On slavery, U.S. wasn’t quite so far behind

To the editor:

Brian Mann, in his review of the recently appearing Hollywood movie “12 Years a Slave,” makes the startling claim that “by the time Solomon Northup (the free black man in the movie) was abducted in the 1840s, the world was essentially a modern place.” In contrast to the United States, “slavery as an institution had been made a criminal enterprise in most of the civilized world for at least 30 years.” This was hardly the case.

Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1838. In the French colonies it was abolished in 1848. In the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico it continued until 1866 and 1873, and in Brazil, what had been Portugal’s most important colony in South America, it lasted until 1888. In these places it was, like the United States, part of “a vast and recognizably modern economic enterprise that involved banks, trading laws, shipping companies, mills and stock exchanges.” Perhaps he has confused the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade with the abolition of slavery, but here the United States was in vanguard and joined Great Britain in 1808 to be the second and third nations to abolish their participation in this activity.

Neither have we “systematically concealed from ourselves the depths of horror that our nation embraced.” I have not seen the movie, but I doubt whether Steve McQueen’s insight into slavery came close to the nuanced and sophisticated treatment of the “peculiar institution” that Harriet Beecher Stowe presents in her great American classic of 1852, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – second only to the Bible in terms of sales in the 19th century. President Lincoln, when he first met her on Thanksgiving Day in 1862, allegedly greeted her with, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” I cannot imagine that 134 minutes of Hollywood movie will ever have the same impact as this book of slightly less than 500 pages.

Roger Gocking

Saranac Lake