“A lie gets halfway around the world before truth has a chance to put its pants on.”—Winston Churchill
Slavery was an atrocity that continues to escape the human imagination. At oft, an easy-to-grab low-hanging fruit used to explain Black recalcitrance and underdevelopment. This has seen the exploitation of “White-guilt”—the social currency used to extract and demand resources as reparations for the atrocities of African slavery. Without failure, slavery invokes terrible imageries of violence and torture of Africans by the evil White man. This perception of African (more so African American) enslavement as unique and a White-only transgression has become popular culture, incorporating myths, furnishing agendas and policies based on misrepresentations of the truth. This view of slavery flies in the face of scholars such as Thomas Sowell, Martin A. Klein, Stewart Gordon and many others who conclude slavery to not be idiosyncratic to Africans, but a human tradition in which everyone throughout history were slaves and enslavers.
Slavery became an implemented institution in a plethora of ways, such as the spoils of war and invasions and conquest of the vulnerable. To settle a debt, one often sold himself into slave servitude or parents often sold their children. Birth into a slave family or chattel slavery was commonplace, and rulers and monarchs often decided the fates of many of their subjects (Gordon, 2016). Slavery dominated early human socio-economic life, yet is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation as an African and European duality. This duality of slavery is so widespread, Thomas Sowell (2005), author of Black Rednecks, White Liberals, dedicated an entire chapter to dispel it. In describing the mental referent of slavery Sowell writes:
Mention slavery and immediately the image that arises is that of Africans and their descendants enslaved by Europeans and their descendants in the Southern United States—or, at most, Africans enslaved by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. No other historic horror is so narrowly construed (p. 111).
Here, Sowell describes the common view of slavery as a transgression against Africans by Whites—a misapprehension that defies history. The historical records suggest that slavery came in two ways: in-group and out-group enslavement—the same race and ethnicity enslaved each other and those of different races and ethnicities.
Antiquarians attribute the beginnings of human slavery to be around the time of the “Global Neolithic Revolution” ten thousand years ago. Throughout every inhabited continent, for the first time, humans domesticated plants and animals, leading to a demand for labor so, enslaving each other created a surplus of food (Gordon, 2016). Gaining resources through enslavement made slavery a ubiquitous theme throughout historical records. Many suffered, not only Africans.
Drawing from a litany of examples from ancient history illustrates slavery to be commonplace and shows the African-only enslavement model to be errant. Slavery predated not only the Transatlantic Slave trade, from which the African-only model stems, but slavery of the ancient world bore similar, if not worse, attributes in comparison. For example, in Hellenistic Greece, the helots—a Greek ethnic group and war captives of Sparta—played a vital role in the agricultural sustenance of the city-state. As agricultural slaves, they provided the labor to produce much of the food on which the warrior class depended and the inhumane treatment by the Spartans often resulted in rebellions (Gordon, 2016). This is an example of in-group enslavement, as mentioned earlier. In ancient Rome, acquiring slaves through conquest in neighboring provinces was customary and so was using slaves for domestic household labor, estate labor and worst, galley slaves. It is noteworthy that despite their great thinkers and moral philosophers, ancient Greeks and Romans never saw slavery as an immoral custom, neither did they see the need to condemn it for it was a common practice woven into the fabric of everyday economic life (Gordon, 2016). This ubiquity of slavery is a truism that affected everyone, not just Africans. Spanning the dynasties of ancient China up to the Han dynasty, enslavement of the lower class by the ruling class was commonplace. Most slaves fulfilled roles such as concubines, bodyguards or soldiers, servants, entertainers, and craftsmen. Similar to Greek, Roman and even African slavery, slaves were the social and economical basis of their civilization. Most taboo of the accounts of enslavement is Africans enslaving other Africans. According to Sowell, “…Africans were by no means the innocents portrayed in Roots…” (Sowell, 2005, p. 120). This means African were accustomed to enslaving each other prior to the White man making it to the shores of Africa and long after he left. These examples from Europe and Asia, including Africa, signify the commonness of slavery in the ancient world. African slavery was not an isolated phenomenon; every society had slaves.
The pre-modern and early modern era saw slavery widening its reach, where trade and cultural contact played pivotal roles. Slavery became a norm of commerce in which everyone everywhere took part. Throughout the Middle Ages enslavement of Slavs was so predominant “…that the very word “slave” derived from the word for Slav—not only in English, but also in other European languages, as well as in Arabic” (Patterson, 1982, pp. 406-407). Slaves were often among the merchandise of Venetians, Greeks and Jewish merchants. Jews who were both slaves and slave owners dominated the Slavic slave trade and were the chief suppliers of European eunuchs in the fifteenth century—out-group slavery as previously stated. The rise of Italian merchants in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea slave trades, where the enslavement and slave trading of Slavs continued, saw the diminishing of Jewish control (Sowell, 2005). Then there was slavery in India, which was common, and touted as putting slavery in the Western Hemisphere to shame. Not only was it customary for the Gujaratis from India to finance the African slave trade, but subjected Indians of lower castes to slavery and servitude. During their domination, slavery in India soared as Muslims enslaved Hindus and in return, though not often, Hindus enslaved Muslims (Klein, 1993). Africans and Turks enslaved Circassian women—white women—of the Caucuses in the nineteenth century. Considered great value, Circassian mothers groomed their daughters to serve as bond-maids and concubines (Toledano, 1983, p. 369). Thailand of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw half the population enslaved, which bore a semblance to that of medieval China. In fact, several parts of Southern Asia were not spared the practice of slavery and its variances (Klein, 1993). The same is true of the Barbary where pirates were ransomed at sea, sold into slavery, then once again, resold to their families. Robert C. Davis (2003) writes:
This was especially effective when the captives were children or youths, who might be brought before their parents in the custody of fearsome and leering Moor, to leave no doubt what awaited them in slavery, perhaps even before they arrived in Barbary (pp. 43-45).
This quote lends to the conclusion that slavery was a “human condition found across history and across the world” (Gordon, 2016, p. 123). For those who learned slavery to be an African-only phenomenon, this information is easy to disregard. A view of slavery as non-European is never part of the conversation despite it being far more common as shown.
Media Influences on the Perceptions of Slavery
The depictions of Hollywood are often the extent of our education on slavery. Hollywood has duped majority of us into accepting their narrative by exploiting our emotions. Grand studio sets replicate the American antebellum South with lush plantations of cotton and sugarcane, where brash and vicious white slave masters irrationally and counter-productively brutalize their slaves, completely disregarding their own investments. We have been inveigled by scenes of the humble, docile, neotenous African slave, with his fearful “Yes ‘um” and “Yes Massa” to the biddings of his owner; seething with rebellion and praying for retribution, for freedom was unlikely. With each lash of the whip and vivid imageries of the horrid conditions of the middle-passage, movies such as Gone with the Wind and Amistad have contributed to the cultural misapprehension and miseducation of slavery (Stewart Gordon, 2016, p. xiii). Still, none compares to the mental etchings of “the best-selling book and widely watched television mini-series, Roots by Alex Haley”—chicanery, which led Sowell to ask, “Why this provincial view of a worldwide evil?” (Sowell, 2005).
The media also reinforces the Hollywood narrative through news outlets, political commentators, politicians and interest groups; without hesitation, each replay these vivid Hollywood imageries simply to score social and political points. Little effort goes into understanding the commonness of slavery, and the refusal to accurately represent it has set the tone for much unnecessary strife and division between those of European and African descent.
Academia and Its Effect on the Perceptions of Slavery
It is unfortunate and arguably a sinister ordeal to have our children not learn the truth. The effects of media and film cannot be ignored, yet they pale in comparison to the irresponsibility of academia. From primary to tertiary levels of education, slavery is not taught as a historic human experience but as an occurrence spanning only the past four hundred years. It is easy to overstate this unfortunate reality of our education system as simply a hand-me-down of sanitizing of facts—most educators themselves are not aware of the deep and intricate history of slavery. Upon further evaluation, there is a recurring theme—suppression of the truth—something bearing the resemblance of a samizdat. To illustrate, renowned affirmative action and reparations advocate, professor Michael Eric Dyson, audaciously suggests that “Whites should keep an “individual reparations account” to make donations to black groups and atone for America’s history of slavery and racism.” (J. Chasmar, 2017). This is a great example of the harmful effects of not teaching and, worse, suppression of the truth about slavery as a worldwide human phenomenon. An academic himself, Dyson completely disregards the litany of scholarly accounts and research, proving the futility and dullness of his demands which are inciting, exploitative and worse, racist. If we are to take this professor seriously, should not Africans make the same requests of Arabs today? Most Africans who were captured in the Arab slave trade died on the journey to the Mediterranean. Survivors were enslaved and castrated to ensure they could not multiply, which led to their genocide. Compare that to African American slavery where slaves were housed, fed, clothed, had their health provided for and werewere as valuable property and at times were even taught to read and write. This contrast certainly is not to diminish the experiences of African American slaves but to show the absurdity of professor Dyson’s remarks.
Academia fails to inform us about the Africans and Arabs of the Arab slave trade, who captured and enslaved thousands of European missionaries in northern Africa. White Christian missionaries braved the insanity of the Barbary slave trade in an effort to rescue their enslaved countrymen (Davis, 2003). Should Whites today demand reparations from Africans and Arabs? Should they open reparation accounts to make atonement for the sins of their ancestors who from our modern perspective, were simply expressing the cultural norms of their time? How about Europeans who were enslaved by Europeans in the Baltic? More so, how about Africans who enslaved other Africans and sold them into the transatlantic slave trade? Yes, should Africans in Africa today, pay reparations to African Americans and Africans of the diaspora in the West for their own ancestors selling them into slavery? As is often falsely touted and believed, Africans were not stolen nor kidnapped but were already enslaved by other Africans centuries before European contact. In fact, Europeans refused to engage in slave capture, not as a result of conscience, but they were not able to withstand the diseases such as malaria and the climate of Africa which they found as hostile. It was only after certain medicines were made available that they were able to set foot on the continent in numbers, enough to set up colonies (Sowell, 2005). This truth is difficult for many to handle, yet it remains, the stronger Africans captured and enslaved the weaker Africans as was the custom for all of humanity.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in the Washington Post article My Great Grandfather, The Nigerian Slave-Trader offers great insight and an excellent illustration of intra-African enslavement and its ensuing modern-day oppressive vestiges. He writes, “Long before Europeans arrived, Igbos enslaved other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for the payment of debts, and as prisoners of war” (Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, 2018). This is an education not provided in our schools.
In conclusion, the efficaciousness of the popular and accepted narrative of slavery—an African phenomenon perpetrated by whites—serves a greater purpose. Its misrepresentation, promulgation and utility are contingent upon “White-guilt” and its extortive power—to extract resources from whites. African slavery is an incensing topic force-fed through “narrowly construed” propagation, but the alternative to this widely dispensed nostrum can be attained by taking a trip to the local library or scouring the internet (Sowell, 2005). Failure to educate oneself on this important topic serves only to further enslave the mind and the fictionalizing of a planetary tradition demonizes an entire race of people that were the first and only to abolish a human inevitability in the Americas, the West Indies and the rest of the world including Africa.
Davis, R. D. (2003). Christian slaves, Muslim masters: White slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (pp. 43-45). Basingstoke (Hampshire): Palgrave Macmillan.
In this book, Davis, R. D. journeys his readers into a past that is unknown to many—the Islamic Slave trade—where Whites were enslaved and mistreated. This is source of importance in order demonstrate the provincial perspective of slavery being an African-only phenomenon to be inaccurate.
Gordon, S. (2016). Shackles of iron: Slavery beyond the Atlantic (pp. xiii-xix, 6-125). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Klein, M. A. (1993). Breaking the chains: Slavery, bondage, and emancipation in modern Africa and Asia (pp. 7- 20, 112-113). Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.
Klein, in his book chronicles the many epics of slavery from a collection of historical narratives ranging from slaves, scholars and historians. This source was effective in proving the far reach of slavery as a human institution and not one that targeted one single group of people.
Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (pp. 406-407). Retrieved from https://scholar.harvard.edu/patterson/publications/slavery-and-social-death-comparative-study
Sowell, T. (2006). Black rednecks and white liberals (pp. 101-120). New York: Encounter Books.
Sowell, T. brilliantly grants his readers an insight into African American culture and its origins. His postulations are quite convincing and he makes a great case for “Black culture” being derived from “White Redneck culture” which was quite common in Britain and the British Isles. This source covers topics ranging from race to slavery. I chose this source because it was quite effective in helping me to bring out the facts about slavery.
Toledano, E.: The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression: 1840-1890 (Paperback, Hardcover and Ebook) (pp. 66-67, 140). | Princeton University Press. (1982). Retrieved from https://press.princeton.edu/titles/2065.html
This book by Toledano, E. is a historical account of the slave trading system of the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century and of the attempts, which were eventually successful, to suppress it. This source was of importance to demonstrate that slavery in the Americas paled in comparisons to the Islamic Slave trade.