Slavery wasn’t always about skin color

Published 12:13 am Wednesday, May 2, 2018

In the late Middle Ages, it became commonplace for Roman Catholic Christians from the western side of Europe to enslave non-Catholic peoples from the eastern side — particularly Slavic language speakers, such as Bulgarians and Ukrainians.

The practice became so common that variations of the word “Slav” became synonymous with “a person in chattel servitude” in virtually all West European languages — “esclave” in French, “esclavo” in Spanish, “sklave” in German. And in English, “slave.”

Slaves who were every bit as “white” and European as were their masters. Were Europeans, then, enslaving their own people, their “brothers”? No, they weren’t. And during the centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, neither were Africans.

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We make a profound mistake when we project our own era’s obsession with “race,” i.e., skin color, onto the past.

Today, it is often assumed that all Africans thought of themselves as one people based on pigmentation. This is nonsense. Through the 5,000 years of pre-modern history, not only in Africa but all around the world, the racial identities that are so widespread today quite simply did not exist. People obviously noticed variation in skin tone, but they didn’t form group allegiances based on such a trivial characteristic that was, after all, only skin deep. Instead, they based their group allegiances on one or more of the ethnic traits considered far more important — such as language, religion or family lineage.

So, in the 16th century, sub-Saharan Africans did not identify themselves as “blacks,” or for that matter as “Africans.” They identified themselves by language — Fulani, for example, and/or as descendants of this or that common ancestor. Likewise, Europeans did not identify themselves as “whites” or as “Europeans.” They formed social loyalties as, for example, Danes or Venetians, Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians. A common culture created “brotherhood,” not a common bodily trait. So, when “white” Romans enslaved “white” Britons, they were not enslaving their “brothers,” any more than “black” Ashanti who enslaved “black” Mandingos were doing so. Correspondingly, Europeans didn’t initially target Africans for enslavement because of skin color, but simply because they were alien in religion and language.

Significantly, though, this enslavement based on cultural differences offered at least the possibility of escape from that enslavement. Over time, the enslaved almost inevitably adopted the master’s language and religion (voluntarily or not). The norm, therefore, was a generational process of gradual assimilation of the enslaved into the enslavers’ society, with the system of bondage sustained only with a continuous inflow of more foreign slaves. 

This, though, would change. Almost uniquely in world history, in the three post 16th century slave-societies of the Western Hemisphere — Brazil, the Caribbean, the southern U.S. — slave status came to be identified with color, not culture. Masters were almost always white; slaves were always non-white. From this racialized distinction, all whites came to share the superiority of the master.  The inferiority of the slave came to mark all blacks, even if they assimilated culturally — a multi-generational stigma that would survive the end of slavery.

Of these three slave-societies, the Antebellum American South was the most rigidly racialized.

Lighter and darker skin had always been evident, but now “whiteness” and “blackness” as starkly opposing identities were invented, propagandized, and codified into law, identities that ultimately overshadowed those based on common cultural traits. In light of which, English-speaking, Christian masters no longer had qualms about enslaving their English speaking, Christian “brothers” — as long as they were black.

Modern racialized slavery had given birth to modern racism.

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