New Worlds: Life After Slavery

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If you manage to get out of slavery — through escape or through emancipation; through the legislative or revolutionary end of the institution itself — what does your life look like?

Unsurprisingly, the answer will depend heavily on circumstances. If you escape all the way back to a foreign homeland, you might re-enter normal life, albeit perhaps with physical and/or psychological scars. If you escape, but either can’t reach your foreign homeland or have none to offer you refuge from the society that enslaved you, then you might spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, wondering if agents of your former master will someday find you and drag you back.

But even being freed legally doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. In the U.S., where slavery was heavily racialized — much more so than in ancient forms of the practice — Black people prior to the abolition of slavery could be at risk of re-enslavement simply by dint of their appearance. Freedmen and freedwomen, or even Black people born free, were sometimes kidnapped and sold by racists who didn’t give a damn what their legal status was. The kidnapped individuals weren’t White; to the people perpetrating these crimes, that was justification enough.

This points at the importance not only of the legal framework around slavery in a given culture, but of the entire ideological basis underpinning it. Chattel slavery in the New World was ultimately predicated on a belief system that placed Europeans at the top, and all other races beneath them. We live with the legacy of that system today, in the form of White supremacy; it ensures that after individual emancipation, or even after the abolition of slavery as a whole, significant inequality remains. Anywhere that slave status is founded on a clear demarcation between the enslaving population and the enslaved one, and the assumption of innate inferiority on the part of the latter, you’re likely to see a similar dynamic.

But that’s not the only approach. While the Romans were hardly free of bigotry, their sense of supremacy was cultural more than it was racial: though it is often not depicted this way, Rome was a multi-ethnic society from the start, welded together through the adoption of shared customs and a web of legal rights. The magnitude of the difference can be seen in the fact that most Roman ex-slaves received citizenship — in a society where that status was emphatically not granted to every freeborn subject of the Republic or the Empire. Freedmen were barred from holding public office (though they could vote), but their descendants were not, and some even in the first generation amassed stupendous amounts of wealth.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Overly successful freedmen were sneered at as nouveau riche, and many elite Romans thought that slavery left behind a kind of moral taint that made freedmen less trustworthy. Even apart from that prejudice, a manumitted slave was expected to maintain a close — and distinctly subordinate — relationship with their former master: men became their political clients and supporters, and sometimes owed set amounts of labor, while unmarried women often wound up with their ex-master as their legal guardian . . . or as their husband.

Still, it’s relevant that it was vastly more possible for freed Roman slaves to assimilate into regular society than those in the U.S. They were judged more on the basis of their behavior than their appearance: did they act like Romans? Reverting to native customs or showing up their supposed social betters attracted disapproval, but a hardworking and courteous individual who displayed the correct sort of piety could fit in pretty well. And although the first emperor, Augustus, passed laws to limit how many slaves could be freed at once and to bar their children from marrying into the senatorial class, there was never any attempt to wholly subjugate freedmen and keep their descendants in a menial state.

So for individuals, life after slavery could run a gamut from “you might be re-enslaved at any moment” to “this is actually a pathway to legal rights and financial success.” But what about mass instances? What happens when a whole population is freed at once, when slavery itself is overthrown through war or the passage of laws?

As I said in the previous essay, our examples here are extremely skewed towards recent history, because true abolition — not just exempting some people from slavery, not just morphing one form of unfree labor into another, but the absolute end of that practice — is largely a recent phenomenon. And because of that recent skew, we’re looking very much at Western colonial slavery, which tended to overwrite local practices with a big fat marker labeled RACE.

Which means that post-abolition society has rarely done a good job of anything resembling integration for ex-slaves. On the contrary, the U.S. promptly scrambled to maintain segregation and inequality any way it could, whether through interfering with Black participation in politics, economic maneuvers designed to impoverish Black families, cultural messaging that reinforces the lie of Black inferiority, outright violence, or other means. We’ve touched on these topics before, e.g. when discussing democracy and the right to vote; laws stripping that right from felons, coupled with an unjust justice system that preferentially targets Black citizens, are still staining our society a hundred and fifty years after slavery went away. The institution is gone, but the prejudice that held it up remains.

I’m not aware of any counter-examples where slavery was built not on such profoundly racialized principles, and then was fully abolished. (A few Chinese emperors tried, but it didn’t stick.) As a result, we may not have any large-scale, real-world models for what the aftermath of that kind of abolition would look like — though if there’s one I’m missing, let me know! It would undoubtedly cause economic upheaval, just as in real history, since a great many slave-owners would be unprepared to pay wages to their former property, and might well look for ways to force those people into some kind of client status. But the ripples of that upheaval would, I suspect, pass far more rapidly. Even if slaves were branded or otherwise marked, their children would bear no visible sign of slave ancestry, making it far more difficult to impose social and political disabilities on them as a class. Not impossible — witness the difficulties faced by the descendants of “untouchable” castes in certain parts of Asia — but harder.

It’s an experiment I hope we never run outside of fiction.

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9 thoughts on “New Worlds: Life After Slavery”

    1. Dang, I did not know about current slavery in North Korea until I followed that link. 10% enslaved (estimated, of course) is far from a record-setting percentage — it’s less than a third of what the American South had before the Civil War — but still.

      Interesting to see the fuzziness around the category of nobi: are they slaves? serfs? which time period and subset of them are we looking at? That’s not uncommon on this topic (and will come up some next week). But daaaaaang, it ain’t good when you look at the 100 days of maternity leave provided to slaves/serfs/whatever and realize that many modern societies aren’t half so good on that front . . .

  1. I’m reminded of an epigram of Martial’s I read when I was studying Latin. It was addressed to a freedman whose slave name was Cinnamus (which yes, means the spice cinnamon) but who was now going by Cinna (a well-respected Roman name). Martial complained that this method would turn Furius (a respected Roman name) to Fur, a word meaning thief. One nice little coincidence is that you can translate this almost perfectly into English by saying that you’d turn Robert into Robber.

    1. Heee!

      And now I’m thinking about the joke in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, where Barrayaran society marks nobility by putting “vor” on the front of the family name — which as I understand it is Russian for “thief” . . . it wouldn’t surprise me if Bujold had seen that line from Martial and ran with her own approach to it.

      1. I think I’ve heard that Bujold came up with “vor-” just as something cool-sounding, and found out about the Russian only later. I could be wrong.

  2. Whites could be kidnapped and sold as slaves in the United States. There were a number of freedom suits where the plaintiff said, “I am not an octoroon! I am a white who was kidnapped!” As it was notorious that one-eighth black meant indistinguishable from white. Obviously such kidnappers were much less common, but see Sally Miller, born Salomé Müller.

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