“How many days were you a slave?” Missandei asks Tyrion Lannister as they make their way toward the Great Pyramid of Meereen for a meeting with the Good Masters of Astapor and the Wise Masters of Yunkai.
“Long enough to know,” he responds. “Not long enough to understand,” she shoots right back.
The most recent episode of Game of Thrones dealt with slavery head-on in a way we have yet to see this season, and as challenging as it can be to apply situations from American history to the very different reality of Essos, it’s all too easy to look at what’s transpired in Meereen and the rest of Slavers’ Bay and draw parallels. The restoration of slavery to Astapor and Yunkai is uncomfortably reminiscent of the advent of Jim Crow in the American South; the fact that slaves’ fates are in the hands of the rich and powerful must sound familiar to minorities in the United States who have long been the objects of rule by a government composed mostly of rich, white men.
Tyrion’s use of his own brief enslavement to justify his ability to speak for the horrors of the institution, no matter how sincerely moved he was by the experience, smacks of the feeble attempts allies make at sympathy before they realize they’ll never truly understand what it’s like to be born with a low ceiling and raised in an oppressive system. With the Black Lives Matter movement bringing such issues into the public spotlight more effectively than anyone has since the 1960s, the Meereen scenes from “Book of the Stranger” couldn’t help but hit home for socially aware Americans and world citizens.
In this light, and in the way the negotiations were presented by the show, it’s hard for us to see past the privilege in Tyrion’s proposed seven-year plan to end slavery in Yunkai and Astapor. “Seven years is not a short time for a slave,” Missandei reminds him after the meeting concludes. Already, it’s fairly evident that the deal isn’t going to make the citizens of Meereen very happy—especially because he’s not Daenerys—and the slavers’ response remains to be seen; Tyrion is banking on their self-interest, but he doesn’t know these men as well as he knew the players in the Seven Kingdoms.
And yet, given the situation, Tyrion probably did the best he could. His approach here actually reminds me of the way Abraham Lincoln went about ending slavery in the United States.
The public memory holds Lincoln up as the “Great Emancipator,” and to a certain extent, that’s true; the Emancipation Proclamation was his idea, and it did free hundreds of thousands of slaves. Here’s the catch, though: it only freed slaves in the Confederacy. Where it was legal in the Union, and in former Confederate territories conquered by the Union, slavery was allowed to persist.
You might ask how that accomplished anything, and you’d be right to do so. The Confederacy’s defeat was far from assured when the Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Meanwhile, thousands of slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Union-held Tennessee and West Virginia remained in chains. But under the circumstances, it was the best Lincoln could do. A number of factors prevented him from taking more extreme action.
First, Lincoln was limited by his beliefs. It’s imperative to understand that Abraham Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist, nor did he believe that blacks and whites could be equals. In fact, for most of his political career, he was an advocate for a concept called “colonization”—the idea that free blacks should be sent back to Africa because they could not coexist with free whites. The American Colonization Society succeeded in founding the colony (later country) of Liberia in the 1820s, and up through the first couple of years of his presidency, Lincoln hoped that more Liberia-like states might be created.
Today, of course, the idea of shipping myriad Americans away so that white society might be homogeneous reminds us of Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Native Americans, but in the 1800s, colonization was considered an acceptable, mainstream idea, garnering support from the likes of Henry Clay. Additionally, Lincoln was limited by his own interpretation of the Constitution; precedent dictated that slavery was a question left to the individual states, and he didn’t see a way to justify a federal initiative to abolish the institution in peacetime.
Most importantly, though, Lincoln needed to be able to hold the Union together, placating both the growing abolitionist movement in the North (and particularly within his Republican Party) and the crucial border states where slavery was still legal. Alienating Maryland, for instance, would have cut Washington, D.C. off from the rest of the country. The stated goal of the Civil War, at least at the beginning, was to keep the United States united—all of the states—and therefore emancipation needed to happen in the context of the overarching objective that tied together the Union.
“Slavery is a horror that should be ended at once,” Tyrion tells Missandei after striking his deal with the Masters. Then, he adds, “War is a horror that should be ended at once. I can’t do both today.”
Like Tyrion, Lincoln chose ending the war over ending slavery—though not by peaceful measures. Instead, he was able to use emancipation as a pathway to victory. Riding momentum from the Union’s success at the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation five days later as a “wartime measure.” The reasoning was that freeing slaves in the South would devastate the Southern economy and that escaped slaves from the Confederacy would swell the Union army’s ranks, and as the Northern forces pressed further into the rebel territory, more and more slaves would be freed. As a military strategy, the Proclamation played out better than anyone could have expected; not only did 200,000 black soldiers end up fighting for the Union, but tying support for the Confederacy to support for continued slavery kept anti-slavery countries like Britain and France from supporting the South.
Still, slavery wasn’t ended in the Union until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Two years might be shorter than seven, but it’s still not a short time for a slave.
Now, it might seem like a Meereen analog to the Emancipation Proclamation would have been for Tyrion to proclaim all slaves in Yunkai and Astapor immediately free. The only problem with that is the slaves of Yunkai and Astapor were already freed by Daenerys and, after she left, were subsequently reconquered by the Masters—a situation far more similar to the way the Jim Crow era was installed in the South following the failure of Reconstruction. The comparison between Tyrion and Lincoln, though, isn’t so much about the outcome as it is about the two leaders’ strategy. Both men, seeking to end slavery and secure a favorable outcome in a war, utilized competing self-interests to rally broad coalitions and formulate a workable compromise plan.
For Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation’s scope was a way to bring Northern abolitionists and more conservative border staters together under the pretense that ending slavery in the Confederacy was the way to end the war in a Union victory, the goal that brought the two sides together. Had he not posited emancipation as a wartime measure, he likely could not have gained the necessary support for the precedent, both on constitutional and political grounds. And by setting the precedent for emancipation, he was able to pave the way for the eventual end of all slavery in the United States.
For Tyrion, proposing a gradual end to slavery in Astapor and Yunkai with compensation for the Masters is a way to unite the ultimate goals of Daenerys’ revolution—a peaceful, totally free Slavers’ Bay—with that of the Masters, who will demand riches to replace their human capital. How Tyrion manages to make that happen will dictate the success of his plan, though he’s proven his political capabilities time and time again and in Meereen, outside his father’s shadow and aligned with Daenerys, he should be able to get things done. “Their contempt is their weakness,” he confidently tells Grey Worm of the Masters. “They’ll underestimate us every time and we will use that to our advantage.”
Working within political realities is a challenge for idealists, one that prevents wholesale, immediate change from happening most of the time. There’s been exactly one successful slave revolt in the past millennium—Haiti’s in the 1790s-and it didn’t exactly usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Ending slavery has otherwise been a top-down directive, even when pressed by grassroots movements, and because the leaders from which abolition stems are beholden to myriad different constituencies, its execution must satisfy everyone enough so as to prevent chaos from ensuing. Lincoln understood this, and Tyrion, the most pragmatic character in Game of Thrones, understands it as well. And even though he will never understand what it’s like to be a slave, his approach is the best hope Slavers’ Bay has at ending the institution forever.