Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A History of White Slavery by Charles Sumner 1853

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The word slave, suggesting now so much of human abasement, has an origin which speaks of human grandeur. Its parent term, Slava, signifying glory, in the Slavonian dialects, where it first appears, was proudly assumed as the national designation of the races in the north-eastern part of the European continent, who, in the vicissitudes of war, were afterwards degraded from the condition of conquerors to that of servitude. The Slavonian bondman, retaining his national name, was known as a Slave, and this term—passing from a race to a class—was afterwards applied, in the languages of modern Europe, to all in his unhappy lot, without distinction of country or color. It would be difficult to mention any word which has played such opposite parts in history—now beneath the garb of servitude, concealing its early robes of pride. And yet, startling as it may seem, this word may properly be received in its primitive character, in our own day, by those among us who consider slavery essential to democratic institutions, and therefore a part of the true glory of the country!

Slavery was universally recognized by the nations of antiquity. It is said by Pliny, in a bold phrase, that the Lacedæmonians "invented slavery." If this were so, the glory of Lycurgus and Leonidas would not compensate for such a blot upon their character. It is true that they recognized it, and gave it a shape of peculiar hardship. But slavery is older than Sparta. It appears in the tents of Abraham; for the three hundred and eighteen servants born to him were slaves. It appears in the story of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers to the Midianites for twenty pieces of silver. It appears in the poetry of Homer, who stamps it with a reprobation which can never be forgotten, when he says,

Jove fixed it certain, that whatever day
Makes man a slave takes half his worth away.

In later days it prevailed extensively in Greece, whose haughty people deemed themselves justified in enslaving all who were strangers to their manners and institutions. "The Greek has the right to be the master of the barbarian," was the sentiment of Euripides, one of the first of her poets, which was echoed by Aristotle, the greatest of her intellects. And even Plato, in his imaginary republic, the Utopia of his beautiful genius, sanctions slavery. But, notwithstanding these high names, we learn from Aristotle himself that there were persons in his day—pestilent abolitionists of ancient Athens—who did not hesitate to maintain that liberty was the great law of nature, and to deny any difference between the master and the slave; declaring openly that slavery was founded upon violence, and not upon right, and that the authority of the master was unnatural and unjust. "God sent forth all persons free; nature has made no man a slave," was the protest of one of these dissenting Athenians against this great wrong. I am not in any way authorized to speak for any Anti-slavery society, even if this were a proper occasion; but I presume that this ancient Greek morality substantially embodies the principles which are maintained at their public meetings—so far, at least, as they relate to slavery.

It is true, most true, that slavery stands on force, and not on right. It is one of the hideous results of war, or of that barbarism in which savage war plays a conspicuous part. To the victor, it was supposed, belonged the lives of his captives; and, by consequence, he might bind them in perpetual servitude. This principle, which has been the foundation of slavery in all ages, is adapted only to the rudest conditions of society, and is wholly inconsistent with a period of real refinement, humanity, and justice. It is sad to confess that it was recognized by Greece; but the civilization of this famed land, though brilliant to the external view as the immortal sculptures of the Parthenon, was, like that stately temple, dark and cheerless within.

Slavery extended, with new rigors, under the military dominion of Rome. The spirit of freedom which animated the republic was of that selfish and intolerant character which accumulated privileges upon the Roman citizen, while it heeded little the rights of others. But, unlike the Greeks, the Romans admitted in theory that all men were originally free by the law of nature; and they ascribed the power of masters over slaves not to any alleged diversities in the races of men, but to the will of society. The constant triumphs of their arms were signalized by reducing to captivity large crowds of the subjugated people. Paulus Emilius returned from Macedonia with an uncounted train of slaves, composed of persons in every department of life; and at the camp of Lucullus, in Pontus, slaves were sold for four drachmæ, or seventy-two cents, a head. Terence and Phædrus, Roman slaves, have, however, taught us that genius is not always quenched, even by a degrading captivity; while the writings of Cato the Censor, one of the most virtuous slaveholders in history, show the hardening influence of a system which treats human beings as cattle. "Let the husbandman," says Cato, "sell his old oxen, his sickly cattle, his sickly sheep, his wool, his hides, his old wagon, his old implements, his old slave, and his diseased slave; and if any thing else remains, let him sell it. He should be a seller, rather than a buyer."

The cruelty and inhumanity which flourished in the republic, professing freedom, found a natural home under the emperors—the high priests of despotism. Wealth increased, and with it the multitude of slaves. Some masters are said to have owned as many as ten thousand, while extravagant prices were often paid, according to the fancy or caprice of the purchaser. Martial mentions a handsome youth who cost as much as four hundred sesteria, or sixteen thousand dollars.

It is easy to believe that slavery, which prevailed so largely in Greece and Rome, must have existed in Africa. Here, indeed, it found a peculiar home. If we trace the progress of this unfortunate continent, from those distant days of fable, when Jupiter

did not disdain to grace
The feast of Æthiopia's blameless race,

the merchandise in slaves will be found to have contributed to the abolition of two hateful customs, once universal in Africa—the eating of captives, and their sacrifice to idols. Thus, in the march of civilization, even the barbarism of slavery is an important stage of Human Progress. It is a point in the ascending scale from cannibalism.

In the early periods of modern Europe, slavery was a general custom, which yielded only gradually to the humane influences of Christianity. It prevailed in all the countries of which we have any record. Fair-haired Saxon slaves from distant England arrested the attention of Pope Gregory in the markets of Rome, and were by him hailed as angels. A law of so virtuous a king as Alfred ranks slaves with horses and oxen; and the chronicles of William of Malmesbury show that, in our mother country, there was once a cruel slave trade in whites. As we listen to this story, we shall be grateful again to that civilization which renders such outrages more and more impossible. "Directly opposite," he says, "to the Irish coast, there is a seaport called Bristol, the inhabitants of which frequently sent into Ireland to sell those people whom they had bought up throughout England. They exposed to sale maidens in a state of pregnancy, with whom they made a sort of mock marriage. There you might see with grief, fastened together by ropes, whole rows of wretched beings of both sexes, of elegant forms, and in the very bloom of youth,—a sight sufficient to excite pity even in barbarians,—daily offered for sale to the first purchaser. Accursed deed! infamous disgrace! that men, acting in a manner which brutal instinct alone would have forbidden, should sell into slavery their relations, nay, even their own offspring." From still another chronicler we learn that, when Ireland, in 1172, was afflicted with public calamities, the people, but chiefly the clergy, (præcipue clericorum,) began to reproach themselves, as well they might, believing that these evils were brought upon their country because, contrary to the right of Christian freedom, they had bought as slaves the English boys brought to them by the merchants; wherefore, it is said, the English slaves were allowed to depart in freedom.

As late as the thirteenth century, the custom prevailed on the continent of Europe to treat all captives, taken in war, as slaves. To this, poetry, as well as history, bears its testimony. Old Michael Drayton, in his story of the Battle of Agincourt, says of the French,—

For knots of cord to every town they send,
The captived English that they caught to bind;
For to perpetual slavery they intend
Those that alive they on the field should find.

And Othello, in recounting his perils, exposes this custom, when he speaks

Of being taken by the insolent foe,
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence.

It was also held lawful to enslave any infidel or person who did not receive the Christian faith. The early common law of England doomed heretics to the stake; the Catholic Inquisition did the same; and the laws of Oleron, the maritime code of the middle ages, treated them "as dogs," to be attacked and despoiled by all true believers. It appears that Philip le Bel of France, the son of St. Louis, in 1296, presented his brother Charles, Count of Valois, with a Jew, and that he paid Pierre de Chambly three hundred livres for another Jew; as if Jews were at the time chattels, to be given away, or bought. And the statutes of Florence, boastful of freedom, as late as 1415, expressly allowed republican citizens to hold slaves who were not of the Christian faith; Qui non sunt Catholicæ fidei et Christianæ. And still further, the comedies of Molière, L'Étourdi, Le Sicilien, L'Avare, depicting Italian usages not remote from his own day, show that, at Naples and Messina, even Christian women continued to be sold as slaves.

This hasty sketch, which brings us down to the period when Algiers became a terror to the Christian nations, renders it no longer astonishing that the barbarous states of Barbary,—a part of Africa, the great womb of slavery,—professing Islam, which not only recognizes slavery, but expressly ordains "chains and collars" to infidels, should maintain the traffic in slaves, particularly in Christians who denied the faith of the Prophet. In the duty of constant war upon unbelievers, and in the assertion of a right to the services or ransom of their captives, they followed the lessons of Christians themselves.

See also When Blacks Owned Slaves, by Calvin Dill Wilson 1905

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