Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Slavery 2 // The first great fall of humanity

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

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

In my previous post (Slavery 1), I explained how slavery emerged among human beings as a byproduct of the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies.

Some historians regard the emergence of slavery as progress. In hunter-gatherer societies, some point out, captives in inter-tribal wars were killed and eaten. In agricultural societies, captives were no longer exterminated but were spared–albeit to spend the rest of their lives in slavery.

I can’t agree.

First, slavery was normally so hard and brought so much pain, physical and emotional, and so often ended in violent death by the master’s whim, that quick death could be better–unless the slave had a chance to regain freedom by escape or manumission.

Second, before slavery wars between tribes and clans were quite rare. They were mainly due to blood revenge for a murdered fellow-tribesman or tribeswoman or to rivalry over contested hunting or gathering grounds–the latter especially in periods of scarcity. For decades and centuries, when neither blood revenge nor territorial disputes arose, peace was the norm of life. Probably everyone would agree with me that it would be much better if it had remained the norm of life throughout pre-modern times. Alas, when slavery emerged as a byproduct of the shift to agriculture, very soon there emerged slave markets, at which the captor of a slave was at any time able to sell his living booty for a certain price. Sometimes the price was higher, sometimes lower, but there was hardly a day throughout these many thousands of years when an able-bodied slave of either sex would not attract a buyer ready to pay a market price.

Not surprisingly, the frequency of wars as a result increased ten if not a hundred times. From then on wars between tribes, and later states, became pretty regular events throughout history. Probably in primitive societies before the emergence of slavery a whole century without any war was quite normal, though one certainly cannot say so for sure, considering the absence of written historical sources. In contrast, if you take the history of any nation at any time in the historical period, a century without any war, large or small, would be quite rare, at least in pre-modern and early modern periods. Even in times of peace, almost any person could be kidnapped and sold into slavery by raiders, pirates or random seekers of quick profit. Even the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was captured and sold into slavery, and had to be ransomed by his friend. Thus travelling alone or in a small unarmed group became dangerous. Thus in one Russian historical novel the main character, an ancient Phoenician teenager, when about to embark on a sea voyage into far-away lands, is warned by his mother: “Especially beware of those merchants who trade in human beings.”

Third, the emergence of torture and barbarous executions on a large scale was probably due to the emergence of slavery–a point that to my knowledge no historian or ethnographer has ever made. Not that tortures and barbarous executions were unknown before. But in primitive societies, as ethnographic evidence shows, even an ordinary death penalty was quite rare. Among ancient Slavs, Germanic tribes, most pre-contact American Indians and Siberian aboriginals alike, the normal punishment for murder, even of a fellow-tribesman or tribeswoman, was life-long exile from the clan or tribe. Probably a tribal council would impose the death penalty only for treason, sacrilege or murder of a revered clan member such as a clan elder. If so, executions would be rare.

As for torture, in pre-agricultural times when wars and murders were rare, there were few situations when there was a need to extract some information or confession from somebody or to punish somebody severely. This situation too evidently changed with the emergence of slavery. Most captives understandably resented their enslavement, and their owner could expect from them some form of resistance: escape, murder of the owner or his overseer, even rebellion. To discourage them from such resistance, the threat of a really brutal punishment was necessary. Further, the numerous wars brought about the torture of captives as means of extracting strategically valuable information. And from those prehistoric times until well into the modern period, human societies manifested extreme brutality towards their fellow humans.

All this shows that the emergence of slavery was indeed the first Great Fall of humankind, to use the Biblical term. As a result of the emergence of slavery, the famous Roman saying Homo homini lupus est (A human is a wolf to a human) became the norm for most of humankind for many thousand years to come.

In my next post (Slavery 3) I will talk about the evolution of slavery in pre-modern and modern times and the growing opposition to slavery that eventually resulted in its abolition.

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