Slavery Through the Ages (An Introduction)
Many times, many peoples
When we think of slavery, most Americans picture the American South in the 1800s, before the Civil War. Our mental image probably includes hundreds of black slaves on a plantation, picking cotton in the hot sun under the watchful eyes of their white masters. This vision is slavery in its simplest form: one person owning another and forcing the slave to work on the owner's behalf. This form of slavery is known as chattel slavery. Chattel means property, capital, or livestock, and it has been applied to slaves through the ages.
What may surprise many of us is that this form of slavery is as ancient as civilization itself, and it was alive and thriving in various places in the world at the end of the twentieth century. Chattel slavery is one of five traditional forms of slavery that the United Nations (UN; an international organization including most of the world's countries), in 1956, dedicated itself to ending. The other four forms are serfdom, debt bondage, the exploitation of children, and servile (slave-like) forms of marriage. As the twentieth century ended, the word "slavery" came to mean an even wider variety of human-rights violations, including forced labor and various forms of sexual slavery. Counting all the...
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Slavery in Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel
Mesopotamia (c. 3500-539 B.C.E.)
Mesopotamia (pronounced mes-oh-poe-TAY-me-uh) is the name of an ancient country in the southwest desert of Asia where people settled and lived on the land between two great rivers: the Tigris (pronounced TIE-griss) River and the Euphrates (pronounced you-FRATE-ees) River (in what is now a country called Iraq).
Land of invention and abundance
Mesopotamians were the first people to live in cities (c. 3500 B.C.E.), and one of the first cultures to use writing and to calculate in numbers. They invented the plow, the wheeled cart, and sailing ships. They discovered how to use metals and made tools, weapons, and art from copper, bronze, silver, and gold instead of the stone, bone, and wood used by their ancestors.
Mesopotamians were also one of the first peoples—perhaps as early as 5000 B.C.E.—to practice irrigation farming (a system of ditches and canals constructed to bring water to dry fields from a river or lake in order to grow crops). The successful use of irrigation farming to grow food in the desert was an amazing achievement. For the first time, people could settle down in one place, no longer forced to move...
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Slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome
Slavery in Greece (c. 1200-330 B.C.E.)
What little is known about slavery in early Greek history comes to us from Greek literature. The stories contained in the Iliad (pronounced ILL-ee-ad) and the Odyssey ODD-iss-ee), written by the Greek poet Homer, depict a world of domestic life, farming, adventure at sea, and warfare and conquest abroad. Homer lived in the ninth century B.C.E. (900-800 B.C.E.) but wrote about the Greece of around 1200 B.C.E. Homer's stories are more about the ruling class of Greece than the peasants and slaves. Yet his epic poems contain many situations that involve slaves, from which historians are able to piece together what slavery may have been like in a period they call "Homeric" Greece (roughly 1200 B.C.E.-800 B.C.E.).
Homeric Greece (c. 1200-800 B.C.E.)
In Homeric Greece, power in society belonged to a small number of family patriarchs (pronounced PAY-treearks). The patriarchs were wealthy men who owned estates (houses in the country with large amounts of land), which
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Western Europe in the Middle Ages (500-1500)
Serfdom: A new form of slavery
Slavery in western Europe changed dramatically after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. As it was practiced in Italy, France, Germany, and England under Roman rule, slavery was a very organized institution, with distinct differences in society between slaves and free people. Slaves basically had no legal rights, and their lives were controlled by someone else. Free people were citizens who could live and work where they chose and who had access to public courts of law and the right to participate in politics.
During the Middle Ages, the distinctions between free people and slaves were a lot less clear. Over time, slaves came to live more like free people, and free people, in a way, lived more like slaves. A new class of people arose called serfs. "Serf" is a French word derived from the Latin word "servus," which means slave. Technically, serfs were not slaves, but they were often treated that way, and what few rights they had were mostly ignored.
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Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade
The impact of slavery
Both slavery and the slave trade existed in Africa long before the Portuguese and Spanish began their explorations by sea of Africa's Atlantic coast in the mid-1400s. Most historians agree that the Africans practiced a milder form of slavery than the ancient Romans or Greeks, and nowhere near as harsh as what awaited Africans in the European colonies of the Americas (South and North America).
For centuries before African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, the peoples of West Africa had exported slaves, gold, and other goods by way of overland trade routes (through the Sahara Desert) to European and Near East (a region of southwest Asia that includes the Arab nations) countries. The peoples of East Africa also traded slaves and other goods to the Arabs and to merchants from other eastern destinations, such as India.
It was the common people of West Africa who suffered the most from the effects of the Atlantic slave trade. Their rulers, on the other hand, grew rich. They exchanged slaves mostly for such luxuries as guns, liquor, fine fabrics,
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Colonial Latin America
Slaves come to the Americas
The first African slaves arrived in the Americas (North and South America) in 1518, shortly after the king of Spain granted Spanish colonies in the West Indies permission to import 4,000 Africans. The Spanish brought slaves to Guatemala as early as 1524, and by the end of the century they had shipped at least 60,000 Africans to Mexico. The Portuguese colonies in Brazil began importing African slaves in 1538. The Spanish settlement in Saint Augustine, Florida, used slaves since its founding in 1565.
Twenty-five years after the arrival of the first slave ships, Africans were being shipped to the Americas at a rate of 10,000 a year. By the end of the century, according to one historian, a total of 367,000 African slaves had been brought to North and South America—mostly to Latin America.
In the 1600s, other countries in Europe—England, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands—joined Spain and Portugal in seeking riches in the New World. The Europeans established gigantic farms in their colonies that depended on large-scale production and huge amounts of cheap labor to make a profit. For the most part, colonists succeeded in growing sugar, tobacco, cotton, coffee, indigo (a plant used for making dyes), and...
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Slaves come to North America
African slaves first came to the North American mainland in 1526 when a Spanish explorer tried to colonize some land in what historians believe was South Carolina. He brought with him 500 Spanish settlers and 100 African slaves from Haiti (an island in the West Indies). The expedition's leader soon died, the slaves revolted, and the colonists fled to Haiti. The earliest example of an established colony using slaves on the mainland was in Saint Augustine, Florida, which the Spanish settled in 1565.
Slaves did not come to the British colonies of mainland North America in great numbers until the last quarter of the seventeenth century (1675-1700). After having unsuccessfully tried different sources of labor—Indian slaves and white and Indian indentured servants—the colonists ultimately turned to African slaves. The New World planters reasoned that the supply of Africans was plentiful, they were easily identified by the color of their skin if they ran away, they were cheap to buy and maintain, they could be controlled, and they were bound to serve for life.
The southern colonies needed as much labor as possible for their large-scale tobacco, rice, and indigo (a plant used for making dyes) farms....
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Slave Life in Antebellum America
Turn of the century
The era between 1800 and the beginning of the Civil War (1861) is known as the antebellum period (pronounced anteh-BELL-um), which means "before the war." The early 1800s was a time of great change brought on by the invention and use of various machines in the workplace. The Industrial Revolution in England (a period of great economic changes in the late 1700s) had a major effect on the newly created United States and, ultimately, on the large population of slaves in the South. The invention of weaving and spinning machines in England dramatically changed the textile industry by making it easier to produce cotton goods. Consequently, the price of cotton products went down and the demand for cotton—raw and processed—significantly increased.
The planters in the southern United States had experienced hard times in the decade since the American Revolution (1775-1783). The markets were not as strong for their staple crops of tobacco, rice, and indigo (a plant used for making dyes), and they were eager to switch to cotton. England's textile mills would buy as much as they could grow and pay a fair price for it. There remained a problem, however. Separating the fragile cotton fibers from the seed—a process known as ginning (pronounced JIN-ing)—could only...
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Free Blacks in Antebellum America
The conditions of freedom
The era between 1800 and the Civil War (1861-1865) is known as the antebellum period (pronounced an-teh-BELL-um), which means "before the war." Life for free black persons in this time period became increasingly harder as tensions mounted between the proslavery South and the antislavery North and the country moved slowly toward civil war. What few rights free blacks had in the colonial and revolutionary periods were for the most part gone by 1835. By the time of the Civil War, especially in the South, the conditions under which free blacks lived were very similar to the conditions of slavery that many thought they had escaped from or, in the case of freeborn blacks, hoped that they would never know.
Free blacks had little claim to the basic rights of citizenship enjoyed by whites. Free blacks were not permitted to move about freely or live where they chose, and they faced harsh penalties for violating those laws. Free blacks were sometimes limited as to what occupations they could pursue. And free blacks found little justice in courts of law, unable even to testify if the case involved whites. Forbidden to vote in almost every state, free blacks had very little power or influence in the political arena as well.
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The Abolition Movement
The Quakers (the Society of Friends, a religious body founded in England in 1647), played an important role in the early antislavery movement in England and its American colonies. Some Quakers based their opposition to slavery on their religion. One of the central beliefs of the Quakers was in the complete equality of humankind. Some used the Bible as a source for their arguments against slavery. Individual Quakers spoke out against it as early as 1657, but their ideas did not carry much weight in the organization, as Quaker leaders in London, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island were deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and owned slaves themselves.
In the United States, from the early 1700s, slavery became a controversial issue at most meetings of the Society. For example, in 1755, the Philadelphia yearly meeting ordered that members who traded in slaves should be officially admonished. In 1776, the Philadelphia meeting ruled that members would be dismissed from the Society if they did not free their slaves and provide them with compensation. The Quakers' opposition to slavery was largely responsible for Pennsylvania declaring slavery illegal in 1780. (The Pennsylvania Colony, founded by William Penn, a British Quaker leader, had a...
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Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction
A country divided
By the 1850s, the United States was unofficially divided into two opposing parts: the North and the South. The North's economy was more industrial, people lived mostly in cities, and there was no slave labor. The South depended on agriculture, people lived mostly in rural areas, and the economy was based on the labor of more than 3.5 million slaves. Though there were many other differences, the main problem for the two regions centered on slavery.
As the attack on slavery by the abolitionists of the North grew stronger (see Chapter 10), the South stiffened its defense of the institution. The South's most effective method of resistance was to threaten withdrawal from the Union. The tactic was first used by the slaveholding southern states at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Most of the North had already abolished slavery, and some delegates were pushing for an official end to the African slave trade in the new nation (it had been outlawed briefly during the Revolutionary War). The South threatened to withhold its support from the proposed federal government. A
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Slavery in the Twentieth Century
The end of Africa's western slave trade
Most of the slaves shipped to North and South America from 1518 to 1880 came from West Africa. In the nineteenth century, slaves were shipped to the Americas from East Africa as well. Beginning in the early part of the century, at least 25,000 slaves were being exported annually from the slave markets of Mozambique (pronounced moe-zam-BEEK) Island to Brazil. The Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Americans were all regular customers for slaves from Africa's east coast. Though the voyage around the southern tip of Africa to the Americas was much longer, slaves were cheaper than on Africa's west coast, and it was easier to evade the smaller British antislavery patrols (see "Abolition on the Atlantic," Chapter 10). It was not uncommon, however, for as many as one-half of the slaves to die on the voyage from East Africa to Cuba or Brazil.
By 1842, England, the United States, France, Denmark, Holland, and Spain had all passed laws against the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The slave trade from Africa to the Americas was only legally dead, however, and African slaves continued to be shipped across the Atlantic for another thirty-eight years (see "The slave trade persists." Chapter 10)....
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