Inhuman Bondage

I’m currently reading INHUMAN BONDAGE, David Brion Davis’ history of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere (with a little general history and theory of slavery thrown in). It’s a fairly short book, 331 pages plus nearly 100 pages of footnotes, but extremely dense. Maybe a little too dense. I have not finished, but the book is fairly depressing. Not for the narrative it weaves, but because David makes it clear that while it is human to wish to be free, it is also apparently just as human to want to own — to have dominion — over other human beings.

Davis himself is not theorizing in this book, but rather reviews most of the prominent theories that other academics have put forth about the origins and functions of slavery as a social and economic system. Among those:

1) That human slavery probably arose not long after human learned to domestic animals, since the processes of breaking animals and human beings are similar.

2) Plantation agriculture (to produce sugar) was already fairly extensive in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 15th century, with slaves provided from the Caucasus mountains, when the Portuguese and the Spanish began setting up sugar plantations, and importing African slaves, on Atlantic islands from Fernando Po to Madeira.

3) Arabs and Africans were intimately involved in the African slave trade, and what we understand as “white racism” probably arose with Muslim Arabs, though it found fertile intellectual and spiritual ground in Christian Europe, where it had been considered beyond the pale to enslave Europeans since the late Middle Ages.

4) Slavery, when combined with plantation agriculture, is actually a pretty efficient and competitive economic system. After Britain freed its Caribbean slaves in the 1830s (actually, freed all its slaves, except in India), its Caribbean sugar economices collapsed as the former slaves moved to subsistence agriculture. Britain then opened itself to free trade, taking advantage of other slave economies, while beginning the importation of indentured labor from India to rebuild the sugar plantations — a sign that while the British may have abandoned slavery, they did not clearly abandon unfree labor.

5) That the American revolutionary notion of “all men are created equal” could only have been possible in a slave society. That poor whites would consider themselves socially equal to wealthy businessmen and planters could only happen if there was someone else in society to look down upon and hate — a notion Davis sayd John C. Calhoun understood very well.

6) American slave owners were uniquely concerned at presenting a “patriarchal” image of caring slavery. And that image of the compassionate master caring for both property and a lesser race has a lot of similarities to the way Americans seem to view their country’s role in the world. By comparison, Brazilian, Caribbean and Cuban slave owners (slavery persisted longest in Cuba and Brazil) felt no such compunction to justify their rule as either humanitarian or benevolent.

7) Despite the violence, degredation and brutality of slavery, most slaves did not seek their freedom, but rather seek to make their lives as easy as possible, seek to adjust as best as possible to circumstances most of them could not control. There were few slave rebellions in the Western Hemisphere, none but Haiti succeeded, and most (outside the US) were quashed despite the overwhelming advantage in numbers the slaves had, in part because there was no “color consciousness” (the British regularly employed free Black and mulatto troops in repression of slave uprisings).

I’ve long believed slavery is America’s mortal sin. It allows to hold very high ideals all the while engaging in brutal and ugly violence that would seem to completely nullify those ideals. And as Davis points out, it allows to put forward rhetoric we don’t mean — the founders clearly never really meant that “all men” were created equal.