March 11, 1992


If slavery is as disagreeable to Negroes as we think it is, why don't they all march over the border, where they would be received with open arms?

Mary Boykin Chesnut, 1861

Most people have the mistaken idea that slavery is something that happened to people of African descent and that black people were enslaved by white people. While this did happen, the time honored institution of slavery has a much longer history in which skin color was largely irrelevant.

People have been fighting and killing each other as far back as history goes. It probably goes way back to the days when man's ancestors spent most of their time walking on all fours. If you want to look for evidence for evolution, you just have to look at man's savagery. Man as a species may not be more savage than the great apes, but he is certainly not less savage and brutal. The invention of weaponry has enabled man to far surpass his simian ancestors in savagery.

I have read that the ancient way of dealing with enemies in war was to kill the males and use the females. It didn't take too long to find out that there was no point in killing the males or females who surrendered; they could be enslaved and used. Slavery meant that the winners no longer had to break their backs growing food and building things. They now had slaves for that, and they could spend their time in higher pursuits such as politics, philosophy, fornication and, most important, war. That was how the Greeks and Romans did it as well as many of the old civilizations, dating way back to before the builders of the pyramids.

Before and during the civil war, slavery was the way of life in much of Europe, Asia and Africa. They didn't have any black people in Europe, so they enslaved whomever they could. They called them serfs, but there was little or no difference between what black slaves went through in the American South and what white serfs went through in Russia. The climate was a lot better in Virginia. Both slaves and serfs could be bought and sold and were considered property rather than people.

In Africa, the local chiefs enslaved the only people who were there, and they happened to be black. When they found out that there was more profit in selling their slaves to the Arab slave traders than in using them, that was what they did. Trading them for what they needed was easier than supervising them, which resembled work. And work was for slaves only. The traders sold the slaves to the ship owners, who brought them to America.

Who are "they?" They aren't the white man. They are of all skin colors, white, black, brown, yellow. They are the people who had the power to enslave others --the war chiefs. In Africa they went by several names, (Oba, Oni). Every tribe had its own language and its own name for its chief or king. In Europe they were called Kings, Czars, Kaisers, Emperors. There were also the nobility; an entire class whose business was making war. They had the power to enslave others by virtue of being better at killing and maiming people. If such a group were to organize today in the modern world, it would be classified as organized crime.

When slaves became skilled, their rulers had to treat them with a bit of respect or they would simply screw things up. Someone can be made to use a plow or shovel with a whip, but it is hard to get a man to make a fine glass vase by the same methods. In short, slavery disappeared because it was no longer profitable. The real end to slavery came with the machine age, when one man with a machine could do what it took hundreds of men to do before. It had little to do with kindness or a respect for people. A machine was cheaper than buying and feeding a bunch of slaves. The civil war didn't really end slavery; the machine age did.

The slave mentality persists, and many people still look at themselves and their families as the property of those who have the power and money. The idea that a person is free and responsible for himself, and has as much control over his own destiny as the next man, is far from being universal. The way that people fawn over royalty, high-level politicians, doctors and clergymen is a vestige of slavery. One would expect slavery or serfdom to remain popular. Freedom involves taking responsibility for oneself. That takes effort and involves making decisions. Being a slave is mentally much less complicated than being free.

I suppose that there would be no slaves without masters. Would there be masters, without some who were willing to be slaves?

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