumbed to European diseases – but by then the African alternative had presented itself.
As early as 1619 the Dutch showed up off the coast of Virginia with a cargo of twenty Africans, which they traded for food, but the full potential of captive black labour was not immediately obvious:
"For the first two generations Africans were treated, it seems, much like other indentured servants. But after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 the planters could no longer be blind to the opportunities suggested by the example of the Caribbean sugar islands, which now took African slaves in huge numbers with correspondingly huge profits." – (Brogan, p28)
From 1621 the Dutch West Indies Company began importing blacks for servitude in farms along the Hudson valley. But dominance of the slave trade soon passed to the English and by the end of the 17th century, England was leading the world in the trafficking of human cargo.
Out of Africa
The contact established between English mercantilism and the ports of Africa transformed slave trading from a limited aspect of inter-tribal warfare into a capitalistic enterprise of global dimensions. A few hundred British aristocrats, motivated by commercial gain, established and controlled a worldwide industry and from it amassed family fortunes. Their accumulated capital financed banks and trading houses and stoked the Industrial Revolution.
At first, the Royal African Company enjoyed a monopoly in the trade and shipped several thousand slaves annually at immense profit. But by 1698 other envious English merchants had persuaded the government to open the slave trade to all. The number of slaves transported on English ships jumped dramatically, to more than 20,000 a year.
Thousands of blacks were brought to Britain by the slave ships. Far from being hidden as a degrading traffic in inhumanity, the trade had an exotic public visibility. It became the height of fashion for aristocratic ladies to have a black page, footman or personal servant and the great households of 18th century English society often had a staff of uniformed black servants, brought back from the plantations by naval captains, colonial governors and merchants.
So well established were the English in the slave trade that early in the new century (in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713) the British won the "asiento", an exclusive license to ship black slaves from Africa to the Spanish controlled territories of the Americas. The golden age of slaving had arrived. British ships would transport nearly 3 million African slaves before the prohibition on British involvement in 1807. American slavers would continued their trafficking for another half century.
The Whip and the Gospel
Whilst part of the Christian "world mission" was to Christianize the conquered and enslaved races, the plantation owners of Virginia and the Carolinas from the first were hostile to such evangelism. They feared that if the slaves became Christians there would be a clamour for their freedom. But as the number of slaves grew from thousands to tens of thousands more voices spoke of the Christian duty to instruct the heathen multitude in the true faith.
In 1660 the English king, Charles II, pronounced in favour of teaching Christianity to slaves. The message from the pulpit was hardly revolutionary. Slaves were chastened by an assurance that their servitude was ordained by God himself, that they must work hard, be honest, humble, and above all else, obedient. Though every man might be equal before God, in this world the black man's fate was to serve the white man.
The Virginia Assembly remained cautious. In 1667 it enacted its own bill specifically disavowing that baptism granted freedom to slaves. Nonetheless, in 1734 the religious fervour of the "Great Awakening" allowed blacks to join Methodist and Baptist Churches for the first time – with separate seating, of course – and in 1758 slaves in Lunenburg County formed the earliest black church in Virginia. The early years of the Republic saw a rapid Christianization of blacks, both slave and free.
Slavery in the Christian Republic
The crops which would transform the impoverished southern colonies of the U.S. into enclaves of wealth and leisure – tobacco, cotton, and rice – required many hands. This predisposed the region towards slavery because none but slaves would endure the unremitting toil in an agrarian wilderness.
The Declaration of Independence may have talked grandly of "all men created equal" but the Constitution recognized slavery:
"No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due." – Article IV, Section 2, paragraph 3.
At first, the emerging industrial centres of the North also deployed slaves but, with the mechanisation of factories, mines and mills, a more flexible and adaptable wage economy became established, devoid of the paternalism of a slave society and tapping successive waves of cheap immigrant labour.
By the early 1800s slavery had become a phenomenon primarily of the South but the northern economy continued to benefit both from the products of the South and from the needs of the southern economy, a symbiotic relationship recognized by a federal law as late as 1850 which required that runaway slaves, even those who had escaped to the North, were to be returned to their rightful "owners". Slave laws defined slaves as chattel, the same category assigned to horses and cows.
The opening of the southwest frontier after the Louisiana purchase and the War of 1812 rejuvenated the southern slave economy as the cotton belt spread from Alabama through to Arkansas and Texas. Some 400,000 slaves were traded and shipped from the upper to the deep South. Output of cotton soared from half a million bales in 1820 to more than four million by 1860, some 75% of the world's raw cotton output and earning over fifty per cent of U.S. export income (Rice, et al, p166). Slavery was not only Christian: it was highly profitable.
Spirits in the Sky – Jesus becomes a homie
"When I starts preachin' I ... had to preach what massa told me and he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the massa they goes to Heaven but I knowed there's something better for them, but daren't tell them 'cept on the sly.
That I done lots. I tell 'em. iffen they keeps prayin' the Lord will set 'em free." – Black preacher.
The forced relocation of Africans to North America, with its cross mixing of tribes and language groups, effectively extinguished their worship of traditional African gods. Indeed, enslaved Africans lost rights not denied to slaves even in pre-Christian Europe, like speaking their own language and retaining their own names.
Yet enforced conversion must have disguised true sentiments. First encounters with Christians took the form of whip-bearing overseers and slave owners. Those not totally crushed by their incarceration must have retained vestiges of ancestral religion and fused the white man's Christianity with elements of traditional belief. For some, this meant Islam: merchants, travelling across the Sahara, had established a Muslim presence in Ghana, Senegal and Mali as early as the 12th century. Thus coastal tribes, slave-raiding into the interior, would have carried off Muslims.
In their land of exile, confronted by evangelical missionaries, Muslim slaves may have recalled stories from their own version of the Old Testament. They would have recognized a religion based on a written text, with creation myths, priest-healers, and an ethical system. To the enslaved, the promise of "life after death" had an obvious palliative value. And when in Church, they were not working. Though slave codes prohibited teaching slaves to read and write, reading the gospel was the path to literacy and the hope of eventual freedom.
Thus the slave, as well as the slave owner, found something useful in the fable of Christ. The story of the Israelites' successful flight from bondage, and the agony of Jesus "crucified but triumphant", were readily expropriated as messages of freedom. With the religious meeting the only form of organized activity permitted the slave, the Black church had value as the one institution that slaves could call their own. Not surprisingly, Black preachers led the earliest slave revolts – notably the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 – and independent black churches led the struggle for liberty and civil rights of slaves and free blacks alike.
Jesus frees his Slaves?
In the latter half of the 18th century the rationalism of the Enlightenment began to permeate even the cloistered world of theology. Thoughts of "liberty, equality and fraternity" would soon cause convulsions in France. Even during the American Revolution property owners, whilst seeking liberty from the English king, feared "the mob". A whole race held in subjugation did not bode well for the future.
A minority of Christians – drawn mainly from the ranks of non-conformist movements in the North (Mennonites, Quakers, etc.) recognized that even though slavery was condoned by many passages in the Bible, it was profoundly immoral and contrary to the spirit, if not the words, of scripture. Distressed by the suffering of slaves (particularly during shipment), which now offended their Christian sensibilities, a movement began for the abolition of the trade and the institution of slavery.
Besides, in the fierce competition for memberships, congregations could be built from the lost black sheep. The Baptists, whose lack of educational requirements or complicated procedures for ordination made it especially easy for blacks to become ministers, quickly won a following among the black population. Free Blacks, no longer slaves but subject to fierce discrimination, themselves formed independent Methodist churches: the African Methodist Episcopal Methodist Church; the Union Church of Africans; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The Confederacy – the Last True Christian civilization?
"On the lawfulness of holding slaves ... the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."
– Rev Richard Furman, President, Baptist State Convention. Charleston, 24th December, 1822.
The Big House. The plantation lifestyle. The "Old South" was a world apart, a society of affected gentility and opulent leisure. In great white mansions "well-bred Christian gentlemen" drank, brawled and gambled whilst their wives and daughters idled away their lives in elegant Christian virtue. And beneath the surface a darker world, of pitiless exploitation and brutal white overseers, of whippings and lynchings, of masters taking sexual advantage of their slave women, and poor white sharecroppers venting their frustrations on a race and a class even more despised than themselves.
In response to the stinging rebukes of northern abolitionists, southern Christians rallied to the defence of their world. Their interpretation of scripture clung tenaciously to a literal understanding of the words – and the words were very clear. God endorsed slavery.
Indeed, Genesis 9.25,27 could be given a powerful new prescience. Shem was held to mean "dusky" as opposed to Japheth meaning "fair", thereby rendering "Japheth shall be enlarged and dwell in the tents of Shem" into a biblical prophesy of white displacement of the "red Indians". Completing this divine revelation was the subsequent enslavement of the black African descendents of "Ham"! The Bible was thus shown to be true in a literal sense and southern society validated as completely in accord with God's design.The slave owner thus felt certain that he was carrying out God's plan by buying and using slaves.
Christianity adapted to southern slave society like a domestic tabby cat reverting to a feral scavenger. White evangelicals moved from radicals on the margin to mainstream conservatives. They were established, they were respectable – and they were racist.
The Birth of Biblical Fundamentalism
" The Negroes thus imported were generally contented and happy ... Careless and mirthful by nature, they were eager to find a master when they reached the shore, and the cruel separations to which they were sometimes exposed, and which for the moment gave them excruciating agony, were forgotten at the sound of their rude musical instruments and in the midst of their noisy dances.
The great Architect had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown, and His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy. Hence, their submissiveness, their obedience, their contentment."
– Thomas R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America, 1858
Scripture itself provided ample justifications for slavery but there were practical arguments as well. As a "child race" the Negro needed a paternal guiding hand. By nature, lascivious and indolent the Negro needed stern moral guidelines, which Mosaic Law and the Abrahamic Covenant provided. By the institution of slavery, the African's rude disposition was both restrained and corrected. The South remained free from the strange new sects spawned in Northern and border states in the wake of the second "Great Awakening".
" Few of the remarkable religious "isms" have taken root among us. We have been so irreverent as to laugh at Mormonism and Millerism, which have created such commotions farther North; and modern prophets have no honor in our country. Shakers, Rappists, Dunkers, Socialists, Fourrierists, and the like, keep themselves afar off".
– James Hammond, Governor of South Carolina, 1845. "Hammond's Letters on Slavery," The Proslavery Argument, 117; Q. in Peterson, 15.
Christian "issues" like temperance and benevolence, which so easily led to an anti-slavery stance, were viewed with disdain. While the new Christian movements convulsed the North, the South secured itself within a conservative, "fundamentalist" framework, interpreting the Bible as a literal guide not merely to faith but also to political, domestic and personal life. It was a world-view of Christian patriarchy, implacably hostile to modernism, rationalism and liberalism, all perceived as snares of the Devil.
Methodist and Baptist churches, which had hitherto straddled the "North-South" divide, were torn apart. The Anglican communion alone was able to survive the slavery debate without schism.
Slavery under threat
"New York had become a thieve's market where pirates disposed of loot taken on the high seas ... The British navy was refused permission to search any American slaver ... most slave ships, in the 1850s, not only flew the American flag but were owned by American citizens."
– (Chomsky, p21)
Slavery in the British empire came to an end after the 1831 Jamaican rebellion. The sedition had been led by a slave and Baptist preacher, Sam Sharpe, whose original plan had been the use of non-violent resistance to force abolition. In the event, violence took over and Sharp himself was hanged.
With the end to their own slave trade, the British were forced by economic necessity to press other nations to follow suit. A special fleet, the West Africa Squadrons, policed the coast of Africa searching for slave ships. Brazil was intimidated into compliance by the Royal Navy.
The greatest challenge came from slave ships flying the American flag. That nation would tear itself apart resolving the issue of slavery in the 1860s. Jesus fought on both sides, of course.
The Christianizing of the Americas
The Old World – Ablaze for Christ!
Late Antiquity > Middle Age (5th-10th centuries)
Middle Ages (10th-15th centuries)
Wars and Civil Wars for Christ! 16th century
Wars and Civil Wars for Christ! 17th century
1500-1600 New Spain – Old Horrors
1600-1750 Christ in the Colonies
1750-1850 Birth of a Nation
1850-1950 The Americanising of Christianity
1950-2005 Jesus Jihad
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Copyright © 2005 by Kenneth Humphreys.
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