Saturday, August 31, 2019

400 Years of Slavery in the New World


"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ" Ephesians 6:5

2019 marks 400 years of slavery in the New World. An event worthy of remembrance. However, to read the articles and hear the speeches, you would be inclined to think that slavery sprung into existence as a result of some nefarious plot concocted by the twisted mind of an Englishman, a Spaniard, a Portuguese, or perhaps a Dutchman to enslave his fellow man solely for profit; a scheme to enslave one and only one group of people by one and only group of another people. Obviously this couldn't be further from the truth.

Slavery has been part of the human condition almost from the beginning of civilization some 6000 years ago (if not longer). It has destroyed civilizations and communities as much as it has individual families. The ancient Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians all talked about taking slaves (usually the result of war). Greece and Rome, upon whose foundations the West was built, were depended on slaves, as were the ancient Indian, Muslim, and Chinese empires. Not only are the ancient texts full of references, but even the sacred writings of most all modern religions are full of references to slavery (not to mention religious institutions themselves direct involvement with slavery). Most refer to the treatment of slaves or under what conditions they could be sold and so forth. Rarely was there a reference about the depravity of the institution. So much for religious infallibility.

There is hardly a group or tribe on this planet who haven't, at some time or another, hasn't been subjugated. While most has resulted from conquests, some have voluntarily sold themselves into a form of slavery called indentured servitude. Typically these individuals had no choice if they were to survive their living conditions. Many were recruited out of the slums of cities, especially poor houses and other places of destitution. Others, however, were simply individuals looking to leaving for the New World and a chance to start over but were to poor to pay their passage or to buy the land they needed to get started.

Either way, they willingly (some would say coerced) sold their labor to someone willing to pay their fare and provide work, food, and shelter in exchange for a set number of years of often backbreaking work. Many of these individuals didn't survive the voyage while others died during their servitude. It wasn't uncommon that owners would work these individuals beyond their prescribed term since the indentured worker had little ways of determining how long they had actually worked.

At the end of the their service, if they survived, they were to be rewarded with their freedom and typically some previously agreed to payment of sorts, usually a specified amount of land and/or cash along with seed and perhaps a few rudimentary pieces of equipment to get started. It was a very tough existence and not all were successful.

While indentured servitude is most closely associated with early European settlers, especially the Irish, Welsh, and Scots, it existed well back into antiquity. The Bible mentions, for instance, in Exodus 22. 2-6: "When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever". Thus six years was considered an acceptable term of servitude, which we would associate with being indentured.

However, this appears to have more of an exception than a rule. Slavery was, for the vast majority, a fact of life and it was often brutal. While some speak of a "bond" between slave and master as a form of informal agreement, it was clearly to the benefit of the owner. Nevertheless, a slave could not be compelled to do what they refused to do. However, the result was usually beatings and/or death. Yet for the master, that represented a loss of investment and labor, which had to be protected.

Slaves from Africa for instance, didn't simply appear at the ports, ready for iron chains. They were typically prisoners; the result of tribal wars where one side fought and captured another. The losers were quartered and then sold to roving coastal slave traders from Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. From there they were shipped to various ports and resold several times before reaching their final destination. Some Europeans too found themselves sold into slavery, often as a result of some unscrupulous sea captain tricking immigrants who didn't speak the language or know anything about where they were.

Such was the case of some of my ancestors coming from Germany to escape religious persecution. Not speaking any English and trusting the ship's captain, they thought they were headed to Maryland but ended up in Virginia where they were sold to the Virginia Colonial Governor by the ship's captain who unable to afford his docking tax (he blew it on booze and prostitutes before leaving port in England). Fortunately, two of my ancestors managed to escaped and were latter able to help free their fellow passengers.

"Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior". Titus 2:9-10

As with the empires of the past, modern empires continued in the slave traded through the early part of the 19th century when slave trade effectively ended in the West. The empires of Great Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, and Italy all stopped dealing in human flesh. However, slavery continued in Africa, especially through the efforts of Arab and Asians slave traders (the slave trade remained alive and well in Asia too). Of course, this isn't to say that slave-like conditions didn't continue to exist. As an aside, the Ottoman Empire, continued with the dealing in slavery well into the 20th century.

The colonial powers, which now included Imperial Germany (until 1918), continued to treat native populations, mostly in Africa and the Pacific Rim, as little more than ignorant children. While they were employed and received a wage, working conditions were often horrific, yet competition for the limited jobs (often in mines or factories) which included housing and basic medical care, was stiff. Nevertheless, the colonial powers did employ native populations in their military, police, local administration, office managers, and so forth.

As a result, a professional middle class was created which afford their children with the opportunity to attend leading schools. For some, this meant entree in to places like Cambridge, Oxford, the Sorbonne, or the universities of Madrid, Heidelberg, or Berlin. For the less well off, schools were created which at least provided a medicorum of education; a bit more than basic reading, writing, grammar, science, history, and mathematics. It should be pointed out that many of these schools were tied to churches and social reform groups and less so directly connected with the colonial government who incorporated their own agenda.

In time, this colonial system created lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other well educated professionals along with professional soldiers, journalists, police officers and a bustling class of small businessmen and entrepreneurs (this was especially the case in India, Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa). Thus, colonialism brought with it an end to the slave trade and a great of economic and social opportunities, it also included a strong measure of exploitation as well as discrimination against the native populations.

"Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your master, not only those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh". 1 Peter 2:18

In the American colonies, religion was viewed as the foremost moral authority, and with it, basis for slavery as an institution. Men such as the famous Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, spoke in favor of it as did Judge John Saffin. Nevertheless, the importation of slaves in America ended in 1808. Slavery gradually ended in the more industrial northern states, though it continued in the primarily agricultural south (it should be pointed out the industrial north heavily benefited from the cheap products produced by the south's slave based economy). However, the common stereotype of a land chock full of plantations with their gentlemen owners sipping their mint juleps on the front porch and the all the Southern Belles busily chirping away about the latest cotillion is purely myth.

In truth, out of a population of 5.2 million whites in 1860, only approximately 6% owned any slaves at all (the average was just three), while plantations, the homes of the very wealthy, comprised just under 3% or about 150,000 individuals. Most owners typically worked shoulder to shoulder with their slaves; ate the same food, and shared many of the same hardships. Among the wealthy plantation owners, the vast majority didn't employ white "taskmasters" with whips to beat or brutalize the slaves into submission. We should also note that there were examples of blacks owning black slaves or of having never been slaves.

Such treatment would have likely had the opposite effect as you can imagine. The field supervisors as they were called were almost always trusted slaves who understood the nature of the work involved, be it planting cotton or other crops, chopping lumber, or working in small factories, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself. As for the relationship between slave and master (or for that matter, between the white and black populations), commentators at the time stated that the relationship was typically one of respect, even to the point of taking on a paternalistic quality in some cases.

The general attitude toward slavery in the South was typically threefold. The first was its immediate end. Men like General Robert E Lee held this position which stated that slavery was an outdated and inhumane system which no longer served its purpose. The future of the South lay in its industrialization as quickly as possible. The second position, shared by individuals like President Jefferson Davis, was that slavery was a doomed institution and industrialization of the South was the future.

However, slaves lacked, in many cases, a basic education as well as lack of understanding of laws and general business dealings. Therefore, they believed that slaves should be educated to the point where they could be freed and would be able to adequately function in society. Davis and others had instituted as series of reforms on their plantations to do just this. It was Davis' intent to implement this throughout the Confederacy as quickly as the war permitted. Later, after the war, Davis stated that had been able to implement these reforms, slavery in the South would have ended within ten years and without any bloodshed.

The third perspective was that the institution of slavery was just. Why? Because the Bible held it to be so, and it was their belief that the Bible was the literal truth as pronounced by God. While America was at that time considered a rather devout nation where organized religion held preeminence, it was especially so in the South which had been settled mainly by Northern English, Scots, Irish, and the Welsh who were predominately fundamentalist Protestants (Jefferson Davis declared, in 1861, that the Confederacy was a Christian nation and would forever remain so, and was included as such in the Confederate Constitution which was ratified on March 11, 1861).

Following the war, things changed unimaginably. Gone was the entire social order, and with it starvation, disease, and new found poverty. Northern influence, be it good or bad, was everywhere. It didn't take long for resentment, anger, and violence to surface. Recovery for the nation was going to be a slow process, but especially so for the South which had been nearly leveled. For whites, it would be starting over from virtually nothing. For the newly freed slaves, they were going to have to adjust to a world they knew little about; some preferred to remain with their former owners while others were able to quickly adapt.

Since 1865, numerous laws have been enacted to create a level playing field, be it in terms of voting, employment, housing, and general integration into society. It's not been easy for anyone, but perhaps more so for these former slaves and their descendants. However, by the 1960's, much of this had been overcome. Pockets of discrimination still existed (as it did for other groups such as Jews, Catholics, or even Asians), but we seemed to have finally come together as Americans by the close of the 1960's. Racism had, in fact, become the subject of ridicule and comedy by the early 1970's (as illustrated by the comedy of Mel Brooks, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and others). But sadly this wasn't to last.

"One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich---both come to poverty". Proverbs 22:16

By the late 1990's, racism (or what passed for "racism", whether real or not) was rekindled. Today, anyone who disagrees with someone of color, particularly if they're white--the only way racism seems to work---is automatically accused of being a "racist". The corporate media, through its marketing and advertising, has begun to impose certain stereotypes and standards on society. Whites are now suppose to feel "guilty" for so-called "white privilege" although no legislation has awarded them any such honor. In fact, whites alone among all racial groups, are actually denied the same social benefits as other racial groups. Naturally this isn't meant to imply that pockets of actual racism doesn't exist, nor that racism is all one sided. Any racially different group can be guilty of racism. It's just that the media downplays or ignores this fact.

We hear of "reparations" for what occurred over 150 years ago. Paid to whom I wonder? Not all blacks in America descend from slaves or whose ancestors were slaves in America. In fact, many actually owned slaves and/or were never slaves themselves. But if reparations were to be paid, would it include European slaves? How about Asian? What about Native Americans? After all, they were sometimes held as slaves and at other times, owned slaves. Who would pay these "reparations"? Just America? Why not England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, and Holland too? They were just as involved. Of course, we can't forget the African tribes who started the process can we? Nor should we forget the Arab or Asian slave traders who were directly involved. Seems like a lot of blame to go around.

The fact of the matter is that slavery has been a disease which has affected Mankind from the beginning, and unfortunately it still continues in places today. Muslim extremists like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Harem and others still engage in slavery, mostly of Yazidi and Christian women and young girls, but also of boys and men too. Slavery among some Africa tribes also exists, and yet the world has done little to put an end to this savage practice. Until we do, there's plenty of blame to go around. We should look at this 400 year anniversary as a warning. Like any disease, it will grow and metastasize until we muster the courage to eradicated it once and for all from the planet. Perhaps that's the best form of reparation.


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