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New Worlds: The Uses of Slave Labor

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Millions of people throughout history, held as property so their labor could be exploited by other people. What were they used for?

The quick answer is: practically everything.

Naturally, some uses were more common than others. Agricultural workers were often a huge percentage of the enslaved population, simply because agriculture itself was a huge percentage of the work that needed to be done. And much of farming labor is tedious, back-breaking stuff; if someone had enough money or enough luck in war to push that off onto the back of a slave instead, they frequently did. This ranged from the plantations of the colonial New World and the latifundia of Roman expansion down to the level of small-scale farmers who might have only one or two slaves — not enough to do all the work on their own, certainly, so the farmer would still be working alongside them. But those two people didn’t sleep in the same kind of bed at night, or share equally in the fruits of the harvest. And one sugar planter, Edward Littleton, judged that if he bought a hundred slaves to work his fields, every one of them would be dead in nineteen years, which gives you a yardstick for gauging just how hard such workers were driven.

If there’s incentive to duck out of work that’s merely exhausting, how much more so when the work is actively dangerous? Mining, for example, has always been a hazardous occupation; Vicki Leon’s Working IX to V claims that the life expectancy for an enslaved worker in the Roman silver mines near Cartagena was three months. Even if that’s untrue (hers is not the sort of book that directly cites its sources, so I can’t weigh the trustworthiness of that one), I know I’ve seen it said that a mine slave would be lucky to survive a year or two. Implementing safety measures to better their odds costs money, thus cutting into the mine owner’s profit. If it’s cheaper to just replace the slaves, then death becomes simply the cost of doing business — a mentality we still see among mine owners with their paid laborers today.

By comparison, jobs in the house seem cushy . . . and in some ways they were. Of course, being inside the house also tended to mean being more under the eye of the master, the mistress, and other free people who might take the opportunity to control and abuse you. Paid servants in Victorian England were expected to work practically every waking hour; it won’t have been any better for a household slave, and the latter wasn’t guaranteed any days off. I’ve talked before about how much labor goes into keeping people, clothes, and houses clean, or into providing food and clothing for everyone, in a pre-industrial society; well, the leisure of Southern belles, Roman matrons, and other such upper-class women rests on having someone else to do that work.

It may seem odd at first glance that household duties extend even to having slaves act as body servants, with access to their owners at the moment those oppressors are the most vulnerable. But that vulnerability is exactly why slaves could be trusted with such work: while a free person might have the resources to flee after committing murder, a slave probably doesn’t. Furthermore, the slave has very few rights in the eyes of the law, and there’s much more latitude for the consequences of their action to fall on the heads of the innocent. Remember, Roman law mandated that all slaves under the same roof as the murder be executed . . . and that might well include the killer’s children. It’s a very effective tool for keeping someone in line.

Beyond those common targets, there’s practically nothing slave labor wasn’t used for. If your master owned a shop, you might handle duties familiar to anyone who’s worked retail, like conducting transactions, restocking shelves, and placing orders — just with the threat of beatings or worse if your performance wasn’t satisfactory. Slaves nursed and tutored free children, manufactured goods for sale, trained animals, doctored people through injuries and disease, provided sexual services, fought as gladiators and performed as entertainers.

They even undertook tasks that might seem like the last place you could expect to find a slave at work. Remember those huge agricultural estates, maintained by perhaps hundreds of enslaved workers? It’s entirely possible, especially in certain places and times, to find a different slave operating as their overseer. The same goes for household overseers, managing the domestic staff and ensuring everything runs as smoothly as it’s supposed to. Don’t expect that person to be more lenient, either; with great power comes great accountability if something displeases the master. And it’s human nature to protect the perks of your elevated station, even if those come at someone else’s expense.

Think that nobody would hand weapons to slaves? Think again. The elite Ottoman Janissaries were slaves, albeit highly irregular ones who received wages and eventually held power comparable to that of the aristocracy. From what I can tell, slave soldiers were largely a phenomenon of the Middle East and other places under Islamic influence — the Confederacy’s controversial and last-ditch attempt to survive on the battlefield by putting slaves into uniform only made it two hundred men in before they lost the war — but it’s still an interesting phenomenon. And given that the focus of this series is on worldbuilding for fictional settings, nothing means that similar dynamics can’t exist in a story!

Slaves could even, under the right circumstances, rise to almost the very top of the hierarchy. I already mentioned the Janissaries; other boys taken from their families under the Ottoman policy of devşirme wound up wielding immense influence, even holding the title of grand vizier. I have a harder time tracing the specifics of how this played out in Chinese history: eunuchs definitely exerted considerable influence over the imperial government in certain periods, and eunuchs were often slaves (a pairing also seen in the Middle East), but the exact legal status of slavery in China fluctuated through the ages. As a result, I’m not quite familiar enough with the ins and outs to say for certain whether the heights of eunuch power coincided with them officially being slaves or not. I think, though, that this was the case during the Ming Dynasty. (Anybody more familiar with the specifics is welcome to clarify in the comments!)

Underlying all of this, however, is still the cold hard fact that none of these people were free. Despite having cushy jobs, the favor of their master, or significant political power . . . ultimately they were still someone’s property, and that someone could always rip those comforts and privileges away. They were not free to retire from their work or switch to another profession. Every precarity that applied to a free person’s life applied to that of a slave, and then some.

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5 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Uses of Slave Labor”

  1. He doubled what was the actual life span of his average sugar slave. Sugar killed in 9 – 10 years on average. This is how there was so much cultural transmission and preservation directly from the variety of Africans brought here in the Atlantic slave trade — the whole thing turned over every decade.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Ah, thank you — I figured a sugar planter would have solid data for making that forecast, but I didn’t have the broader context for that number.

  2. This is who you go to for the crunched numbers of the Atlantic Slave Trade:

    Cuba is a well of African knowledge due to oral transmission. As in Haiti, people remember very well from generation to generation. Cuba was the second of the last 3 nations to end slavery — the US, Cuba and Brasil were the last nations in the Western hemisphere to have that institution legally. The US, of course, as protectionism for the domestic trade / slave breeding industry, prohibited the importation of enslaved from African and elsewhere in 1808. (Fewer slaves from Africa were imported to North America than anywhere, because tobacco didn’t kill like sugar did, the incarcerated could hunt in the earlier century, and garden, so they ate better, which meant not just a ‘domestic’ replacement population, but a growing population. Africans were cheaper, so, you know, protectionism.

    Cuba’s sugar industry didn’t get wildly going until later, after the Haitian Revolution, during which enterprising Cubans essentially plundered the islands sugar industry mills and machinery, while a number of Haitian planters refugeed with their slaves to Cuba — though they were forced to leave — mostly going to New Orleans — when Napoleon went to war on Spain.

    The result of this is from then on, the Atlantic slave trade was picking up entire villages, communities and regions and transporting them to Cuba (often under the protection of the US flag to keep the British navy from stopping them, as part of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812) — US officials ‘sold’ the flag to anyone who could pay. A lot of Confederates made fortunes from their appointments in Cuba a few years after the war here was over, selling that flag.

    Anyway, this means a treasure of African cultural and spiritual practices, languages and rituals, are still vital in Cuba, where they tended to lost in Africa as the populations were depleted in service to the Atlantic slave trade over a period of hundreds of years.

  3. BTW, the significant scion of the 17th C Barbados slaveholding Edward Littelton, founder of the family fortunes this way, was created first Baron Hatherton, just one of the many sugar fortune scions, who got rid of those holdings, yet who ruled Parliament for many decades through the riches of their their family’s founding fortunes on their distant across-the-sea plantations. A recent book that lays out the history and evolution into the aristocracy of English slavery and the barons of the Caribbean, is The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011) by Matthew Parker.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Belated, but thank you! Much of what I know on that particular front comes from a really excellent exhibit the Museum in Docklands had, but that was quite some years ago.

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