Slave to Citizen

Unfortunately, at the very creation of this new nation, a new clash of cultures was taking shape – this time between Americans themselves – those living in the urban North and those living in the agricultural South. As we have seen, this clash would erupt into civil war within 70 years and would cost the new nation its innocence and more than 650,000 American lives – most of them right in the Coastal Plain where America was born.

In the first 60 years after Washington’s election as the nation’s first President, America continued to expand westward and by 1848 had completed the incorporation of the entire continent into States or Territories with the admission of California into the Union. A decade later, the Union was coming apart at the seams.

The primary reason was the desire of a large segment of the population to enslave other human beings for social and economic gain. This American population didn’t dream up this “peculiar institution” – it was deeded to them by the departing British at the conclusion of the Revolution but nontheless, they had made it their own. Macroeconomics and “States’ rights” may have been the issues for debate in Congress, in Statehouses and in the press, but it was African slavery at the heart of the matter that drove the nation to internecine warfare.

So let us delve into the controversy of human slavery which probably has existed, in one form or another, from the dawn of man.

As in most of the world, slavery, or involuntary human servitude, was practiced across Africa from prehistoric times to the modern era. When people today think of slavery, many envision the form in which it existed in the United States before the American Civil War: one racially identifiable group owning and exploiting another.

However, in other parts of the world, the evil of slavery has taken many different forms over the centuries. In Africa, many societies recognized slaves merely as property, but others saw them as dependents who eventually might be integrated into the families of slave owners. Still other societies allowed slaves to attain positions of military or administrative power.

“Chattel slavery [of black Africans] had been legal and widespread throughout North Africa [especially in Pharaonic Egypt (beginning about 3000 BC) long before the time] when the region was controlled by the Roman Empire (47 BC – 476 AD). African slave-traders in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert provided many of the African slaves held in North Africa during this period and there was a robust trans-Saharan slave trade in operation. [Many Egyptian slaves also came from the Sudan and Ethiopia as fruits of conquest.]

Chattel slavery persisted after the fall of the Roman Empire in the middle of the 5th Century AD, in the largely Christian communities of North Africa. After the Islamic expansion into most of the region in the mid-7th Century, the practices continued and eventually, the chattel form of slavery spread to major societies on the southern end of the Sahara (such as Mali, Songhai, and Ghana).

The medieval slave trade in Europe was mainly to the East and South: the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Muslim World were the destinations, Central and Eastern Europe an important source of slaves. Slavery in medieval Europe was so widespread that the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it – or at least the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands was prohibited at, for example, the Council of Koblenz in 922, the Council of London in 1102, and the Council of Armagh in 1171. Because of religious constraints, the slave trade was monopolized in parts of Europe by Iberian Jews (known as Radhanites) who were able to transfer slaves from pagan Central Europe through Christian Western Europe to Muslim countries in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) and Africa. So many Slavs were enslaved for so many centuries that word ‘Slav’ became synonymous with slavery. The derivation of the word slave encapsulates a bit of European history and explains why the two words (slaves and Slavs) are so similar – they are, in fact, historically identical.

The Mamluks were slave-soldiers who converted to Islam and served the Muslim caliphs and the Ayyubid Sultans during the Middle Ages. The first Mamluks served the Abbasid caliphs in 9th Century Baghdad. Over time, they became a powerful military caste, and on more than one occasion they seized power for themselves, for example, ruling Egypt from 1250–1517. From 1250, Egypt had been ruled by the Bahri dynasty of Kipchak Turk origin. White enslaved people from the Caucasus served in the army and formed an elite corps of troops eventually revolting in Egypt to form the Burgi dynasty.

In the Mediterranean area between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves to North Africa and the Ottoman between the 16th and 19th centuries. The coastal villages and towns of Italy, Portugal, Spain and Mediterranean islands were frequently attacked by pirates and long stretches of the Italian and Spanish coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants.

After 1600, Barbary pirates occasionally entered the Atlantic and struck as far north as Iceland. The most famous corsairs were the Ottoman Barbarossa (“Redbeard”), and his older brother Oruç. In 1544, Hayreddin Barbarossa captured the island of Ischia, now a popular resort off the coast of Naples, taking 4,000 prisoners in the process, and deported to slavery some 9,000 inhabitants of the island of Lipari, off the coast of Sicily – almost the entire population.

Barbary pirates enslaved the entire population of the Maltese island Gozo, between 5,000 and 6,000, sending them to Libya; sacked Vieste in southern Italy in 1554 taking an estimated 7,000 slaves. In 1555, ransacked Bastia, taking 6000 prisoners; captured the town of Ciutadella, destroyed it, slaughtered the inhabitants and carried off 3,000 survivors to Istanbul as slaves; landed at the shores of the province of Granada, Spain, and captured the coastal settlements in the area like Almuñécar, along with 4,000 prisoners and frequently attacked the Balearic Islands, a threat so severe that Formentera actually became uninhabited. As late as 1798, the islet near Sardinia was attacked by the Tunisians and over 900 inhabitants were taken away as slaves.

Early modern sources are full of descriptions of sufferings of Christian galley slaves of the Barbary corsairs.

“Those who have not seen a galley at sea, especially in chasing or being chased, cannot well conceive the shock of such a spectacle. To behold ranks and files of half-naked, half-starved, sunburned meager wretches, chained to a plank, from whence they are not removed for months (commonly half a year), urged on, even beyond human strength, with cruel and repeated blows on their bare flesh.”

Like most other regions of the world, slavery and forced labor existed in many kingdoms and societies of Africa for thousands of years. Most often, both slave owners and slaves were black Africans, although they were frequently of different ethnic groups or tribes. Traditionally, African slaves were bought to perform menial or domestic labor, to serve as wives or concubines, or to enhance the status of the slave owner.

The best evidence of slave practices in Africa come from the major kingdoms, particularly along the coast, and there is little evidence of widespread slavery practices in stateless societies. Slave trading was mostly secondary to other trade relationships; however, [as we have mentioned] there is evidence of a trans-Saharan slave trade route from Roman times which persisted in the area after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, kinship structures and rights provided to slaves (except those captured in war) appears to have limited the scope of slave trading before the start of the Arab slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade.

In Africa, as in many places around the world, early slavery likely resulted from warring groups taking captives. Such captives were of little use, and often some bother, when kept close to their homes because of the ease of escape. Therefore, they were often sold and transported to more distant places.

Warfare was not the only reason for the practice of slavery in Africa, however. In many African societies, slavery represented one of the few methods of producing wealth available to common people. Throughout the African continent as in most primitive [post-nomadic] societies worldwide, there was little recognition of rights to private landholding until colonial officials began imposing European law in the 19th Century.

Land was typically held communally by villages or large clans and was allotted to families according to their need. The amount of land a family needed was determined by the number of laborers that family could marshal to work the land. To increase production, a family had to invest in more laborers and thus increase their share of land. The simplest and quickest way to do this was to invest in slaves. To help service this demand, many early African societies conducted slave raids on distant villages.

A brief documented history of the “slave trade” might be helpful.

Around the 15th Century BC, Egypt’s New Kingdom enslaved non-Africans, such as early Jews from Canaan – the Biblical Joseph and Moses – through warfare and imported them to the Nile Valley [along with black Africans from the south]. As an African importer of non-African slaves, however, ancient Egypt is a notable exception to the rule. Africa’s role in the history of transcontinental slave trading has generally been as a provider or exporter of slaves for use outside of Africa.

After the 5th Century BC, Greeks and, later, Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean Sea. Both of these slave-owning powers raided North Africa extensively for slaves. This practice of using Africa as a source of slaves would be adopted and expanded first by Arab Muslims and later by Europeans.

The modern slave trade flourished in the early Middle Ages (records exist from as early as 869AD), especially between Muslim traders and western African kingdoms. For moralists, the most important aspect of that trade would be that Muslims were selling goods to the African kingdoms and the African kingdoms were paying with their own people. In most instances, no violence was necessary to obtain those slaves.

Contrary to legends and novels and Hollywood movies, the non-black African slave-traders did not need to savagely kill entire tribes in order to exact their tribute in slaves. All they needed to do is bring goods that appealed to the kings of those tribes. The kings would gladly sell their own subjects. (Of course, this neither condones the traders who bought the slaves nor deny that many traders still committed atrocities to maximize their business).

But, this may explain why slavery became “black”. Ancient slavery, e.g. under the Roman empire, would not discriminate: slaves were both white and black (so were Emperors and Popes). In the middle ages, all European countries outlawed slavery, whereas the African kingdoms happily continued in their trade. Therefore, only people-of-color could be slaves. It was not based on an ancestral hatred of blacks by whites, but simply on the [economic] fact that blacks were the only ones selling slaves, and they were selling people of their own race.

To be precise, Christians were also selling Muslim slaves captured in war, and Muslims were selling Christian slaves captured in war, but neither the Christians of Europe nor the Muslims of Africa and the Middle East were selling their own people.

Between the 7th and the 15th Century, the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades spurred the gradual expansion of slavery within Africa. The slave trades contributed to the development of powerful African states on the southern fringes of the Sahara and in the East African interior. The economies of these states were dependent on slave trading. Neighboring states competed with one another for trade, leading to wars, which, in turn, led to the capture of more slaves. Slave raiding in West, East, and Central Africa became more common and wide-ranging.

The spread of Islam from Arabia into Africa, after the religion’s founding in the 7th Century AD, affected the practice of slavery and slave trading in West, Central, and East Africa. Arabs had practiced slave raiding and trading in Arabia for centuries prior to the founding of Islam, and slavery became a component of Islamic traditions. Both the Qur’an (Koran) (the sacred scripture of Islam) and Islamic religious law served to codify and justify the existence of slavery. [In comparison, the Christian Testament of the Holy Bible implicitly condemns slavery because of the central commandment from Jesus, the Christ to love thy neighbor.]

Islam neither ignores nor condemns slavery. In fact, a large part of Sharia Law is dedicated to the practice of slavery. Muslims are encouraged to live in the way of Muhammad, who was a slave owner and trader. He captured slaves in battle. He had sex with his slaves and he instructed his men to do the same. The Koran actually devotes more verses to making sure that Muslim men know they can keep women as sex slaves (4) than it does to telling them to pray five times a day (0).

As Muslim Arabs conquered their way westward across North Africa in the 7th and 8th Centuries, their victorious leaders rewarded themselves with Berber captives, most of whom were eventually enrolled in Muslim armies. Over time, large segments of North Africa’s Berber population converted to Islam for practicality. The religion spread to the camel herders of the Sahara Desert, who were in contact with black Africans south of the Sahara and who traded small numbers of black slaves.

Muslim Arabs expanded this trans-Saharan slave trade, buying or seizing increasing numbers of black Africans in West Africa, leading them across the Sahara, and selling them in North Africa. From there, most of these slaves were exported to destinations such as the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia (in present-day Turkey), Arabia, Persia (present-day Iran), and India.

The trans-Saharan slave trade grew significantly from the 10th to the 15th Century, as vast African empires such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Kanem-Bornu developed south of the Sahara and marshaled the trade. Arab slave raiders also penetrated south, up the Nile River to present-day Ethiopia, capturing thousands of slaves and sending them down the Nile to Egypt.

According to historians, over the course of more than a thousand years, the trans-Saharan slave trade saw the movement of at least 10 million enslaved men, women, and children from West and East Africa to North Africa, the Middle East, and India. The slaves and their descendants contributed to the harems, royal households, and armies of the Arab, Turkish, and Persian rulers in those regions. [In comparison, less than a half-million slaves were shipped to North America during British rule (1607-1781) and before the Constitutionally imposed suspension of the slave-trade in 1808.]

Also, by the 9th Century, seafaring Muslims from Arabia and Persia had made their way down the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, obtaining African slaves in ports from Mogadishu (in present-day Somalia) to Sofala (in present-day Mozambique) and conveying them to western Asian cities to sell as slaves.

The culture of the East African coastal regions was strongly influenced by Arab and Persian traders, many of whom intermarried with Africans, thus producing the Swahili people and culture. Between the 9th and the 13th Centuries, this Arab-Persian-Swahili population established cities and city-states along the East African coast. These cities and states captured or purchased slaves from the East African interior for domestic and agricultural tasks. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, as plantation agriculture developed in the region under European influence, the East African slave trade increased dramatically.

Scholars’ opinions differ on the issue of the long-term effects of Islam on African slavery. Some believe that Islamic law helped regulate slavery, thus limiting its abuses; these scholars often argue that because Islam encouraged the freeing of slaves upon their master’s death, it increased instances of emancipation. Other scholars believe that Islam led to the expansion of slavery, arguing that, at the time, slavery was growing in the parts of Africa coming under Islamic influence, while slavery was declining in most of medieval Europe.”

“When European explorers and traders, chiefly from England, France, Holland and Portugal, arrived in West Africa beginning in the 15th century, they found and began using well-established slave-trade networks. While the trans-Saharan and East African slave trade continued until the early 20th Century, it was overshadowed by the Atlantic slave- trade from the 15th through the 18th Centuries. The Atlantic slave trade dwarfed the trans-Saharan and East African trades in terms of volume of export, impact on African practices of slavery, and lasting effect on Africa in general.

The Atlantic slave trade developed after Europeans began exploring and establishing trading posts on the Atlantic (west) coast of Africa in the mid-15th Century. The first major group of European traders in West Africa was the Portuguese, followed by the British and the French. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, these European colonial powers began to pursue plantation agriculture in their expanding possessions in the New World (North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean islands), across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Portuguese were the first to arrive. By 1471, under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator, they had reached the area that was to become known as the Gold Coast [ modern day Ghana] because Europeans knew the area as the source of gold that reached Muslim North Africa by way of trade routes across the Sahara. The first European to actually buy enslaved Africans in the region of Guinea was Antão Gonçalves, a Portuguese explorer in 1441. The initial Portuguese interest in trading for gold, ivory, and pepper increased so much that in 1482 the Portuguese built their first permanent trading post on the western coast of present-day Ghana. This fortress, Elmina Castle, constructed to protect Portuguese trade from European competitors and hostile Africans, still stands.

The Portuguese, applying an idea that originally developed in Italian sea-trading cities, and often using Italian venture capital, started exploiting sub-Saharan slaves in the 1440s to support the economy of the sugar plantations (mainly for their own African colonies of Sao Tome and Madeira). The Spanish were the first Europeans to use enslaved Africans in the New World – on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola, where the alarming death rate in the native population had spurred the first royal laws protecting the native population (Laws of Burgos, 1512). The first enslaved Africans arrived in Hispaniola in 1501 soon after the Papal Bull (edict) of 1493 gave all of the New World to Spain. They would become chattel slaves – slaves for life with no rights.”

The Dutch were the first, apparently, to import black slaves into continental North America, but black slaves had already been employed all over the world, including South and Central America. We tend to focus only on what happened in North America because the United States would eventually fight a war over slavery (and it was in America that large sectors of the population would start condemning slavery, contrary to the indifference that Muslims and most Europeans showed toward it).

“With the opening of European plantations in the New World during the 1500s as European demand grew for products such as sugar, tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton, and as more New World lands became available for European use, the need for plantation labor increased. West and west-central African states, already involved in slave trading, supplied the Europeans with African slaves for export across the Atlantic which soon overshadowed gold as the principal export of the area.

The Portuguese position on the Gold Coast remained secure for almost a century. During that time, Lisbon leased the right to establish trading posts to individuals or companies that sought to align themselves with the local chiefs and to exchange trade goods both for rights to conduct commerce and for slaves whom the chiefs could provide. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, adventurers – first Dutch, and later English, Danish, and Swedish – were granted licenses by their governments to trade overseas. On the Gold Coast, these European competitors built fortified trading stations and challenged the Portuguese.

The principal early struggle was between the Dutch and the Portuguese. With the loss of Elmina in 1642 to the Dutch, the Portuguese left the Gold Coast permanently. The next 150 years saw kaleidoscopic change and uncertainty, marked by local conflicts and diplomatic maneuvers, during which various European powers struggled to establish or to maintain a position of dominance in the profitable trade of the Gold Coast littoral. Forts were built, abandoned, attacked, captured, sold, and exchanged, and many sites were selected at one time or another for fortified positions by contending European nations.

Both the Dutch and the British formed early corporations to advance their African ventures and to protect their coastal establishments. The Dutch West India Company operated throughout most of the 18th Century. The British African Company of Merchants, founded in 1750, was the successor to several earlier organizations of this type. These enterprises built and manned new installations as the companies pursued their trading activities and defended their respective jurisdictions with varying degrees of government backing.

Black-Africans became the major source, and eventually the only source, of New World plantation labor because Africans tended to live longer on the tropical plantations of the New World than did European laborers (who were susceptible to tropical diseases) and aboriginal Americans (who were extremely susceptible to “Old World” diseases brought by the Europeans from Europe, Asia, and Africa). Also, enslaved men and women from Africa were inexpensive by European standards.

Indeed, the west coast of Africa became the principal source of slaves for the New World. The seemingly insatiable market and the substantial profits to be gained from the slave trade attracted adventurers from all over Europe. Much of the conflict that arose among European groups on the coast and among competing African kingdoms was the result of rivalry for control of this trade.

The Africans who facilitated and benefited from the Atlantic slave trade were political or commercial elites – generally members of the ruling apparatus of African kingdoms or members of large trading families or institutions. African sellers captured slaves and brought them to markets on the coast where European and Colonial buyers paid for the slaves with commodities – including cloth, iron, firearms, liquor, and decorative items – that were useful to the sellers.

These kingdoms relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans. A scathing reminder of this execrable practice is documented in the Slave Trade Debates of England in the early 19th Century:

“All the old writers…concur in stating not only that wars are entered into for the sole purpose of making slaves, but that they are fomented by Europeans, with a view to that object.”

The Africans who were enslaved were mostly prisoners of war or captives resulting from slave raids. As the demand for slaves grew, so did the practice of systematic slave raiding, which increased in scope and efficiency with the introduction of firearms to Africa in the 17th Century. By the 18th Century, most African slaves were acquired through slave raids, which penetrated farther and farther inland.

The legends of European mercenaries capturing free people in the jungle are mostly just that: legends. A few mercenaries certainly stormed peaceful tribes and committed terrible crimes, but that was not the norm. There was no need to risk their lives, so most of them didn’t: they simply purchased people.

From the mid-15th to the late-19th Century, some scholars estimate that about 10 million total Africans were sold by Africans to Europeans [most of them before 1776, when the USA wasn’t yet born] and 15 million were sold to Arabs. A small percentage of these slaves, particularly in the early years of the trade, were sent to Europe, especially to Spain and Portugal. Most, however, were shipped across the Atlantic for sale in Portuguese-administered Brazil; the British, French, Dutch, and Danish islands of the Caribbean; Spanish-controlled South and Central America; and the British North American mainland.

The Atlantic crossing, known as the Middle Passage, was nightmarish for slaves, who were poorly fed, subject to abuses at the hands of the crew, and confined to cramped storage holds in which diseases spread easily. Historians estimate that between 1.5 and 2 million slaves died during the journey to the New World. African “judas goats” would facilitate the passage because of their language skills and would also bring some cultural items to the new world – like the ‘banjo’.

The Atlantic slave trade differed from previous practices of slavery and slave trading in Africa in its huge scope and its importance to the economies of world powers. While traditional African slavery was practiced largely to help African communities produce food and goods or for prestige, slave labor on European plantations in the New World was crucial to the economies of the colonies and therefore to the economies of the colonial powers.

Another aspect of the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on Africa concerns the role of African chiefs, Muslim traders, and merchant princes in the trade. Although there is no doubt that local rulers in West Africa engaged in slaving and received certain advantages from it, some scholars have challenged the premise that traditional chiefs in the vicinity of the Gold Coast engaged in wars of expansion for the sole purpose of acquiring slaves for the export market.

In the case of Asante, for example, rulers of that kingdom are known to have supplied slaves to both Muslim traders in the north and to Europeans on the coast. Even so, the Asante waged war for purposes other than simply to secure slaves. They also fought to pacify territories that in theory were under Asante’s control, to exact tribute payments from subordinate kingdoms, and to secure access to trade routes – particularly those that connected the interior with the coast.

It is important to understand however, that the supply of slaves to the Gold Coast was entirely in African hands. Although powerful traditional chiefs, such as the rulers of Asante, Fante, and Ahanta, were known to have engaged in the slave trade, individual African merchants such as John Kabes, John Konny, Thomas Ewusi, and a broker known only as Noi m, commanded large bands of armed men, many of them slaves, and engaged in various forms of commercial activities with the Europeans on the coast.

The volume of the slave trade in West Africa grew rapidly from its inception around the beginning of the 14th Century to its peak in the 18th Century. Philip Curtin, a leading authority on the African slave trade, estimates that roughly 6.5 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to North America and South America, about 4.5 million of that number between 1701 and 1810. Perhaps 5,000 a year were shipped from the Gold Coast alone.

In 1807 Britain outlawed slavery and, in 1808, the importation of slaves was ended in America per Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution. In 1820 the king of the African kingdom of Ashanti inquired why the Christians did not want to trade slaves with him anymore, since they worshipped the same god as the Muslims, and the Muslims were continuing the trade like before. [a mistaken impression since the Christian “God” and the Muslim “Allah” are truly separate entities in the eyes of the faithful].

The demographic impact of the slave trade on West Africa was probably substantially greater than the number actually enslaved because a significant number of Africans perished during slaving raids, while in captivity awaiting transshipment, or during the “middle passage”. All nations with an interest in West Africa participated in the slave trade. Relations between the Europeans and the local populations were often strained, and distrust led to frequent clashes. Disease caused high losses among the Europeans engaged in the slave trade, but the profits realized from the trade continued to attract them.

This global economic demand for African slaves altered African practices of slavery. In much of Africa, slavery became a more central, structural element of African life, as rulers and wealthy elites sought to accumulate more and more slaves – for sale as well as for their own use. In addition to the systematic and institutional practice of slave raiding, other practices were introduced in African states to bring in even more slaves, including enslavement as punishment for crimes and religious wrongdoing. As a result, by the 19th Century, vast numbers of Black-Africans in West and Central Africa faced the threat of being enslaved.

Millions of slaves died on ships and of diseases, millions of blacks worked for free to allow the Western economies to prosper, and the economic interests in slavery became so strong that, as we have seen, the southern States of the United States virulently opposed repealing it to the point of going to war to preserve their “peculiar institution”. But those millions of slaves were just one of the many instances of mass exploitation.

The industrial revolution was exported to America by entrepreneurs importing and exploiting millions of poor immigrants from Europe. The fate of those immigrants was not much better than the fate of the slaves in the South. As a matter of fact, many slaves enjoyed far better living conditions in the southern plantations than European immigrants did in the industrial cities (which were sometimes comparable to concentration camps).

It is not a coincidence that the movement to abolish slavery occurred during the same period when millions of European and Chinese immigrants provided the same kind of cheap labor.

It is also fair to say that, while there is never, ever any excuse or justification for one human being to enslave another and while almost everyone tolerated it, comparatively few whites practiced slavery in America: in 1860, there were 385,000 American citizens who owned slaves, or about 1% of the white population. That percentage was zero in the states that did not allow slavery. Only one-quarter (25%) of the white population lived in states that allowed slavery.

Incidentally, in 1830 about 25% of the free Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves: that is a much higher percentage (ten times more) than the number of white slave owners. Thus slave owners were a tiny minority and it was not only whites: it was just about anybody who could, including blacks themselves.

Moral opposition to slavery became widespread even before Lincoln, and throughout Europe. On the other hand, opposition to slavery was never particularly strong in Africa itself, where slavery is only slowly being eradicated in our own times. One can suspect that slavery would have remained common in most African kingdoms until this day: what crushed slavery in Africa was that all of those African kingdoms became colonies of Western European countries that (for one reason or another) eventually decided to outlaw slavery.

Next time: Abolition


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