Slavery is often considered as a social institution or an established practice that has existed since the early history of mankind and is present in almost all regions of the world. Among the earliest accounts of slavery were found in the ancient cities of Mesopotamia as early as 2,300 B.C.. However, it could not be fully established as to when slavery actually started as its genesis was lost in the passage of time. An important point to consider though in studying the origins of slavery is that it could not have existed during the time when humans were still hunters or gatherers. Evidently, slavery is somehow associated with civilization as people began to recognize social classes. Most likely, the increased knowledge in agriculture may have encouraged early nomads to settle and establish societies that eventually became highly organized and conducive for slavery to gradually take form. The transition from being hunters/gatherers to an agricultural society may have been gradual. Historians speculate that the first of these transitions may have occurred in Upper Mesopotamia at around 10,000 B.C., which is also the time when slavery may have first emerged. People can be enslaved for a variety of reasons. Among the major reasons for slavery are debt, punishment, voluntary servitude and war. Also, individuals who were born out of slave mothers inherit their parents’ social status. Indebtedness is seen as the major reason for slavery. Because of poverty some individuals unable to pay their debt and as a solution, may submit themselves as slaves to those whom they owe. Others who wish to escape poverty may also voluntarily submit themselves to slavery especially when the benefits of being a slave exceed that of being a free man. Slave servants in wealth families, for example, are sometimes better off than free men who work in the field as they may enjoy protection and sustenance. Slaves can also be acquired through war. In ancient civilizations, a group of people who are defeated in war maybe captured and turned into slaves. Such practices have been richly documented in history.
Origins of Slavery in Africa
Africa plays a crucial and important role in its understanding slavery and its impact to society. Being one of the cradles of man’s civilization, scholars believe that slavery has existed in Africa since pre-historic times. Historians believe that people in Africa were very much familiar with the institution of slavery. According to Perbi, “From North to South, and from East to West, the African continent became intimately connected with slavery both as one of the principal areas in the world where slavery was common, and also as a major source of slaves for ancient civilization, the medieval world and all the continents of the modern period”. It is interesting to note thought that despite the fact that slavery is rampant in Africa, there was a time when African slaves were not regarded as lowly as they were when slave culture that are being practiced in White societies came in. In ancient Egypt and Nubia, for example, slaves may be a common practice but it does not necessarily mean that they lose their civil rights. As observed, “As indentured slaves they did not lose all their civil rights; and sometimes the economic security they gained through their new status might seem to be worth giving up some freedoms for”.
Driven by the demand not only within Africa but also abroad, the African slave trade flourished early in history. It should be noted that in ancient times, slavery was not only an essential feature of African society but also of all civilized societies. Regarded as beneficial to the economy of any civilized group, slavery is practiced in almost all ancient cultures. Internally, slaves drive the economies of African societies. Slaves were traded together with things of value such as gold, ivory, food, etc. Highly-civilized societies have used slaves in order to work in agriculture and massive government projects. Key civilizations of the ancient world such as the Romans, Greeks and even the Chinese were considered as slave economies as they depend much on slave labor in order to run the essential functions of their government. As observed by Scheidel, “Given the predominance of the agrarian economy, the presence of slaves in farming is the single most important determinant of the overall size of the slave population”. This slave economy of the ancient world may have greatly influenced the prevalence of slavery in Africa. Regarded as a rarity and priced possession, Black slaves were often given as gifts by rulers to pay tribute or as present to other rulers abroad. As observed by scholars, “In the 41st (?) year of Thutmose's reign he received from the Hittites among other things eight male and female black slaves, calling it tribute. The Hittites must have thought of them as presents, probably quite valuable ones, as black persons were a rarity among them”. Some historians believe that black slaves have even reached China as they were imported there by Arabian slave traders during the time of the Tang dynasty.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
Before the entry of the Europeans on the slave trade in Africa, the institution of slavery in Africa is already established. As observed, slaves have been constantly transported from the southern and central portion of Africa across the Sahara into North Africa where they are sold and exchanged for goods. Almost all established societies in Africa practice slavery. Morocco and Algeria in the North as well as Ethiopia, Somalia and Egypt are all engaged in slavery even before the transatlantic trade began. Slavery is also established in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Ivory Coast and other kingdoms in Western Africa. The Bantu tribes in Central Africa are also practicing slavery as well as the tribes in Southern Africa. For a fact, the whole African continent has been practicing slavery or exposed to slave culture that set the stage for the massive movement of slaves during the European colonization that started in the 15th century. The transatlantic slave trade, on the other hand, started with the explorations of Africa by the Europeans in the 15th century that have led to the start of the modern-day slave trade. Portuguese were the first European nation to have established a trade route that includes the trading of slaves in Africa. Driven by the lack of agricultural workers, the Portuguese explorers traded with the local authorities and began to import slaves from Africa to work in their fields. According to Perbi, the Portuguese set foot in Africa in 1471 and established a trading post in Ghana. African kingdoms that were constantly at war with each other bring their captives to trade them as slaves in Ghana in exchange for gold. For more than a century, Portugal dominated the slave trade of the era and has become the major supplier of African slave in Europe in the 15th century. However, the rise of other European powers eventually ended Portugal’s monopoly. Other European colonial powers followed suit as Portugal was later on joined by Spain in establishing slave trade through the Atlantic. The British and the Dutch also joined the slave trade in the latter part of the 16th century as they established colonies in the African region through their trading companies. For the most part of the colonial period, Africa has been a hub of slave trade as it supplied the needed slave labor of Europe and other parts of the world.
The shipping of slave to the United States began in the early part of the 17th century when the first African slaves landed in Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1619. The slaves were primarily used for agricultural purposes such as the production of cotton, sugarcane and tobacco. The United States greatly benefited from the transatlantic slave trade. Slaves became an important source of domestic, agricultural and industrial work force that drove the economic prosperity of several families in America. With the dying American Indian population, Africans became the largest ethnic group to have populated the Americas from the 16th century up to the 19th century when the transatlantic slave trade eventually ended. The movement of African slaves in the transatlantic slave trade was so massive that it was estimated that nearly four Africans cross the Atlantic for every European. It is estimated that there were around 6 to 7 million African slaves that were shipped to the Americas in the 18th century alone to work on its plantations. The southern states in United States, in particular, have been increasingly dependent on slave labor. With a highly agricultural economy, plantation owners in the south have greatly relied on slave labor for their continued production. Also, the huge demand for cotton in England provided a lucrative market for American cotton. With the invention of the cotton gin, a device that removes cotton seeds, enormous production of cotton became possible that also reinforced the need for slave labor in the South.
The Lasting Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The huge movement of people during the peak of the transatlantic slave trade has an enormous impact not only to the African people but also to the European and American societies. Because of slavery, the African population has greatly suffered as enormous number of people was forcibly shipped in several locations outside Africa. This enormous movement, according to scholars, is representative of the African diaspora and the gradual decline of domestic African societies. Several notable resistances to slavery have been documented in history. Among the most notable was the black resistance movement in Brazil in the 17th century that led to the establishment of an ex-slave society known as the Republic of Palmares, which lasted for 70 years before it was crushed by their European masters. In an individual level, rebellion and escape are among the common forms of resistance to slavery. However, African slaves are greatly discouraged to do such as run-away slaves were not treated lightly not to mention that they could not blend with the common population because of the color of their skin. For years, African slaves has endured the status of being slaves that most of the blacks even the free ones in Africa has somehow lost their dignity. Their White masters, on the other hand, tend to dehumanize African people by referring to them as savages and barbarians. As observed by scholars, “During this early period, the cultural gulf that relegated Africans to barely-human status meant that spiritual and cultural “redemption” was a virtual impossibility”. Christianity, on the other hand, has not done little in its part to suppress slavery. Accordingly, “Religion was no barrier to the slave trade – Christians, Muslims and Jews all partook”. It is a common belief that Africans who were brought in captivity are better off than their free African counterparts as they were introduced to Christianity and have experienced western culture.
Among the lasting impact of African slavery is the racial discrimination towards blacks. In the United States, for example, despite the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment and the legalized status of citizenship for African-Americans, Blacks were still generally considered as second-class citizens. For a fact, they were considered as inferior in almost all aspects of society. Segregation among whites and blacks are common especially in the Southern States where slavery is deeply rooted. The discriminative nature of the post-civil war American society has even been legalized with state legislatures commonly known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws. As observed by Pilgrim, “Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws; It was a way of life”. Jim Crow laws has severely restricted African-Americans’ access to important facilities and services such as education, health, transport, public utilities and other services. In Florida, black and white children are segregated in their educational institutions. It is only logical to think that the quality of education given to blacks is inferior in most respect when compared to whites. Jim Crow norms are also commonly observed and have become a way of life for most Southern States. As an example, it is commonly considered as unethical for a Black person to eat with Whites. Also, Blacks are not supposed to shake hands with Whites as it implies equality. In Alabama, the State allows a separate ticketing system and waiting areas in transport terminals for Black and Whites. The State also prohibits White nurses to work in health institutions where Blacks are being admitted. These are just a few examples of legislatures that have significantly impacted the progress of Blacks in the post-civil war society. In Africa, the impact of slavery is just as extensive. With the significant population of Europeans that has migrated to Africa during the colonial period, the African white society has adopted a discriminative stance towards the natives of the land. In South Africa where a substantial population of whites is located, a segregated political system also known as apartheid was adopted. For years, Africans have struggled both domestically and internationally to be recognized as an equal human being at par with other races of the world. Scholars also recognize a culture of mistrust that is prevalent in Africa as a result of the institution of slavery that flourished in the continent for several millenniums. As observed, slavery was initially a state backed activity in Africa but eventually developed into a practice of deceit and devious individual activity. As observed by Nunn and Wantchekon, “the environment of ubiquitous insecurity caused individuals to turn on others—including friends and family members—and to kidnap, trick, and sell each other into slavery”.
The Abolition of Slavery
The changing economic circumstances as well as the growth of the social movements in Europe and American have led to the gradual process of slavery abolition. In Europe, for instance, the impact of the industrial revolution has greatly reduced the need for slave labor. In the United States, the northern states have also embraced industrialization where skilled labor is more important than slave labor. The shift of economic dependencies as well as of capitalism has an enormous impact to the abolishment of slavery. As observed by scholars, “The process clearly had something to do with capitalism: As free labor became more common, other labor relations – indentured servitude, debt bondage, slavery – came increasingly to appear antiquated and anomalous”. Increased resistance among slaves has also influenced the gradual decline of the transatlantic slave trade. One of the most remarkable resistances that have left a negative impact on every slave traders was the rebellion of the slaves aboard the ship, Sally. Despite the unsuccessful rebellion aboard the ship, the slaves managed to inflict enormous losses to the trader by way or suicide and starvation that some traders deemed the slave trade as a high-risk investment. The changing morality and intellectual perspective in the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century has influenced some notable Europeans and Americans who also encouraged efforts to abolish slavery. In 1792, William Pit, the prime minister of England, expressed his desire to abolish slavery. Pit envisions the pursuit of a “just and legitimate commerce” in a bid to help civilized Africa. As observed by Davis, Pit’s vision greatly influenced the minds of missionaries, explorers and traders who, varying degrees, sought for an intervention in the transatlantic slave trade in Africa. Despite the fact that Jews and Christians have condoned the practice of slavery, the changing economic and intellectual aspects of European societies have shed a different light to the Judeo-Christian morality against slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that “transatlantic slave trade was not merely an affront to Christian principles and “the plain law of nature and reason,” but also what future generations would call a crime against humanity – an offense so grievous that it diminished all humankind, not merely its immediate victims and perpetrators”. For Wesley, if slavery is justified, then every crime, even the most heinous, is also justified. The first organized attempt to end slavery were pioneered by the British when they outlawed slave trade in 1807, which the United States followed suit in 1808.
The African slave institution is one of the most enduring slave institutions in history. For millenniums, the people of Africa have been practicing slavery both domestically and internationally that slavery became an integral part of its culture. Because of its prevalence, it is only logical to think that slavery has significantly impacted the growth and development of the region and may have been a decisive factor why countries in Africa has remained backwards as compared to the rest of the countries of the world. Because of its economic benefits to the upper class, slavery has flourished not only in Africa but in most of the early human civilizations. For years, civilizations have been dependent on the institution of slavery in order to run its industries most especially in industrial labor and agriculture. Apparently, this intensive reliance on slavery has become the primary reason why slavery endured even in the modern American and European societies. In retrospect, Africans have suffered greatly because of slavery as its able bodied men and women are taken away and the majority being subjected to hard-labor under extreme working conditions. Slavery may have also caused the social instability in Africa until today because of the prevalent feeling of mistrust towards each other. With slavery long abolished, Africa is still on the process of recovery as impacts of slavery are still felt until today.
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