Slaving As A Way Of Life.

by Daniel Russ on May 22, 2013

                                      Galley Slaves On A Caribbean Corsair


When you discuss slavery in this country, the discussion defaults of course to the American slave trade at the earliest stages of this republic. So the discussion moves to the South versus the North, or the Confederacy versus the Union. The discussion that we rarely have about slavery is that it is a sin in the past of all of human history and an inextricable one at that; we fail to talk about how ubiquitous it was; and we fail to talk about the fact that it deucedly persists in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. We send reality TV crews across the world to locate unknown primates, or capture poltergeist activity. But we fail to capture monsters that can be seen in the broad daylight. 


I am reading a book called the Great Big Book Of Horrible Things. The author is a military historian who resides in Richmond, Virginia named Matthew White, and he writes about the parts of warfare that few see on TV, or even read about in war stories. He talks about plagues, famines, fires, wars, and the amazing body counts and the untold suffering that never deters us from doing war over and over again.


He talks about slavery.


A person became a slave in a number of unfortunate circumstances. A POW often became a life long slave after battling on the losing side of a war, often in a country he hated, in a land where unfamiliar languages were spoken, and among people who knew he had taken up arms against them.  A person became a slave when he or she was taken from their home by a marauding army looking for slaves to sell. This would be as bad or worse for the innocent farmer as it was for the soldier. This person also was forced to do labor he or she wasn’t trained for, no matter how difficult or grotesque the task, under force of arms, for the rest of their lives, all just for being caught in a field during an ambush. A person could be forced into slavery by a court or as a punishment for some misdeed. Many slaves were coerced into a new and horrifying lifestyles because they were in a losing political party or in the King’s court during a civil war, or worked for a lord that simply died of old age and now a new leader assumed the throne. A person could be forced into slavery over debts owed.


Despots early on and in all corners of the world learned that if you had a buyer, or a market, even if it was your own land, slaves meant profit. People who work for free are cheaper than skilled laborers. Sometimes the line between skilled laborer and slave blurred. In the Classical Era, the need for laborers to build monuments for himself or a specific deity, would spur a king to lead an expedition into another land for the sole purpose of kidnapping people and creating a new labor force. No one knows precisely how many people have been forced into labor on seafaring vessels. An oarsman on a Roman Trireme would not be easily visible, but much forced labor was an essential ingredient in naval warfare in the Far East and in the Mediterranean. Essentially the war of 1812 was fought over impressment, a euphemism for kidnapping a colonial sailor and making him work on British boats. It is believed that the Great Wall of China was built by millions of slaves who were worked quite literally to death and then just added to the mortar between stones.


Slaves were commodities and treated as such. If you work one slave to death? No problem. Bury them and go buy another one. That said, there were times in the slave trade of North Africa that communities had a glut of slaves. When empires have too many slaves for the amount of work available, they set them to do the hardest labor around like mining, or prostitution. Sometimes this meant sending unoccupied slaves to work for allies.


Perhaps the biggest driver for slavery has always been capitalism. Free labor means big profits. Morality free administration means no special handling of the merchandise, just feed and clothe and get them enough rest to work. Slaves were about money. They were about the very notion that a person should have control over another person for profit. Even when the idea of slavery fell into the category of moral turpitude, profit drove it nonetheless.


Among the more fertile areas to find slaves was Africa. With no central government and so many of the continents’ people still surviving on Stone Age technology, there was no defense against the rapacious slavers from Europe and the Mideast. From the northwest African coast to the horn of South Africa all the way to Zanzibar was a buffet of free money for any nation with the manpower the firepower and a hold below that can store hundreds of hapless people until they were sold. Spanish and Portuguese slavers would simply find an inlet near a coastal town, and suddenly ambush a small hamlet of people living under thatched roofs. Resisters and elders were killed instantly, and everyone else, children including, were taken to be sold. Slaves had to be held logistically for periods of time until other ships transported them to a specific market. So slavers had to develop a series of outposts and way stations that stretched from the coast of Africa to the Western coast of the Levant. Sultanates from Turkey to the Red Sea jumped on the slaving bandwagons, despite the missives against it in classical Islam. When Portuguese established a network of East African slaving depots, the Ottoman Turks swept down on them and captured them, and diverted the slaves to their own markets. It was that lucrative.


In his book, Matthew tracks the events that led to slave trafficking and improved the market for slaves. Ivory became quite the rage in the late nineteenth century and so slaves were needed to harvest and handle it from killing fields to the market. Rubber and minerals and diamonds and rare animals all fed the slaving industry. In the New World, the sheer volume of work that had to be done to tame a continent and a Medeval attitude about owning slaves guaranteed that North America would be a big beneficiary of the Africa slave trade. Most of the slaves into America came from the Ivory Coast, and the Benin area. Most of the Africans we bought were sold by other Africans or they were sold by Arab slavers. The British Empire governed people around the world without their consent but British crews freed all the slaves they came across and even hung the crews of slavers.


It was apparently not politic to enslave people from a country that worships with you. It was fine to replevin forced labor from your enemies. Matthew estimates that at the sea battle known as Lepanto, the Catholic League saw 10,000 Christian galley slaves slip beneath the waves. Ottoman Turks employed Christian slaves as soldiers until they were too old to work and they actually were allowed to retire. In Europe and in the Colonies, a man could be forced into slavery without being a slave, but for a time, under the weight of a debt, a person becomes indentured. The indenture might be white and Christian but under European common law this man was as good as a slave until the debt or years as a slave were expired, Then he or she was free.


Matthew estimates that from the seventh until the nineteenth century, upwards of 15 to 18 million Africans died as a result of the slaving practice. He estimates that 1.25 million Christians were enslaved to the Ottoman Turks.


It’s interesting to note that Simon Bolivar, who drove the Spanish Empire out of South American and liberated six nations, visited the United States. He came to Charleston one of the largest slaving markets in the world. He said that he admired America, but the slave trading there meant that until slaves were all freed, America would never really be a democracy.




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Louis September 27, 2017 at 7:12 am

Please do not forget that the European traders, when they went to West- and Central Africa from the 1500’s, did mostly not have to get the slaves themselves. The indiginous African empires that they encountered at the coast of what is now Ghana, Nigeria and the other coastal countries in West Africa, were build on slave trading themselves. Those rulers in Africa just found a new outlet for their wares.

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