Saw the new film The Birth of a Nation recently and can say it’s an engaging movie. There’s lots of action, blood, and sensitive portrayals of the slaves as individuals-I found thought provoking.
One scene with an African ceremony performed by slaves on a plantation got me thinking about something I’d seen in a book called Debit the First 5,000 years which I read earlier this year. It’s fascinating because the author David Graeber dwells on the human component in debt.
For instance he has a discussion of the origins of Black African slavery that revolves around the various magical/ritual cults that existed among African tribes. As these societies came to dominate the tribes no one who hoped to improve their family’s lot could afford not to be a member.
The leaders of these cults knowing they had a hot product kept on raising the price of entry into them. And since many of the people wanting to join couldn’t afford the fee for joining the cult- a system of indentured servitude evolved.
Family members were routinely offered as collateral in exchange for the entry fee. Over time this became a system of slavery. The people offered in this manner became the property of the person covering the entry fee- to be sold and traded. Then when the Portuguese appeared Black slavery went international.
In the US there was also indentured servitude with the Celtic and others from the British Isles brought here to work off debits they had acquired in the old country. At one time the “red necks” outnumbered Black slaves here.
But unlike Africa it didn’t evolve into actual slavery. White slavery was being carried out by Muslim pirates working the Mediterranean basin where they’d raid coastal towns in France and Italy among other places for captives. Occurring at roughly the same time as Black slavery, something like three or four million Europeans were taken in this manner.
It got so bad that the US Marines went over to engage them. This is what the line “shores of Tripoli” refers to in the Marine’s Hymn.
The Muslim slave owners in North Africa and other places made money off their slaves too in the usual ways. But given they were taking slaves from known families-rather than the way Black African families were broken up-the Muslim captors had another, more big business play at their disposal: ransom.
Once newly captured slaves were brought back to the Muslim kingdoms that traded with the pirates many times a European who lived among the Muslims would go around and qualify the captives-see which ones came from families who had the means to pay ransom for their loved one.
These candidates were separated out from the other slaves and were given lighter tasks, kept in better shape while the negotiations for their release proceeded.
The other slaves suffered the usual fate of slaves everywhere except that over time the European slaves created what amounted to quarters- within the cities where they were held in the greatest numbers.
These areas had commercial activities-including taverns where Muslim men would go to drink- away from the eyes of their co-religionists.
Given slavery’s continuing connection with debt and economics in addition to the urge to dominate and exploit you have to wonder when it will finally be eradicated from human society.