A World of Slavery

Part One:
Read the following information about the history of slavery in the world.

Slavery in Historical Perspective

Slavery in the United States was not unique in treating human beings like animals. The institution of slavery could be found in societies as diverse as ancient Assyria, Babylonia, China, Egypt, India, Persia, and Mesopotamia; in classical Greece and Rome; in Africa, the Islamic world and among the New World Indians. At the time of Christ, there were probably between two and three million slaves in Italy, making up 35 to 40 percent of the population. England's Domesday Book of 1086 indicated that 10 percent of the population was enslaved. Among some Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest, nearly a quarter of the population consisted of slaves. In 1644, just before the Dutch ceded Manhattan to the British, 40 percent of the population consisted of enslaved Africans.

It is notable that the modern word for slaves comes from "Slav." During the Middle Ages, most slaves in Europe and the Islamic world were people from Slavic Eastern Europe. It was only in the 15th century that slavery became linked with people from sub-Saharan Africa.

Defining Slavery

A slave is a person totally subject to her or his owners' will.

The 1926 Slavery Convention described slavery as "...the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised..." Therefore a slave is someone who cannot leave an owner, master, overseer, controller, or employer without explicit permission, and who will be returned if they stray or escape. They may be "legally" owned, or controlled to the same extent informally. (from Wikipedia)

How does slavery differ from other forms of exploitation such as serfdom, forced labor, or the subordination of women in patriarchal societies? The traditional definition of slavery was legal. Slaves were peoples' property and could be bought and sold, traded, leased, or mortgaged like a form of livestock.

Because they are under the personal dominion of an owner, slaves were always vulnerable to sexual exploitation and cruel punishment. In all cultures, slaves were symbolically dishonored. For example, they were branded, tattooed, or required to wear distinctive collars, clothing, or hairstyles.

Also, regardless of place and time period or the ethnicity of the slaves, societies have imposed certain common stereotypes on slaves - that they were licentious, childlike, lazy, irresponsible, dim-witted, and incapable of freedom.

Slavery in the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Worlds

Slavery dates back to prehistoric times and was apparently modeled on the domestication of animals. From the earliest periods of recorded history, slavery was found in the world's most "advanced" regions. The earliest civilizations--along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus Valley of India, and China's Yangtze River Valley--had slavery. The earliest known system of laws, the Hammurabi Code, recognized slavery. But the percentage of slaves in these early civilizations was small, in part because male war captives were typically killed, while women were enslaved as field laborers or concubines.

Only a handful of societies made slavery the dominant labor force. The first true slave society in history emerged in ancient Greece between the 6th and 4th centuries. In Athens during the classical period, a third to a half of the population consisted of slaves. Rome would become even more dependent on slavery. It is not an accident that our modern ideas of freedom and democracy emerged in a slave society. Most early societies lacked a word for freedom; but large-scale slavery in classical Greece and Rome made these people more aware of the distinctive nature of freedom. Slavery never disappeared from medieval Europe. While slavery declined in northwestern Europe, it persisted in Sicily, southern Italy, Russia, southern France, Spain, and North Africa. Most of these slaves were "white," coming from areas in Eastern Europe or near the Black Sea.

When Europeans began to colonize the New World at the end of the 15th century, they were well aware of the institution of slavery. As early as 1300, Europeans were using black and Russian slaves to raise sugar on Italian plantations. During the 1400s, decades before Columbus's "discovery" of the New World, Europeans exploited African labor on slave plantations built on sugar producing islands off the coast of West Africa.

The Newness of New World Slavery

Was the slavery that developed in the New World (The Americas) fundamentally different from the kinds of servitude found in classical antiquity or in other societies? In one respect, New World slavery clearly was not unique. Slavery everywhere permitted cruelty and abuse. In ancient India, Saxon England, and ancient China, a master might mistreat or even kill a slave with impunity.

Yet in four fundamental respects New World slavery [slavery in North and South America] differed from slavery in classical antiquity and in Africa, eastern and central Asia, or the Middle East.

1. Slavery in the classical and the early medieval worlds was not based on racial distinctions. Racial slavery originated during the Middle Ages, when Christians and Muslims increasingly began to recruit slaves from east, north central, and west Africa. As late as the 15th century, slavery did not automatically mean black slavery. Many slaves came from the Crimea, the Balkans, and the steppes of western Asia. But after 1453, when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, the capital of eastern Christendom, Christian slave traders drew increasingly upon captive black Muslims, known as Moors, and upon slaves purchased on the West African coast or transported across the Sahara Desert.

2. The ancient world did not necessarily regard slavery as a permanent condition. In many societies, including ancient Greece and Rome, manumission of slaves was common, and former slaves carried little stigma from their previous status.

3. Slaves did not necessarily hold the lowest status in premodern societies. In classical Greece, many educators, scholars, poets, and physicians were in fact slaves.

4. It was only in the New World that slavery provided the labor force for a high-pressure profit-making capitalist system of plantation agriculture producing cotton, sugar, coffee, and cocoa for distant markets. Most slaves in Africa, in the Islamic world, and in the New World prior to European colonization worked as farmers or household servants, or served as concubines or eunuchs. They were symbols of prestige, luxury, and power rather than a source of labor.

Justifications of Slavery

Many ancient societies considered slavery a matter of bad luck or accident. Slaves in these societies were often war captives or victims of piracy or children who had been abandoned by their parents.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle developed a new justification for slavery: the notion of the "natural slave." Slaves, in his view, lacked the higher qualities of the soul necessary for freedom.
In the Christian world, the most important rationalization for slavery was the so-called "Curse of Ham." According to this doctrine, the Biblical figure Noah had cursed his son Ham with blackness and the condition of slavery. In fact, this story rested on a misunderstanding of Biblical texts. In the Bible, Noah curses Canaan, the ancestor of the Canaanites, and not Ham. But the "Curse of Ham" was the first justification of slavery based on ethnicity.

It was not until the late 18th century that pseudo-scientific racism provided the basic justification for slavery. Yet even before this era, Europeans associated whiteness with purity. Blackness had sinister and even satanic connotations since black was the color of the Devil.

Slavery in Africa

Slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans--as did a slave trade that exported a small number of sub-Saharan Africans to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf. But this system of slavery differed from the plantation slavery that developed in the New World.

Hereditary slavery, extending over several generations, was rare. Most slaves in Africa were female. Women were preferred because they bore children and because they performed most field labor. Slavery in early sub-Saharan Africa took a variety of forms. While most slaves were field workers, some served in royal courts, where they served as officials, soldiers, servants, and artisans. Under a system known as "pawnship," youths (usually girls) served as collateral for their family's debts. If their parents or kin defaulted on these debts, then these young girls were forced to labor to repay these debts. In many instances, these young women eventually married into their owner's lineage, and their family's debt was cancelled.

"The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery." Digital History. 2009. Web. 2 Nov 2009. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/subtitles.cfm?TitleID=25>.

Part Two: Slavery in the United States
Answer the following questions that accompany the following video clips.

The History of Slavery in American-Part One

1. When did slavery begin in America?

2. What tactics did Europeans use to capture Africans?

3. How long did it take for a slave ship to cross the Atlantic?

4. When did the first cargo of Africans arrive in America? Where were they taken?

5. What age could a slave begin working?

6. What 18th century invention dramatically increased the demand for slaves in the American south?

7. How many slaves existed in American by the year 1860?

8. What were some forms of slave resistance?

9. Who was Nat Turner?

10. Who were abolitionists? Who were some famous abolitionists?

The History of Slavery in American-Part Two

11. What "underground" organization assisted slaves in their escape?

12. Who was Harriet Tubman?

13. What was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?

14. What was the significance of the Dred Scott supreme court case?

15. Who was John Brown?

The History of Slavery in American-Part Three

16. In 1860, who was elected the 16th president of the U.S.?

17. When did the Civil War begin?

18. What issues may have caused the Civil War?

19. What was the Emancipation Proclamation?

20. What was the 13th Amendment?

21. What difficulties did African-Americans face after they were set free?