In today’s mainstream pop culture, the word “slavery” is mostly synonymous with America, not because it has a better connotation or that it was invented in America, but simply because it is the country which has been mostly publicized where the African slaves were treated the worse, brutal, and horrendous, than anywhere else on earth. But is slavery an American made? Did slavery begin in America? Is America the only country that has had a slave economy? How does slavery fit in an African perspective? If slavery also existed in Africa, then how was it different from the rest of the world? These are some of the questions we are going to explore in this document.
Slavery economy is not an American made, but let us not deny acknowledging the fact that slavery has or perhaps was the sole source of developing the America South’s agricultural economy. However, slavery has a long history of existence in many parts of the world from the very beginning of life to as recent as a few centuries ago. Biblically, we read about certain slaves in the Jewish Bible, (Torah), the Old Testament, about the infamous slave of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who had offered her slave woman to sleep with her husband, Abraham, in order to bear her a child, because Sarah believed that she was barren and was never going to have any children. Abraham obliged to the offer and had a baby boy with the slave woman, whom he named Ishmael.
In our modern world, slavery is an ancient institution that traces its origin to the Greek and Roman Feudalism Economy, where slaves acted as serfs to their lords. Even though under this practice, the serfs were simply enforced to work on the fields of the landowners in lieu of them not having to pay rents to their landowners in any kind, but simply to work on the fields as an exchange of paying their rents and also for protection from all forms of external pressures and forces. The serfs were not subjected to the systematic exploitation of harsh labor and brutal working conditions including capital punishment as the case of the slavery.
In ancient Greek and the Roman Republic and Empire, their economy thrived off of slavery. It is fair to note that the slaves in the Roman Republic and the Empire helped build large constructions, palaces, ships, bridges, aqueducts, and worked in agricultural farms which produced large massive of agricultural produce. They were partly responsible for the cause of the rise of the Roman Empire in terms of output production, which helped the Roman Empire to expand its influences and conquer its neighboring states.
In Africa, the ancient Egypt thrived under the slavery economy in the Nile Valley and Nubia. In fact, it might come with a surprise that slavery might have originated in Africa. And there are several sources by many scholars who decry that slave trade was the basis of African economic development. Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade states that: “Slavery was a major institution in antiquity. Prehistoric graves in Lower Egypt suggest that a Libyan people of about 8000 BCE enslaved a Bushmen or Negrito tribe. The Egyptians later made frequent raids on principalities to the south and, during the Eighteenth Dynasty, also launched attacks by sea, to steal slaves from what is now Somaliland. Slaves helped to build the innovations of the world’s first agricultural revolution: the hydraulic system of China and the pyramids of Egypt” (Hugh, 25).
Before we continue to analyze what effects caused Slavery in Africa, it suffices to understand what slavery actually means without going out of our context. War and Slavery in Sudan by Jok Madut Jok defines slavery in the Sudanese contexts as: “The status of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. Slave means a person in the condition or status of being owned. Slave trade is defined as all acts involved in the capture and acquisition of a person with the intent to sell, exchange, or dispose of him or her” (Jok, 3). Wherever slaves were enslaved, they worked in many different capacities from serving as chattels to fighting in battle zones as war soldiers.
Sudan, one of the earliest and oldest countries in Africa may posses the richest history of the origin of slavery in Africa. However, mapping the precise location of the origin of slavery in Africa might still be a myth to solve. “The history of slavery in this distant past is complex and more intricate than the map of the current wave of slavery” (Jok, 54). What caused the high demand for African slaves might have been the rise and expansion of Islam in North Africa, and the need for labor at fair market value. As slave owners was not subjected to paying wages for the slave labor, thus the demand for the slave labor had increased to most parts of the world, including the America South. Where the need for quality labor to work in plantations instituted an urgency of acquiring more cheap laborers, and thus the high rise demand of slaves in America South.
In Africa, slave trade was a thriving economy, with each slave traded equal the value of his or her physical appearance, age and gender. The stronger and healthier the male slave appeared, the higher the price he fetched. Female and children slaves were more valuable than male counterparts, simply because women would reproduce, and in doing so, would cause to raise the slave stock of the slave owner. The slaves that remained in Africa served in various capacities from benign to brutal conditions. Some slaves worked in fields of their masters, other worked in village households where they were treated more as part of the family members. “Those who worked in large labor camps such as plantations, mines, and heavy duty labors in West Africa were treated as chattels” (Collins and Burns).
“Most slaves farmed. Slaves also wove. Cotton textile production was probably the most important industry in the Sudan, but unlike smithing and leather, it was not confined to a castle” (Klein, 7). Not all slaves were confined to brutal conditions of farm and cotton weaving labor. Some slaves worked inside the household of their masters. Some served as drivers, fishers, ship pilots, and concierges of their owners. “There were also elite slaves. Wherever slavery existed, some slaves were powerful and privileged. In Societies where slavery did not evolve into a mode of production, slavery was primarily a means to recruit people who served the elite: eunuchs, concubines, servants, soldiers” (Klein, 7).
Slavery in Africa did not only base in West and North Africa, but it also extended as far as South Africa’s Dutch Cape Colony. “The Cape slave system possessed some unusual features. The small scale of most slaveholding units and the extremely diverse ethnic origin of slaves from a range of Africans and Asian societies, together with the limited development of a locally born slave population, meant that the potential for a clearly identifiable slave culture or unity was restricted, especially in the rural areas” (Worden, 7).
In Dutch Cape Colony, because the minority Dutch settlers were outnumbered by the slaves on a ratio of one-to-one, in order to best control their slave holdings, and for the fear of slave rebellion against the owners, slave owners resorted to draconian measures, a brutal and harsh form of capital punishment, worse than anywhere else. Here the slaves were more stationed in arable lands, than in urban centers. Slavery in the Cape was not abolished as in other parts of the world, but transformed into a more rigid and brutal racial discrimination, the apartheid, a philosophy that constitutes that each race has its own unique destiny and should be allowed to develop independently.
There are numerous numbers of discourses, either herein quoted, or not mentioned, which have their own interpretations on the development of slavery either in Africa or elsewhere. Whatever it is, slavery is the worst economic institution ever instituted in the history of mankind. Although slavery has now become part of our past, its past voices and cries in the darkness and the deserts of many nations in the world, still cry out loud to us beyond their graves, crying out loud, with one solemn ensemble, urging us, the people, everywhere on earth, to come together, as one peoples, and stop any form of inhumane treatment, anywhere, either it is in Congo, Darfur, or Afghanistan. Yes, slavery trade has been abolished, but still pawning of children still exist in many parts of the world, such as in Afghanistan.
Modern day slavery still exists everywhere, in Africa, USA, or the South America’s Amazon jungle or the mountains of India and Afghanistan. This modern day slavery, the mother root of all modern day atrociously socioeconomic oppression, is not based on harsh and brutal forced labor as its predecessor, but the ignorance of denying ones any opportunity to live in peace and harmony. Such as the case of Darfur, Congo, or even Zimbabwe, where economic and healthcare difficulties have plagued the people. I cannot disagree less to the subjugation of any form of inhumane, socio-economic oppression, and brutality, either it is the cause of slavery or socioeconomic disparity.
Thomas, Hugh. “The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870”. The Slave Trade. Simon and Schuster, 1999.
The Slave Trade is alive with villains and heroes and illuminated by eyewitness accounts. Hugh Thomas’s achievement is not only to present a compelling history of the time but to answer as well such controversial questions as whom the traders were, the extent of the profits, and why so many African rulers and peoples willingly collaborated. Thomas also movingly describes such accounts as are available from the slaves themselves.
Modut, Jok. “War and Slavery in Sudan”. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
War and Slavery in Sudan exposes the enslavement of black peoples in Sudan which has been exacerbated, if not caused, by the circumstance of war. As a black southerner and a member of the Dinka, a group targeted by Arab slave traders, Jok brings an insider’s perspective to this highly volatile subject matter. He describes the various methods of capture, explores the heinous experience of captivity, and examines the efforts of slaves to escape.
Collins, R. Burns, J. “A History of Sub-Saharan Africa”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
This book is the work of two historians who, between them, have been teaching Africa’s history to American undergraduates for the better part of four decades. As any honest professor of history will ruefully admit, those lecture notes become yellowed with age when not continually revised to incorporate new information and interpretations. This is particularly the case for the dynamic historiography of Africa.
Klein, Martin A. “Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998
This book warrants close attention and will open up new debates. It represents a major and no doubt lasting contribution to slave studies and to African history in general. The author begins with an overview of slavery in the Western Sudan as well as the now familiar debates over the interpretation of slavery in Africa, although his discussion is rather cursory and one-sided. Klein argues that slaves were property, produced by an act of violence, and takes the discussion to 1960, the year of independence for Senegal, Mali and Guinea.
Worden, Nigel. “Slavery in Dutch South Africa”. African Studies Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
This first comprehensive analysis of slavery in early colonial South Africa, based on research in Britain, the Netherlands and South Africa, examines the nature of Cape slavery with reference to the literature on other slave societies. Dr Worden shows how the slave economy developed in town and countryside, and discusses the dynamics of the slave market, the growth of land concentration, the harsh life on the farm, and the developing polarization of rural race relations.