National Post (National Edition)
1781 WAS A WATERSHED IN EVIL
Was 2020 the worst year ever? National Post puts a silly question to a serious test by stacking 2020 up against other years of plague, war, genocide, and human misery, all to answer the unusually urgent question of what makes a bad year the worst.
In mid-December, as news spread of a large suspected Russian cyberattack, with daily new COVID-19 cases reaching a quarter-million, U.S. President Donald Trump announced members of a special task force on patriotic education that would de-emphasize slavery as America's foundational crime.
This was reactive, not proactive, and as a presidential concern, it only goes back a few months. It was in response to The 1619 Project, a series in The New York Times Magazine that aimed to put slavery front and centre in the history of the founding of America, named for the year the first enslaved people arrived in colonial Virginia.
Trump's version, the 1776 Commission, would instead start with the Declaration of Independence of that year, amid the Revolutionary War, and “celebrate the truth about our nation's great history.”
His nominees for the task force include the historian Victor Davis Hanson, author of The Case For Trump, and Charlie Kirk, a political activist.
The Atlantic trade in slavery took place over many years. At its 18th century peak, it amounted to a self-sustaining triangular economy in which, roughly, Europeans took enslaved African people by force to the Americas, whose resources were shipped to Europe, which sent manufactured goods and weapons back to Africa, facilitating the capture of ever more people. European countries started banning slavery in the early 19th century, but the domestic American trade continued for decades, settled only by the Civil War.
Picking the worst year among all those in which slave ships crossed the ocean is a vain task. But there is one year that particularly stands out for the way it illuminates what came after, from the colonization of 18th-century Africa to segregation in 20th-century America, and the continuing societal problem of racism: 1781.
And one event in 1781 captures how this way of thinking became a watershed in human evil that projects through history, meeting a key criterion that makes a year suitable for a Worst Year Ever candidate.
It happened as the American Revolutionary War was winding down. A British slave ship called the Zong set out from Ghana in August, 1781, with more than 400 enslaved people aboard, far more than its safety limit. After navigational mistakes and concern about water supplies, a calculation was made to throw living people overboard, as they were worth more that way for the insurance, both to the ship's owners but also to the crew, who could expect the average price of two people in payment, once all were sold in Jamaica. In effect, the victims were worth more dead than alive.
This massacre was not unique, but it reflected the mercantile aspect of human depravity on display in slavery. The practice of slavery has been engaged in throughout history, but here was a sort of slavery embedded in a new modern economy, governed by laws.
The court case over the insurance was a key driver of England's abolitionist movement, as the enormity of the crime and the immorality of the excuse became clear to the English general public.
In 2020 in America, a media project to reorient history with a focus on slavery and its historical legacy has met with presidential obstruction, and a “patriotic” countermeasure in the lame duck period.
To this day, Black Lives Matter is a revolutionary notion. Racism in the structure of American society is explicitly denied by members of the new presidential task force that aims to “celebrate the truth about our nation's great history.”
One thing about 1781, it left a mark on everyone.