Slavery was an evil of unimaginable proportion, and I should be careful about my choice of verb since there are people who are still suffering under that accursed institution. There is no sane mind in this 21st century that can mount a barricade in its defence. It was an evil system that is why the British stamped it out at a huge cost to their economy, and, in America, one life for every six slaves freed. Slavery has existed since time immemorial if I can borrow a truncated version of the sterling title of Joan Peters monumental work. Perhaps, it existed just as man graduated from the hunter gather era to live in communities. It has existed almost in all societies in the past. Most serious historians are unanimous on the fact that slavery predates recorded history. Meaning, man started enslaving his fellow being before he could read or write. The word slave is derived from the word Slav, because the Europeans used to enslave the Indo-European Slavic population long before they turned their eyes to Africa. It is even a generic name in Arabic for slave.
Our education is biased towards the West; and lots of Ghanaians hardly know anything about the Asiatic colossus – China. China was more advanced technologically and superior in abstract thought, which is personified in a giant like Confucius, long before Western Europe broke free from their feudalism and serfdom. And like many other nations, she was not immune from the vices of humanity, and slavery was as ubiquitous as their use of opium, which led to the Opium Wars. Slavery in China was like the swing of the pendulum; it oscillated between manumission and enslavement from one dynasty to the other. The institution lasted in certifiable light of history for more than two millennia. In the 16th century when the Portuguese established their presence in Macau they intensified their trade in human beings and even Chinese slaves were brought to Portugal. You don’t need to trek to any respectable public library to ascertain what you are reading, just google slavery in China and email me your surprise. Slavery in China has endured so much, even now, a lot of Westerners complain about the use of literal slave labour in sweat shops. Just across the border, slavery in India is a sad story. As I write, there are people who live and die under a system called debt peonage. Though debt peonage flourished in Europe in the past, however, that of India is tragic, because a debt contracted by one family member can be redeemed by another. And this still goes on in modern day India.
To be fair, slavery is only abhorrent to modern sensibilities. In ancient times, it was a normal thing. The bible does not object to slavery; it even encourages slaves to be subservient to their masters as eloquently outlined in, at least, two of St Paul’s letters: Ephesians and Colossians. The Hammurabi code has copious references to slavery being an integral part of the Mesopotamian Empire. Slavery in the Greek city states like Sparta and Athens was enormous. It is estimated that the Athenian Empire had slave population that were even sometimes greater in number than the Athenian citizens, perhaps a free citizen to two slaves. It was so normal, indomitable thinkers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, the flowering of that great civilisation, did not raise any objection to it. Slavery during the Roman Empire was so ingrained and brutal there were numerous slave revolts, which the most famous one lend the name of Spartacus to history.
I have to break here to caution my reader not to interpret what he is about to delve into as denying the existence of racism, or the historical enslavement of flesh and blood people who lived and died under that barbarism, especially blacks in the United State. To deny racism is to be blind, deaf and dumb – that is to say you are ignorant. Not only ignorant, but perhaps a big fool and a quintessential idiot. In Mr Kwartengs rebuttal to my first piece on this saga, he wrote that racism had been repressed in Cuba, which I countered that suppression is different from elimination, but that capitalism does a better job of curbing racism. It opened Kwarteng’s sluice gates to prove by heaven and earth that capitalism is a racist ideology that enslaved black people to amass the wealth of the West. He couldn’t be more wrong on that score so I am therefore using this piece and the subsequent ones to curb that unmitigated fallacy, which perhaps is destroying the psychic, the opportunities and quality of life of black people especially in the United States.
The first three paragraphs of this piece have given a truncated rough sketch of the extent of slavery in the history of man. Now, I plunge into the full light of history of slavery, as the French scholar Ernest Renan generously put it in his description of Prophet Muhammad compared to other religious leaders of antiquity. That is to say, the ones we know best. The tentacles of the Roman legions at the peak of its power cover huge swathe of Europe from the Hadrian wall on the borders of Scotland with England to the Pillars of Gibraltar in Western Europe. In the main land Europe, it reached the Rhine and the Danube in the North, and stretched to East on the borders of the Black Sea, and veered its way to the south beyond the rivers of the Euphrates and huge parts of Northern Africa. Rome conquered all these places and transported a huge number of the conquered to Rome and enslaved them en masse. Not many people know that black Africans were enslaved in Rome more than a millennium before the first black man crossed the Atlantic to America. Shakespeare’s Othello was a Moor – a black man. British slaves were sold and bought on the auction block in Rome. There are enormous descriptions of British slaves, but the most enduring one is that of Cicero, a Roman senator, who told his fellow countryman, Atticus, not to buy slaves from Britain, because they were difficult to teach, which I will have more to say about it later.
At the zenith of the Roman domination of their conquered territories, sometimes slavery was the best option, because resistance meant complete annihilation. For example, the Jews resistance against Hadrian, which began in 132 AD, ended in complete obliteration of Jerusalem and all the inhabitants killed, exiled, or sold into slavery. The reign of the Romans was characterised by brute force and subjugation, and this came at huge financial cost that couldn’t be maintain indefinitely. It finally came to a screeching halt in the fifth century. Though initially it was unsettling for the territories, it eventually freed them, for example, Western Europe and unleashed its potential to advance. The power of the Emperors was taken over by the Holy See. It virtually ruled Europe without any military power of its own. It is important to note, until the Quakers of Europe developed the revulsion toward slavery, the best Christianity offered slavery was to forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians, however, no injunctions against slavery.
Roughly, about 150 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, from the desert of Arabia emerged another monotheistic religion, which was spread by a monstrous war juggernaut. The permissiveness of slavery in Islam cannot be faulted on the religion. The reality is that the region where the faith built its foundation – Arabia, breathed and lived slavery. It is difficult for it not to rub off. Despite the 19th century aggressive stamping out of slavery by the British, which was later joined by the French, slavery was abolished officially in Saudi Arabia in 1962. Yet, it still lingers on. About five years ago, a Saudi prince, Saud Bin Abdulaziz Bin Nasir al-Saud, beat up his sex slave to death in a London hotel. Charges were brought and he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life. However, due to the vagaries of international diplomacy he was transferred to Saudi Arabia to complete his sentence in 2013. As I write, whether he is still serving remains to be seen.
Before the Ottomans were stopped at the gates of Vienna in the 17th century they were an equal match to the Western powers, and it was a source of worry to the Western powers. The Ottomans raided Christian enclaves at will and enslaved them. They even incorporated the conquered into the elite fighting force of the Ottoman Empire called the Janissaries. The Janissaries were made of Christian children chosen at the age of six and trained as lethal force to serve in the Ottoman infantry and as the Sultan’s household bodyguard. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, there was huge presence of black slaves who were sold at auction blocks in Istanbul. The lives of black male slaves were even very dangerous en route to the slave market. Since they were much preferred as eunuchs, and because it was against Islamic law to castrate a human being these were done crudely before they get to territories under Islamic control. And the mortality rate was very high, yet the evil act was preferred, because the price of the few that survived was enough to make the practice worthwhile. Besides, the survival rate of the slaves on the journey across the desert was not any less than what happened during the transatlantic trade. There is numerous evidence on some of those desert slave route where human skeleton were strewn around the vicinity of wells, which shows their last desperation for water. The enslavement of black people in the Islamic world has lasted over 1,000 years. And as I write, black people are still being bought and sold in the Islamic world. Thank you and look forward to the second part.
Philip Kobina Baidoo Jnr