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A Thought on Slavery

Fields, Lanny B., Barber, Russell J., and Riggs, Cheryl A., “Issue 6: Slavery around the Globe”, The Global Past. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

While reading “Issue 6: Slavery around the Globe” most people might read through the biased view that slavery is one of the most despicable practices of man kind.  Although enslavement might be deplorable when thinking of it in today’s light, the authors of The Global Past bring up the point that today’s light did not always shine upon the world.  Slavery as an institution is at least four millennium old if not older. The first document date all the way back to 2100 B.C.E (687).  Furthermore, many different cultures practiced slavery in some form or another.   The passage in question focuses on five cultures in particular, which were found in China, India, The Muslim World, The Kwakiutl lands, and The Melanau lands. 

            Although each people practiced slavery in their own way, the article points out that there are “five fundamental characteristics” (688) of slavery.  The first characteristic is that a slave is the property of his master.  The second characteristic is that the slave is supposed to provide involuntary labour for his master.  The third is that the slave is a low, if not the lowest, member of society.  The fourth is that a slave is acquired by capture, being purchased, or being born of a slave parent.  Finally, the fifth basic concept is that “the slave is an outsider to the master’s community.” (688)  Every culture that practices slavery meets these criteria in on way or another.  For example, when it comes to acquiring slaves most cultures such as the Muslims were able to capture slaves in battles.  (693)

            Even though cultures that practiced enslavement shared many aspects in common, there are many differences as well.  The way that different cultures treated their slaves is a prime example of these differences.  The Muslims, for example, were instructed by the Qur’an that they should treat there slaves well, where as the Kwakiutl had special tools just for killing their slaves. (694) Also the work that slaves were forced to do varied greatly as well.   Some cultures such as that of India, China, and The Muslim World used slaves primarily as domestic servants while other such as the Americans of the sixteenth though the nineteenth centuries used slaves for agricultural service.   Furthermore, not all slavery was practiced in closed systems in which a slave can not gain freedom.  When someone became a slave in Melanau society, for example, they were instantaneously started down a path of manumission in which they could start to regain their freedom.  Moreover they never completely lost their humanity as the Melanau did not operate in a chattel based slave system. (694)

            The major point that the authors seem to want to make is that not all slavery is the same.  Most of the readers of this article will probably only think of the Americans and Europeans of the Sixteenth though the Nineteenth Centuries when reminded of slavery, but this form of slavery was an extremity. (695)  Although one will most likely walk away from this article with the impression that slavery is still one of the darker areas of humanity, he or she will probably view it in a different light.  In China, for instance, slaves were assigned tasks that “were not exceptionally taxing and their lot in life was in many ways better than that of peasants.” (692)  This in mind, there might just be darker sides of humanity than just the institution of slavery.  If in many cases slaves were treated well, it is when a master decides to take advantage of his power and mistreat his slaves that is the true dark spot of humanity.


© All words and music written and owned by Shawn Nelsen.