Thursday, March 18, 2010

Slavery 1 // Q: What brought slavery to humanity? A: Agriculture

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

I have been reading about slavery as part of the research for my second novel.

A slave is the property of another human or group of humans, on the same level as an inanimate object or a domestic animal. A slave’s owner can use the slave for any work; sell the slave; take sexual advantage; or even kill, torture or abuse the slave.

The slave on the other hand can’t choose where to live or what work to do; has no right to any property without permission from the master; cannot enter into trade, business or marital relations without the master’s permission; can travel only with permission; and depends for very survival on the master’s good will and the slave’s value as property

Just imagining oneself as a slave would make most people today tremble. Yet this status was the fate of many millions of our fellow human beings throughout pre-modern and early modern history. In fact, almost all the nations of the world experienced slavery. Even today, although it is banned almost throughout the world, it is far from extinct.

Slavery emerged long ago, in prehistoric times, before humans developed writing. Without written documentation, we will never know exactly when and where slavery first emerged, and who was the world’s first slave and who the first slave-owner. However, both the approximate time and the historical conditions of the emergence of slavery are clear from archaeological evidence.

In early prehistoric times, when most tools, implements and weapons were made of stone and bone, and the people still lived exclusively by hunting, fishing and gathering edible plants, there was no slavery, at least on a large scale. The main reason was that in such societies it was impractical. The primary goal of enslavement is taking advantage of the slave’s labour. It’s pretty risky to send a slave to gather edible plants in deep woods where the slave can escape, let alone send one to hunt with a weapon that the slave could use against the master. Theoretically, one can imagine such a hunter-gatherer society using slave labour for tending skins, processing the spoils of hunting and fishing, working with firewood, or cleaning the master’s dwelling. But that would mean that the tribal community would have to feed such a slave from the spoils of the free tribesmen’s labours, which in most cases were barely enough for their own and their children’s subsistence. So, not surprisingly, people in hunter-gatherer societies did not practice slavery. In particular, they did not make slaves of enemies captured in war. Wars did occasionally break out between hunter-gatherer communities, mainly as blood revenge for a murdered fellow-tribesman or to resolve a dispute over hunting-grounds. But the captives were usually not taken as slaves. Instead, they were killed and eaten.

The situation changed drastically with the emergence of agriculture (“civilization”). Unlike hunting and gathering, agriculture provides ample opportunities for use of forced labour, in terms of both the nature of the work and the creation of a surplus. We know from archaeological evidence of differences in modes of burial that slavery first emerged with agriculture

In intertribal armed conflicts, captives were brought to the victorious community and enslaved, enemy warriors and women and children alike.

In my next post (Slavery 2), I will show how the emergence of slavery had such disastrous consequences that it can rightly be called the first great fall of humankind.

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