Putting a price on slavery: Voltaire and the New World

Voltaire and globeIt is now the mid-sixteenth century, and we have passed the half-way mark in the publication of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs with the appearance this month of our fifth volume of text. In its fascinating central section (chapters 148-54), Voltaire charts the discovery of the New World and the rivalries between the various European powers in the exploitation of its wealth – without losing sight of the moral conflict caused by the parent powers and their depredations in the development of this new economy.

Two hundred and fifty years later, in September this year, it was announced that fourteen Caribbean countries are seeking reparations for the 10-12 million Africans transported to the New World in order to sustain that new economy. With an ongoing desire for justice, The Caribbean Community countries (Caricom) hope to create an inventory of the wrongs suffered, and on the basis of this to demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands (New York Times). Caricom established an official reparations commission in July.

In chapter 152 of his Essai, Voltaire, always with an eye on human suffering, comments on the ‘marchandise humaine’ from the African coasts used to exploit the commodities of the New World: ‘Nous leur disons qu’ils sont hommes comme nous, qu’ils sont rachetés du sang d’un Dieu mort pour eux, et ensuite on les fait travailler comme des bêtes de somme […] s’ils veulent s’enfuir, on leur coupe une jambe […] Ce commerce n’enrichit point un pays; bien au contraire, il fait périr des hommes.’

W. Burke, An account of the European settlements in America, part 5, ‘The French settlements’ (London, 1758), vol.2, p.[iii-iv]; Voltaire’s copy contains his handwritten notes.

W. Burke, An account of the European settlements in America, part 5, ‘The French settlements’ (London, 1758), vol.2, p.[iii-iv]; Voltaire’s copy contains his handwritten notes.

In October, the Australian-based rights organisation Walk Free released a Global Slavery Index. The International Labour Organisation estimates that in 2013 there are almost 21 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labour.

‘… après cela,’ says Voltaire, ‘nous osons parler du droit des gens.’

Essai sur les mœurs, volume VI, chapters 130-162
OCV, vol.26A, ISBN 978 0 7294 0976 6, publication November 2013

–KC

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One thought on “Putting a price on slavery: Voltaire and the New World

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday: Voltaire | On This Day

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