White Slaves? Yup, Race Is A New Thing
First off I want to say how unhappy i am that word press isn’t a physical thing that can be punished for regularly and randomly signing me off as it pleases. At least if your car acts up you can punish it by slamming the door or kicking it. It’s very effective at making you feel better. ANYWAY…
I mentioned slaves in a recent post, but it wasn’t a post the was really about slaves, so I didn’t spend much time actually talking about them, but I should. Slavery has always existed, at least as far as we can go back in recorded history and even quite far back in pre-history. But more then that, not only has it always existed, but for most of history, it was not like what we picture when we think of slaves in the fairly recent past, and more than just that, it should always exist, and I’ll justify that and explain what I mean at the end.
Going back to our hunter gatherer days, we likely did have slaves, but that type of social structure does not lend itself to the type of social stratification required (except for a short time in the Modern Period when slaves were considered not to be human at all, for legal, not racial reasons) to have a robust system of owning anything, much less people. The first really clear evidence of some kind of recognizable, slave like, class is around 9000 years ago (but must go back much further, we just don’t have much clear evidence) in the area now called the Middle East. (I can’t remember, but I think
The particulars are fairly boring and more or less static until you get to the Romans. Now there had been great civilizations with slaves before, but nothing like on this scale. If you don’t know, there still was no racial component whatsoever, unless you count roman citizenship as a race, and since it isn’t one, you can’t really do that. An interesting thing that would happen in Rome, is that when a Roman was convicted of a crime, his slaves could be taken and killed or sold off. Remember that while slaves were people, merely the lowest class, they were still property and was really no different than when the government today takes a criminals home to pay his fines or “take” his future earnings by depriving him of work by putting him in prison. Good justice is blind justice and property is thus simply property.
A majority or Roman slaves were also “spoils of war” and this is an interesting concept to think about. What exactly is the difference between forcing someone give you their labor and kicking down their door and taking all the stuff their previous labor has gone towards acquiring when you sack their town? The logical answer is not really much difference at all, one is taking goods and the other is taking their earning ability to buy future goods and their freedom as well, but arguably a person might be better of as a slave then having everything they own taken, their fields burnt and their town pillaged. Another thing to keep in mind is just like in the 18th century, there were slave owners that you or I would be glad to be slaves for, and there were others that you or I would likely rather die than be slaves for. Abuse of slaves is not a given in history, at least apart from the abuse of taking their freedom, and even that isn’t absolute.
If you skip ahead to 500 AD or so, we find in many parts of Europe that slavery has more or less died out, not entirely, but comparative to 200 years prior, one might say it was nearly extinct. Yet still, in most all of Europe, you had tons of people, maybe even most of them, who we would likely call slaves, but were in fact not so. Prior to the rise of the strong European monarchies of the mid and late Medieval Period, you had many many minor kingdoms, some would survive as duchy’s or dukedoms (a Duke, strictly speaking, is a ruler in their own right, not a land holder for an overlord like a king) all the way into the Modern Period. This possible majority of pseudo-slaves were in fact completely voluntary.
Now these voluntary slaves were the forerunners of the later serfs and villains who I have already established were no more slaves than tax payers are today, although perhaps with a fine line between them. Some times driven into it by hardship, other times completely voluntary, they would give up their freedom for security (unfortunately we see people advocating this today with increasing vigor and regularity) in exchange for land to farm and access to the lords team of oxen or other resources, they would either work their lords land entirely for something like a wage or simply owe him service of some kind, military or so many days in the manorial fields a year, or both, among other things. So this isn’t slavery, because it was a form of contract freely established between two people, and all it took back then was a simple oath given before God and the overlord in question.
The worst part is that in time these contracts would become binding on the person decedents as well, leading, in part, to the serfdom I’m not going to go over again. I’m going to skip ahead to 1492 and the discovery of the new world. Her Catholic Majesty Queen Isabella of Spain initially prohibited the enslavement of the native people, but rather encouraged missionaries to go and try and convert those they could. Even the Pope issued a Papal Bull prohibiting the enslavement of those who converted. This is important because you may see that as some sort of evil, but you need to look through the eyes of a different time, when those of a different religion or country were, often for good reason, perceived as enemies, and the Catholic Church was as much a political bond among countries in Europe as it was a religious one.
That political bond was not unlike the bonds forged when noble families would arrange marriages between families (and Europeans did intermarry with native “nobles”). Converting the population was a way of ensuring peace, there were also religious motives, but those have less relevance here than the political and social ramifications. Obviously, you had a brand new race of people suddenly available to people that had largely abandoned slavery (still lots of what some might call slaves) in favor of other more successful means of gaining and keeping economic and political power. There were still slaves brought in from Africa, yes, and the middle east as well, but there were also still European slaves, that racial component was starting to make it’s way in, but wasn’t quite there yet.
Slavery would become what we now think of it as today when England outlawed the slave trade and started enforcing that decision on other powers in the roaming the Atlantic. Partly in response to that, America banned the import of slaves, leaving only the children of slaves as a source of new ones. See the movie Amistad for a good demonstration of that. Blacks quickly became the vast majority of slaves in the new world after the native populations were devastated by diseases from Europe, and while there were white slaves (readThey Were Slaves – The Untold history of White Slavery in Early America) blacks were the only ones available.Founding of the US is what permanently established this racial component, the only way to continue to justify slavery was if they were considered not to be human, so that’s what they did.
Now it’s not true that the founders thought blacks were only 3/5ths of a person, that’s just race baiting these days. If you read their writings, it’s clear most of them were against slavery in principle, even though many owned slaves! Saying they thought blacks were 3/5ths of a person or even that they didn’t think blacks were people is just historical revisionism. It was just simple weakness and fear of being politically weak. As i said, blacks had to be legally dehumanized so slavery could continue to be justified, and even if some of the founders hadn’t had personal financial stakes in keeping their slaves, it’s unlikely they would have ended up ending slavery, the southern states were just too dependent on it to lose it over night at that point. We likely would have ended up as at least two countries. on the other hand, considering slaves totally as livestock meant the southern states were going to be extremely weak politically. So they ended up calling them 3/5ths of a person as a compromise between the north who wanted more power and the south who wanted more power, it had nothing to do with the value of blacks, merely with the number of house members.
We still have slavery today, in fact there are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history, and so I am pretty sure it will always exist “in the wild”. My initial statement saying that slavery should continue to exist is in line with the Constitution and every country I can think of at the moment. Slavery may still be a punishment for a crime, and that’s a good thing. Criminals are often forced to do community service and that is slavery. It’s a legitimate way of society reclaiming some of the perceived damages a criminal has caused by their behavior, just like a fine or simple jail time is.