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Older than recorded history itself is the practice of man enslaving man. From the early Greeks and Romans to the Western plantations to modern-day human trafficking, Desi K. Robinson examines the complexities of this age-old custom.

What images come to your mind when you think of slavery? Where do you think of it existing and when do you believe it ended? Or has it ended?  Slavery, as many people understand it, ‘ended’ about 200 years ago. To look at the breadth and scope of the kinds of slavery that have existed throughout history would require a directed study on each region of the world.  But to ‘briefly’ look at slavery, in its most recent history, would be to uncover some of the complexities we are saddled with today.

Slavery is a social-economic system in which persons are deprived of their personal freedom and are forced to provide labor or services. Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation in return for their labor. Under the laws of chattel slavery, many owners had absolute legal ownership of a person or persons, including the legal right to buy and sell them.  Slavery predates writing and evidence for it can be found in almost all cultures and continents. Slavery has existed since the times of ancient Greece and Rome, and it still exists today in many parts of the world. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Mayan, Aztec and Indian in addition to nomadic Arabs, Native American hunter gatherers, African, New Guinean, and New Zealand tribes, Germanic and Viking raiders, and many other pre-literate people are replete with references to slavery in connection with warfare.

What is held so prominently in the minds of many is the trade of African peoples. The African slave trade, involving African slave merchants, European slavers, and New World planters, represented the greatest forced population transfer ever. African people were taken to the Caribbean, South America and to the southern states of the U.S. where they maintained an industry of crops like sugar cane, tobacco and cotton. The demands of the plantation economies pushed “demand” for slaves. Supply did not create its own demand.  Some sources estimate that between 11 and 17 million slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert from 650 to 1900, and 11-12 million were transported across the Atlantic from 1500 to the late 1860s.  Why African slaves?  Why is this slave trade so significant?  And why was it racial?

Enslaving prisoners of war was a common phenomenon among many peoples on all continents. To ease the agents of political correctness, it remains important to mention that African kings and chiefs did indeed sell captives in wars or members of other communities into slavery. Sometimes they concluded alliances with Europeans to support them in wars.  Many were captured in wars or kidnapped in isolated raids but some were sold into slavery by their parents as a means of paying debt. Initial attempts to conquer native Indians failed due to their inability to survive the severe conditions of slave labor. African people, however, were able to survive exposure to New World diseases, were used to functioning in hot climates, and demonstrated the stamina to survive such a heavy burden. Slavery was not a cost-free endeavor. Slaves were seldom paid a wage, but the owners were responsible for feeding, housing, clothing, providing simple medical care, and (in some rare cases) education for all of the slaves’ lives from birth to death. Many were branded like cattle to show ownership. The planters instituted barbaric regimes of repression to prevent any slave revolts. Escaped slaves who tried to leave the plantation were hunted down, many times with dogs. The penalties for slave resistance were extreme and deadly. Punishments included whipping, being nailed down and burned, and hanged. Barbados planters could claim a reimbursement from the government of £25 per slave executed.  Some slaves were even used for medical experiments by the government, the military, and scientists.  Slaves were being used for everything, from vaccine design to experimental surgeries. Many of the early important reproductive health advances were devised by perfecting experiments on slave women. Doctors like James Marion Sims and Walter F. Jones won medical accolades based on research done by performing involuntary and excruciating skull and reproductive surgeries on slave children and women. We’ve seen this in even more recent history, such as 1932’s Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in Alabama in which 200 black men who were not infected with syphilis were led to believe they were sick.  The men were used as a control group and were given placebos and spinal taps. They were used for over 40 years. When Penicillin was recognized as a cure, it was withheld from the rest of the 399 men in the study, who in fact had it, and thought they were being studied for “bad blood.”


What would it be like to be owned by another person? Viewed as something less than a human being. Robbed of dignity and the right to decide your own fate. Black slaves were transported like sardines on slave ships, separated from family, robbed of culture and education, were mentally strained and had poor living conditions. Many slave women were raped by masters. Slaves worked eighteen-hour days of field labor: the women, throughout their pregnancies. Children’s workloads quickly became the equivalent of an adult at around age twelve.  An African midwife’s spiritual traditions and knowledge of rituals and herbs handed down orally through generations earned her honor and respect among the enslaved.  Glimmers of self-respect were countered by indignities enforced by masters.  One of the greatest mental injustices was creating the rift between slaves, dividing them by skin color.  Darker skinned slaves worked in the hot fields. Lighter skinned slaves lived in the house and had a slightly better chance at learning to read. This imposed separation and self-hatred would come to plague blacks for generations to come, using brown paper bags to gauge the lightness of their skin and their worth.

In Before Color Prejudice, Howard University classics professor Frank Snowden documented innumerable accounts of interaction between the Greco-Roman and Egyptian civilizations and the Kush, Nubian, and Ethiopian kingdoms of Africa. He found substantial evidence of integration of black Africans in the occupational hierarchies of the ancient Mediterranean empires and black-white intermarriage.  Black and mixed-race gods appeared in Mediterranean art, and at least one Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, was African. Snowden concluded, “There is little doubt that many blacks were physically assimilated into the predominantly white population of the Mediterranean world, in which there were no institutional barriers or social pressures against black-white unions. In antiquity, then, black-white sexual relations were never the cause of great emotional crises. The ancient pattern, similar in some respects to the Mahgrebian and the Latin American attitude toward racial mixture, probably contributed to the absence of a pronounced color prejudice in antiquity.” Why then the shift to racial subjugation?   You could buy a black slave for life (about $40,000 today) for the same price as a white servant for five years.  Bacon’s Rebellion was an uprising that created unrest with Virginia Tidewater planters in 1676. Several hundred farmers, servants, and slaves of both races, initiated a protest to press the colonial government to seize Indian land for distribution. To prevent the unity of workers and another devastating uprise, planters needed to divide and conquer.  After establishing that African slaves would cultivate major cash crops of the North American colonies, the planters then moved to establish the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy.


The well-known sugar-refining corporation Tate & Lyle made its first profits from slavery. Historian Walter Rodney estimates that by c.1770, the King of Dahomey, now known as Benin, was earning an estimated £250,000 per year by selling captive African soldiers and even his own people to the European slave traders. Guinea's trade with Europe at the peak of the slave trade was some 3.5 million pounds of sterling per year. The trade of the United Kingdom, the economic superpower of the time, was about £14 million per year over this same period of the late 18th century.

Portugal was the first country in Europe to abolish slavery, at least in its European territory in February 12, 1761 by the prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal. In 1772, a legal case concerning James Somersett established the illegality of slavery in England. Following the work of campaigners in the United Kingdom, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on March 25, 1807. The act imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship. The intention was to outlaw the slave trade within the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed on August 23, 1833, outlawed slavery in British colonies. On August 1, 1834 all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but those still working were indentured to their former owners in an “apprenticeship” system, which was abolished in 1838 after peaceful protests in Trinidad. Around this time, slaves in other parts of the world, aided by abolitionists, also began their struggle for independence. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the war, and the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, finally abolished slavery in the United States.

But had people really come to a sense of morality?  Or was it still just economics?  The abolition movement gained support by a growing sense that slavery was a crime against humanity, but also for economic reasons. Most of the former slave owners (those that did not go bankrupt) found they could reduce their costs by simply hiring the former slaves only when they needed them, instead of committing to feeding and housing them for the rest of their lives. The Industrial Revolution, bringing in household machinery and industrialized farming equipment, removed the necessity of household and field slaves.


Because of the various emancipations, treaties and amendments, many people, even within the same region, commemorate the abolition of slavery and the notion of independence at different or several times throughout the year. 1 August used to be celebrated as Emancipation Day, as it marked the date in 1834 when Great Britain outlawed slavery in the British West Indies. This date was celebrated by blacks in Harrisburg as late as 1859.  Many African-American churches celebrate with an event known as “Watch Night,” held on New Year's Eve.  At the time of recent emancipation, some free African Americans preferred to celebrate July 5, which was sometimes called the “Negroes' July 4th” because African Americans were not free prior to the Civil War. June 19, 1865 is known as “Juneteenth,” and it marks the day when Union troops entered Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and commemorates the day that the last slaves in the U.S. were liberated.


The role of religion played a very ambiguous part in slavery as both the Bible and the Qur'an condoned it but the Catholic Church condemned it. Even though many religious leaders held companies that in one way or another assisted the institution of slavery through commerce, many churches worked to abolish slavery: The Southern Baptists, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the Church of England have given formal apologies for their role. In 2006, the Church of England apologized for profiting from slavery and declared that they should share the "shame and sinfulness of our predecessors.”  In 2006, British prime minister Tony Blair issued a “public statement of sorrow.”  In 2001, the National Assembly of France passed the Taubira law, recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity. The issue of an apology is linked to reparations for slavery and is still being pursued across the world.

Yet there still remains much disagreement and many discrepancies over where, how much, and to whom reparations should go.  Many institutions, including the British Government, have worried about apologizing for slavery in case they are asked to put their money where their mouths are. There is widespread disagreement about reparations for slavery amongst the British public, including anger that such reparations are unilateral and focus purely on black African slavery by white people and do not take into account slavery within Africa by black Africans over a longer period.  Figures as high as US $777 trillion have been estimated as payment for over 400 years of slavery reparations to be paid by the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.


In 1850 it was difficult to capture a slave and then transport him or her to the U.S.  Today, millions of economically and socially vulnerable people around the world are potential slaves in the human trafficking market. Today a slave costs an average of $90. A US government report published in 2003 estimates that 800,000-900,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally. Victims are tricked, lured by false promises, or forced into it. A majority of victims are women, and sometimes children, forced into prostitution, along with men and some women and children forced into manual labor.  Poverty and diseases like AIDS make them vulnerable to modern-day slavery.  Meanwhile, groups like Transfair, Global Exchange, and the Fair Trade Association are some of the organizations that promote Fair Trade products such as coffee and chocolate in the U.S. and guarantee that producers of goods we purchase receive fair wages for their work. Socially Responsible Investment funds screen corporations for various standards including responsible labor and environmental practices.

The effects of slavery remain today because of the lack of understanding of what that system has done to generations of people.  Author Maulana Karenga states that the effects of slavery are “a morally monstrous destruction of human possibility that involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among peoples.” He cites that it constituted “the destruction of culture, language, religion and human possibility.”  The effects that still linger today are further compounded by the belief that some people are better than others simply because of their race, heritage or religion. Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, who in his first draft of the document in 1776, condemned the British crown for sponsoring the importation of slavery to the colonies, charging that they “waged cruel war against human nature,” still believed blacks to be inferior.  He argued that nature and habit had “drawn indelible lines of distinction between whites and negroes,” and that both whites and blacks could not live in the same government.

Because slavery is rooted in economics, and capitalism depends upon the creating of classes and segmented workforces, we can clearly see where the ills of racism and classism not only weaken, but destroy our society. Formal apologies are only just now being issued in the new millennium, for the devastating injustices of generations past. Why then do human beings still allow their greed to overcome their compassion?

1st March 2007
What is slavery?
By Desi K. Robinson