Tag Archives: Slavery

Forgotten Past: Saint-Domingue, Slave States, and the Second Amendment

Battle at San Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski

Battle at San Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski

In the fury that followed the murderous rampage in a South Carolina church back in June, we Americans found our attention diverted from yet another gun incident to the ubiquitous Confederate battle flag and the unhealed wounds that its presence calls to mind. And in the ensuing noisy debate, I happened to see a right-wing meme in my Facebook stream that gave me pause. It complained about what today’s schoolkids aren’t taught, and it ended with this provocative statement:

Whites were the first people to stop slavery in modern times, whereas slavery continues in Africa to this day.

Presumably, the author of this bit of copy-and-paste truthiness couched this statement with “in modern times,” because he or she knew that Chinese governments had banned slavery at least twice in ancient times. Even at that, China did not permanently free its slaves until the 1720s in the Yongzheng emancipation, and de facto slavery continued for decades.

The long road to emancipation

In fact many nations took steps, however slowly, toward abolition throughout the 18th and 19th century. We can’t be entirely sure what the author meant by “stop slavery,” but I would argue that it must encompass participation in the slave trade and the use of slaves in colonial territories; it has to include more than just the abolition of bondage in the homeland. Nor can we forget serfdom. For while we may marvel at Russia’s abolition of slavery in 1723, we must also note with dismay that its serfs weren’t freed until 1861. (See the Abolition of Slavery Timeline at Wikipedia.)

We could cite the 1777 constitution of the so-called Republic of Vermont, but the slavery ban contained therein had rather spotty enforcement. Moreover, Vermont was a “reluctant republic,” and sought absorption into the Union as soon as it could do so.

The United States itself, of course, did not eradicate slavery nationally until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Before that, several nations in the Western Hemisphere had already freed their slaves. Even Great Britain, which had taken halting steps toward full emancipation in the late 18th century, did not effectively end all slavery in the empire until 1837.

We could possibly point to Norway and Denmark as the first two countries to halt participation in the transatlantic slave trade (effective 1803); however, Denmark still allowed slavery in its colonies until 1848. We might also note France, whose revolutionary government briefly outlawed slavery, only to see its return under Napoleon.

A successful revolution

But clearly, of all the places in the world with well-entrenched, industrial-scale slavery, Haiti (originally, the French Colony of Saint-Domingue) is one of the first, if not the first, in which immediate and permanent emancipation took place. And the African slaves did it themselves. In The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist describes how the revolution started: read more »

The Doctrine of Discovery: The Legal Framework of Colonialism, Slavery, and Holy War

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John...

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John Marshall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1823, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (pronounced “Macintosh”). The case centered on a title dispute between two parties over land purchased in 1773 and 1775 from American Indian tribes north of the Ohio River. In the decision Chief Justice John Marshall outlined the Discovery Doctrine, explaining that the U.S. federal government had exclusive ownership of the lands previously held by the British. While the native inhabitants could claim the right to occupy the land, they did not hold the radical title to the land.

In plain English, the United States claimed ultimate sovereignty over the discovered territories, but permitted the native tribes residing there to continue to live in a kind of landlord-tenant relationship. Marshall explained that as a result, the natives could sell only their right to occupancy — their aboriginal title — and only to the federal government. With a stroke of the pen, American Indians had become tenants of the empty land.

Legal basis

The case has several peculiarities; for example, Marshall’s decision did not rely on the Constitution or previous decisions, but instead upon international agreements put in place during the Reconquista of Iberia, and solidified shortly after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. This framework essentially permitted Christian nations of Europe to invade, occupy, and colonize any non-Christian land anywhere in the world.

Marshall explained that the United States was the successor of radical title, which they had won by defeating the English. (The quoted paragraphs below come from the original text of the decision. The bold text is mine.)

No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle [of discovery] more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.

In other words, as long as no other Christian nation had taken title of a non-Christian foreign territory, the English saw it as fair game. What Cabot had discovered, they reasoned, became the Crown’s sovereign holdings.

In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries “then unknown to all Christian people,” and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the King of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.

The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh in nearly the same terms.

While Marshall focused on so-called heathen people (usually construed as polytheists, animists, etc.), we should recall that Portugal operated under the same doctrine to colonize and subjugate people in Africa, some of whom were Muslims. read more »

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 4)

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...

When we minimize and explain away slavery or talk about it as an abstract concept, we demonstrate our lack of empathy for its millions of victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christianity and slavery: why does it matter?

As I made clear early on in this series, I contend that the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world was more terrible than we can imagine. In addition, we can’t deny the evidence that early Christians were generally ambivalent about it, or at worst, condoned it. Moreover, rich Christians continued to own slaves after they converted. We can, in fact, corroborate these assertions not only from ancient writings, but from certain artifacts that still survive.

Investigation of current Christian attitudes toward ancient slavery reveals a surprising number of people who prefer to remain in a state of denial. Recall from part one Thomas Madden’s unsubstantiated assertion that “Christianity . . . considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” Not only can we find no clear written evidence from the New Testament or patristic literature to confirm his claim, but we have solid written and archaeological evidence that disproves it.

The crime of running away

Jennifer Glancy begins her book, Slavery in Christianity, with the following few sentences that, for Christians (and ex-Christians like myself) are as sobering as an ice-cold shower:

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.” Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave’s previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. (p. 9, emphasis mine) 

The words “chance survival” might lead the reader to think such collars — which gave license to the finder to detain the slave by any brutal means necessary, and which were lovingly adorned with crosses and chi-rhos — were rare. But they weren’t. True to form, some scholars have decided to interpret the existence of such collars as a good thing. They posit that it means Christian slaveholders stopped the practice of facial tattooing. In other words, “Baby steps.”

However, in the (ridiculously overpriced) book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Kyle Harper notes:

read more »

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)

Interpreting Philemon

English: The apostle paul reading by candlelig...

The apostle paul reading by candlelight, with a large open book leaning on a skull, seen from below. Mezzotint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had intended next to describe the wretched state of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, but I promised we’d cover Philemon first. The epistle to Philemon is one of those few books you can refer to simply by verse number, because there’s only one chapter. With today’s online Bibles you’ll frequently see references to Philemon 1:1, but traditionally, you could just refer to Philemon 1. (Quick trivia question: What are the other four single-chapter books in the Christian Bible?)*

Because this tiny letter seems to offer a glimpse of real people and real events from the first century CE, Philemon remains one of the most tantalizing books of the New Testament. We can only guess exactly happened before and after the letter. How did Onesimus end up with Paul? What did Paul expect Philemon to do with his returned property, and did he do it? How had Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” become “useless” to Philemon? Was he a runaway slave? Or had he committed some act that displeased Philemon, who subsequently dismissed him?

Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated over Paul’s ultimate intentions, offering (as I mentioned in earlier comments) a wide range of interpretations. Did Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus or not?

Why didn’t he just come right out and say it?!

A voluntary act

Paul assures his recipients that he is certainly in a position to compel Philemon to “do the right thing” (whatever that is), but prefers that he reach this decision of his own accord.

24.  but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (NASB)

So one could argue that Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, and free him. And he wanted his slave-holding friend to come to that conclusion on his own, because a coerced good deed is less desirable than turning away from evil and carrying out a righteous act with a free and open heart.

That’s one way to approach it.

However, we should recall that normally when Paul learns of sinful behavior among his congregations, he does not gently prod them into changing their ways.  Consider the man in Corinth accused of incest (viz., fooling around with his father’s wife). Paul doesn’t coyly intimate what they should consider doing . . . maybe . . . perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble.

No, he blasts them, and tells them exactly how to handle this guy:

read more »