A Brief History of Slavery: The Horror
The legal right of possessing, selling, buying, transporting, liberating a person recognized by everybody - this is the shocking concept of slavery. A person is legally the property of another. He can not escape and he is required to work for his owner and he can not complain. He can be sold to anyone if his owner wishes it. Slavery is even inherited. If one's mother is a slave, he automatically becomes a slave as well. This sounds absurd today. The thought of involuntary servitude rings a loud bell to anyone who knows that most states today have this as a constitutional prohibition. But it did happen.
An important topic within the science and social studies curriculum of the American educational system covers the history of racial relations and slavery in the country. In modern times, the development of society has fortunately made a lot of progress in terms of equality and respect for all peoples and cultures. Indeed, the United States has always been known as a land of opportunity where society is built upon the strength of diversity, freedom and equality.
The most visible and important illustration of progress in racial equality is the fact that the current American president, Barack Obama, is the first ever national leader of African-American descent. Advances in equality have been achieved not only in terms of race, but also in gender, religion, and those physically disadvantaged. All these are made possible with the strong spirit and primordial promise of the Constitution of the United States of America, which is the foundation upon which the country and its society are virtually built upon.
In order to have deep appreciation for the present, as well as to successfully plan for future progress, it is very important to look back on history to glean positive lessons, and to prevent detrimental events from happening again. This is why the history of slavery is an important aspect of the curriculum or prescribed learning modules of science and social studies in the state educational system.
For many African Americans today, especially those who were old enough to have experienced the remaining vestiges of racial discrimination in the 20th century, it is important for young ones to understand the history of the people, such that they don't take for granted the liberties and freedom they are experiencing in modern society today. This point of view is also beneficial for non-African Americans or those of other races as well.
Basically, slavery is widely considered to have been a consequence of the burgeoning British colonization of America in the 17th century, particularly with the establishment of the first successful and permanent English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Tobacco plantation and trade drove the economy, and laborers were brought in under indentured servitude. This is a practice wherein an individual is contracted to work for a specific period of time (usually three to seven years) in exchange for transportation and living arrangements such as food, shelter, and clothing. It can be traced back to the time of 1760 when there is still social stratification where people are identified according to class. In western societies the main layers of class are upper, middle and lower class. Of course those who are below the food chain of classification are the people who are put under forced labor when there is a surplus of land and shortage of labor. This is the beginning of slavery. The end is just a few decades ago, in 1981, when the last country in the world abolished slavery. Today, slavery is no longer legal anywhere. No society can support this because of the horror of its implication. There may still be classification today, especially as to economic class that revolves around the rich, the poor and the working class. But slavery as a consequence thereof has no more legal backbone.
Initially, indentured servants became free after fulfilling the contract and became lawful citizens of the colony, but in the long run colonists felt the system to be costly to maintain. Also, indentured servitude covered black as well as white individuals. By 1619, the Dutch brought in the first African slaves to the Jamestown settlement. By the late 1600s up to 1700, slavery had been institutionalized by law and virtually replaced the concept of indentured servitude in the labor market.
Chattel slavery became widespread. Chattel slavery pertains to the outright ownership of an individual by a master or owner. Businesses engaged in slave trade became very successful. The ownership of slaves was not limited to the white colonists, but to some blacks as well. By the 18th century, colonial legislation had created a radicalization of slavery, particularly against Africans.
The code of Hammurabi in the early 18th Century BC - this is where slavery came into reality. This code allows a person to acquire slaves and have the authority to force him into labor and to sell him.
In the 7th century BC, Sparta and Athens in Greece exercised force labor. In Sparta, the slaves are conquered people who live in their own hereditary land but they are forced to work for their masters who are also Spartans. These slaves still have certain rights attached to their person though they are someone's slave.
In Athens, the slaves have no rights. They are given different role and work and their condition depends on what that work is. An Athenian slave made to be a miner by his master is the most unfortunate one because they are forced to work until point of death by their masters. On the other hand, there are slaves who are lucky with the work they have, giving them actual prestige despite being slaves. An example is the slaves owned by the state who are made part of the police force of Athens. Most Athenian slaves are domestic servants.
Romans have their share in a brief history of slavery. Slavery even after the collapse of the Roman Empire even continued on. This is between the 6th and 15th century AD. These slaves usually work in the house and offices of the master. The concept of slavery evolved and spread to the point that slaves are now shipped from place to place like cargos and are traded.
However in England, between 1688 and 1808, the horrifying concept of slavery caused the people to start an abolishment movement. The first major move to end slavery is when Aphra Behn's Oroonoko was published. Its story revolves around the life of an African prince who suffered with his loved one because of slavery in Surinam. At this time, trade of slaves is already condemned in some societies.
Then American colonies fight for independence where clamor for freedom started making noise. One society after another abolishes the concept of slavery since then. Until this age that the world has finally entirely abolished the concept. This is a brief history of slavery. But to go through every event connected to people being forced into labor and being another person's property, one has to prepare himself to be horrified.
Slavery became a controversial issue in the politics of the United States, especially during the formation of the Constitution after the declaration of independence of the Thirteen Colonies, and for a long period thereafter until the Civil War in the 1860s. Fortunately, after the Civil War, slavery was effectively abolished and made illegal, specifically with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
While the legality of slavery had been abolished, many more generations had to face the societal and cultural after-effects of this practice, well into the 20th century. That is why racial issues should remain an important topic in science and social studies curriculum of the American educational system, in order to continuously strive for the values of equality, liberty and freedom that the United States Constitution sought to establish in the nation.
Websites For Learning All About Slavery
- African American Odyssey: Slavery--The Peculiar Institution (Part 1)
- American Slavery Until 1820
- History of the Abolitionist Movement
- Original Slave Trade Documents from the 18th and 19th Centuries
- PBS: Africans in America, Part 1, The Terrible Transformation