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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Truth About the Slave Trade

An awful lot of people seem to be unaware of the history of slavery. Especially concerning the origins of African slavery and slaves in America.

European slave traders did not themselves capture the Africans they transported, but bought them from native slave traders. Since ancient times, war captives, criminals, and debtors in Africa had been sold into slavery among their own people. For several centuries the western Sudanese kingdoms had been supplying slaves to Muslim North Africa on a commercial basis.

When European traders first came to the Guinea coast, African masters sold them their own slaves. As the demand increased, the coastal peoples began making slave raids against peoples farther inland, aided by firearms supplied by the traders. Soon blacks belonging to a variety of tribes from Senegal south to Angola were being enslaved in great numbers.

Captured slaves were marched to the sea in single file, shackled and watched by armed African guards. Fatalities were high on the grim journey. The slaves were placed in compounds (barracoons) at points along the coast, where European traders arriving by ship would examine them and reject the old and infirm. The remaining captives were branded and taken on board. Payment for slaves was in goods such as textiles, firearms, knives and other hardware, and liquor. African kingdoms such as Ashanti and Dahomey grew in power through the slave trade, because of the European goods they received.

In the mid '60s, as the civil rights movement went into decline, American black nationalists began to depict Africa as a paradise lost. Africa was the great motherland, distorted by white people and denied by Negroes. The slave trade, we were told, was imposed by whites.

This vision took hold in the early black studies departments on college campuses. And by the time Alex Haley's "Roots" told its plagiarized tale on television, Americans were given to believe that the slave trade was kept going by white men bagging Africans in the bush. The simpleminded vision of good guys and bad guys was established, but it is not completely accurate.

The first strong African assault came when the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousemane Sembene's "Ceddo" got its U.S. debut more than 20 years ago, and the black nationalist movement was stunned. Sembene showed Africans, European Christians and Muslims working together to sell Africans into slavery.

The word slave is adapted from Slav, originating from the time when the Germans supplied the slave markets of Europe with captured Slavs. For centuries, the Slavic people of Eastern Europe were the primary source of slaves for Europe and the Near East. Because of this, the word for slave in numerous European languages is derived from the word for Slavs—the English word being a clear example.

Slavery began with civilization. For hunter-gatherers slaves would have been an unaffordable luxury—there wouldn’t have been enough food to go around. With the growth of cultivation, those defeated in warfare could be taken as slaves.

Slavery has existed throughout history and practically every country on every continent experienced some kind of slavery. Scandinavia, medieval Europe, Nepal (which abolished slavery in 1924), China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, Thailand, Burma, Myanmar, Russia, Persia, Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, just to name a few.

Western slavery goes back 10,000 years to Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, where a male slave was worth an orchard of date palms. Female slaves were called on for sexual services, gaining freedom only when their masters died.

Early abolitionists arose in the form of two Jewish sects, the Essenes and the Therapeutae, who abhorred slave-owning and tried buying slaves in order to free them.

Slavery still exists to this day, and the slave-trade is carried on by Arab slave-traders in the interior of Africa. Slavery is in all countries considered to be a criminal activity, outlawed by UN conventions. However some states such as Myanmar and Sudan do facilitate the institution of slavery, according to anti-slavery groups such as Free the Slaves.

Slavery existed in the ancient Mediterranean cultures, such as debt-slavery and the enslavement of prisoners of war. There was slavery in the Bible, slavery in Rome and Greece. Most of the gladiators were often slaves.

The beginnings of Christianity did not seriously change slavery. Though the Christian leaders often called for good treatment for slaves and condemned the enslavement of Christians, the institution itself was not questioned. The shift from chattel slavery to serfdom in medieval Europe is otherwise an economic rather than a moral issue.

Slavery in the Islamic World
The institution of slavery pre-dates Islam in the Arab world, and was permitted under the laws of Islam. Islamic rulers made a custom of enslaving those defeated in war. The Islamic world bought and captured slaves from Europe and Africa on a large scale for roughly a thousand years.

Slavery in Medieval Europe
Slaves (especially from Slavic) countries were traded, mainly in Prague. Sold by Christians, transported by Jews and then bought in the Muslim empire. Swedish Vikings were known to terrorize and enslave many Slavs.

Slavery in Africa
Slavery was common and widespread throughout Africa into the 19th century. The Dutch imported slaves from Asia into their colony in South Africa.

The nature of the slave societies differed greatly across the continent. There were large plantations worked by slaves in Egypt, the Sudan, and Zanzibar, but this was not a typical use of slaves in Africa as a whole. In some slave societies, slaves were protected and almost incorporated into the slaveowning family. In others, slaves were brutally abused, and even used for human sacrifices. Despite the vast numbers of slaves exported from Africa, many historians say that the majority of African slaves remained in Africa, continuing as slaves in the regions where they were first captured.

More than 1 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.

The Atlantic slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured on raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa. These expeditions were typically carried out by African kingdoms.

Slavery persists in Africa today more so than on any other continent. The Anti-Slavery Society estimated that there were 2,000,000 slaves in the early 1930s Ethiopia, out of an estimated population of between 8 and 16 million. Slavery continued in Ethiopia until 1942. In northern Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century, approximately 2 million to 2.5 million people there were slaves. Slavery in northern Nigeria was finally outlawed in 1936.

Mauritania abolished slavery only in 1981, but several human rights organizations are reporting that the practice continues there today. The trading of children has been reported in modern Nigeria and Benin. In the Sudan, slavery continues as part of an ongoing civil war.

Slavery in Colonial America
Most slaves that were brought to the Americas ended up in the Caribbean or South America where tropical diseases took a large toll on their population and required large numbers of replacements.

The institution of slavery in the Americas during the 17th century made little distinction as to the race of the slave. White and Native American slavery was common. However, by the 18th century, the overwhelming number of slaves were black, and white and Native American slavery became less common.

Slavery under European rule began with importation of white European slaves (indentured servants). That was followed by the enslavement of local aborigines in the Caribbean. And eventually was primarily replaced with Africans imported through a large slave trade as the native populations declined through disease.

Slavery in North America
Only a fraction of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World ended up in North America—perhaps 5 percent. The vast majority of slaves shipped across the Atlantic were sent to the Caribbean sugar colonies, Brazil, or Spanish America.

The first slaves brought to the English colonies on the continent landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Slavery was legal in most of the 13 colonies, and was ended in many of the states later called "Free States" after the turn of the 19th century. Slavery was abolished in New York state in 1827. In 1806 the U.S. passed legislation that banned the importation of slaves, but not the internal slave trade.

Slavery ended in the U.S. in the 1860s. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a reluctant gesture, that proclaimed freedom for slaves within the Confederacy, but Lincoln was the leader of the Union and had no authority over the Confederacy. The proclamation was nothing more than a political and symbolic gesture. It did not free the slaves. The proclamation attempted to change the Civil War's goal, then making the abolition of slavery an official war goal. Slaves within the U.S. remained enslaved until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution late in 1865, 8 months after the cessation of hostilities in the Civil War.

Lincoln was opposed only to the spread of slavery in the new states. He refused to free the slaves in the border states. And he even established mechanisms to colonize millions of free blacks in Latin America. His main concern of the proclamation was to preserve the Union. It did so as an antislavery crusade in order to mute the growing opposition to the mounting costs and casualties of the war.

Slavery in the Spanish New World Colonies
Slavery in the Spanish colonies began with local Native Americans put to work in the silver mines. However, as these populations shrank due to imported European diseases, African slaves began to be imported.

Slavery in Brazil
During the colonial epoch, slavery was a mainstay of the Brazilian economy, especially in mining and sugar cane production. Slavery was legally ended by the "Golden Law" of 1888.

Brazil obtained more than 35 percent of all African slaves traded, approximately 3 million slaves were sent to this one country. The Portuguese were the first to initiate the slave trade there, and the last to end it.

In the early 1990s evidence of illegal slavery was unearthed in the Amazon region. The Brazilian government has since taken measures against such activities.

By the middle of the 18th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue had become the largest slave societies of the Caribbean region, rivaling Brazil as a major destination for enslaved Africans.

So, as you can see, there's much more to the history of slavery than is commonly known.

"The Truth About African Slave Trading" by Stanley Crouch, Monday, July 23, 2001 - http://www.racematters.org/sctruthafricanslavetrading.htm