Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Slaves, Arabs, and Educated Fools

Hi, fans. I've been keeping this one on the back burner for awhile, but I think it's time I posted it. It's time for another juicy controversy, anyway!


--Leslie Fish

It’s easy to lie with history if your listeners are lazy scholars who won’t bother to check out your story. It’s easier still if they’re gullible and trusting, and believe you without question. It’s easiest of all if they believe unquestioningly because you tell them lies they want to hear and want to believe.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for the belief, common among Black Americans, that Elizabethan-age White men created the African slave-trade but the Arabs have always been the Black man’s friend.

Anyone who bothers to look through the actual evidence can find that the first slaves in America were White, and the African slave-trade was invented by Arabs – more than 3000 years ago.

The records are still preserved in museums, detailing ships’ passengers of the 16th and 17th centuries, showing how many settlers in early America were “indentured servants” from Britain. An indentured servant was a poor man or woman who found someone to pay his/her passage across the Atlantic, and then was obliged to repay that shipping-ticket with anything from five to ten years of unpaid labor and absolute obedience. An indentured servant was a slave, pure and simple, but with a limited sentence. At the end of his or her five-to-ten years’ service, he or she was dismissed with the clothes on his or her back, plus whatever he or she had managed to accumulate from gifts, bonuses, or picking through Master’s trash. The women usually became servants in someone else’s house, or shop, only paid wages now. The men quite often traded their few belongings for a good axe and struck off into the wilderness to become trappers – Mountain Men – whose adventures became great tales of exploration in later histories.

African slaves weren’t so lucky, even from the very beginning. There are carvings and wall-paintings from ancient Egypt which show huge idealized Pharaohs defeating and enslaving dwarfish caricatured Africans. Surviving Egyptian records speak of various conquests, and slaves subsequently taken, in Nubia – present-day Ethiopia and Sudan. Egyptian slaves had little or no hope of ever being freed.

Interestingly enough, the ancient civilizations in Europe had no use for slaves from Africa. The ancient Greeks and Romans made slaves of prisoners taken in battle, but those battles were usually fought among themselves. They also used slavery as part of their judicial system, as punishment for serious crimes, the way we use prisons today. A Greek or Roman slave was also expected to work for him/herself in his/her spare time, so as to earn money and buy his/her freedom. There’s a speech by the great Roman lawyer, Cicero, in which he says: “We have endured Caesar’s tyranny for six years, which is longer than slaves taken in battle are expected to endure a master.” This makes it clear that a large percentage of Roman slaves stayed enslaved for no more than five years. The Greeks and Romans also had sufficient respect for their goddesses of fertility that they did not make a habit of gelding their male slaves.

Another Roman custom held that a slave freed by his master, on becoming a citizen, was honor-bound to vote his former master’s way forever afterward. This meant that anyone with political ambitions and a bit of money could get a quick voting-bloc for himself by buying up, and then freeing, a lot of slaves. Rome also had a large working class – the Plebians – always available for labor, and the practical Romans knew well that it was cheaper to hire a Plebian and pay him only for the hours he worked than it was to buy a slave and pay for his food, clothing, shelter and doctoring, day and night, year after year, whether s/he was working or not. With this system in place, neither the ancient Greeks nor Romans had any pressing need to go sailing off to Africa to get slaves. As Europe slid into the Middle Ages, the feudal system guaranteed enough cheap labor that, again, there was no need to hunt for more in Africa.

It was not so in the Arab world, where surviving art and written records note an abundance of African slaves. For over 2000 years, an Arab “gentleman” proved that he was better than the dirt-poor peasants by owning at least one slave, and that slave was usually Black – if only so that the neighbors could tell at a glance who was the Master and who was the slave. If male, that slave was usually gelded. If female, she was a bed-slave until the ravages of age dismissed her to the kitchen and the laundry. The children of such women became slaves in their turn, with no hope of reprieve.

The conquests of Mohammed and his descendants in the 7th century swept North Africa under Arab rule and opened all of Africa to the Arab slave-trade. One consequence of this was the curious rule, under Sharia – Moslem religious law – that the soul of a gelded man could not be admitted to paradise. Given the Arab custom of gelding male slaves, this meant that it wasn’t worthwhile to convert slaves. That, in turn, meant that the religious rules for proper treatment of one’s fellow Moslems did not apply to the slaves – nor to anyone whom an Arab slave-dealer might intend to enslave, and geld. To this day, Arab religious law claims that any non-Moslem is “kufar”, and may be captured and sold as a slave.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, there was no great demand for slave labor until after the discovery of the New World. Spain claimed all of South America and most of North America, and hurried to establish settlements for mining gold, silver and salt, raising cattle and crops, growing sugar-cane and rendering it down to rum and molasses. All these enterprises required a lot of cheap labor, and the natives were notoriously bad at providing it; in fact, they tended to die quickly in captivity. It was Spain that started importing African slaves, making the African slave-trade a booming business. Various European countries – including England, France and Holland – tried their hands at providing slaves for the Spanish-American market, but it was the Arabs who captured Africans from the interior and brought them to the coast for sale to the Europeans.

As late as the mid-1800s, the most famous slave-dealer in the western world was a clever Arab named Tippu Tib. He would take caravans into the interior of Africa, posing as a harmless merchant, and while he sold goods at enticingly cheap prices to the African tribesmen, he would quietly count their able-bodied young men and women, note their defenses and map the approaches to their villages. Later, he and his henchmen would return in the dead of night to attack the villages, overpower the defenders and capture the inhabitants. He was considered “merciful” – or practical – in that he would often leave the children alive, with a few elders to raise them, in hopes of returning for another crop in ten or fifteen years. Exact figures are impossible to find, but it’s estimated that Tippu Tib alone was responsible for the capture and sale of over 100,000 Africans in his lifetime.

After 1865 there was no longer a market for slaves in North America or Europe, and the market in Central and South America rapidly dwindled, but the market in Arab countries lingered on. As late as 1950, there were an estimated 450,000 slaves in Saudi Arabia. Pressure from the United Nations and the industrial countries drove the trade underground in the last half of the 20th century, but the practice lingers on. As recently as 2003 Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan – a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body – claimed before the Saudi Information Agency that: “Slavery is a part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam.”

In view of all this, it’s hard to see why modern Black Americans still believe that only Whites caused their historical miseries, that embracing Islam will somehow set them free, and that the Arabs are their best friends.



Antongarou said...

Most of this post agrees with what little history of the slave trade I know, excepting one nitpick: ancient Egyptians were indeed Semite, but AFAIK not Arab, so including them in the argument weakens it.

Aya Katz said...

Leslie, slavery is a time honored tradition and was present in most parts of the ancient world. It is condoned in the Old Testament, where many laws address the rights of both slaves and their masters.

Antongarou is right that the ancient Egyptians were not Arabs, although you did not specifically say that they were...

I don't know that many modern day black Americans think that Arabs never enslaved anyone. Also, it's important to distinguish Arabs from Moslems. Not every Arab is a Moslem and not every Moslem is an Arab. Are you thinking of Muslim blacks?

Anonymous said...

I love pointing out to people who wax indignant about slavery that my esteemed ancestors were enthusiastic slavers. The slave markets at places like Hedeby were big business. About the only reason that NW Europeans didn't practice it after Rome fell and before the Age of Exploration was because there wasn't anybody close by them who was considered enslavable by their lights.

And until the postwar prosperity, it was S.O.P. in Japan for families in straits to sell excess daughters into the mizu-shobai (the entertainment world; included prostitution, but covered all parts of the entertainment industry).

In present-day Africa, warlords routinely enslave huge numbers of people from rival tribes to dig minerals, at least from what I've read (I am by no means an Africa maven). And I'd a hundred-thousand times rather be a slave in the old days than a prisoner of any of a bunch of totalitarian regimes I could name. If Simon Legree could have seen the Gulag, he'd have fainted dead away.

Ori Pomerantz said...

About the only reason that NW Europeans didn't practice it after Rome fell and before the Age of Exploration was because there wasn't anybody close by them who was considered enslavable by their lights.

Not exactly. The Latin term for slave was servus. The reason modern European languages use slave is because so many of the slaves in the dark ages were Slavs.

Aya Katz said...

Ori, that's true, too, about the word "slave". The old word was "servant", and the newest word to replace "servant" is "employee".

I wrote a hub about that called "Songs of Slavery." You can find it on Hubpages.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Anton. Egypt was a great trade crossroad, and everybody came through it -- Semite, Caucasian and African -- several of whom stayed and settled. Even if "Arab" means only "nomad", there were plenty of them in the Egyptian dry-lands away from the Nile. Egypt then was a racial and ethnic hodgepodge, and if anything it's more so today.

Hi, Aya. Indeed, not all Arabs were or are Semites, or Moslems. There are Arab tribes (like the Circassians) who have pale skins, blue or green eyes, and red or blond hair. There are other Arab tribes that are distinctly Black. Until recently, at least, there were Christian Arabs (in Lebanon), Jewish Arabs (in the old towns near ancient Babylon) and even Pagan Arabs (in the Euphrates swamplands). The fanatic Muslims cordially hate, and have tried their best to get rid of, all of them.

In general, "Arab" refers to a culture rather than a racial group, a culture which has managed to spread across northern Africa and southern Asia as far as northwestern Pakistan. It's the one culture left in the world that still condones slavery.

--Leslie <;)))><

Antongarou said...

Leslie, if you're using Arab as a cultural referent then ancient Egyptians were definitely not Arab.

In addition, having pale skin and hair doesn't necessarily mean they aren't Semite- many Jews have the same complexion/hair combinatio, and I'm not talking recent converts either.

Smashed The Tiny Black Box said...

I am I a descendant of Moroccan Arabs for the most part, but the descendant of U.S. slaves as well. A DNA test showed that I had a higher concentration of Arab ancestors than West African. I'm sure I'm not the only black person (I stick to those who accept me, sorry.) that has this background. I'm having trouble finding any information on this. Do you know where I might find more information?

Unknown said...

Aristotle wrote that there will be slavery until looms wove by themselves. Lo and behold, when the Jaquard punch-card loom arrived, along came Abolition with it. The United Kingdom, home of the Industrial Revolution, lead the way; America lagged; for it was not war that abolished slavery; it was the steam engine.

Wanderer Werewolf said...

A minor correction: Africa had its own slave tradition before it became mercantile, starting as a handy way to use captured warriors as war reparations. (And, speaking as a white Southerner, yeah, the "whites invented slavery" gag do get old, it do.)