SLAVERY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD AND MIDDLE AGES

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) said that the history of mankind is the history or violence and warfare. He said that manís condition is the state of nature, and the state of nature is predatory. It is the state of war, the war of "all against all." It is every man against every other man. Today we would say the law of the jungle: the big fish eat the little fish.

CAPTIVES OF WAR SLAVERY

Indeed human history is full of violence and warfare. Ancient societies had cruelty and bloodshed and slavery too. Egypt, Nubia, China, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Carthage, India all had slavery. The principle that governed slavery in the ancient world was the idea that captives of war may either be killed or their lives might be spared and they would become slaves. If you lost a war, the price that the soldiers and the civilians paid was that they might be enslaved.This "captives of war" slavery had nothing to do with race or color. It was an "equal opportunity" enslavement. When the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta fought, the losers suffered enslavement. The Romans might take captives from whatever population they defeated: Egyptians, Judeans, Greeks, Britons, Gauls, Carthaginians, Germans, it made no difference.

Herodotus visited Egypt about 450 B.C. He described desert tribesmen (Libyans) who crossed the Sahara in chariots to attack and kidnap dark-skinned "Aethiopes." This Greek word means the sun-burned people, as in scorched by the sun. The slave raiding across the Sahara Desert was called the trans-Saharan slave trade. Scientists have found ancient rock carvings in the desert that depict men in chariots, pulled by horses, with chains and nets, capturing people.

SLAVERY ON THE BASIS OF RELIGION

After the emergence of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, and after the rise of Islam in the 600s A.D., a new principle emerged alongside the old one. It was that one ought not to enslave a fellow co-religionist if two societies are at war. A co-religionist is someone of your own or same faith. But if you are at war with people who are of a different religion than your own, and you win, it is okay to enslave them. Christian and Moslem societies were at war with one another frequently for a thousand years after 630 A.D. In practice this meant that Christians should not enslave fellow Christians, and Moslems should not enslave fellow Moslems, but it was okay for Christians and Moslems who were at war to enslave one another. Or it was okay for Hindus and Moslems to enslave one another. And it was okay to enslave heathens, pagans and other infidels. The Moslems enslaved sub-Saharan Africans for more than a thousand years after 630 AD, but insisted it was not because the sub-Saharan Africans were black. Rather, they said it was because they were pagans (heathens). It was based on religion, not color. Even today, slavery persists in Sudan. The black Arab Sudanese Moslems are engaged in a civil war with the black Christian and Animists of the Dinka ethnic group in the south. The Arabs enslave the Dinka. But they justify it on religious grounds, not color. The Moslems had white Christians and pagans as slaves too, and Hindus. In Italy, in the Middle Ages, pagan and Orthodox whites from the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea were kept as slaves. The captives were not Catholic, so the Italians did not consider them Christians.

The English and French fought each other, the Spanish and English fought each other, the French and Germans fought each other, but they were Christians. Therefore they did not enslave one another. But they did enslave Moslem captives of war, and "pagans." When the Europeans came to the New World, they considered the Indians pagans or heathens. Therefore, even before race came into the picture, religion governed the excuses that people gave for who they enslaved and who they did not.

SLAVERY BASED ON COLOR

But by the time that we get to the 1400s and 1500s, the issue of color begins to enter the picture for Europeans. And gradually we get a new type of slavery: slavery based on race or color rather than religion. Once the African captive or the American Indian converts to Christianity, we can no longer use his "heathenism" as an excuse for this enslavement. It is at that point that apologists seized upon the difference of COLOR and ancestry to justify the continuation of slavery. Thus, the shift from religion as justification to color as justification will emerge in European and American thinking after 1450, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese. The English did not have any colonies until the 1600s, so they did not make the transition until later. It is not until the 1680s and 1690s that the English in colonial Virginia, for example, begin to specify that Africans should be slaves because of their color rather than because they were presumed to be heathens. At the same time, the English stop referring to themselves as Christians (emphasizing their religion) and begin to call themselves white (emphasizing their color).

DIFFERENT TYPES OF SLAVERY

It is also important to point out that there are different TYPES of slavery. Some systems of slavery are relatively mild or benign. In the Old World, the slave was a person with customary rights. They could marry. It was not always hereditary. In Moslem societies, a man would set free his children by a slave woman. Most often, a slave was like a house servant. Slaves could own property and have money. The type of institution that developed in the New World was PLANTATION SLAVERY, and CHATTEL SLAVERY, in which the captives are worked in the fields from sunup to sundown. CHATTEL means property. Chattel slaves were not thought of as people, but as objects, as property, like livestock. New World slaves had no rights. In the US they could not own or possess property. Families were broken up in forced sales. And worst of all, slave masters sexually exploited slave women as concubines and did not acknowledge their children or set them free. This would have been unimaginable in African or Islamic (Moslem) culture. The chattel slavery that evolved in the New World was an extreme institution that animalized and dehumanized (per David Brion Davis) the slave. It was much worse than what normally existed in the Old World. This is why New World chattel and plantation slavery really cannot be equated with Old World slavery, and why it cannot be equated with African or Islamic or ancient slavery.