Does ‘The Woman King’ Justify Slavery?

The recently released film, “The Woman King,” has been described as “the remarkable true story of a fierce, all-female unit known as the Agojie, who protected the west African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s.” The film is indeed based on two historical facts. The Agojie were a corps of fierce women warriors who fought on behalf of the King of Dahomey (now Benin). The women were segregated from men and remained celibate. And Dahomey did wage war against France in the latter part of the 19th century. The problem for historical accuracy—the underlying truth of the story—is the question of the purpose for which the Agojie and Dahomey fought.

Many reviewers have praised the film as a portrayal of African resistance to European colonialism. True, but that is only part of the story. Dahomey’s entire economy was based on capturing other Africans and selling them into Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated the Kingdom of Dahomey dispatched at least a million African souls into slavery over two centuries. As one commentator has noted, “Dahomey was not an African state that desired only to be left alone and preserve its traditional culture; its entire government and society were built around capturing slaves to sell to Europeans, and this had been true as far back as the early 1700s.” 

An early 19th century religious revival in Britain created a backlash against slavery and ultimately a campaign to destroy the Atlantic slave trade. (It should be noted that the Atlantic slave trade was only one facet of a universal practice dating to the beginning of civilization. Sub-Saharan Africans—as well as Europeans—were also sold into the Arab slave trade, which was of even greater magnitude than the Atlantic slave trade.) Thus Dahomey’s resistance to European colonialism cannot be separated from the kingdom’s continuing effort to profit from the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, so committed were they to commerce in slaves, African states, including Dahomey and the powerful Ashanti Empire, had earlier petitioned the King of England to refrain from interfering with the slave trade. 

Of course, slavery is said to be America’s original sin. Indeed, the very fact that slavery existed in the United States is considered by some to consign our country to perdition. But when the United States was founded in 1776, slavery was, as noted before, a universal practice, which represented a manifestation of the Athenians’ argument at Melos. “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.” 

The United States, however, was founded on a different principle, one that undermined the morality of slavery: the idea that all men are created equal in the sense that no one has the right to rule another without the consent of the latter. The principles of the Declaration and the Constitution informed by them are fundamentally anti-slavery. As James Madison noted during the Federal Convention in 1787, those present “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” It is for that reason the word “slavery” appears no where in the document.

Of course, those who argue that the American founding was unjust point to the fact that the Constitution, though omitting the word, still compromised on the issue of slavery. But people who assert this claim make the fundamental error of confusing the principles of the Constitution, which arise from the Declaration of Independence, with its compromises, in the absence of which, slave states very possibly could have created a polity wholly devoted to slavery. One who recognized this point was Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and former slave, who came to understand that without the Constitution—which he believed was fundamentally an anti-slavery document—and the Union it created, slavery would never have been ended in America.

But the real mistake that critics of the Constitution make is the failure to recognize the role of the American founding itself in the eventual abolition of slavery, at least in the West. As the late Harry Jaffa once wrote, “It is not wonderful that a nation of slave-holders, upon achieving independence, failed to abolish slavery. What is wonderful, indeed miraculous, is that a nation of slave-holders founded a new nation on the proposition that ‘all men are created equal,’ making the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity.”

There is an irony associated with praise for “The Woman King.” On the one hand, we recognize the monstrous injustice of slavery. On the other, the message of the film seems to suggest that slavery is forgivable if it is implemented by “strong, black women.” For my money. I’ll take “Harriet” over “The Woman King. The former tells the story of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped others to escape slavery. I much prefer the account of a “strong, black woman” who helped emancipate slaves over the story of one who helped enslave them.

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