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New Worlds: Foundations of Slavery

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Slavery may be an appalling institution widespread in both time and place, but as I mentioned last week, it isn’t the same everywhere and everywhen. Let’s begin digging into some of the variations, starting with the basic question of: where do slaves come from?

Probably the most common answer to this question is “war.” It used to be the case that the victors in war could do basically whatever they wanted with the people they’d defeated, which included taking them as slaves. Not every single person, of course; the elderly, extremely young, the infirm might just be killed outright, as might able-bodied adult men, the latter on the grounds that they were too much trouble (though in other instances they would be enslaved and sent to do highly dangerous work). Women and children above a certain age, however, could commonly expect this fate in the aftermath of a battle, especially if they were the residents of a city that had resisted a siege — the idea being that this encourages other cities to surrender.

When slaves are a product of war, that naturally has effects on the politics of the region. A large empire like Rome has incentive to expand, not just to gain access to more natural resources, but to keep supplying captives for labor back home. Meanwhile, twenty-first century Africa is still marked by the conflicts of the slave-trading period, when Europeans offered guns in exchange for captives, both encouraging local communities to make war against one another and arming them for battle. Refuse to play that game, and your neighbors will overrun and sell you off. A similar shift happened among Native American tribes, who began selling their captives to Europeans rather than following the practices they had before.

But war is not the only route to creating an enslaved population. The law can order enslavement as a punishment for certain crimes, usually severe ones. It can also arise from a failure to pay debts: when everything else is gone, a person still has their own body and labor to sell. Sometimes this is a voluntary (albeit coerced) choice, a way to avoid other consequences; other times it’s a punishment levied by a court, treating unpaid debts like a crime. Similarly, in times of economic stress, parents may sell one or more of their children — a horrifying course of action, to be sure, but when the alternative is not being able to feed the rest of your family (and the child is guaranteed to be fed by their master), you can see why they might do it. Notably, both the child situations and the debt bondage might be more of a temporary arrangement, a la indentured servitude — but not always.

And finally, there’s often the possibility of using your slaves to produce more slaves. Are their children considered free people or chattel? It depends on where and when you live, and sometimes on factors specific to the family at hand.

Next, we should ask: who can be enslaved? The Atlantic slave trade is notable for how intensively it justified enslavement on a specifically racial basis — though, as noted above, Native Americans were enslaved alongside Africans and their descendants, so it wasn’t only a single race that was affected. In other societies there might be a looser ethnic or nationalist basis for slavery, targeting outsiders to the state, but not people of that heritage who are within the state. The difference can be seen in the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act, which empowered slave-catchers to pursue escaped slaves into states where the practice had been abolished, and requiring citizens of those states to cooperate — with no right of trial. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in slave-catchers kidnapping free Blacks and selling them in the South, because of the ingrained belief that anyone of African ancestry was or ought to be a slave.

The flip side to this is that certain populations may be exempted from enslavement. Traditional Islamic law, for example, protected Muslims against being sold or sentenced into slavery, and some European societies similarly prohibited the enslavement of Christians — generally with a carve-out that a slave who converted to Islam or Christianity did not gain their freedom thereby. It seems to be fairly common to exempt “us” from that fate (except, in some instances, as punishment for a crime), while allowing “them” to be sold as slaves — however “us” and “them” may be defined.

Which brings us at last to the question of who owned all these people. The image bequeathed to us by the slave states of European New World colonialism is of plantations forcing the labor of hundreds of workers, with a smaller number serving in the house; Roman latifundia, huge agricultural estates, were very similar.

But we often forget that much of slavery has operated on a far smaller scale. Individual households, reaching quite far down the economic spectrum, might own a handful of slaves, or even just a single one. Being able to purchase a slave could be a marker of status: if you couldn’t afford even that much, then you were in the lowest echelons of free society. (A similar dynamic operated in later history around servants and having at least a single maid-of-all-work to tend the house.) In aggregate, these small slave-holding households might well account for a larger percentage of the enslaved population than those large country estates, even if their historical footprint was less overt.

And private individuals weren’t the only ones who owned slaves. The state could hold people as chattel, too; Spartan helots were essentially state-owned slaves. (As a note in passing, serfdom should be filed alongside indentured servitude under “slavery-adjacent institutions I’ll discuss at some point” — but the line between serfdom/helotry/etc. and slavery is often so thin as to be non-existent.) Temples and other religious foundations could likewise own slaves, often for many of the same purposes: they too might own agricultural land that needed to be worked, or want hands to perform housekeeping and maintenance on religious buildings.

How thoroughly slavery permeated a given society varied widely, but at its extreme, it was omnipresent. Slaves were not just a distant image off in the fields; they were on the streets, in the shops, in the houses of you and all of your friends — yes, you, because while many of us like to think that of course we wouldn’t have owned slaves, the truth is that we might well have done. Not in a time and place where our own ethnic group was the one being targeted for enslavement, of course . . . but turn us all into ancient Romans, and yeah, we would probably own slaves or aspire to do so. Because it was simply how the world worked.

There is, however, another perspective from which to look at this institution. So next week, we’ll dig into the life of a slave.

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