Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Not so errant thoughts on slavery

What made the Atlantic Slave Trade Different?
(From slavery in other times and places)
Or was it?
Slavery has existed on our planet throughout recorded history.  There has even been a theory espoused in the last few years, that Cro-Magnon man enslaved the Neanderthals.  At first glance, the Atlantic slave trade was different from slavery at any other time and place in recorded history.  Motivation for the Midlantic slave trade was for one main reason, whereas in other areas the rationale was as varied as the cultures themselves.  The treatment of slaves was not different, but the numbers enslaved in various other areas and times was smaller, with a few notable exceptions.[1]  Duration of servitude and ability to obtain one’s freedom were also varied in sundry cultures.  Possibly the only difference was that by the end of the 17th century, slavery in the Americas was primarily limited to people of one color.  To my mind, even the idea of slavery, in a country founded on the premise of freedom and equality for all, is a paradox which will never be solved, but at least we can look at why’s and wherefores in the hopes it will never be repeated.
In China, during the building of the Great Wall, there was seasonal slavery.  Every family had to provide one person for three months out of the year.  Refusal was not permitted and should this person become ill or injured, a replacement was required.  Egypt and other countries acquired slaves through indebtedness, crime, indecent acts in addition to other common means of obtaining them.  In the Northwestern tribes of the United States slaves were used primarily as status symbols, and given away at the Potlatch ceremonies.  Japan had the geisha, a concubine, suggesting a relationship type of slavery.  Greeks had slaves of all kinds, from the household and civil servant, to miners and rowers on ships.  They came from warfare, debt-slavery, marriage, birth of children to slaves and babies found abandoned.  France, Ireland, and Czechoslovakia all had slave trading markets of Pagans and Muslims, giving a religious motive to slavery, during the High Middle Ages, many of whom were sold to Middle Eastern buyers.  England took many Irish and turned them into slaves, during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, due mainly to religious differences.  The Anglican Church had slaves, branded on their chests with the word ‘society’.  Russia, Poland, and Romania all had slaves.  Germanys’ concentration camps were slave camps.  The Ottoman Empire had slave armies.  African Muslims who would go on a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca would bring a son to sell into slavery.  The Christian Bible has evidence of condoned slavery.  The Old Testament gives evidence differentiating permissible slavery from what is proscribed:   Leviticus:
25:39 If your brother becomes impoverished with regard to you so that he sells himself to you, you must not subject him to slave service.
25:40 He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee,
25:41 but then he may go free, he and his children with him, and may return to his family and to the property of his ancestors.
25:42 Since they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, they must not be sold in a slave sale.
25:43 You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God.
25:44 As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you, you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you.
25:45 Also you may buy slaves from the children of the foreigners who reside with you, and from their families that are with you, whom they have fathered in your land, they may become your property.
25:46 You may give them as inheritance to your children after you to possess as property. You may enslave them perpetually. However, as for your brothers the Israelites, no man may rule over his brother harshly.
Virtually all countries at one time or another has had some form of slavery, for myriad reasons.
Myriad too, were the way slaves were treated.  In Sparta, slaves were allowed to come and go freely from the city, while the citizens were not.  On the other hand, they were also severely abused.  The Greeks treated different types of slaves differently.  Some were allowed to own businesses, and others were barely allowed enough food to live on.  Hammurabi had a stele created (circa 1760 B.C.) on which his laws were incised, including rules governing the treatment of slaves.  These were the most humane laws to date.  The treatment of slaves in the Americas was no better nor worse than slave were treated historically everywhere, with the exception of ancient Mesopotamia.  Some cultures permitted certain slaves to purchase their freedom.  In some other cultures as in some homes in the United States, slaves were protected and even integrated into the family.  Nevertheless, in the end, well treated or brutalized the fact remains, all were subject to punishment and death at the whim of their owners.
In almost all cases, slavery has been a decisive factor in economy and customs, mores and development and/or decay of cultures around the globe.
One of the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire may have been their use of slave labour.  While the ancient Greeks had many impressive scientific and mathematical achievements, they never succeeded in applying any of their discoveries to any practical use, partly because slave labour was cheaper and easily available.  By the end of the second century A.D., the ancient world's lack of industrial technology and labour-saving machines started to make it impossible for the Roman Empire to maintain both its military and a healthy civilian population.[2]
Study of the era shows that the United States could not have developed into an economic power as quickly as it did, without the use of slaves.  Slavery makes an impact, and is still in existence today, albeit on a much reduced scale and hidden from sight, even where it is known to exist, still making an impact.
Much has been made of the Atlantic Slave trade, from the length it prospered, to the treatment of slaves, as well it should be.  The only reason for the Midlantic slave trade to flourish and continue for so long, were the huge profits made for all involved, from the shipping companies and captors, to the buyers and users.  As we can see today, people will still do anything to maintain their profit, regardless if it is illegal, immoral, or indefensible.  What is different about slavery in the Americas is the level of documentation in a world that had the beginnings of mass communication, by the time it was ended.
While there are no longer any former slaves from that era still alive today, for many years after the American Civil War ended, there were many still living.  The writings and histories of former slaves have garnered much attention since then.  But it is not just mass communication which has brought so much attention to Midlantic Slavery; I believe, it is also the effort to understand the people who are descended from slavery as well as to continue enlightening ourselves and prevent slavery from ever happening again.  Because of our ‘charter’ of all men being free and equal, we have to look at what was done throughout our history.  Slavery was one of the blackest marks, along with the treatment of the indigenous peoples, and as such must not be expurgated in any way from our history, but instead needs to be readily available for scrutiny; much like the Holocaust of WWII vis-à-vis Germany
Another difference is one that no one seems to acknowledge.  Slaves have risen up and freed themselves.  Countries have forced others to end slavery.  Nations have freed slaves and abolished slavery on their own.  However, the United States was the only country that ever went to war (ostensibly[3]) to free itself of slavery.  Moreover, because of our freedoms, we can give it all the attention it deserves; including the possibility of reparations, while in other countries, there is no talk of compensation.  This seems a much more difficult task than that of making reparations to the indigenous peoples.  There is a school of thought that any reparations should go to aiding the abolition of slavery where it is occurring today.  In any case, the discussions and study of slavery in the United States will go on for a very long time, as it should be.  And perhaps, this scrutiny will prevent any future occurrences, similar or different, on any major scale.

[1] Spartan slaves outnumbered citizens 7:1 and while no figures were found, it is estimated that Greek slaves outnumbered citizens
[2] http://www.sentex.net/~ajy/facts/slavery.html.
[3] At the end of the American civil war, Northern general Ulysses S. Grant owned four slaves while fighting for the North (who opposed slavery) against the South (who were in favour of slavery).  He refused to free his slaves at the end of the war, when he was forced to do so by law.  His counterpart in the South, general Robert E. Lee, was morally opposed to slavery and had freed his slaves in the late 1840's, believing that "slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any society, a greater evil to the white man than the black". http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Slavery/Definitions#History
These facts show two things: that the south, at least, was fighting for a different reason – one of sovereignty and that one does not need to believe in a cause to fight for it.  (But that is a subject for another day.)

Where otherwise not noted, sources include:

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