The Stench of Slavery
By Stephen Tuttle | March 18, 2023
California is about to approve the payment of reparations to people who can prove they are the descendants of slaves. This might be a good time to look at slavery’s ugly history.
As long as there has been recorded history, there have been references to slavery, starting with the earliest city-states of Mesopotamia around 6800 BCE, a staggering 8,800+ years ago. We know those slaves were captured enemies forced to work and refusal to do so was usually met with execution.
Jump ahead a few thousand years to 2575 BCE and the Egyptians became one of the earliest civilizations to go in search of slaves, sending armies up the Nile to capture and enslave victims for their massive building projects. The common thread of most early slavery, both in Europe and what is now Central and South America, was whatever side had the misfortune of losing a battle or a war was likely to be enslaved or simply killed.
It was a scourge that infected even so-called advanced societies; the city-state of Athens used as many as 30,000 slaves in around 550 BCE, mostly captured in warfare or piracy on the Mediterranean though some were obtained through trade. Human beings had become a commodity to be traded for grain or livestock or sold for cash.
And those enslaved were not what we would call minorities today. Native Britons were enslaved by conquering Anglo-Saxon marauders in around 500 CE. Within another 500 years, slavery, often as a result of debt, was commonplace in rural communities in England.
It wasn’t until 1444 that Portuguese traders brought the first large cargo of West African slaves to England, the beginning of more race-specific slavery. Unfortunately, slave traders found eager partners in African tribal leaders willing to sell those they had captured in battles. Some African clan and tribal leaders actually went on raids to specifically capture humans they could sell to the slave traders.
And nobody was inclined to do much to stop what had become a growing business of human trafficking. There isn’t even much evidence many thought it was wrong, and the practice was easily exported to the New World.
In 1526, Spanish explorer Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon brought as many as 100 African slaves to what is now Florida long before their infamous importation to Virginia.
Florida, whose politicians would rather their children ignore slavery and racism altogether, has an extremely interesting connection on both sides of the issue. While 1526 saw the first African slaves on North American soil, it was also, not coincidentally, the year of the first slave revolt. Then, in 1539, Hernando de Soto defeated Timucuan warriors in Florida, and when they refused to be enslaved, he ordered the execution of 200 people in the first recorded massacre of indigenous North Americans by European explorers. On the other hand, in 1687, Florida became the first place to emancipate escaped slaves, and, in 1735, Florida became home to the first settlement of free Blacks. There is more than enough history there to share with public school children.
We also should remember slavery was not just a phenomenon of the South, though it would eventually become that. In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to legalize slavery. In fact, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies; 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 10 of our first 12 presidents were all slave owners. (Only John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, did not own slaves.) Between 1526 and 1866, more than 10 million African slaves were sent to the United States, most of whom had been captured in battle, kidnapped, or were in debt.
As the horrors of the Civil War neared, most northern states had outlawed slavery altogether, but the entire economy of the South was slave-dependent. By 1860, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina all had more than 400,000 slaves.
It would be nice if we could say slavery is behind us, but it still exists in many forms in many locations. According to the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery produced by the International Labor Organization, there are some 50 million people worldwide in some form of slavery today. Most are captured in border skirmishes, victims of kidnapping, indentured servants, or in forced marriages.
California’s Reparations Task Force plans to address our slavery history with the most American of solutions—money. Black Californians who can prove they are descendants of slaves might receive a one-time payment of as much as $360,000. The overall price tag on such a program would be around $640 billion.
It’s not clear how that will improve schools, neighborhoods, jobs, or do anything to reverse the bigotry that still exists. We aren’t going to buy our way out of racism or the leftover stench of slavery no matter how much we spend.