Summary of Slavery



Though slavery has never had a universal definition, one might describe it as the dependent labour by one person performed to another who is not of his or her family.  The origin of slavery is lost, not in history but in human memory. It was thought to have come about after a dramatic labour shortage in particular areas or countries.  Slavery was always global, though for the benefit of AS-Level students studying The Color Purple, I am going to be mainly concentrating on the issues that affected the regime in the American South [pictured].

Slaves could be generated in many ways, the most frequent being through capture in war or through kidnapping.  Many others were sold into slavery by their relatives as a last resort to pay off debts.  You may recall Nettie’s words: "Today the people of Africa – having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks – are riddled by disease," and indeed this was the case as Africa’s physical and intellectual finest were shipped off in tiny boats. More people sold themselves believing it would promote them socially. By 1867 between seven and ten million Africans had been shipped over into the New World of America to work in a regime known as the ‘slave trade.’

Historically, there were two different types of slave: the domestic slave – who generally worked outside harvesting or haying – and productive slaves – who were employed to produce cotton and coal from the plantations and mines. Slaves were mostly status symbols for the rich and powerful, and in most slave societies, Atlanta, Georgia being one, slaves made up around twenty to thirty per cent of the population. During the halcyon days of the cotton era, the population of slaves in America reached forty per cent.

As far as the predominant gender of the slaves, this very much depended on the context. Slave owners from Africa usually demanded women and children to assist in labour and in America males were usually the hottest commodity for they were viewed as the most able to carry out tasks such as mining and cotton picking. In fact, the males who left for America were perhaps lucky, as many male slaves were slaughtered in Africa, deemed by owners as too ‘troublesome.’

Once a slave, the labourer was in the power of his or her owner. Slaves were not viewed as people but as property and they were thus treated as such. In many societies, slaves were considered movable property, and belonged to the owner. Therefore, if the owner wanted to move north, then he might take his slaves with him. If he died, the slaves would be part of his estate and then passed onto the eldest male heir or daughter if the owner had no sons. Slaves were very much like animals: they, like dogs and cats had no rights, and as a result, the owner was entitled to take whatever he – and usually he – wanted, including his pay, his clothes and most disturbingly, his wife. All of these instances were not uncommon, and any slave who tried to impede the owner’s advances would be owed a flogging.

As slaves were very much a status symbol for their owners, it meant that they were often as easily disposed of as they were bought. Slaves in the American South were beaten as punishment until they died. Other slaves died in a similar manner across the world including those who were purchased by the Mayans, though in the latter case, massacred slaves were often cooked and eaten. In ancient Egypt, slaves often committed suicide after their master had died, in order that they may wait on him in the afterlife. However, as much as it must be stressed that slaves were badly beaten and killed, infanticide, the killing of children by its slave mother or father, and individual suicide was also common, especially in the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ of slave-carrying ships.

As slaves were killed frequently by those who owned them, regulations were composed, not to protect the slaves, but moreover the rules were a yardstick to measure which punishment would be best suited to correct which certain type of misconduct. In one extreme case, in ancient Rome, if one slave had killed an owner then the whole household would be killed. Very seldom did the law ever step in if a slave had been killed. In the South slaves were given no mercy, and were often killed unjustly because they were thought of as natural predators. In one legal case in Alabama, the court said, "Because they are slaves, they are incapable of performing civil acts." Only in North America, was a slave murder deemed the same as that of a free person.

Though rendered uncivilised by those around them, many slaves have rebelled against a system they thought brutal and unfair. Witchcraft was often a remedy against a bad master, though slaves have been known to kill their owners with their bare hands. Perhaps the most dramatic slave protest was outright rebellion. Some of the most famous instances of this have been in New York in 1712, Denmark Vesey in 1822 and Nat Turner’s uprising in Jerusalem, where they literally went from door to door killing whole families of those who once persecuted them. However campaigns to free the slaves have not always been so successful. Many slaves, in attempting to reprove their oppressors have only met with failure, and death.

It was not until late in the 1700s, was the slave trade challenged, when humanitarians from England took the first steps to abolishing it. These steps towards abolition were soon reinforced when the English Quakers presented the House of Commons with an anti-slavery petition [pictured is a poster backing this campaign]. This was in light of America’s move to ban slavery, supported again, by the Quakers and by the American President Abraham Lincoln, who, after hearing several protestations from the non-slave North passed a law that emancipated slaves and abolished slavery in America.

Today, it is almost certainly the case that slavery is a hidden memory, only to be revived by Black writers such as Toni Morrison and Grace Nichols. The last peoples to formally ban slavery were those of the Sahara and Sahel regions, where the regime had persisted up until 1975, though the regime continues underground today.

Written by Matthew Kane [2001]

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