A condition of subordination and domination involving forced labor and servitude, which has been present from the dawn of civilization; it is a condition made possible through distinguishing insiders and outsiders, creating social groups who are possible to enslave, to dominate, and to make use of. Slavery thus involves a process of social differentiation as well as subordination, turning outsiders into subordinates to labor for “over-ordinates.” In the process, legitimating ideologies are drawn upon and created to justify this distinction. While associated with physical labor, slavery also has a symbolic dimension, as rulers surrounded themselves with slaves to mark themselves as powerful.
While many definitions treat slavery in reference to property relations and contrast it with freedom, Orlando Patterson in Slavery and SocialDeath (1982) defines slavery as a form of “social death,” a social condition characterized by the “permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” The slave is an other, existing outside the communal politics of trust and reciprocity. This is an opportunistically imposed externality, created firstly through social conflict, especially war. Combat and conflict create others as outsiders who may then be defined as marginal.
Being other or “not one of us” opens the possibility not only of enslavement and domination but also of dehumanization, being treated as an animal, and exploited in similar fashion to livestock or in other cases as a pet. An ideal slave, rather like a domestic pet, is one who has internalized a docile, obedient, and willing attitude towards his/her master. In the Bible, Paul remarks “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity.”
Religion has played a central role in legitimating slavery and, later, in its abolition. The Old Testament drew a distinction between the limited servitude of Jews and the lifelong, hereditary servitude of gentiles. Islam was most explicit in its conviction that freedom, not slavery, is the natural status of mankind, yet Islamic law also sanctioned the enslavement of infidels, and Arabs and Muslim converts were the first to make use of sub-Saharan African blacks. Resistance and revolt were common occurrences, and a massive slave revolt occurred between 869 and 883 in what is now Iraq.
From its origins, the enslavement of whites was as common as that of blacks. It was medieval Arabs who first came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with black slaves. The Arabic for slave, abd, came with time to mean only a black slave and modern racial stereotyping of blacks has its origin in medieval Islam, while the Latin designation sclavus is the root of the English word “slave.” Sclavus was used to denote the ethnicity of those inhabitants captured along the Dalmatian coast and sold by Italian merchants to Muslims in the Middle East. These were white Christians, who later were called “slavs” in English.
Northern European nations, France, Holland, and England, were the first free-labor nations in world history and were also the major beneficiaries of the Atlantic slave system. The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson's The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament (1808) provides an account of the history of the Atlantic slave trade and traces its origins to 1503, “when a few slaves were sent from the Portuguese settlements in Africa into Spanish colonies in America,” while English participation began in 1562 “in the reign of Elizabeth.” Sugar, rice, cotton, and tobacco were the prime crops which drove the Atlantic slave trade. It has been argued that sugar, the first consumer nutrient for a mass market, provided the extra nourishment which drove the early stages of the industrial revolution in Great Britain.
Slavery was never unproblematic in the United States and its spread was always a matter of moral concern, even where the early founders, including Presidents George Washington (1732-99) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), were slave-holders. Few, however, allowed these moral concerns to interfere with their practical concern for profit. One exception was the great patriot Patrick Henry (1736-99), who immediately after the War of Independence declared that he could no longer justify his own involvement in the ownership of slaves.
Although grounded in religion and the First Great Awakening (a series of religious revivals starting as early as 1679, along the eastern seaboard of America), movements to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself coincided with the Enlightenment and the emergence of nationalism and democratization, that is, with modernity itself. Abolitionists and the accompanying doctrine of abolitionism drew inspiration from Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke (1632-1704) and from the scientific theories of lsaac Newton (1642-1727), as well as Christianity, evangelical Protestantism, and the dissenting sects, such as Methodists and Quakers. John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism, published his Thoughts on Slavery in 1774, which contained ideas linking religion and the Enlightenment: “Liberty is the right of every human creature as soon as he breathes the vital air and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derived from a law of nature.” Many of those involved in abolitionist movements were ministers. “Among the evils, corrected or subdued, either by the general influence of Christianity on the minds of men, or by particular associations of Christians, the African Slave-trade may very properly be considered as occupying the foremost place”: such are the opening words of Thomas Clarkson's testimony before the British Parliament. American abolitionism was formalized with William Lloyd Garrison's founding of the Liberator in 1831. Women, excluded from formal political participation, also played a very forceful role in these movements, both in Britain and its former colonies, such as the United States.
Slavery was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833 after a struggle of more than fifty years. During the American Civil War (1861-5), fought over the individual states' rights to slavery, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 formally freed all slaves within the United States.
Though slavery is currently banned in all parts of the world, it still continues, and current debate concerns the extension of the concept to include such practices as sex trafficking.
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