Feet in chains

4.1 Slavery: An Enduring Institution

Slavery: An Enduring Institution

The brand new series is “A Slave, But Now I’m Free.” Most of the series will be biographical spotlights on women who escaped slavery, but I find that many people have a mental image of slavery that is entirely based on the American antebellum south. Slavery is much older than that, and hasn’t always looked like that, so this episode is an overview of the institution itself: when it began, how people became slaves, what rights they did (and mostly didn’t) have, and how slaves fought back.

In 1842, the British government asked the sultan in Morocco what steps (if any) he had taken to abolish slavery in his country. The sultan was astonished and replied that “the traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam . . . up to this day.” He was “not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect, and no one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day” (Lewis, 3).

The saddest part of this reply is that the sultan was so close to being correct. Historians haven’t got much to say on the subject of Adam, but certainly the traffic in slaves had existed from the time of ancient Sumeria. And every great civilization, from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Meso-America, India, China, Korea, I could go on. Every single one of them practiced slavery in one form or another. The world’s great religions all at least tolerated and from time to time even encouraged slavery, from Islam to Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism.

Where Do Slaves Come From?

The earliest slaves in all these societies were prisoners of war, and in an utterly depressing way, that has been interpreted as a sign of human progress. Back when one person could only produce enough to feed himself or herself, there was no point in taking captives at all. You’d just slaughter them. So slavery can be considered a step up that happens only when your defeated enemy is more useful to you alive than dead. And you probably didn’t suffer many moral qualms over it because everyone knew that had the fortunes of war gone otherwise, you’d be the slave rather than the master. Victory was the proof of your superiority and right to rule. War continued to be a major source of slaves for millennia.

Another major source of slaves was poverty. If you owed money which you could not pay or if you could not feed yourself, then you could sell yourself into slavery. Or more commonly, you’d sell your child or your spouse into slavery. Now from our modern standpoint it’s hard to imagine anything more morally repellent than selling your child into slavery, but let’s remember that there is no social safety net. Starving on the streets is a very real possibility, and a master would at least theoretically provide your child with food and clothing.

Convicted criminals were also often sold as slaves, and this has been a handy one for governments because if they had a labor shortage they could always accuse someone of something, manipulate the court system, and there you go: another slave. Stalin, who had anywhere from 5 to 8 million men in the Soviet forced labor camps, has been accused of using this tactic (Meltzer, 264).

Once slavery is well-established as a social necessity, then societies can begin out-and-out slave raiding, which is quite different from simply taking prisoners in a war that happened on other justifications. Slave raiding was a way of life for many, from Mediterranean pirates to Native Americans in the American southwest.

And the final method of becoming a slave that I’ll mention is simply being born. Not every society has had the same procedure on this, but often as slavery gets established and takes root, any child born to a slave mother is also a slave. This is utterly despicable on so many grounds, but since this is a women’s history podcast I will just point out that pretty much every society has fully expected and accepted that male owners would sexually exploit their female slaves. This is not just lust, sadism, and power dominance (though it is all of that). It is also a sound business decision because any children these women bear become part of your total net worth. 

The Definition of Slavery

Slavery is far from being the only form of servitude. There’s also indentured servitude, debt peonage, serfdom, etc. You can even argue that in some extremely dictatorial states, everyone is a slave to the state. That argument has been made for many societies from ancient Sumer to modern North Korea. The definitions here are wishy washy, as it’s all too easy to slip just slightly from one to another of these various unfortunate conditions.

But for the sake of understanding what people experienced, I’m going to indulge in some gross oversimplifications and generalities and walk through the technical difference between a slave and a serf. When I was an undergrad taking History of Civ, 1500 to the present, my professor had a chart in a Powerpoint, but we you are just going to have to imagine it as I go through this.

So the first and most basic right any human can have is the right to live at all. What I mean is, is it acceptable for someone else to kill you? You might think that masters can do whatever they want, up to and including murder, but in most societies that is not true. The lives of both slaves and serfs lives were generally protected by law. In the ancient world, both Hammurabi and the Roman dictator Sulla demanded that slaves’ lives be respected (Milton, 16; Encyclopedia Brittanica). In Renaissance Siena, a court ordered a man’s beheading because he had stabbed his slave to death (Meltzer, 233). The state of Georgia’s constitution stated that killing a slave was punishable to the same extent that killing a free white person would be, and most of the other US slave states had similar provisions (Morris, 172).

Now it is true that many of these laws made exceptions for slaves who happened to die accidentally while you were administering a reasonable punishment for bad behavior. And of course, making a law and enforcing the law are two entirely different things, so I’m not saying there weren’t abuses and excuses and failures to prosecute. Most assuredly, there were. But that was true for both slaves and serfs. In theory they are equal so far. They both have a right to live.

The second right we’ll talk about is freedom of movement. Can you pack up and move to a new town? Can you even visit a new town? For slaves the answer is no. For serfs the answer is also no. Both are typically tied down: serfs to the land, slaves to their master, wherever he or she wants to keep them.

The third right is the right to own anything. Can you look at your house, your clothes, your tools, your whatever and say, that is mine? For serfs, yes. And for many slaves, the answer is also yes. Regardless of what the legal code said, we have many, many instances of slaves owning property. They typically owned their clothes. Sometimes their tools. And sometimes they were allowed to own some of their own labor and work for hire. Some of the money would be theirs to keep, and that is important because often slaves are allowed to buy their own freedom, which is hardly possible if a slave couldn’t own the money in the first place.

In some places, slaves could even own other slaves. In Roman times, one paymaster slave in Gaul had 16 slaves of his own (3 secretaries, a physician, 2 cooks, a footman, 2 chamberlains, a valet, a business agent, and a woman). A slave husband might also own his wife and children and while the feminist might revolt at the idea, it actually served a purpose: if the husband managed to free himself, he could free his family too. If he didn’t own them, their freedom would have to be negotiated and purchased one by one (Meltzer, 144). So here again slaves and serfs found themselves on roughly equal ground: with some basic rights, which admittedly were liable to be violated at any moment.

Where the slaves and serfs differ is in the last right we’re going to discuss: the right to family. Serfs were tied to the land. The land might change hands, but the serfs remained, meaning that their family relationships could remain intact. A slave had no such right. They often married, often bore children. But there was never a single day in which it was not possible that they would be sold away from their families.

Harriet Tubman, who lost many of her older siblings in exactly this way said that for many years “she never closed her eyes that she did not imagine she saw the horsemen coming, and heard the screams of women and children, as they were dragged away.” This was not an isolated case. Children were sold without their parents nearly everywhere that slavery has existed. Indeed, some societies preferred it that way. Children were more docile and learned new languages easier. Wives were sold away from husbands and husbands away from wives, as the finances and the whims of the master shifted. In this respect, the lives of serfs were infinitely better than that of slaves, despite many other similarities.

Having said that, I will admit again that all of this is a sweeping generalization of both slavery and serfdom. As we go through this series, I’ll point out some of the exceptions to this definition. One exception I’ve already talked about on the show is serfdom in Russia. By the time of Catherine the Great, the position of serfs had degenerated. Though the word “serf” was still used, they were regularly bought and sold at auction and there is no difference that I can see between them and an outright slave.

How Slaves Fought Back

Moving on, let’s talk about how slaves fought back. Because you can rest assured that they did, in ways both large and small. The most common way to fight back was also the most passive. Masters around the world, no matter the time period, complain about how lazy their slaves are. How nothing but the lash or other punishment can spur them into productivity. It rarely seems to occur to them that this is not laziness, it’s intelligent self-interest. Why should they work hard for no benefit? Of course, they take every possible opportunity to relax a little! Yes, it is only fear of punishment that keeps them laboring for you at all. That is the nature of slavery. It’s baked in.

Another common technique was to feign stupidity. “Oh, you mean those were the weeds and these I just pulled up were the crop? Oh, I’m so sorry, master, I guess I just got mixed up again.” Masters who said slaves were too stupid to survive on their own rarely seemed to understand that the stupidity was a tactic, not a genetic condition.

Another method of resistance was to break the tools. “Oh, look at that! The handle just fell off that shovel. I guess we’ll have to relax here until you can get someone to fix it.” From a master’s point of view this was one reason to let slaves own their own tools. Somehow they just seemed to break less that way. Go figure.

Then there was running away. The feasibility of this depended on the time and place. Harriet Tubman lived in a border state, and many fugitives from her area made it across into free states. If you were sold south, your chances decreased dramatically. You had much farther to travel while you were being hunted. In the American south, the fact that slavery was racial meant that slaves could often be identified merely by looks. It also meant that any genuinely free black was constantly under suspicion. And it also meant that some very pale-skinned slaves were able to pass as white and therefore free from suspicion. In pretty much every other society, the racial divide was not as absolute, and masters found other means of making it clear who was a slave and who was free.

Brands were very common. In the early years of Spanish rule in meso-America they had two standard brands for Indian slaves. A stylized “g” for esclavos de guerra (or war-slaves, meaning that they had been taken as prisoners after having the temerity to fight back), and a stylized “r” for esclavos de rescate (or ransomed slaves, meaning that they had been enslaved by other Indians and purchased in the markets, as had been done since long before the Spanish arrived). Both brands were generally applied to the cheek or forehead, so it was impossible to hide (Resendez, 63). This meant that even if you managed to run, everyone, everywhere would know who you were, up to and including the professional hunters of fugitive slaves.

If you didn’t use brands another option was an irremovable collar. For example, one Roman metal collar said: “I am the slave of my master Scholasticus, a gentleman of importance. Hold me, lest I flee from home” (Meltzer, 195). Anyone spotting such a collar could expect a reward by trapping you and holding you until your master came. It would take a metalworker to remove it, and what is the likelihood you could pay a metalworker more than your master could? Not likely.

A step up from running away was personal revolt. Living in close quarters as they often did, it was often possible to simply physically attack your master, and slave owners lived in constant fear of this very thing. A Roman proverb said: “Every slave we own is an enemy we harbor.” To guard against attack, the Romans had a tradition that if a slave killed his master, all the slaves in the household would be put to death (Meltzer, 190).

In some places, slaves were locked up every night so the masters could sleep without fear. If you’ve ever read Edgar Allen Poe’s classic horror story The Tell-Tale Heart, with its narrator a bundle of nerves as he recounts how he murdered the man he lived with without ever saying why he did it? Well, one interpretation of the story is that the narrator is the man’s slave (Shmoop). Poe grew up in Virginia, surrounded by white slave owners who knew they were outnumbered and whose dreams were haunted by names like Nat Turner and other slaves who murdered their masters.

The final step up was massive, organized revolt. This almost never worked for long. The most famous slave revolt in ancient times was led by Spartacus, who had been a gladiator slave, which meant he knew perfectly well how to fight. With 70 other gladiators, they used kitchen knives to fight for freedom. They defeated the first Roman foray sent against them at Mount Vesuvius and slaves from across the countryside flocked to join them. Spartacus led his slave army successfully up Italy and back down for two years before he was finally defeated. His army was hunted down and 6,000 of them were crucified. This is usually how the story goes.

While definitions of success vary, it has been said that the only successful slave revolt in world history is that of Haiti (Leddy). In 1791, the population of Haiti was 570,000, and 500,000 of those were slaves. When the French National Assembly decided that the Declaration of the Rights of Man did not include them, they revolted. They slaughtered many owners and their families. They burned plantations. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, they remained at large until the assembly finally agreed to abolish slavery in 1794. He subsequently drove out the British as well, who were there to take advantage of the chaos. When L’Ouverture essentially declared independence from France, Napoleon sent an army against them, which was devastated by both battle and yellow fever. L’Ouverture was captured, taken to France, and imprisoned, where he died. But seven months later Napoleon gave up trying to force Haiti back into submission. French forces withdrew after appalling losses, and in 1803 Haiti officially declared independence (Meltzer, 117-125).

But Haiti is the exception. In general, slave revolts ended like Spartacus’s. Slaves just generally didn’t have the weapons, the training, or the resources to fight against their oppressors en masse.

Where Were the Abolitionists?

When you start reading up on the world history of slavery, the most startling thing about the past is the absence of much moral handwringing about all of this. As I said at the beginning, slavery just was. Everyone from Aristotle to Plato to St. Paul and Mohammad accepted it. There was some moral handwringing about how slaves were treated. You were supposed to treat your slaves well. But very few leaders interpreted “treating them well” to mean abolition. The same moral leaders telling owners to treat the slaves well were also telling slaves to obey their masters.

Over time, a few rules did develop. By the 13th century, Christians were not supposed to enslave other Christians. Muslims were not supposed to enslave other Muslims. But that’s a far cry from having a moral objection to the institution of slavery as a whole. Even when the Spanish monarchs forbade slavery of the indigenous peoples in their colonies in 1680, it wasn’t fully universal, on the basis of inalienable human rights. No, they made slavery illegal except for the exceptions, which meant those who lived on Mindanao in the Philippines, who had converted to Islam, and the Carib Indians, who were cannibals (Resendez, 137).

Many in the modern world have looked at the American founding fathers and wondered what kind of mental gymnastics they must have been doing to fight for a free country and yet keep other human beings enslaved. Sadly, I don’t think it required much in the way of mental gymnastics. My reading of history and (also my experience of people in real life) is that in general people believe what they are taught to believe. If you grow up being taught both explicitly and implicitly that some people are naturally inferior, incapable of making good decisions for themselves, that it is actually to their own benefit to have a master to keep them in line, that they don’t really count as people, that when we say “all men are created equal” we really mean “all men like us are created equal,” then I don’t think it is very surprising that many of the slave-owning class believed those lessons. Especially when it was in their financial self-interest to believe it. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t minimize the very real suffering they caused to generations of slaves and their descendants. But I do think it explains how it happened. And also how it could happen again, which is even more sobering.

Slavery Around the World

African-American slavery still looms large in American national conversation and culture. When I first started researching this series, I could think of lots of women to spotlight: Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Phyllis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, etc. But all of them were African-Americans, and what I really like about history is comparing different times and places and seeing how they dealt with similar issues.

Initially, I assumed that I knew American slaves because I am American and I went to school here. But it turns out that there just is more to know about African-American slavery. These slaves are relatively recent in world history, but more importantly, after the emancipation proclamation, they moved into a society that was highly literate and interested. Slave narratives became very trendy in 19th century America. By the 1930s most former slaves had died, but the federal government funded writers to go around the country collecting the stories of thousands of former slaves. As far as I can tell this has never happened before in the whole history of slavery. There is no equivalent body of literature anywhere. Romans held slaves for 1000 years, yet we have not one single slave autobiography from Rome (Meltzer, 175). Even Spartacus, we know about only from the point of view of the Romans who defeated him. And that’s entirely typical: throughout world history, the masters left the records, not the slaves. And most masters simply didn’t care enough to write down much about their slaves.

After some digging, I have unearthed a handful of other slave women to talk about. We’ll visit Greece, the Ottoman Empire, Spain, and Brazil before we end up in the USA for the larger share of the series.

Now some of you might be saying, but Lori what about Asia? And Africa? And a whole host of smaller places?

I know, I know.

Even among the places I collected, the stories are much sketchier than those of the African-American slaves. Historians are working off court records and other fragments of information because that’s all we’ve got. And not only do the records have to exist, they have to be translated into a language I can read and available in a form I can access. If anyone wants to point out who I should have included from these areas, please do. I’d love to be more representative.

One final thought for today. This series is called “A Slave, But Now I’m Free.” I’m only covering women who managed to escape. Initially I did that for practical reasons, to cut the list down to a manageable number. But it’s also because the whole topic is difficult to read about and difficult to hear about. The sheer volume of human cruelty that has existed in the world is crushing. The women I’m going to spotlight are the survivors. They are the winners. Ultimately, their stories are triumphant. But it’s worth remembering that they are also the outliers. Most women who lived in slavery also died in slavery. They never got out. Some still haven’t gotten out. Though we like to think of ourselves as having progressed past all this, the worldwide story doesn’t support that conclusion. Slavery is an enduring institution. It endures to this day.

Selected Sources

Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Slavery – Family and Property.” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/slavery-sociology/Family-and-property. Accessed 15 July 2021.

Leddy, Chuck. “The Only Successful Slave Revolt in the World.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 23 Mar. 2004, http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0323/p15s01-bogn.html.

Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East : An Hist. Enquiry. New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Meltzer, Milton. Slavery : A World History. New York, Da Capo, 1993.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law : 1619-1860. Chapel Hill, The University Of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Reséndez, Andrés . The Other Slavery : The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Boston, Ma, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Shmoop. “The Narrator in the Tell-Tale Heart.” Shmoop.com, 2020, http://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/tell-tale-heart/the-narrator.

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