|"Overboard," courtesy of the Bristol Radical History Group|
Slavery. Just the word makes us cringe. Moderns very nearly lose their minds in the simplest of discussions over the subject, because of recent resurgence of racial tensions in our country. But for any student of colonial history—really, of any history at all—it’s absolutely unavoidable.
The first thing that comes to mind in relation to slavery is, of course, the American Civil War. I’m currently neck-deep in writing a story set right in the middle of the Civil War—which is still somewhat of a shock to me, since colonial America is still my favorite—but this means I’m having to grapple with the issue of slavery as never before. In considering how it relates to the colonial era, and all the problems we moderns tend to have even in merely discussing it, I’ve made some interesting observations about this terrible fixture of history.
To begin with, like many other aspects of history, slavery isn’t always taught in schools with the best of accuracy. Some are even under the impression that slavery actually originated with the European “invasion” of America. Well, not so. Slavery—the practice of forcibly taking and keeping human beings for profit, subjugation, or sacrifice—has been around nearly as long as humans themselves. The exact nature of slavery, or the purposes behind it, might have varied, but the practice most definitely did not start here in our country, or even with Europeans. Almost every major civilization practiced slavery of some kind of another, from the Romans to the Greeks and all the way back to the Egyptians and beyond, and then forward to our time, perpetrated as human trafficking or an act of war by extremist groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram.
Another problem of discussing such awful realities is a moral one, because we never want to appear that we’re condoning or justifying slavery in any form, but as historians we are obligated to acknowledge it as a very real cultural and societal force.
It was a strongly defining force in American history, for sure, as it was for many other nations. The case could be made that chattel slavery, the term simply used to refer to treating people as property, was first introduced to the Americas by Europeans, but slavery in various forms was certainly not a new thing to the native populations.
|Christian slaves in Algiers, 1706|