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7. Montesquieu, ‘On the Enslavement of Negroes’, from The Spirit of the Laws11

Irony is the Enlightenment philosopher’s favourite weapon when ridiculing his opponents. How does one go about deconstructing the justification for slavery? By pretending to defend it, as Montesquieu shows here.12

If I had to justify our right to enslave negroes, this is what I would say:

Once the peoples of Europe had wiped out the people of America, they were obliged to enslave the peoples of Africa, because they needed someone to clear the land in America.

Sugar would be too expensive if there were no slaves to cultivate the plant it comes from.

The people in question are black from head to foot; and their nose is so squashed that it is almost impossible to feel sorry for them.

The mind will simply not accept the idea that God, who is a very wise being, would have put a soul, especially a good soul, into a completely black body.

It is so natural to think that colour is the essence of humanity, that the peoples of Asia, who make people into eunuchs, continue to deprive blacks of what they have in common with us in an even more extreme way.

You can tell skin colour from hair colour, and hair was so important to the Egyptians that they killed all redheads who fell into their hands, and the Egyptians were the best philosophers in the world.

The fact that negroes value glass necklaces more highly than gold ones, which are worth so much more in civilised countries, just goes to show that they have no common sense.

It is impossible to believe that these people are human beings, for, if we did believe them to be human beings, we would have to wonder whether we ourselves are Christians.

Small minds exaggerate the injustice done to the Africans. For if it was as bad as they would have us believe, would it not have crossed the minds of the Princes of Europe, who together make so many pointless treatises, to have drawn up a general convention to promote compassion and mercy?

Read the free original text online, 1758 edition:

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1817 edition:

11 Montesquieu, ‘De l’esclavage des Nègres’, in his De l’esprit des lois, Geneva: 1748, Book XV, ch. 5.

12 Title page of L’Esprit des lois, II, Amsterdam: Chatelain, 1749: