In 2011 I attended a financial conference in Ottawa, and at one of the evening social events, I committed a grave faux pas. After introducing myself, I started chatting with some attendees who wanted to know the source of my first name “Okey,” pronounced “O-Kay” as in OK, the word American English is said to have given the world. (My name means God’s creation or gift in my native Igbo language). I told them that the word OK is found in many West African languages where it has many different meanings, and among the Wolof of Senegal, it is said to mean “alright.”

Without thinking about what I was doing, I went on to say that a minority of etymological scholars contend that the word OK entered American English through the African slaves that were brought to the Americas.

Handbill advertising a Slave Auction in Charleston 1789 public domain
Handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston in 1769

Bad idea, the use of the word “slaves.” The circle around me went cold, the warmth those conference attendees had shown me in the beginning evaporated, and a few people turned away from me and immediately began to talk about something else. I should add—perhaps unnecessarily—that I was the only black person in that circle of people.

In my experience in North America, the word “slavery” makes many white people very uncomfortable, and makes some angry in a suppressed “not this merde again” way. At the same time the topic also makes blacks angry and resentful, and yet, in a perverse way, triumphant at having a moral club with which to beat whites. Back in my university days, at parties, a friend from Bermuda loved to request a famous song by the reggae star Burning Spear . As the song played, he ad-libbed his version of the chorus, shouting at the top of his lungs, “WHITE PEOPLE, Do you remember the days of slavery?” Slavery is often seen as a purely black and white affair, as some terrible thing white people always did to blacks.

Another example: I was talking to a black woman the other day about a law in ancient Rome where if the master of the house was thought to be murdered by one of his slaves, all of the slaves in the household were executed. “These people!” she exclaimed angrily, “They’ve always been nasty to us.” Her assumption that “slaves” is a synonym for “blacks” is not uncommon in North America. While there may have been a small number of African slaves in the slave society of ancient Rome, the overwhelming majority were Northern European and Mediterranean people—they were mostly white.

The vile practice of slavery is something no one in the modern world wants to be associated with. It is a moral victory for humankind that the opprobrium attached to the institution today is such that everyone tries as much as possible to minimize or deny any past association with it. But it is an unfortunate fact of history that slavery was once a near universal, if not universal human practice, a practice once seen as part of the natural order.

The eminent Jamaican-American historical sociologist, Harvard’s Orlando Patterson, writes that “There is nothing notably peculiar about the institution of slavery. It has existed since before the dawn of human history right down to the twentieth century…There is no region on earth that has not at some time harbored the institution. Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.” (Slavery and Social Death)

Professor Orlando Patterson
Professor Orlando Patterson

This blog post, and a number of subsequent posts, will discuss slavery with particular reference to the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the role of Africans in it.

According to the editors of the Cambridge World History of Slavery, the “ubiquitous institution” “…evolved independently in the Americas, Africa and Asia, but Greece and Rome were the first major slave societies.”

Slavery is a complex issue that does not lend itself to easy simplifications. However, there are common practices and themes in slavery across time and space. For one thing, while it is indeed true that slavery in the ancient civilization of Rome was not race based like American slavery (even though there was a tiny minority of black slaves there), the Romans believed that “A slave….is subhuman by fate and not by accident.” Thus their views of slavery bear very strong similarities to how slaves were viewed by Europeans in the Atlantic Slavery of more recent times. About this ancient view of the inferiority of slaves, the French historian Paul Veyne says, “Today’s closest psychological analogy to ancient slavery is racism.” (A History of Private Life: From pagan Rome to Byzantium)

The ideology of the natural inferiority and subhuman nature of slaves, seems to have been widespread. In order to visit upon fellow humans the harrowing depredations of slavery it was probably necessary to see them as less than human.

Roman slaves were often former citizens and biological offspring of Roman citizens. Roman slaves were of course not citizens. But they could become full citizens on manumission, or on purchasing their freedom.

Slave market in ancient Rome by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Slave Market in ancient Rome. By Jean-Leon Gerome.

Like the American slave owners, the Greeks and Romans abused their female slaves sexually (and boy slaves), and the slaves bore children that were themselves slaves, ensuring that for many, slavery was a birth to death condition. Like American slavery, some of the slaves were offspring of rich and powerful men. One of the most famous examples in US slavery is American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson who fathered slave children with his slave girl Sally Hemmings, a fact denied for centuries by American historians who probably knew the truth.

The Romans, from the highest noble families to the poor, also exposed newborns: in other words, if the patriarch of a Roman household, for whatever reason, refused to accept a newborn child of his wife, concubine or slave, that child would be taken to the nearest rubbish heap and left there, or “exposed.” Roman slave traders patrolled these places where infants were abandoned, and picked them up to be raised and then sold. Thus some Roman slaves were biological offspring of the rich and powerful, but were treated like any other Roman slave from Britain or France.

In Roman slavery, slaves in some rural areas of Italy worked the plantations and mines, and their lives were just as nasty, brutish and short as the lives of slaves elsewhere who did the same work.

For the Greeks and Romans, warfare was one of the major sources of slaves, as it was in Atlantic Slavery and in slavery in many other parts of the world. The Romans and Greeks also condemned to slavery people who had committed crimes—in many parts of Western Africa, this was also a source of slaves. In Greece, Rome and parts of Africa, people sold themselves and their children when in dire financial straits. It is often difficult for us moderns to understand how people could sell their children—or commit some of the horrific acts of slavery—but the past is an alien world to us in which people thought and behaved differently, and terrible cruelty was normal.

After the fall of Rome, slavery continued into medieval times in Europe. In eleventh century England, scholars estimate that some ten percent of the population were slaves. At the time, the bulk of the slaves of Western Europe came from Eastern Europe, specifically the coast of Bosnia. Our modern English word “slave,” as well as the French word “esclave,” are derived from “Schlavus” or Slavs, who were the slaves of Western Europe from the 9th century on. From the 8th century, the Slavs were also slaves of the Islamic world.

Even as the Atlantic Slave Trade was going on and Western Africans were being shipped in huge numbers to the Americas, Barbary corsairs or pirates from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya were raiding, capturing and enslaving white Europeans from Britain and southern Europe and selling them on the coast of North Africa.  This enslaving of about one million Europeans in North Africa did not end until the 19th century.

Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, the last slave raiding Barbary corsair
Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, the last slave raiding Barbary corsair

What about sub-Saharan Africa? Was there slavery in Black Africa before the Atlantic Trade? Slavery there goes as far back as antiquity, or at least a slave trade goes that far back. Black Africa was a source of slaves for the ancients in Egypt, and the Greco-Roman world. In the words of Paul E. Lovejoy of York University in Toronto, one of the world’s leading experts on slavery in Africa, “Africa has been intimately connected with this history [of slavery], both as a major source of slaves for ancient civilizations, the Islamic world, India, and the Americas, and as one of the principal areas where slavery was common.”

The various tarikhs or histories written by Africans in the West African Islamic kingdoms provide documentary evidence that slavery was part of the social fabric in West Africa before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. There were agricultural slaves who worked plantations, slaves who were administrators and military men, slaves who were given to visitors as gifts by kings and noblemen, slaves who were eunuchs that guarded harems, and slaves who were used as sacrificial victims in pagan tribes.

There is a myth among some Africans that African slavery was somehow more benign than European slavery, and African slaves were more servant than slave.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course some forms of African slavery were different from the slavery of the Americas—for example, the osu religious slavery of some parts of Igboland where a person was enslaved to a deity and all his descendants became social outcasts as a result. Prejudice against osus continues even today. But many of the forms of slavery that existed in the Americas also existed in Africa. The only difference was in scale and in the focus in the West on producing commodities for a world market.

Didi Mehn, contemporary osu. His girlfriends parents rejected him as a suitor for their daughter. Source FiloPost
Didi Mehn, a descendant of osus, who were religious slaves, and outcasts in pre-colonial times in Igboland. His girlfriend’s parents rejected him as a suitor for their daughter because of his osu lineage. Source: FiloPost


Slavery and Society at Rome by Keith Bradley

Slavery: A new global history by Jeremy Black

Slavery and Social Death: A comparative study by Orlando Patterson

Blacks in Antiquity by Frank Snowden

A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium edited by Paul Veyne

The Cambridge World History of Slavery edited by Paul Bradley and Keith Cartledge

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed

Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice

History of American Slavery by Duncan Clarke

Transformations in Slavery: A history of Slavery in Africa by Paul E. Lovejoy

Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy 1500-1800, by Robert C. Davis

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