Slavery is not merely forced labour but where said labourers can be bought and sold, where they become a form of property. That makes it different than, say, serfdom, military conscription or prison labour.
Some slaves were worked to death, like in Haiti, Barbados or in the mines of the Roman Republic, while others got Sundays off or became military commanders. In some societies, slaves were seen as less than human, while in others they were seen as merely unfortunate. Cruelty and dehumanization are not necessary features of slavery.
Slavery started out as a side effect of war: the losers would be made into slaves, like the women of Troy after its fall. Societies grew to depend on slave labour. That increased demand, which led to slave raiding, slave trading, slavery as a punishment for crime, slavery as a way to pay off debts, and so on.
That meant that slaves were often foreigners, but often they were not. The idea that slavery is about “race” was rare before the 1700s, even though masters and slaves were often from different races.
Also rare before the 1700s were people who questioned the morality of slavery. It was seen as an evil, yes, but a necessary one. In the Bible, for example, St Paul urges slave masters to be kind to their slaves, if not free them, but he never condemns them for owning slaves. It was common for people to want to reform or limit slavery, but it was not common for them to want to outlaw it completely.
At the heart of slavery lies a paradox: a slave is property and yet is also human.
Most societies have dealt with this paradox by trying to balance the property rights of the master against the human rights of the slave. As humans, slaves were seen as wanting to get married, own property, go to court, be freed, etc. And, from Sarah and Abraham in the Bible all the way down to Muslim law, a slave woman who gave birth to her master’s child was protected against being sold off. Said child was often made free or even legitimate.
This balancing was true for Greeks and Romans, for Arabs and Turks, for Africans – and even for the Spanish and Portuguese.
But not for White Americans.
As their name suggests, they built their society and their sense of who they are on race. That comes in part from how they dealt with the paradox of slavery. Instead of trying to balance the property rights of masters against the human rights of slaves – they denied that slaves were truly human! To make this believable, they said that Africans looked different than Europeans because they belonged to a different “race”, a heretofore unsuspected division of mankind, made up almost on the spot (and later dutifully “proved” by Western science), so that they could say that people who look even a little bit African are not truly human. Black lives do NOT matter.
– Abagond, 2015.
Source: “Race in North America” (2012) by Audrey and Brian D. Smedley.
- Arab slavery
- American slavery
- Does the Bible say that slavery is wrong?
- The term “race”
- Chinua Achebe: Africa’s Tarnished Name
- There is absolutely nothing wrong with being Black