Comparative Aspects of Slavery Research Paper

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In the comparative study of slavery it is important to distinguish between slave holding societies and largescale, or what Moses Finley called ‘genuine,’ slave societies (Finley 1968). The former refers to any society in which slavery exists as a recognized institution, regardless of its structural significance. Genuine slave societies belong to that subset of slave holding societies in which important groups and social processes become heavily dependent on the institution.

The institution of slavery goes back to the dawn of human history. It remained important down to the late nineteenth century, and persisted as a significant mode of labor exploitation in some Islamic lands as late as the second half of the twentieth century. Remnants of it are still to be found in the twenty-first century in a few areas. Yet it was only in a minority of cases that it metastasized socially into genuine slave societies, though in far more than the five cases erroneously claimed by Keith Hopkins (1978). Thus, the institution existed throughout the ancient Mediterranean, but only in Greece and Rome (and, possibly, Carthage) did genuine slave societies emerge. It was found in every advanced precapitalist society of Asia, but only in Korea did it develop into large-scale slavery. All Islamic societies had slavery, but in only a few did there emerge structural dependence on the institution. In all, there were approximately 50 cases of large-scale slavery in the precapitalist world. With the rise of the modern world, slavery became the basis of a brutally efficient variant of capitalism. There were at least 40 such cases, counting the Caribbean slave colonies as separate units (for the most complete list, see Patterson 1982, App. C)

This research paper examines two sets of problems. The first concerns those factors associated with the presence of institutionalized slaveholding. The critical question here is: why is the institution present in some societies yet not in other, apparently similar, ones? The second set of problems begins with the assumption that slavery exists, and attempts to account for the growth in significance of slavery. More specifically, such studies attempt to explain the origins, structure, dynamics, and consequences of genuine slave societies.

1. Comparative Approaches To Slaveholding Societies

There is now a vast and growing body of literature on slavery (Patterson 1977a, Miller 1993, Miller and Holloran 2000). Yet, with the notable exception of certain anthropological studies (to be considered shortly) relatively few recent works are truly comparative in that they aim to arrive at general conclusions about the incidence, nature, and dynamics of slavery. Even those few works that compare two slaveholding societies tend to be concerned more with highlighting, through contrast, the distinctive features of the societies under consideration. This highly particularistic trend marks a regrettable departure from earlier studies of slavery.

The evolutionists of the nineteenth century were the first to offer explanations for the presence of slaveholding. Their basic proposition—that there was a close relationship between stages of socioeconomic development and the rise of slavery—has received no support from modern comparative studies (Pryor 1977). However, some of their less grandiose views have survived later scrutiny. One was their emphasis on warfare, and the demand for labor at certain crucial points in their scales of development as the important factors (Biot 1840, Westermarck 1908). The other was their finding that the socioeconomic role of women was critical. It was claimed, for example, that the subjection of women provided both a social and an economic model for the enslavement of men (Biot 1840, Tourmagne 1880).

The most important of the early-twentieth-century theorists was H. J. Nieboer (1910), who broke with the evolutionists with his open-resource theory. His work, which is still influential, was unusual also in its reliance on statistical data. His main hypothesis was that slavery existed to a significant degree only where land or some other crucial resource existed in abundance relative to labor. In such situations, free persons cannot be induced to work for others, so they must be forced to do so. The theory has had lasting appeal, especially for economic historians, since it is both testable and consistent with marginal utility theory. It was revived by Baks (1966) and by the MIT economist, Domar (1970). However, the theory has been shown to have little empirical support from modern cross- cultural data (Patterson 1977b, Pryor 1977); and Engerman (1973) has questioned seriously its theoretical consistency.

In the course of criticizing Nieboer, Siegel (1945) proffered a functionalist theory which claimed that chattel slavery may be expected to occur in those societies where there is a tendency to reinforce autocratic rule by means of wealth symbols, and where the process results in a rather strongly demarcated class structure. There is little empirical support for this theory, and it verges on circularity. In many pre- modern hierarchical societies with wealth symbols, it was slavery which was the main cause of increased stratification.

The best recent comparative work on slavery has come from historical anthropologists studying Africa. Meillassoux (1975, 1991) and his associates have demonstrated ably from their studies of West Africa and the Sahel just how valuable a nondogmatic Marxian approach can be in understanding the dynamics of trade, ethnicity, status, and mode of production in complex lineage-based societies. The anthropologist Jack Goody (1980), drawing on Baks (1966), began by arguing that ‘slavery involves external as well as internal inequality, an unequal balance of power between peoples.’ From this unpromising start he enriches his analysis with both the ethnohistorical data on Africa and the cross-cultural statistical data from the Murdock Ethnographic Atlas. Central to his analysis is the role of women. The complex facts of slavery cannot be explained, he argues, ‘except by seeing the role of slaves as related to sex and reproduction as well as to farm and production, and in the case of eunuchs, to power and its non-proliferation.’ While being valuable, Goody’s arguments are confined to Africa, and even with respect to this continent they are insufficient to explain why it was that some African societies came to rely so heavily on the institution while closely related neighboring groups did not.

The economist Frederic Pryor (1977) has come closest to formulating a general theory of premodern slavery using modern statistical techniques applied to cross-cultural data. He distinguishes between social and economic slavery, and argues that different factors explain the presence of one or the other. Central to his theory is the nineteenth-century idea that there is a correspondence or ‘homologism’ between male domination of women and masters’ domination of slaves. He tried to demonstrate that economic slavery was most likely to occur ‘in societies where women normally perform most of the work so that the slave and the wife act as substitutes for each other,’ whereas social slavery was related to ‘the role of the wife in a polygynous situation.’ The theory is interesting and robustly argued but is problematic. Where women dominated the labor force there was no need for men to acquire slaves for economic purposes. On the contrary, it was precisely in such situations that slaves, when used at all, were acquired for social purposes. The presumed correspondence between wives and slaves is also questionable. There were profound differences between these two roles. Wives everywhere belonged to their communities, and were intimately kin-bound, whereas slaves everywhere were deracinated and kinless. Wives always had some rights, some power, at least in the protection of their kinsmen, in relation to their husbands and could rarely be killed with impunity, which was not true of slaves. Wives everywhere had honor, while slaves had none.

Far more comparative work is needed for an understanding of the institutionalization of slavery. The main variables involved in any explanation are now well known. They are: The economic and social role of women; polygyny; internal and external warfare; the mode of subsistence (mainly whether pastoral or agricultural); and the mode of political succession. However, the causal role and direction of each of these variables is complex, and their interaction with each other even more so. To take the role of women as an example, in some cases it is their role as producers that is important; in others, their role as reproducers. It is also difficult using static cross-cultural data to ascertain whether low female participation in production is the result of slavery or its cause.

2. Approaches To The Study Of Genuine Slave Societies

Marxist scholars were the first to take seriously the problem of the origins, nature, and dynamics of largescale slavery (for a review, see Patterson 1977a). Engels’s (1962) periodization view that large-scale slavery constituted an inevitable stage in the development of all human societies was merely one version of nineteenth-century evolutionism, discussed earlier. It dominated East European thought until the de-Stalinization movement, and is still the orthodox view in mainland China.

More sophisticated, but no less problematic, have been attempts of modern Marxists to formulate a ‘slave mode of production.’ The most empirically grounded of these attempts is that of Perry Anderson (1974) who argued that ‘the slave mode of production was the decisive invention of the Graeco-Roman world, which provided the ultimate basis both of its accomplishments and its eclipse.’ There is now no longer any doubt that slavery was foundational for both Athens and Rome, and that these were the first societies in which large-scale or genuine slavery emerged. However, the concept of the ‘slave mode of production’ overemphasizes the materialistic aspects of slavery, making it of limited value for the comparative study of slavery. Slaves were indeed sometimes used to generate new economic systems—as in Rome and the modern plantation economies—but there are many cases where, even when used on a large scale, there was nothing innovative or distinctive about the economic structure. The narrow materialist focus not only leads to a misunderstanding of the relationship between slavery and technology in the ancient world, but more seriously, it fails to identify major differences between the Greek and Roman cases, and it is of no value in the study of genuine slave societies in which the structurally important role of slaves was noneconomic, as was true of most of the Islamic slave systems.

Several non-Marxist historical sociologists, drawing also on the experience of ancient Europe, have made important contributions to our understanding of genuine slave societies. According to Weber (1964) slavery on a large scale was possible only under three conditions: ‘(a) where it has been possible to maintain slaves very cheaply; (b) where there has been an opportunity for regular recruitment through a well-supplied slave market; (c) in agricultural production on a large scale of the plantation type, or in very simple industrial processes.’ However suggestive, there is little support for these generalizations from the comparative data. Medieval Korea (Salem 1978) and the US South (Fogel and Engerman 1974) disprove (a) and (b). And work on urban slavery in the modern world as well as the relationship between slavery and technology in the ancient world disprove (c) (Finley 1973).

Finley (1960, 1973, 1981) was the first scholar to grapple seriously with the problem of defining genuine slave societies, which he explicitly did not confine to those in which the slaves were economically important. He also cautioned correctly against too great a reliance on numbers in accounting for such societies. His emphasis on the slave as a deracinated outsider led him to the conclusion that what was most advantageous about slaves was their flexibility, and their potential as tools of change for the slaveholder class. Finlay also offered valuable pointers in his analyses of the relationship between slave and other forms of involuntary labor. And in criticizing Keith Hopkins’s (1978) conquest theory of the emergence of genuine slave societies, persuasively he encouraged an emphasis on demand, as opposed to supply factors in the rise of slave society. Romans, he argued, captured many thousands of slaves during the Italian and Punic wars because a demand for them already existed and ‘not the other way around.’ He postulated three conditions for the existence of this demand: private ownership of land, and some concentration of holdings; ‘a sufficient development of commodity production of markets’; and ‘the unavailability of an internal labor supply.’

3. A Framework For The Study Of Slave Societies

It is useful to approach the comparative study of slave society with an understanding of what structural dependence means. There are three fundamental questions. First, what was the nature of the dependence on slavery; second, what was the degree of dependence; and third, what was the direction of dependence. Answers to these three questions together determine what may be called the modes of articulation of slavery.

The nature of dependence on slavery may have been primarily economic or social, political or militaristic, or a combination of these. Economic dependence was frequently the case, especially in ancient Rome and in the modern capitalistic slave systems. Here the critical questions are: What were the costs and benefits of imposing and maintaining an economy based on slave labor? Stanley Engerman (1973) has written authoritatively on this subject. He distinguishes between the costs of imposition, of enforcement, and of worker productivity. Lower maintenance costs, more constant supply of labor, greater output due to the neglect of the non-pecuniary costs of labor, higher participation rates and greater labor intensity, and economies of scale, are the main factors proposed by Engerman in explaining the shift to slave labor. They apply as much to ancient Rome as they do to the modern capitalistic slave systems of America and the Caribbean.

Military and bureaucratic dependence were the main noneconomic forms, and they could be as decisive for societies as was economic dependence. The rise of Islam was made possible by the reliance on slave soldiers, and the Abbasid Caliphate, along with other Islamic states, was maintained by slave and exslave soldiers and bureaucrats. Although there was little economic dependence on slaves in most Islamic states—with the notable exception of ninth-century Iraq—many of them qualify as genuine slave societies as a result of the politico-military dependence of these regimes on slavery, and the ways in which slaves influenced the character of their cultures, many of the literati also being slaves or descendants of slaves (see Pipes 1981, Crone 1981, Marmon 1999).

The degree of dependence must be taken into account, although it is sometimes difficult to quantify. There has been a tendency to emphasize the size of the slave population over other variables, and while demography is important it can sometimes be misleading. Thus, it has been noted that no more than one in three adults were slaves in Athens at the height of its slave system in the late fifth century BCE as a way of playing down the importance of slavery. But as M. I. Finley liked to point out, the same was true of most parts of the American Slave South, and no one has ever questioned the fact that it was a large-scale slave system.

Finally, there is the direction of dependence. Even where a society had a high functional dependence on slavery it was not necessarily the case that slavery played an active, causal role in the development of its distinctive character. The institution, though important, was not structurally transformative. In ancient Rome, the Sokoto Caliphate and the slave societies of the Caribbean, the American South and Brazil, slavery was actively articulated and transformative. In other cases, however, it was passively articulated, the classic instance being Korea during the Koryo and Yi periods where, although a majority of the rural population were at times slaves, there was no significant transformation of the economy, and no impact on the regime’s government and culture. The same was true of several of the modern Spanish colonies of Central and South America. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was marked structural dependence on slavery in Mexico and Central America as well as Peru, and the urban areas of Chile and Argentina, but the institution was not determinative in the course of development of these societies and, as in Korea, when slavery ended it left hardly a trace, either cultural or social (Mellafe 1975, Palmer 1976, Klein 1986, Blackburn 1997).

These three factors together determined a finite set of modes of articulation, which is a sociologically more useful construct than that of the so-called ‘slave mode of production.’ Space permits only the most cursory mention of some of the most important such modes of articulation.

The lineage mode of articulation refers to those kin- based societies in which large-scale slavery was related critically to the rise to dominance of certain lineages in the process of class and state formation. In some cases, slavery originally served primarily economic ends; in others, mainly social and political ones; but in the majority the institution became multifunctional. This kind of genuine slave society was most commonly found in western and west-central Africa. Warfare, combined with some critical internal factor such as demographic change accounted for the rise of slavery (see Miller 1977 for the Kongo kingdom). The ideal case of this mode of articulation was the Asante state (Wilks 1975, Klein 1981). Slaves were originally incorporated as a means of expanding the number of dependents, a tendency reinforced by the matrilineal principle of descent. The growing number of slaves enhanced the lineage heads who owned them, and facilitated the process of lineage hierarchy and state formation. Later, the role of slaves was greatly expanded to include a wide range of economic activities, including mining.

The predatory circulation mode refers to those slave societies in which warfare and raiding mainly for slaves were the chief occupations of a highly predatory elite. The warrior class was usually assisted by a commercial class which traded heavily in slaves. There was usually a high rate of manumission of slaves, who not only contributed to the production of goods, but in their role as freedmen soldiers helped the ruling class to produce more slaves. Thus there was a continuous circulation of persons in and out of slave status as outsiders were incorporated as loyal freed- men retainers, creating a constant need for more enslaved outsiders. Slaves and freedmen often played key roles in, and sometimes even dominated, the palatine service and elite executive jobs.

The contiguous existence of pastoral and sedentary agricultural peoples with different levels of military might was the major factor in the development of this mode of articulation of slavery. The mode is strongly associated with Islam, and there are many examples of it in the Sahel and North Africa. The west–east spread of the Fulani over an area of some 3,000 miles over a period of 800 years provides one of the best cases of this mode, on which there is an abundance of historical and anthropological data (Lovejoy 2000, Pipes 1981, Meillassoux 1975, 1991).

The embedded demesne mode embraces those patrimonial systems dominated by large landed estates in which slaves were incorporated on a substantial scale to cultivate the demesne land of the lords. Serf or tenant laborers continued, in most cases, to be the primary producers of food for the society, and their rents or appropriated surpluses remained a major source of wealth for the ruling class. However, slaves were found to be a more productive form of labor on the home farms of the lords for the cost–benefit reasons analyzed by Engerman, mentioned above. The landowners got the best of both types of labor exploitation. This was a particularly valuable arrangement where a landed aristocracy needed to change to a new crop but was not prepared to contest the technical conservatism of serfs; where there was a supply of cheap labor across the border; or where there was a high level of internal absenteeism among the landed aristocracy.

This is the least understood or recognized form of advanced slave systems, perhaps because its mode of articulation was usually passive. Many of them were to be found in medieval Europe, especially in France, Spain, and parts of Scandinavia (Dockes 1982, Verlinden 1955, 1977, Bonassie 1985, Anderson 1974, Patterson 1991). The slave systems of the western ‘states’ of eleventh-century England, where slave populations were as high as 20 percent of the total are likely examples. So, possibly, was Viking Iceland, which may well have had similar proportions of slaves (Williams 1937, Foote and Wilson 1970). However, the ideal case of embedded demesne slavery was to be found in Korea, especially during the Koryo and early Yi periods. Here the slave population sometimes exceeded that of other forms of bonded labor (Salem 1978, Wagner 1974, Hong 1979).

The urban–industrial modes of articulation were those in which the urban elites came to rely heavily on slaves for support. Slaves played a relatively minor role in agriculture, although they may well have dominated the ‘home farms’ of certain segments of the ruling urban elites. Slave labor was concentrated in urban craft industries which produced goods for local consumption and exports, as well as the mining sector where it existed.

Slavery emerged on a large scale in such systems as a result of a combination of factors among which were the changing nature and frequency of warfare, conquest of foreign lands, the changing tastes of the ruling class, crises in the internal supply of labor, shifts in food staples, growing commercial links with the outside world, and demographic changes.

This mode of articulation could be either passive or active. To the extent that the character of the urban civilization depended on its urban economy, and to the extent that the economy depended on slave laborers, both manual and technical, to that degree were these systems active in their articulation. The classic case of the active mode of slave articulation were the ancient Greek slave systems, especially Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC (Finley 1981, Garlan 1982, De Ste. Croix 1981). Typical of the passive mode of urban–industrial articulation were several of the Spanish slave systems of Central and South America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mentioned above.

The Roman or urban–latifundic mode: ancient Roman slavery stands in a class by itself, having no real parallels in either the ancient, medieval, or modern worlds. It came the closest to a system of total slavery in world history. It was distinctive, first, in the sheer magnitude of its imperial power and the degree of dependence on slavery, both at the imperial center and in its major colonial sectors. Second, Rome was unique in the extent of its reliance on slavery in both its rural and urban–industrial sectors. Third, the articulation of slavery was more actively transformative than in any other system, entailing what Hopkins (1978) called an ‘extrusion’ of free, small farmers and their replacement by slaves organized in gangs on large latifundi. Rome was unusual too, not only for its high levels of manumission, but for the extent to which slaves and slavery came to influence all aspects of its culture.

The capitalist plantation mode: contrary to the views of early economic theorists such as Adam Smith, and of Marxist scholars until fairly recently (Genovese 1965), modern plantation slavery was in no way incompatible with capitalism. Indeed, the rise of capitalism was intimately bound up with this mode of articulation of slavery, and at its height in nineteenthcentury America was as profitable as the most advanced industrial factories of Europe or the northern United States (Fogel and Engerman 1974). Plantation slavery constituted one version of the worldwide systemic spread of capitalism, in which capital accumulation was advanced through the use of slaves in the peripheral colonial regions, complementing the use of so-called free labor in the metropolitan centers, and of serf and other forms of dependent labor in the semiperipheral areas of Eastern Europe and Latin America (Wallerstein 1974, Blackburn 1997).

While plantation slavery bore some organizational resemblance to the ancient slave latifundia, and indeed can be traced historically to late medieval and early modern variants of the ancient model (see Solow 1991), it was distinctive in its complex, transnational system of financial support, in its production for international export, its heavy reliance on a single crop, its advanced organizational structure, which in the case of sugar involved innovative agri-industrial farms, in the vast distances from which slaves were imported, entailing a complex transoceanic slavetrading system, and in its reliance on slaves from one major geographic region who differed sharply from the slaveholding class in ethnosomatic terms.

However, it is important to recognize that there existed concurrently with the capitalistic plantation mode several other modes of slave articulation that were either precapitalist or at best protocapitalist. As has already been noted, many of the Spanish colonial systems in the Americas relied on forms of slavery that were nonaccumulative and distinctly premodern in their articulation, for example the urban–industrial modes of Mexico and parts of South America which were focused heavily on mining. In the Spanish Caribbean up to the third quarter of the eighteenth century a peculiar premodern form of agri-pastoral slavery prevailed which had little in common with the highly capitalistic slave plantation systems of the neighboring French and British islands, and which had to be dismantled at considerable political and socioeconomic cost in order to make way for the belated capitalistic slave systems that were imposed forcefully during the nineteenth century (Knight 1970).

While slavery was largely abolished in the Americas through the course of the nineteenth century (Black-burn 1988, Davis 1975), pockets of the institution persist into the twenty-first century in northern Africa and parts of Asia (Stearman 1999). With the possible exception of Mauritania, however, in none of these societies do we find genuine slave systems. It can be claimed, with cautious optimism, that this most inhuman form of societal organization has vanished from the world.


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