Montesquieu

Usbek to the same


We have nothing more to say about Asia and Europe ; let us turn to Africa. We can speak of lit­tle but its coasts, since we do not know its inte­rior.

The Barbary Coasts,1 where the Muhammadan reli­gion is esta­bli­shed, are no more popu­lous than they were in Roman times, for the rea­sons we have already sta­ted.2 As for the coasts of Guinea, they must be strip­ped bare in the two hun­dred years that the petty kings or vil­lage chief­tains have been sel­ling their sub­jects to the prin­ces of Europe to take to their colo­nies in America.3

What is sin­gu­lar is that this America that every year takes in so many new inha­bi­tants is itself empty, and does not bene­fit from the conti­nual los­ses of Africa. Those sla­ves who are trans­por­ted into ano­ther cli­mate perish there by the thou­sands ; and the labor in the mines to which they cons­tantly put both the coun­try’s nati­ves and the forei­gners,4 the male­fi­cent vapors that issue from them, the quick­sil­ver which is conti­nually in use, inexo­ra­bly des­troy them.5

There is nothing so extra­va­gant as to send a count­less num­ber of men to their deaths in order to extract gold and sil­ver from the bowels of the earth, these metals being in them­sel­ves totally use­less, and which are wealth only because they have been cho­sen to serve as its signs.

Paris this last day of the moon of Chahban 1718

The whole north coast of Africa, from Egypt to the kingdom of Fez.

See letter 108.

The slave trade was practiced by the Portuguese beginning in the mid-fifteenth century, then changed rapidly into the triangular trade after the discovery of America, but it developed fairly slowly and irregularly until the eighteenth century. Montesquieu’s native Bordeaux outfitted only six ships for Africa between 1707 and 1728, compared with 218 in Nantes.

This particular criticism of the slave conditions relates only to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies : the work in the mines and the difference of climates, make it clear that the Antilles are not at issue. The subject is all the more important that it seems to furnish the only solid argument of the pro-slavery forces : never would free men accept such work – an argument which The Spirit of Law (XV, 8) will refute.

Amédée Frezier, royal engineer, describes with illustration the process of dissolving ore in mercury (quicksilver), after which the mercury is evaporated so it can be recuperated (Relation du voyage de la Mer du sud, Paris, 1716, p. 140-143) ; “after they have remained there a while, they absorb the quicksilver so that most of them tremble all over, and die stupified” (p. 251).