History Of Slavery Research Paper

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Slavery comes in many culturally specific forms. Common to all these different forms is the fact that slaves are denied the most basic rights. Slaves remain outside the social contract that binds the other members of a given society; they are people without honor and kin, subject to violent domination. They are objects of the law, not its subjects, considered as property, or chattel. Hence, we may describe slavery with Orlando Patterson as a form of ‘social death,’ and slaves as outsiders kept in a position of institutionalized marginality. In many languages, the term for foreigner also denoted slaves. Nowadays slavery is considered a most inhumane practice. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’ Signing the slavery conventions of 1926 and 1956, 122 states have committed themselves to abolish slavery and similar practices such as debt bondage, serfdom, servile marriage, and child labor.

In historical times, however, slavery as an institution was accepted in many societies with a minimum of social stratification all over the world, from early Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt to ancient China, Korea, India, medieval Germany, and Muscovite Russia, from the Hebrews to the Aztecs and Cherokees. Yet, according to Moses Finley there were only five full-fledged slave societies with slaves constituting the majority of people and their work determining the whole economy. All five were located in what we tend to call the West, two in antiquity: Athenian Greece and Rome between the second century BC and the fourth century AD, three in modern times: Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern US. The Ottoman Empire was notorious for its slave soldiers, the janissary, taken from its Slavic neighbors to the north and from Africa. The most exploitative form of chattel slavery emerged in the plantation economies of the New World under the aegis of European colonial rule with the UK playing a dominant role. Interestingly, this happened at the time when the medieval concept of labor as a common community resource was progressively replaced by a free labor regime in the UK. Ultimately, and for the first time in history, employer and employed in Europe were equal before the law, while slavery with its extreme status differential prevailed in the new world. The ensuing contradictions eventually led to the rise of an abolitionist movement in Europe and to the progressive banning of slavery in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The last to make slavery illegal were the governments on the Arabian Peninsula. They did so in 1962.

Where there are slaves, there are people arguing about slavery, some rationalizing it, others denouncing it, and yet others to better demarcate the duties and rights of those involved. There is an extensive Islamic literature about slavery, paying particular attention to the question of who may, and who may not, be enslaved, to the duties of slave owners and the terms of manumission. Many classical and Christian authors dealt with the same problems. The abolitionist movement generated a literature of its own, stressing the horrors of slavery as in ‘Oronooko,’ the justly famous play by Aphra Behn, and the life narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who was taken captive as a child in his native Igbo village in what is now Nigeria. A common aspect of all these contributions written by contemporaries is their normative approach, based either in religion or moral philosophy, their focus on institutional and legal matters, and not the least on their reliance on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. In ancient Greece and in Rome, slaves were perceived as captives of war even when bought and defined as things until the Code of Justinian defined slaves as persons. Christian and Islamic thought highlighted religious difference. Slavery was primarily the fate of nonbelievers taken captive in ‘just’ wars. Yet, neither Christianity nor Islam prevented the enslavement of coreligionists, and if conversion obliged Islamic slave owners to manumit their slaves, it did not change the slaves’ status in Christian societies. Later authors rather emphasized property relations. The same line of argument informs the 1926 League of Nations slavery convention which defines slavery as the ‘status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.’

European and American scholars pioneered the historical study of slavery. Taking their cues from Greece, Rome, and medieval European experiences, they tended to interpret slavery as an intermediate stage in the general process of historical development. G. W. F. Hegel construed slavery as a sort of development aid for the benefit of Africans. Classical social sciences from Adam Smith to Max Weber identified slavery with backwardness. Marxist thinkers were even more explicit, positing primitive society, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and communism as five consecutive stages of world history. Thus, slavery and capitalism, slavery and markets, and slavery and technological innovations were considered utterly incompatible. How then can one explain the rise of racial slavery in the plantation economies of the New World? From about 1500 to the late nineteenth century Portuguese, British, Dutch, French, Danish, Spanish, and American vessels carried some 12 million plus Africans across the Atlantic to be used mainly as field hands for the production of sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton. Others were put to work in the gold and silver mines of Spanish America. Together they constituted by far the largest forced migration the world has known. Moreover, how should one interpret slavery in the South of the US, the first modern nation, if it is in opposition to capitalist logic?

Studies of US and West Indian slavery have dominated the field of slave studies from its very beginning. They set the agenda for research into other domains, such as: the transatlantic slave trade and its precedents in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the Italian city-states slaves were common until the fourteenth century, on the Iberian Peninsula up to the sixteenth century, many of them Moslems. Christian sailors, captured on the seas, ended up in North African slavery. Later, researchers shifted their attention to plantation slavery in other areas of the New World, and finally to slavery in various non-Western societies.

In the beginning, scholars studying Southern slavery followed an institutional approach, describing plantation slavery as a closed system of generalized violence and totalitarian control with dehumanizing effects similar to Nazi concentration camps. Slaves in these pioneering interpretations were victims, devoid of any power and will of their own. All the power was said to be vested in the slave owners who treated their slaves as mere chattel; whipping them into submission and keeping them at starvation level, even working them to death; denying them any family life and breeding them like cattle, buying and selling the slaves at their will and pleasure. Then came Eugene D. Genovese’s monumental historical anthropology of plantation life in the American South. A Marxist himself, Genovese held on to the idea that the planters constituted a pre-capitalist class. Yet he showed that the slaves, although people without rights or hardly any rights, were not people without will. Quite to the contrary, they were even able to shape the structures of the system as a whole. Using cunning and other weapons of the weak in the daily transactions at the work place, they moved their owners to accept their humanity and some minimal duties. The outcome was a paternalist system with some give and take between slave-owner and slave.

With this new paradigm slaves got their agency back. Slavery as such came to be seen as a negotiated relationship and as an intrinsically unstable process, the terms of which varied with time and place. This process spanned different stages from enslavement and transporation to life in slavery and possible, yet by no means inevitable social re-integration. There were different ways to overcome the outsider status: resistance and flight, manumission or the purchase of freedom. Prompted by the American civil rights movement, slave lives, slave culture, and slave resistance developed into privileged subjects of study. Herbert G. Gutman showed that slaves against all odds were living in families, creating enduring networks of kinship and self help. Religion proved to be another major sphere where slaves gained some cultural autonomy. Integrating Christian teachings and African beliefs they developed a richly textured religious life with dance and song as integral parts of worship.

As to resistance, scholars had to contend with the fact that apart from the Haitian Revolution, slave rebels were nowhere able to end slavery. Studies of slave rebellions nonetheless brought to the fore numerous instances of organised resistance. A more salient aspect of these studies pioneered by John Hope Franklin was the insight into the complexities of resistance which ranged from mocking tales and mimicking dances to the deliberate cultivation of African customs, to go slow tactics and flight and the establishment of so-called Maroon societies. These societies developed into refuges for other slaves. Most of them had only a limited life span, some, however, such as the seventeenth century kingdom of Palmares in the hinterland of Pernambuco evolved into autonomous centers of power at the margins of the colonial system, often cultivating their own forms of slavery. Most successful were the rebels in relatively weak colonial states with open frontiers such as Brazil, Spanish America, and Surinam where the Saramaka fought a successful war of liberation against the Dutch, lasting more than 100 years.

A major advance in the study of slavery was achieved when historians shifted their focus from the interpretation of anecdotal literary evidence to the analysis of statistical material and other mass data with the help of economic modeling techniques. Philip D. Curtin was the first to attempt a census of the transatlantic slave trade using customs records from the Americas. His calculations have later been complemented and refined, yet his general insights withstood any later scrutiny and still hold true at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Others tried to extend his census to the much longer established Trans-Saharan, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea trades although there is no comparable database for these regions. Current estimates stand at 12 million plus Africans transported along these routes from the seventh to the twentieth century. Others reconstructed slave prices at the points of purchase and sale, carefully tracing changes over time, and studying all the other aspects of slave trading and the plantation business. These endeavors engendered seminal new insights. Scholars were able to prove that the length of a voyage was the single most important factor determining mortality during the voyage across the sea, the ghastly Middle Passage, with death rates ranging from 10 to 20 percent and more. They showed that pricing was competitive and that supply was responsive to changes in price and that the transatlantic slave trade continued well into the nineteenth century. It ended when Brazil and Cuba emancipated their slaves in the 1880s, the last to do so in the Western hemisphere. Scholars also discovered that markets shifted eastwards and southwards along the West African coast, from Senegambia and the Upper Guinea coast to the Bight of Biafra and northwestern Angola. Imports into Africa varied over time and from place to place with cotton goods, brandy, guns, and iron tools in high demand everywhere along the coast. With the recent publication of more than 27,000 Atlantic slave trading voyages in one single data set, even non-specialists have access to parts of the evidence used in the econometric computations.

Taken together, the studies of the new economic history show that the Marxist thesis of an inherent contradiction between slavery and capitalism is untenable is untenable as both slave trading and plantation economies were capitalist to the core, with prices set by the laws of supply and demand. In a major reinterpretation of slavery in the antebellum South Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman also convincingly demonstrated that during the reign of ‘King Cotton,’ the planters acted as capitalist entrepreneurs who were ready to innovate when it paid to do so and who rather used incentives than the whip to drive their slaves. They even ventured the thesis that in material terms (diet, clothing, housing, and life expectancy) slaves in the South were better off than many peasants and workers in Europe and the northern US. Moreover, the system was well and flourishing to the end with high levels of productivity. Parallel quantitative studies of the plantation economies in the West Indies arrived at similar conclusions: abolition came not in the wake of economic decline, but rather in spite of economic success. Seymour Drescher even coined the term econocide.

A major contentious issue among scholars has been the significance of slavery for the Industrial Revolution. In 1947 Eric Williams argued that the profits from the ‘triangular trade’ had financed the Industrial Revolution in the UK, adding that abolition was a consequence of economic decline. This double pronged ‘Williams thesis’ became a central tenet of dependency theory. A close look at hundreds and thousands of slave voyages, however, showed that average profits were smaller than scholars had previously assumed and could never explain why the UK achieved the stage of self-sustained growth in the latter half of the eighteenth century. New data on capital formation in that period points in the same direction. Nevertheless, slavery and the plantation economies contributed to British economic growth and the advent of modernity. Slavery reduced the cost of sugar and tobacco for European consumers and it made great fortunes; it created markets for cheap industrial massproducts, and sugar plantations with their gang-labor system may even be interpreted as ‘factories in the fields’ with a work discipline prefiguring that of modern industrial plants. The impact of slavery was also felt in the realm of ideas and ideology. It furthered a racially informed negative perception of all things African in the West and set the stage for racism, a most tragic legacy of more than 400 years of slave trading, that the West has not yet come to terms with. The rise of racial slavery in the Atlantic system is a reminder of the fact that economic self-interest and markets, when left to themselves, can produce the most immoral and humanly destructive institutions. The term ‘racial slavery’ refers to the fact that almost all slaves employed in the Americas hailed from Africa as the Spanish had banned the enslavement of Amerindians already by the 1540s.

The impact of slavery on Africa is also very controversially debated. Yet, once again a change of perspective has led to a shift of emphasis. An earlier generation of scholars with first-hand experience of colonial domination saw African societies mainly as victims of external forces. They singled out the transatlantic slave trade as a first step towards underdevelopment as it depopulated whole areas, or so ran the argument, and induced African rulers to engage in wars for the sake of making prisoners for sale in exchange for guns, which then triggered new wars. This set of ideas informed dependency theory as well as world-system analysis and the early nationalist African historiography. Walter Rodney even argued that African slavery on the Guinea coast was a result of external demand.

Quantitative studies shattered some of these assumptions. The gun-slave-cycle could not be substantiated. In addition, historical demography, although a risky business, points to demographic stagnation from 1750 to 1850, with population losses in the areas directly affected by slaving when other continents were beginning to experience demographic growth. The causal link between the slave trade and Africa’s economic backwardness as posited by Joseph E. Inikori is a contested issue. A better understanding of the complexities of African politics has furthermore led scholars to argue that most African wars of the period were independent of the external demand for slaves, although the slave trade generated income, strengthening some polities while weakening others. Asante, Dahomey, and the Niger Delta city-states were among the main beneficiaries while the kingdom of Benin was one of those who abstained from participating in the slave trade. Slave sales shifted with the vagaries of African politics, not to forget the cycles of drought with the ensuing threats of starvation, which also led people into slavery. In other cases, slavery was a punishment for the crimes people had committed.

To stay in business, European and American slave traders had to adapt to local circumstances. They were at the mercy of local merchants and local power holders. They hardly ever ventured beyond the ports of call and the forts they built along the West African coast. They also bought women and children, although the planters considered them second choice to men, and people from other areas than those that the planters preferred. Women constituted up to a third of those sent to the Americas. The female ratio among slaves was higher than among early European immigrants. It ensured an enduring African physical presence. It is also a further proof that African cultural and political parameters had the power to shape the Atlantic system, an argument best developed by David Eltis.

Studies of African slavery have furthered the understanding of these cultural parameters. Slavery was widespread in precolonial Africa and expanded in the nineteenth century despite, or rather because of, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by the UK in 1807. Some scholars even argue that West African societies then developed into fully-fledged slave societies with 50 percent and more of their population kept in bondage. First among these were the Sudanic societies from the Futa Jallon to Sokoto and Adamawa, where Islamic revolutions and statebuilding initiated more intense slave raiding than ever before. Yet, African slavery, often referred to as ‘household slavery,’ markedly differed from chattel slavery. As elsewhere, slaves had to do the hardest work and their owners treated them as outsiders, the first to be sacrificed in public rituals and put to death at the whim of their owner. However, it was common to find slaves in positions of albeit borrowed authority, such as traders, officers, and court officials. Elsewhere slave and slave owner worked side by side. Alternatively, slaves lived in villages of their own. They owned property and in some cases, even slaves of their own. More importantly, the slave status was not a fixed status; rather it changed over time along a slave to kinship continuum, with people born into slavery exempt from further sale. Recent scholarship has stressed that women were the pre-eminent victims of slavery in Africa as they were valued for their labor power and for the offspring they might give birth to. Moreover, one should never forget that power and prestige in African societies rather depended on the number of followers someone could count on, than the control of land which was not a scarce resource yet, or not everywhere. According to H. J. Nieboer agricultural slavery developed wherever land was plentiful and the productivity of agricultural labour was low.

The slave to kinship paradigm as expounded most forcefully by Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers has lost some of its appeal when scholars discovered that in many places a slave past carries a social stigma to this day. Yet Africa is a continent with a wide spectrum of cultures. Hence, what prevails at one place may be contradicted at another. Nonetheless, the general rule of slavery getting more exploitative and more strictly closed when used for the production of export staples and in societies with strong state structures holds true for Africa as well as for the Americas. A case in point is slavery on the East African coast and the island of Zanzibar during the clove boom of the mid-nineteenth century. In West Africa too, slavery turned more adversarial when set to the production of palm oil in the aftermath of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, called the period of legitimate trade. The less centralized power in a society was, the easier it was for slaves to overcome their outsider status. This, however, meant integration into a land-holding kin group as access to women and land, the keys to reproduction, was generally controlled by these. In modern Europe, on the other hand, property rights in human labor, one’s own or others, were vested in the individual. Hence freedom in Africa, and other non-Western societies, meant belonging, but independence in Europe.

Colonialism also helped to keep the memory of slavery alive. In the early nineteenth century, the UK had done its best to end the slave trade. It even stationed a naval squadron for this purpose in West African waters and concluded anti-slave trade treaties with African rulers who had trouble seeing the benefits of abolition. The European public later tended to take the imperialist scramble for Africa as an anti-slavery crusade, but colonial administrations, while forcefully suppressing the slave trade, were reluctant to fight slavery as a social system; rather they closed their eyes and did their best to freeze existing social relations while claiming to bring progress to Africa. When slavery finally ended in Africa, it did so not so much as the result of conscious acts of emancipation but rather because of the emergence of a colonial labor market, with the socially defined older mechanisms for the integration of outsiders easing the transition. The men and women held in bondage eagerly took up alternatives wherever they were viable.

The cultural turn in social sciences has deeply influenced slave studies. There is no end to quantitative analyses. However, scholars have discovered that cultural parameters are important variables affecting what people do, even when they operate under the impress of a market system. Even Homo oeconomicus has to consider cultural values. Gender and slave memories have also attracted much more attention than before. The 41 volumes of interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1920s and 1930s in the US remain unrivalled, yet cf. the splendid collection of peasant narratives from Niger presented by Jean Pierre Olivier de Sardan. Archeologists have started to investigate slave material culture. Others have begun to retrace the construction of different Creole identities and cultures in the Americas so rich in imaginative creativity. They all encounter the same problem: as slaves by definition were people without voice, what they experienced and what they thought is to a great extent buried in the documents written by the perpetrators of slavery. To give the slaves their voice back is one of the nobler tasks of historical scholarship, but it is immensely difficult.

While studies of slavery become ever more detailed and localized, historians have come to realize that the Middle Passage is more a bridge than an abyss or a one-way street, binding different cultures together, a point first made by the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits. Slaves came with a history of their own to the Americas, returning Africans and children of former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, Wilmot Blyden, and James Africanus Horton were among the first to consciously define themselves as Africans. Hailing from different regions of Africa, yet sharing a common plight, they developed an awareness of a common African identity. The books they wrote helped to lay the foundations for Panafricanism, a strand of ideas and a political movement central to the freedom struggle of Africans in the twentieth century.

David Brion Davis noted a similar correlation between slavery and freedom in Western religious, legal, and philosophical discourses. Hence the double paradox and legacy of slavery: it inflicted death and hardship on millions and millions of people of mostly African descent for the benefits of a few; and while it was instrumental for the rise of racial prejudice, it also shaped the notion of freedom and equality as we know and cherish it today. To consider these global dimensions, is the challenge of any further research into the history of slavery even when dealing with very specific local aspects of the problem. But this is easier said than done because it requires historians to venture beyond the deeply rooted traditions of privileging the history of a particular nation-state, usually their own, into the open sea of a new comparative history. The fight against slavery is not won so long as debt bondage, servile marriage, forced labor, child labor, trafficking of women, forced prostitution, and other forms of bondage exist in many societies, including the very rich countries of the West.


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