Guest post: Meta³ lesson on the history of slavery

Originally a comment by jesse on Guest post: A meta-history lesson on states’ rights.

One of the things about Brazil (and Jamaica for that matter) was that by the time Brazil abolished slavery slaves just weren’t that important to the economy any more, which was smaller than that of the US (in fact it was smaller than that of the American South, I think) in any case. In Jamaica, the slave system was much less entrenched and on it way out by the time they were emancipated in the 1830s (this had less to do with principled British planters and more to do with changes in the sugar market). In Brazil, ironically enough, mismanagement of the local economy by dependence on slave labor and lack of investment in roads and such meant that the whole economy was relatively unconnected to the rest of the world compared to the US. So the market forces that made slavery such a good deal weren’t there as much. Add in the British pressure on the slave trade, and by the 1880s you didn’t have a viable institution anymore unless they did what we did here in the US. In Brazil that wasn’t an option.

Russian serfdom was also not really a human chattel system like in the US. You didn’t have people being bought and sold and forced to move great distances — serfs were tied to the land and the “market” for serfs was such that you wanted the serfs to stay where they were.

One of the things that made Cuban slavery (and in what was left of the Spanish Empire by that point) different was that a slave who married a free person had free children. There were mixed-race and black slaveholders in Brazil and Cuba as a result (that existed here and there in the US as well, but obviously in really tiny numbers).

Another interesting twist was the Cherokee and Choctaw nations in Oklahoma. The question of slavery split the nation; even there passing of slavery on through generations wasn’t done in the same way as in the white Confederacy and marrying slaves wasn’t such a problem — the miscegenation laws familiar to people elsewhere didn’t exist. And in some areas — Florida — slaves would run south because they could be free among the Seminoles.

One more interesting bit: slavery still existed in the US until 1880 or so, if you were a Native American. It was basically legal to claim the labor of any Native in California and while there were supposed to be terms for this, it was de facto slavery. I don’t know if any person was actually sold under that system, since the Civil War amendments were in place by that point.



  1. Blanche Quizno says

    That’s right – the growing development of “whiteness” as the primary criterion for the privileged class in the North American British colonies meant that ALL darker-skinned (than European) people were candidates for enslavement.

    Florida was not one of the original 13 colonies; in fact, Florida was a Spanish-held territory which, with Cuba, harassed the southern/southeastern borders of the British colonies, challenging for control of the territory. Slaves fled south to Florida; the Spanish welcomed them with open arms, armed them, and then sent the back northward to wreak their vengeance against their erstwhile masters! Georgia was established and designated a slave-free zone, in order to provide a buffer between the British colonies and the Spanish. Unfortunately, the settlers in Georgia soon grew envious of the massive profits their slave-owning neighbors to the north were realizing, and so, first unofficially, later officially, slavery was practiced in Georgia as well. That put the Georgia planters in the most danger of all, as their escaped slaves had the shortest distance to cover in coming back to slaughter them.

    The other complicating factor was Catholicism. The British colonies were Protestant, from the Puritans onward; the colonists were deeply suspicious of Catholics, because Spain (to the south and east) and France (from the north and west), the primary challengers for that territory, were both Catholic nations. The colonists suspected that, if push came to shove, any Catholics in their midst might well side with fellow Catholic hostiles against their Protestant fellow colonists. (Notice how these old prejudices have endured – the US has had only ONE Catholic president, JFK.)

    It is also little appreciated that white Europeans, primarily the Irish and Scots, were also used as slaves.

    The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

    Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

    From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade.

    During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

    Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: Slaves. They’ll come up with terms like “Indentured Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle.

    Since the “debts” of an “indentured servant” had to be paid off by that person’s offspring, generations remained in bondage. Considering that the payoff of the indenture contract depended on the holder’s (owner’s) accounting, various charges were typically added to the contracts for room and board, clothing, anything the owner wanted to add on. So the amount owed often grew and grew. There were no protections for those thusly indentured. Sure, call it “indentured servitude,” but in substance, it’s slavery. And, as detailed above, it wasn’t necessarily voluntary in the first place, which is implied and often explained as an essential detail of indentured servitude. “They knew what they were getting into when they signed the agreement!” Sort of makes it harder to feel any sympathy for them… Many colonists found it to be a good business strategy to simply work their Irish/Scottish slaves to death and then replace them with new Irish/Scottish slaves, they came so cheap.

    As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.

    African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African. The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.

    The other advantage to slaves of African origin was the obvious – they couldn’t “pass” for white. An escaped Irish or Scottish slave was impossible to pick out from a crowd of British colonists unless one knew her/him; the escaped African slave’s skin gave him away. Plus, when people look more different from you, it’s easier to dehumanize them – we have seen this in every war that engaged people of other races, where the enemy is regarded as subhuman due to his/her non-white-European physical characteristics. In WWII, the Germans similarly singled out black US servicemen for similar dehumanization: They’re coming for our wimmenz!! That was a popular propaganda theme: An Italian-fascist contribution: Once again, the theme of “they’re coming for our wimmenz” is covered; notice how ape-like the depiction of the black US soldier. European leaders were also depicted as gorillas, dehumanizing them as brute animals:, – interestingly (to me), these images precede the earliest “King Kong” (1933). That movie imagery, though, was readily invoked in WWII: BUT I digress! Back to white slavery!

    There were hundreds of thousands of Scots sold into slavery during Colonial America. White slavery to the American Colonies occurred as early as 1630 in Scotland.

    According to the Egerton manuscript, British Museum, the enactment of 1652:

    it may be lawful for two or more justices of peace within any county, citty or towne, corporate belonging to the commonwealth to from tyme to tyme by warrant cause to be apprehended, seized on and detained all and every person or persons that shall be found begging and vagrant.. in any towne, parish or place to be conveyed into the Port of London, or unto any other port from where such person or persons may be shipped into a forraign collonie or plantation.

    The judges of Edinburgh Scotland during the years 1662-1665 ordered the enslavement and shipment to the colonies a large number of rogues and others who made life unpleasant for the British upper class.

    The white colonists of the North American colonies were quite happy to enslave Catholics, you see. But they preferred Africans. The facts that the Africans had been brought to an entirely different continent, they didn’t speak the language, and they were mixed up with other Africans who spoke other languages meant that it was not only more difficult for Africans to escape, but it was also more difficult for them to communicate with each other and thus plot against their oppressors.

  2. Erp says

    In the comment, it couldn’t have been James II in 1625 since the king then was James I (of England, James VI of Scotland) and Charles I (James died in March of that year). The person who was to become James II (or VII of Scotland) wasn’t even born until 1633. That one obvious mistake makes me very wary of the rest of the quote. I found the article it came from and it is woefully under referenced (which Egerton manuscript? there are multiple ones covering several centuries) and most certainly not peer reviewed.

    The British Isles were also sometimes raided by Barbary pirates with one item of plunder being humans to be sold as slaves. BTW slavery also existed in India and when the UK abolished slavery India was not yet officially part of the Empire though the caste system (and inherited debt) was probably more effective in keeping people subjugated.

  3. Sleeper (from Sci-Blogs) says

    I would be careful with the whole Irish slaves thing. It looks to be a bit suspect. There seems to be a possible racist undercurrent to minimise the black slave experience by claiming the Irish had it worse.

    I’m not in a position to judge the historicity of this but this article seems on the surface at least, convincing.

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    I’ve also seen debunkings of the claims that British Caribbean slavery was on its way out before 1830. I don’t have the references to hand, but the attempt to diminish the significance of abolition was promoted by some doctrinaire Stalinists as a generic anti-western trope.

  5. RJW says

    @3 Sleeper,

    “There seems to be a possible racist undercurrent to minimise the black slave experience by claiming the Irish had it worse.” There’s also another possible undercurrent, a lack of acknowledgement of the fact that Europeans were also victims.

    The same ethical criteria should be applied independently to the suffering of victims of slavery, whether they’re European or African. So how can one atrocity ‘minimise’ another, does the Armenian genocide minimise the Holocaust?
    We can dispute the data, however, it’s indisputable that Europeans were the victims of large scale Muslim slave raids, either by North Africa pirates or by the Ottomans for 1200 years, they were slaves as well as slavers.

    Another very efficient judicial method of enslaving Europeans was to sentence ‘offenders’ to 10 or more years transportation for petty crimes.

  6. Sleeper (from Sci-Blogs) says

    @5 RJW,

    There’s also another possible undercurrent, a lack of acknowledgement of the fact that Europeans were also victims.

    Sure that’s possible. Like I said I’m not in a position to be able to judge the history.

    So how can one atrocity ‘minimise’ another, does the Armenian genocide minimise the Holocaust?

    People minimse events. Are you really asking me to explain this?

    #ferguson Irish were slaves before blacks.We just moved on and didn’t use it as an excuse for crap life

    The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten “White” Slaves … All we hear of is Black slave whining. EXCUSES

    Two example tweets minimising the impact of slavery on Blacks, from the article I linked to.

    We can dispute the data, however, it’s indisputable that Europeans were the victims of large scale Muslim slave raids, either by North Africa pirates or by the Ottomans for 1200 years, they were slaves as well as slavers.

    Not relevant to my point.

  7. Erp says

    The Liam Hogan article that @3Sleeper references, “The Myth of “Irish Slaves” in the Colonies: confusion // conflation // co-option” is a good take down of the quotes in @1. And it documents its statements. The author blogs at History is what we choose to remember

    @5 RJW the Barbary pirates raids around the British Isles did enslave some but no where near the scale of the African slave trade. One example would be the sack of Baltimore in Cork, Ireland in 1631 where a few over 100 people were captured and enslaved; it is claimed to be the worst raid on the British isles by the Barbary pirates. In contrast a single slave ship in the African slave trade would carry 200 or more slaves at a time.

  8. RJW says

    Those tweets demonstrate that people attempt to minimise events, whether the attempts have any ethical foundation is another matter entirely.

    @ Erp,

    “..the Barbary pirates raids around the British Isles did enslave some but no where near the scale of the African slave trade.”

    I wrote for “1200 years” which includes Muslim slave raids over the entire north Mediterranean coast, not simply the British Isles, France, Italy and Spain and European vessels were regularly targeted by the so-called “Barbary Pirates” and the Balkans and southern Russia by the Ottomans. Millions, not hundreds of Europeans were enslaved. Of course, even allowing for population levels, that’s proportionally, not on the level of the Atlantic slave trade in modern times.

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