Slavery -By Callum McPetrie
Slavery was an institution as old as humanity itself. It meant the ownership of one person by another, meaning that the slave was legal property. Often, the slave had to work constantly in bad conditions, and it was their owner who decided everything about their life. Although some owners were kind to their slaves, and gave them a certain amount of control over their lives, this was not often the case, especially in the early 19th Century when mercantilism, which propped up colonies around the world by the European powers, was in charge.
A History of Slavery
Slavery had been around for a very long time before then. Slavery was a commonplace institution in Egypt, where the pyramids were built off slave labour, and Ancient Rome, where people of conquered regions were made slaves (in fact, the word “slave” is said to have come from the word “Slav”, which was the race of people Romans made slaves most often). Slavery was also commonplace throughout the East, in China and the Indian sub-continent.
In the Dark Ages in Europe, and to a lesser extent Britain, slavery was replaced by serfdom. Serfs were similar to slaves in many ways. The Serf was tied down to a certain area of land, and worked in similar conditions to slaves who also worked on farms. Serfdom was a consequence of the feudal economic system in Europe at the time. It relied entirely upon agricultural output, so serfdom was considered inevitable. Life as a serf wasn’t easy, and many rebellions broke out because of it. Russia was the last country to abolish serfdom, which came about in 1860 under Tsar Alexander II. In most countries, however, it was abolished hundreds of years earlier.
In the 15th Century, Europe was on the rise again. As a result of the new mercantilist economic and foreign affairs policies in European countries, Europe looked for new land on which to build colonies, which led to explorers of the time like Columbus, who discovered the Americas in 1492 and carried many slaves on his ship, and Magellan. Mercantilism and colonization first became popular in Portugal, which started the slave trade, and Spain, before spreading to Britain, Holland and France.
In order to make mercantilism profitable, slavery was reinstitutionalized. Slaves were brought from Africa, both to Europe and its colonies, especially the Americas. Both the slave trade and work as a slave were brutal, and incredibly dangerous. Many slaves in the colonies did the same things that serfs did, which was to work on the land. Slaves, however, did far more dangerous work, usually on cotton plantations.
Enlightenment, Economics and Abolition
But in the 18th Century, the tide was turning against slavery. The Enlightenment was at its height, which produced many great minds dedicated to the principle of individual rights and freedom –which stood in direct opposition to the principles of slavery. Mercantilism was being attacked by the economists of the day, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who promoted capitalism –the economic system that logically followed from Enlightenment principles. As well as these men, many people opposed slavery on moral grounds, such as William Wilberforce. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the great debate of the time wasn’t capitalism vs. socialism; it was capitalism vs. mercantilism and the aristocracy, opposed to change -and pro-slavery. The latter included many of the English writers of the time, such as Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens. Because of the economists’ opposition to slavery, the writers called economics “the dismal science” –a modern phrase that came from the pro-slavery conservatives of the time.
Two countries took the lead in the crusade against slavery: the (northern) United States, which was very new at the time, and Britain. The northern American states became some of the first places in the world to abolish slavery outright, and the founding fathers were planning to put a clause in the US Constitution to abolish slavery, which was rejected by the south. It took a long, gruesome civil war to get the southern American states to also abolish slavery. It should be noted here that the south was agricultural, and because of this slavery was commonplace, and the south was worse off than the north.
Britain, led by William Wilberforce and influenced by the great economists of the time, abolished the slave trade in 1807. This came at great expense to the government, which happened to be fighting in the Napoleonic wars at the time, and outlawed slavery outright in her empire some thirty years later –the first country in Europe to do so.
Abolishing slavery came at great expense to Britain. But over time, their investment was paid off. Slavery prevented slaves from using their talents to the best of their ability, instead consigning them to brutal physical work. After the abolition, slaves were somewhat freer to use their talents to the best of their ability, which greatly helped the slaves and the economy as a whole. It was on this premise that the economists advocated the abolition of slavery.
Other European countries abolished slavery soon afterwards. In France, the French Revolution of 1789 helped towards this, but France soon found itself in the dictatorial grip of Napoleon. It took another revolution, that of 1848, which also took place in Austria-Hungary and Prussia to properly set things straight.
The Effects Today
Slavery affected, and continues to affect, many people in a bad way. This is why decolonization was widespread after WWII. Slavery is outlawed everywhere, except in shady countries in Africa such as Sudan, where people still own slaves.
Slavery had the effect of dividing people into races, an effect which is still felt today, although not as greatly as it used to be felt. This led most importantly to the civil rights movement in America, where race riots were common in the 1960s and 1970s. Many societies still have a degree of racial division that can trace its roots back to slavery in the mercantilist era, and some of the problems associated with race today. Even so, the average African-American has as high a per capita GDP as the average Swede –which is 1/3 lower than the total American average.
In Europe, division of races is an increasingly large problem, which occasionally breaks out in riots in France. Germany and Switzerland also have similar divisions, which are manifest in their laws, especially immigration from North Africa. Immigration is a larger problem in Europe than the US, as immigrants tend to put money into the country in the US in the form of productivity, and take money out in Europe, usually in the form of welfare benefits.
Slavery was a horrid institution in human society, and considered normal for most of human history. It took a revolution of thinking in the 1700s to change this, and revolutionary economics, based on man’s mind as his highest asset, not the hands he slaves with.
Modern slavery came about as a consequence of mercantilism. Although it could be argued that mercantilism has its benefits, its costs were far greater. Mercantilism was also a system of government intervention, not of free markets. The move to the free market was one of the reasons slavery was abolished.
It was the great and courageous minds of the day that had slavery abolished. For that and for other reasons, we have to thank those minds for the prosperity enjoyed in Western nations today.
Example of a Interview essay on History about:
slavery / civil war / Works Project Administration / Federal Writer’s Project / Interview
The confrontation of different interviews taken on the topic of slavery.
In what way slave is an unnatural phenomenon?
What is the attitude of the Federal Writers to slavery?
How do the WPA interviews reveal the notion of slavery?
Nevertheless, there is still much to say about it and a lot of thing to recall. It is common knowledge that slavery was eliminated with the end of the Civil War.
Table of contents:
2. Federal Writers’ Project
3. The theme of slavery in the WPA interviews
a. Interview with William Ballard
b. Interviewing Walter Calloway
c. Born in slavery: Mary Reynolds
“Yes Lawd! I have been here so long I ain't forgot nothin'. I can remember things way back”
Slavery has always been the most shocking phenomena of our world. Slavery, by itself seems very unnatural and provokes mixed feelings from the heart of each person. Some people are descendants of those who used to be slaves years ago. Some faced “slavery” even in the contemporary times. And some people just simply do not understand the possibility of one human being considering another human being its slave. Slavery, by definition, is the first historical form of exploitation, under which a slave along with different implements of production becomes the private property of the slave owner. So, in other words slavery converts an individual human being into a “thing” or even some kind of consumer item. This phenomena has done a lot of harm to million of people, taking away lives and destroying the fate of the people who could have been happy. What does a contemporary person know about slavery? The answer will not be very profound. Nevertheless, there is still much to say about it and a lot of thing to recall. It is common knowledge that slavery was eliminated with the end of the Civil War. The South was released from the burden that made the slavery to stop and that started destroying the prejudices concerning the color of skin. Nowadays, it is already history. And could be Americans would not have much information on this important historical issue if it was not for a project Works Projects Administration (WPA), which was introduced by federal government.
2. Federal Writers’ Project
Before starting analyzing the phenomenon of slavery it is necessary to enlighten the source of the main information on the topic. The mentioned above Works Project Administration (WPA) had the goal of stimulating the economy of the country and providing work for people on relief. The Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) was designed as a branch of the WPA. The FWP’s main directivity was the history of the United States of America made on the bases of oral stories of the eyewitnesses. It was made by a group of scholars, artists, and writers on relief who interviewed different people along the country making historical interviews. One of the issues the respondents were eager to talk about was slavery. It is necessary to mention that all these interviews were made throughout 1936-1940 and most of the people who could remember the terrible period of slavery were around 80. What these interviews describe is the respondent’s education, political views, religion, needs, observations, historical events he can share the impressions about. These interviews are nowadays known as WPA interviews and are highly valuable for any person who has the aim to examine the life of slaves during that period and to analyze different aspects of their life. Obviously, the majority of the interviews concerning the slave-issue were carried out with people living in the southern states of America that is to say with those who used to be slaves. Most of the slaves talked about their owners, the way they treated them and it did to their families.
3. The theme of slavery in the WPA interviews
The stories of the ex-slaves are full of “unexpected details, unspoken feelings, and hidden meanings”. Nevertheless, what they were principally about were the brutalities all of them experienced being under slavery. These are the stories of people who lived their lives with the perception of being unworthy and obeying white supremacy as a law. The 2,300 ex-slaves who were interviewed in the “frames” of the WPA project have a lot in common in their stories. They mainly speak about religion, gender elations, material life, slave-master relations and other aspects. These are the stories of what was being black in the South and what a black person had to do in order to survive and protect his right to live on this land.
3.a. Interview with William Ballard
The most impressive thing about the interviews in general and this interview in particular is the description of extremely different slave-master relations in different situations and different regions. It is an interview taken June 10, 1937. William Ballard was from Winnsboro in Fairfield County situated in South Caroline. He was born in a family with several other children. William Ballard belonged to Jim Aiken who was a large and famous landowner at Winnsboro. Jim Aiken was a very powerful man, as he owned the land on which the town itself was built. He also possessed seven huge plantations on which his slaves worked. Thought William Ballard’s master was a very powerful man he never treated his slaves brutally. His wife was very good for the slaves, too and actually took care about them. William recalls:”HE was good to us and give us plenty to eat, and good
quarters to live in”. The only awful thing William could remember about is the treatment of the son of Jim Aiken - Dr. Aiken, who seemed to really enjoy whipping the slaves a lot, especially when his father was out. “Dr. Aiken whipped some of de niggers, lots. One time he whipped a slave for stealing when he did not”. William remembers being very devoted to his master, as he knew the terrible way that other masters treated their slaves. William never starved and does not remember not getting enough food: “We was allowed three pounds o’meat, one quart o’molasses, grits and other things each week; plenty for us to eat. William continues by telling that even when freedom came some slaved wanted to still stay wit their master, because he provided everything they needed, gave them stability and treated them as man, and not slaves in the first place: “When freedom came, he told us we was free, and if we wanted to stay on with him, he would do the best he could for us. Most of us stayed, and after a few months, he paid wages”. Another important fact to mention is the “sick-house” that the master possessed in order to treat the slaves. After the war the master gave the slaves the opportunity to learn how to read and how to write.
Here we see a bright example or it is even better to say – an exception of a very human attitude to the slaves from the side of their master. Nevertheless, slavery still remains slavery no matter how well people are treated. William Ballard even after having spent so many years in slavery, though in good conditions said: ”Of course I think slavery was bad. We is free now and better off to work”. This is an excellent example of how some slave-master relations were very constructive. All the petitions of the slaves were heard and taken into count.
3.b. Interviewing Walter Calloway
This man with a very hard life was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1848. The first thing Walter remembers is being purchased as a slave by John Calloway. John Calloway took the family to the plantation that was situated 10 several miles of Montgomery in Alabama. The life of the family was very hard there; it is necessary to say that at the age of 10 any of his attempts to evade the work that caused too much pain for him resulted in a punishment. That was the reason it was better not even to say a word against the master’s will. The most ordinary punishment for black people not obeying were whippings and the most awful thing about it was that white overseer never did it themselves but always had another black slave to do it. In other words that made one brother whip another brother. “One thirteen-year-old girl was whipped almost to death…” – he recalls still experiencing shock and pain in his mind. Sometimes dogs depending on the will of their master first chased and then murdered the slaves. The underlines the “awful” treatment that the slaves got on the plantation he worked. The punishments the slaves got seemed to be not punishments but pure mockery, including humiliation and severe beating. For every small misdeed slaves were always punished without any exceptions. The slaves who spied for the master had some privileges as getting being in favor with the master. By spying the only aim they pursued was to escape the possible physical punishment. The story of Walter Calloway is a story of a very hard life with constant brutal attitude towards the black slaves, which were not treated as man but as things that belonged to their master.
3.c. Born in slavery: Mary Reynolds
Mary Reynolds was born to slavery. At the moment she was interviewed she was already blind as she was older than one hundred years. Mary Reynolds was born in Louisiana. She recalls being very friendly with other slaves on the plantation but she also remembers some slave to act indecently trying to make the master be favorable to them. Mary’s master Dr. Reynolds often uncoupled families for with the intention of trading the older slave for a younger one. Mary Reynolds recalls feeling constant tension and fear because of the constant brutal beatings the slaves experienced on the plantation: ”… poor colored people in slavery time, dey give dem very little rest en would whip some of dem most to death”. Her master did not have any mercy for his slaves and was very cruel. The lash which was used for the punishments was:”… made out of leather plaited most all the way and den all that part down to de bottom”. Mary supports the information gained from another interviews that usually masters had children from their black women-slaves. These women had no other choice than to fulfill master’s desires or otherwise they were severely punished for a “fictitious” reason. May outlines that the slaves were primarily used as working force, as the white people could not perform as much work as black people did. The conditions that the master offered to the slaves were completely awful and no communication or petitions helped to improve them.
These are only some of the 2,300 interview people whose stories a very alike. Nevertheless, analyzing the majority of the interviews it is necessary to point out strange facts: the slaves were very devoted to their masters. And even after they could leave on their own after the Civil War some of them stayed until the very end to do it. These black people, who experienced slavery impress the reader of the interviews with the ability of their families to preserve love inside no matter what was going on outside. These people were brutally treated, experienced inhuman pain and still had the strength to try to learn to read or al least to listen to somebody reading. Slavery brought a lot of fear to the lives of black people: black women were forced to have sexual encounters with their masters, slaves were punished by being whipped almost to death and their brother and sisters were forced to administrate the whippings; they had to work in any temperature conditions, sometimes even freezing; they had to lose their family members - just for being black and therefore slaves. It is necessary to pay tribute to all these people who in spite of the cruelty in their lives managed to remain kind inside and some of them even tried to understand their masters. Thought the master-slave relations did have exceptions they still remained unilateral, where the only side expressing its opinion was the master’s side. Nevertheless, this has become one of the most important lessons for the human nation – there is no condition under which one person can possess supremacy over another one.
1. Mangione, Jerre “ The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writer's Project, 1935-1943”/Avon Books/1972.
2. Stott, William “Documentary Expression and Thirties America”/Oxford University Press/1973.