Slavery here, slavery there; not the same

Published 12:28 am Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Knowledge is inherently good. But it’s even better when we can put it to use in making sense of the world around us. Like with the basic distinction, discussed in the last column, between societies-with-slaves, which were smaller in scale and less dependent on slave labor, and slave-societies, which were larger and more dependent.

That difference helps us to put slavery in the Antebellum American South into perspective, but also to compare it to slavery within Africa.

Because, without question, as historian Paul Lovejoy puts it, “Slavery was widespread in Africa before the development of the transatlantic slave trade.” On this point, black and white scholars agree. Let’s remember that slavery really was ancient in origin and nearly global in reach. It’s presence in 15th century Africa was not in any way extraordinary; its absence, though, would have been.

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But some say, therefore, that enslaving Africans in Mississippi was no different than enslaving Africans in Timbuctu. Up to a point, that is correct. In the narrowest sense, slavery was slavery, always and everywhere. In its “chattel principle,” people were treated as “moveable property,” and so could be taken from their families and homes, could be subjected to “social death.” And, in granting total power to one over another, slavery was, by definition, an invitation to abuses of power. These were ever-present realities of the condition.

Still, even if slavery in Africa was hardly humane, it was undeniably less inhumane than that in the South. The essential difference, though, was not some peculiarity of Africa. The difference is that between societies-with-slaves and slave-societies.

In Africa, slavery was practiced on a smaller scale. Though slaves might do some of the productive work, they were as likely as not to be household servants or concubines. Certainly, no African society was dependent on the institution. Since the work was less essential, it was generally less strenuous. Manumission (the freeing of individual slaves) was common. Slave status was usually not inherited. With no racial barrier to overcome, the enslaved were gradually assimilated into the enslavers’ society and even into their extended families.

By contrast, the Antebellum South was a slave-society. Those enslaved were primarily employed in productive, wealth-producing labor, work that was generally harder and more unrelenting. In the South, the manumission rate was far lower, in fact one of the lowest of all time. The rate of inheritance of slave status was far higher, one of the highest of all time. In comparative perspective, its rigidly racial resistance to assimilation lent it a multi-generational permanence that was unprecedented.

On slavery in Africa, there is, though, an unfortunate postscript. It goes without saying that the trans-Atlantic slave trade after 1,500 — simultaneously supplying three of the five true slave-societies of all time — was the largest in world history. As a result, an equally massive infrastructure of slave capture developed inside the continent itself. Of African states that had never depended on slave labor, some nonetheless became dependent on this massive slave trade. But when the British, the largest inter-continental slave traders by far, ended their participation in 1808, greatly reducing the demand across the Atlantic, the now well-greased gears of active enslavement continued to turn. So that, in the backwash of the abolition of slave-societies in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Brazil between 1833 and 1888, at least localized slave-societies developed in Africa for the first time in its history.

Western “Civilization” had come to Africa.

Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.