Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Who owns slavery?

Slavery: Who owns up to it?

© by Michael Auld,Jamaican-born writer/artist
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Some humans refuse to own up to slavery. Yet, older than the Bible, the ownership of human beings continues today in one form or another. For example, according to English law, a man's wife was his property. This point is even more poignant as was demonstrated during an incident in the history of early America with an encounter between an Englishwoman and a Native American woman. The Englishwoman was appalled when she saw a Native American woman giving a horse away. Accustomed to her husband's rights of ownership, even of all   animals, the Englishwoman asked, "How can you give the horse away?" The Native woman replied, "This is my horse!"
slave (Slav), n. -- from Slav, one of a group of eastern, southeastern and central Europe, including Russia -- 1. a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another, also a bond servant.-- Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language
(Above): Painting of a 19th Century Arab slave market. Notice the ethnicity of each person. This ancient Arab slave trade scene was typical of the period, and has continued today. E.g. an Ethiopian artist/friend, as a young victim, was hoodwinked and sold in Aden where he later impregnated his master's daughter and had to escape and flee back home.

serf  (surf), n. 1. a person in the condition of servitude, required to render services to a lord, commonly attached to the lord's land and transferable with it from one owner to another. -- ibid
(Above): Illustration of a European master with his serfs. A scene similar to this European one could easily be found in Asia, Africa or the Americas. This English practice was the forerunner of slavery in America. In Jamestown, Virginia they began with indenture, i.e. a bond servant. Englishmen were the first indentures there after 1607. Africans, introduced to Jamestown in 1619 were saved from slavery to work as indentures at this place that some refer to as "Where America began." The next group up for servitude in Virginia was prostitutes brought to the colony, intended as "wives" for the indentured. The theory behind this introduction of matrimony for Englishmen was that they needed English wives since these wild, gold-hunting men would only settle down and establish a colony if they were married.
  • Slavery was one of the planet's first "equal opportunity" institutions, since almost all nationalities had the misfortune of being counted among the enslaved.
  • "Historically, slavery was institutionally recognized by many societies; in more recent times slavery has been outlawed in most [my emphasis] societies but continues through the practices of debt bondage, indentured servitude, serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, certain adoptions in which children are forced to work as slaves, child soldiers, and forced marriage. There are more slaves in the early 21st century than at any previous time but opponents hope slavery can be eradicated within 30 years."--Slavery,
As can be seen above, both slave and serf can be synonymous. Human beings are hardwired to survive at all costs, often by practicing denial. So, it is not surprising that we have, and continue to, survive the shame attached to the  "peculiar institutions" of slavery and serfdom. But, should we elevate these conditions to a badge of honor, that almost all human societies have practiced? Name the country or the people and you will find none that do not have descendants of slaves or serfs in their history.

On the first day he encountered the native people of the Americas, Colon (Columbus) wrote in his journal: "They should be good servants... I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses." He also promised slaves "as many as they shall order to be shipped." Colon (originally Colombo), who came from slave/serf driven societies of Spain and Italy immediately saw the indigenous Caribbean Taino people as potential slaves.  Romans were notorious for having Greek slaves while the Greeks had Ethiopian slaves and the Ethiopians had their own local slaves. Africans were by no means the only enslaved people in the history of the practice. The very word "slave" comes from the Slav, a favorite group of Asiatic-European people that Arabs loved to enslave, especially blond female Slavs, among others. "Historian Robert C. Davis estimated that between 1530 and 1780 1–1.25 million Europeans were captured and taken as slaves to North Africa, principally Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, but also Istanbul and Salé."-- (see Wikipedia's- "Barbary Pirates" for more extensive information on piracy/slavery in the Muslim world).

In 1492, Columbus came into a hemisphere where slavery was a very ancient institution. Human beings, it seems, like free labor or love to use the labors of conquered people. Even the Bible guides us on how to treat our slaves. (Remember the Biblical story of Rachel who gave her slave girl, Bilhah, to Jacob, for the purpose of bearing children? Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali, who were considered legal sons of Rachel.). The enslaved groups that are found in this sacred Christian book are Moses' people, the Hebrews/Jews, and Ethiopians. Jews, however, like Indigenous Americans, don't quickly mention or "promote" their enslavement as Africans in the Americas do.

There is currently, an ongoing project to increase the knowledge of worldwide slavery and slave routes as well as the Underground Railroad in the Americas. There are even current and proposed monuments to this immorality. A UNESCO set of goals are:
"The Project aims to--(i) break the silence about the slave trade and slavery in various regions of the world;
(ii) shed light on its historical consequences, the many transformations and cultural interactions sparked by
those forced encounters, which have brought forth the diversity characterizing contemporary societies;
(iii) contribute to thinking on new issues and challenges that must be addressed by contemporary societies."

Many people in the Americas are descendants of slaves and/or serfs, yet African Americans, some Caribbean people as well as those in Central and South America with similar stories of slavery, are constantly reminded that the title "slave" solely belongs to them and their histories. For example, when Barack Obama became president, white writers eagerly scrambled to find his "slave ancestor".  At first, frustrated by the effort, they switched to his wife, Michelle, and then to his white mother. This phenomenon does not happen to white presidents of the USA. No one writes about their serf ancestry. Instead, researchers try to link white presidents to European royalty. President Barack Obama, it was recently written, is descended from a slave on his white mother's side of the family. Who knew? His African (Kenyan) father did  not come from slave stock. "Aw, shucks!" white writers must have said, then, "Aha! His white mother is part black. Gotcha!" Now these writers can sleep peacefully at night since they "outed" another prominent African-American. I am simply tired of seeing successful black Americans labeled as "a descendant of a slave" while their white counterpart gets a pass by not being linked to their serf ancestor. Rising above serfdom, an American or early European condition, should, in all fairness, be equally touted as a "badge of  honor" and automatically added to their biography.

Although almost all human societies, past and present, had slaves, the current label "slave" is often synonymous to Negro, black or African American. A case in point: A beautiful, dark, brown-skinned African-American teacher at D.C.'s Eastern High School (whom I knew) who visited Egypt a few years ago, overheard a word used to describe her in a Cairo marketplace. When she asked what the Arabic word meant, she was told, "slave". So much for visiting Mother Africa.

The more accurate term used to describe some New World people's ancestry should be "enslaved" +African (enslaved African), or +European (enslaved European), or +Native American (enslaved Native American), or +Asian (enslaved Asian), etc. Slavery is a condition associated with defeat. Although many "New World" people are descended from slaves, serfs, conquers and the conquered, I refuse to think that term  "slave"  is a badge of honor. For the sake of one's own self worth, personal history should not begin with defeat. By contrast, European-American history usually begins at an early stage of life with princes and princesses. Why, even serfs can marry a prince or kiss a frog-prince and marry him. In American lore, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is followed by Prince Charming, Prince William, Queen Elizabeth and other royals. I have often wondered why Americans are so enamored with the British Queen Elizabeth, a person with whom, from personal experience, I identify with colonial subjugation. Have they forgotten the American Revolution? In pre-independence Jamaica, every movie theater began the show with a picture of a waving British flag, the image of the queen, while we stood to the playing of "God Save The Queen", a brainwashing melody uncannily sounding like an American national song.

How was slavery practiced in some of the world's cultures?

(1) Early American Slavery

Slavery in North America did not start in 1619, as some writers seem to believe. A common practice among some Amerindians was to steal women from another tribe or, after a battle, take the vanquished warrior's wife and children and incorporate them into the victor's tribe. The earliest recorded Spanish evidence of this practice in the Americas was encountered by Columbus in the Virgin Island's St. Croix in 1493. After his ships returned to the Americas and his men went ashore, some Taíno women who were captives of the Carib of Ay-Ay (St, Croix) ran down to the beach and pleaded with Columbus to return them to Boriken (Puerto Rico). Columbus refused to get involved..

In Amerindian North America the treatment of the enslaved took many forms. The Slave Killer object below is evidence that speaks for itself.

(Above): The Slave Killer --
 Sculpture of a Columbia River prehistoric "Slave Killer" club represents a stylized wolf carved in quartzite. Stone clubs from this region date to the pre-contact period prior to the 18th Century, and may well have been carved many hundreds of years before the earliest contact with Europeans. It is not certain what the precise usage was, but the term "Slave Killer" was used since the 18th Century to describe a club of similar configuration which was used by chiefs of certain Pacific Northwest Coast tribes to kill a slave at a ceremony, as a demonstration of power and extravagance.--The club is inscribed with "Clatsop County, Oregon."

(2) Egyptian Slavery

(Above): Egyptian wall relief showing Nubian captives. Egypt traded for gold, leopard skins, honey and ivory with their southern neighbors in Nubia (modern Ethiopia) The Nubian conquest of Egypt, then under the invading Hittites, restored pharaonic rule and culture to Egypt. Some of Egypt's great rulers were Nubian, who returned power to the Egyptians.
 There is some controversy whether there was slavery at all in ancient Egypt. The differences of opinion stem mostly from how slavery is defined. Theory and practice of Egyptian slavery were, as far as we can ascertain, quite different from those of Greece, Rome or the southern states of the USA, where slaves were wholly at the mercy of their owners with little protection from society, and more in line with the kind of slavery practiced in the rest of Africa.

"Hem"  (Hm), generally translated as 'slave' and originally meaning body, was seemingly a person with lessened rights dedicated to a certain task such as the service of a god (since the 1st dynasty) or the royal administration. The hemu (pl. of hem) are mentioned in the context of private persons only since the end of the Old Kingdom.
    Since the Middle Kingdom foreign slaves mainly from Asia became increasingly numerous. They were either prisoners of war or traded by slave merchants. Their period of enslavement in Egypt was often limited. Debt slaves or prisoners of war were at times set free after serving for a certain period. Some of the slaves were personal servants of individuals. Others belonged to estates of temples and noblemen. They were often taken during a military campaign or bestowed by the king. But how is one to interpret the following Old Kingdom inscription:
"There were presented to him the things of his father, the judge and scribe Anubisemonekh; there was no grain or anything of the house, [but] there were people and small cattle."-- The biography of Metjen, 3rd dynasty-- J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I § 171

Were these people  just tenants, free to move away if they wanted to, or - as the context seems to suggest - more likely part of the estate, perhaps with a social position similar to that of a medieval serf? Such inscriptions, tying together land and labourer, occur frequently throughout Egyptian history.
    For want of better words slave and slavery are used on this website to refer to people with significantly reduced rights and their social state.

(3).  Mexica (Me-she-kah) or "Aztec" Slavery:

(Above): Codex illustration of a Mexica or "Aztec" prisoner or slave. Notice the collar that was used to retard his easy escape.

"Slaves or tlacotin also constituted an important class in Mexico. Aztecs [or Mexica] could become slaves because of debts, as a criminal punishment or as war captives. A slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. However, upon becoming a slave, all of the slave's animals and excess money would go to his purchaser. Slaves could buy their liberty, and slaves could be set free if they had children with or were married to their masters. Typically, upon the death of the master, slaves who had performed outstanding services were freed. The rest of the slaves were passed on as part of an inheritance. [An uncanny similarity to the European-American form of the same institution - George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had similar provisions in their wills - Some planters who fell in love with their slave/ concubines, left land, goods and money to their common-law wives and their mixed race (they would be octoroons, quadroons, etc., or mulatto) offspring. There is a story of an American planter who had himself buried on a hill, sitting in a chair, watching over his widowed common-law wife's inherited property, so that, even in death, no one could reverse the bequeath to his beloved soul-mate].

Enslaved Aztecs were employed as traveling merchants called pochtecah. They were a small, but important class as they not only facilitated commerce, but also communicated vital information across the empire and beyond its borders. Some were often employed as spies. This slavery was very different from what Europeans of the same period were to establish in their colonies, although it had much in common with the slaves of classical antiquity. [ Sahagún doubts the appropriateness even of the term "slavery" for this Aztec institution. -- Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – October 23, 1590) was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain (now Mexico). Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529, and spent more than 50 years in the study of Aztec beliefs, culture and history)]

First, as seen above, [Mexica/"Aztec"] slavery was personal, not hereditary: a slave's children were free. A slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. Another rather remarkable method for a slave to recover liberty was described by Manuel Orozco y Berra in "La civilizacion azteca" (1860): if, at the tianquiztli (marketplace; the word has survived into modern-day Spanish as "tianguis"), a slave could escape the vigilance of their master, run outside the walls of the market and step on a piece of human excrement, and then present their case to the judges, who would grant freedom. They would then be washed, provided with new clothes not owned by the master, and declared free. Because a person who was not a relative of the master could be declared a slave for trying to prevent a slave's escape, people typically would not help the master prevent the slave's escape.

Orozco y Berra also reports that a master could not sell a slave without the slave's consent, unless the slave had been classified as incorrigible by an authority. (Incorrigibility could be determined on the basis of repeated laziness, attempts to run away, or general bad conduct.) Incorrigible slaves were made to wear a wooden collar, affixed by rings at the back. The collar was not merely a symbol of bad conduct: it was designed to make it harder to run away through a crowd or through narrow spaces.

When buying a collared slave [see above illustration], one was informed of how many times that slave had been sold. A slave who was sold four times as incorrigible could be sold to be sacrificed; those slaves commanded a premium in price. However, if a collared slave managed to present him- or herself in the royal palace or in a temple, he or she would regain liberty. An Aztec could become a slave as a punishment. A murderer sentenced to death could instead, upon the request of the wife of his victim, be given to her as a slave. A father could sell his son into slavery if the son was declared incorrigible by an authority. Those who did not pay their debts could also be sold as slaves.

People could sell themselves as slaves. They could stay free long enough to enjoy the price of their liberty, about twenty blankets, usually enough for a year; after that time they went to their new master. Usually this was the destiny of gamblers and of old ahuini (courtesans or prostitutes). Motolinía reports that some captives, future victims of sacrifice, were treated as slaves with all the rights of an Aztec slave until the time of their sacrifice, but it is not clear how they were kept from running away. [Toribio of Benavente, O.F.M. (1482, Benavente, Spain-1568, Mexico City, New Spain), also known as Motolinía, was a Franciscan missionary and among the first 12 clerics to arrive in New Spain in May 1524.]

The children of poor [Mexica aka Aztec] parents could be sold, usually for only a certain time period. Slaves could buy back their freedom. Slaves that escaped and reached the royal palace without being caught were given their freedom instantly." -  -Aztec Culture and Society,  (also from Wikipedia-"Slaves")

(4) The Spanish (in Jamaica)
A print of the exploitation of indigenous American labor by Spaniards in Peru by Theodore de Bry, America. part 6. Frankfurt, 1596

The first people to be enslaved by the Spanish in the Americas, were the indigenous Taíno. Later, other participants in the endeavor were the Portuguese, English, Dutch and the French. At first, Jamaica was temporarily spared because of the Spanish lack of interest in that island and "relegated [it] to oblivion for a number of years" since, as Columbus reported, there was no gold there. The island only took on importance after the voyages of Alonso de Ojeda and his rival Diego de Nicuesa since Jamaica was the closest to the Continent which provided easier access for the conquest of Mainland America. In 1519, Hernán Cortés had used Cuba as the launching point to invade the Mexica in Central America. The mass introduction of Africans as slaves, came after 1517 when Frey Bartolomé de las Casas pleaded with the Spanish crown to replace enslaved Tainos with enslaved Africans. The dwindling supply of Lucayo Taino conch divers from the Bahamas forced into pearl diving off Venezuela's Margarita Island, was also cited by him as added cruelty towards the Indios. The Taino pearl divers, once known for their beautiful hair and smooth skin, appeared like "disheveled dogs covered with sores and dying from the bends. Some Spanish individuals, like the islands' Governors and the churche's Abbots had personal enslaved Africans, and we can assume, Mulattoes. For example, the free blacks in Spanish Jamaica, called horros, belonged to a distinct strata of the island's society. They made up one of the city's four groups of the island's militia. The island's combined mulatto and Yamaye Taíno made up another one of the four militias in the city. Interestingly,  another group, the creoles, i.e. those Africans born in the island, were to be "given bows and arrows to help to protect the island from" marauding Englishmen, et al. (Spanish Jamaica by Francisco Morales Padrón, p.156). Some enslaved Africans in Spanish Jamaica, gained their freedom while others whom the island's masters were ordered by the Crown to be replaced upon their deaths, only gained their freedom by dying.

Slavery in Jamaica was complex both for the African, Taíno and mulatto. Spanish enslaved Africans in Jamaica were treated more cruelly than those in Santo Domingo, a fact cited by the author Padrón who stated that none in that larger island felt forced to escape to form Maroon settlements as was the practice in Jamaica. Treatment of enslaved Africans differed on both islands. However, when the other competing Europeans, like the English, attacked Jamaica, the Africans helped the Spanish to fight the external opportunists off from within their own fortified enclosures. These Afro-Spanish Jamaicans were feared by the marauding opportunists as formidable foes. The majority of enslaved Africans brought to the island then were a homogenous group that came from "the western sub-region of the Gulf of Guinea (Gold Coast, Slave Coast), with the Coromantis  (Coromantyns, Koromantis) [i.e. Asante, Fanti and Akyem, a combined name "Coramantees"]. The Gold Coast of Africa, mainly supplied prisoners of war from the Akan people who were then vassals of the Denkyera --a powerful Gold Coast kingdom of Akan people, relatives to the Asante or Ashanti-- before the Asantehene, king, Osei Tutu (c. 1695 – 1717), and his cousin, the priest Okomfo Anokye broke away from Denkyira/Dutch subjugation during the Asanti (Akan) War -- The Battle of Feyiase]. Some Angolans were also clandestinely sold to the Spanish against the Crown's edict, while 150 slaves (probably a mix of Taíno and African) were abandoned on the island's North Coast by marauding Frenchmen who had raided Santo Domingo (Haiti/Dominican Republic). The Crown had refused to grant licenses or asientos for the importation of Africans to Jamaica.

"Up until 1665, the importance of [enslaved Africans] continued unchanged. Since the economy [sugar, cattle, agriculture] depended on them as its fundamental column." (ibid, p.157). It was during the ensuing five year Spanish vs. English struggle for the island history that the African Maroon societies expanded. During this period the Spanish Crown encouraged them in the struggle for Jamaica by awarding them with freedom with "full peace, comfort and rest."

So, there! Maybe you are descended from a prince or princess, however, who among us is not the descendant of a slave, serf, or criminal? Don't believe me? Ask an Australian from that former British penal colony. Maybe this information about an ancestor should be kept in the closet, until outed by a writer/nosy-researcher, of course. Poor Barack Obama, he remained salve-free during his first brief 15 minutes of fame .