Inhuman Bondage – A Book Review

Inhuman Bondage - The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by Dr. David Brion Davis is a summary of Dr. David's research into slavery in the "New World" (i.e. the Americas). Although wonderfully written the subject matter makes it a hard read.While I have no illusions about the barbarity of humanity reading the details is still a hard task. But a worthwhile one. What I give below is but the thinest summary of some of the key points made in the book. The book itself is incredibly rich with endless detail and anecdote to make the history come alive. I heartily recommend the book.

The nature of slavery before the new world

The author starts (after the first chapter on the Amistad) with a potted history of slavery as practiced in ancient human societies. The overview hits a couple of key points. Just about every large scale culture we know of, everywhere in the world, practiced slavery. Slavery was traditionally more about being on the losing end of a war than having anything to do with race. Slaves often could and did rise to high points in society, were typically allowed to own property, could potentially buy their freedom and in general had some small set of rights. Slaves often served in armed forces and as high councilors. In other contexts they served as objects of derision who would be slaughtered and eaten. So generalizations are hard to come by.

But a few themes do come out. Slaves were property. That is, they were belongings of their owners whose existence was first and foremost as 'things' that their owners controlled. Slaves were also often seen as animals as opposed to humans. In fact the author theorizes (although how one would prove this is another question) that slavery came from animal husbandry. When mankind successfully took wild animals and turned them into slave labor then a model was created that it seemed natural to apply to humans. If a horse could be broken into a pack animal, why not a human?

The Greeks (as far as we can tell) seem to have formalized the idea that some people were naturally slaves. But the idea of race in the modern sense didn't exist and this seemed more to apply to individual people rather than entire races. The result was that anyone and everyone, white, black and in between were made into slaves.

The roots of race based slavery

The English word Slave apparently has its root as Slav, meaning Slavic people. This was because the western world got many of its slaves (all white) from the Slavic lands. So clearly slavery didn't start off with a racial component, at least not to the extent we will see in the New World.

African slavery was of course common in Africa. In fact the vast majority of black Africans who would be sent to the New World were captured and enslaved by other black Africans. But the Western world's interaction with black slaves on any significant basis didn't appear to really get going until Islam took off around the 600s CE. Islam generally forbade enslavement of muslims so there was an incentive to find people to enslave who weren't muslim. This led Muslim slave traders to the north (the Slav lands) and to the south (Africa). Note, however, that if a slave converted they would still be a slave.

As things progressed Muslims had large groups of both white and black slaves. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear the worst work was generally given to sub-groups of African slaves and over time their appearance (e.g. skin color) was taken as a natural sign of slavery by the largely lighter skinned Muslims. Muslim writers start to refer to the Africans as natural slaves, low in intelligence, child like, animalistic, overly sexualized, etc. These characterizations would later be taken wholesale by the New World to justify their own use of race based slavery. Over time the very word for Slave in Arabic came to be understood as referring exclusively to black people even while whites were still being enslaved by Muslims on a grand scale. Clearly, however, something was changing.

Eventually the western world would get caught up in all of this when the West conquered Spain and Portugal from the Muslims. This is where the West learned of the ideas (not to mention slave trade routes) of the Muslim world and started to avail themselves en masse of the slave opportunities of Africa. It also appears to be where a lot of the philosophy and ideas of New World slavery based on race came from.

I'm leaving a lot out here. There are lots of interesting issues raised by the biblical view of slavery, the consequences of the inquisition and other bits and pieces but I'm trying to focus primarily on what I feel to be the key point. Which is that starting with Greek philosophy of the natural slave, moving to the Muslim world with the identification of Africans as a whole as natural slaves and then coming back to the west we see Africans marked as natural, eternal slaves. Slavery had thus transformed itself from an institution based on individuals to one based on race.

The economics of slavery and the history of its abolition in the British Empire

The author goes to great length to make the rather compelling case that slavery throughout history right into the 'modern' era was incredibly profitable. That arguments that slavery would eventually be overturned in the western world because it was no longer economical to keep slaves are simply false. The author provides an endless list of examples of the economics of slave societies and shows just how much riches were to be made by stealing the labor of others right up into and even past the American civil war. So whatever made slavery go away, it wasn't economics. In fact, it was exactly against the economic interests of the general society (and not just slave holders) to get rid of slavery since the enslavement of slaves made profits not just for the slave holders themselves but also for all the peoples who benefited from the products that slaves made. Slaves, especially in agriculture, were an economic powerhouse.

So what would make empires like Britain's give up such an enormously profitable enterprise? The author struggles with this question throughout the book. The British empire is important because it went first. It was the first major Western power to not just ban slavery but to use its wealth and military might to try and end the slave trade everywhere. It still isn't completely clear why the British did this. We know with certainty that the decision was economically harmful to Britain. In fact one is tempted to argue that the later English use of money and power to stop slavery everywhere might have been at least influenced by a desire to rebalance the economic scales for Britain against countries that continued to use slavery.

The author does try to provide some insight into what drove Britain's decision in the 1830s to end slavery in the British empire. First, slavery had been illegal in England itself as a result of a court judgement in the Somersett case since 1772, so Slavery was something done in the colonies, not at home. In a sense this might make slavery more acceptable since it was 'out of sight' but it also seemed more frightening because people didn't have direct experience with it. Second, the industrial revolution was changing the nature of what it meant to work. For most of history having to work was seen as a sign of poverty. The rich didn't labor, others did their laboring for them and everyone wanted to be rich so labor was always looked down upon.

But as the industrial revolution moved on enormous numbers of laborers were needed to man the factories and offices. Labor couldn't be seen as something that denigrated one if enough laborers were going to be ensnared to be the human fuel for the industrial revolution. The result is that when someone's labor was being 'stolen' (as in slavery) this was now seen as a great crime and a strike to the pride of the laboring classes (which were now the majority of British society).

But none of this really seems enough to explain why Britain would make such an enormous decision. The decision was doubly hard because the British decided to compensate slave holders through a combination of compulsory work by 'former' slaves (slavery by another name) as well as direct cash payments.

The author's general feeling is that Britain freed the slaves, at great cost to itself, because it was the right thing to do. That once all was said and done the decision was fundamentally altruistic.

Back in America

Slavery in the New World occurred in different ways in different places. By sheer number of imported Slaves places like the Caribbean and Brazil used more slaves than America did. But they treated their slaves so horrifically the most died childless so there was little or no natural growth. Mostly in America we see natural growth of slave populations. It is this natural growth that made it possible for the American constitution to contain article one, section 9 that explicitly allowed Congress to ban the import of slaves into the United States starting in 1808. Which, when 1808 rolled around, Congress duly banned the import of slaves.

But in general slavery was well accepted in America. Yes, there were abolitionist movements, but they were never terribly powerful. Most Americans firmly believed that Africans were inferior. Even the 'great emancipator' Lincoln was a confirmed racist. The only bone of contention was if it was o.k. to enslave the inferior Africans or if they should all just be packed up and sent back to Africa because slavery was just too cruel.

Up until the 1840s or so the answer was 'slavery is generally o.k.' But starting in the 1840s we see more abolitionist or at least emancipatory thought in the Northern states who even created laws trying to help slaves who managed to escape from the South. The later was a serious bone of contention since the Supreme Court on multiple occasions ruled that slaves could not be freed when going North and that, in fact, Northerners had a positive obligation to return escaped slaves. But one shouldn't overstate the abolitionist movements of the 1840s and 50s. They made progress but mostly in areas that cost the North nothing. Slaves were mostly focused in the South because that was the area where their labor could be most leveraged. It's hard to remember now but Cotton and Tobaco were perhaps the most valuable exports from America for much of its early history. And neither cotton nor tobacco grew in the North. It grew in the South and so that is where the majority of slaves were over time. Slaves were still a relatively small portion of the over all U.S. population and since they could only grow at their natural growth rate after the ban on imports in 1808 they were incredibly profitable. They were moved where they could make the most money and that was in the South.

This left the Northern states free to rattle their sabers against slavery but never in any effective way. First, thanks to the constitution granting votes to the south based on their slave populations, the South was dominant in the federal government. This means that presidents were typically from the South, Congress was dominated by southern states and Supreme Courts were appointed by Southern Presidents with approval of Southern dominated congresses. Up to the civil war in the 1860s there was no legitimate threat to slave holding in America.

Even Lincoln, the president whose election triggered the civil war, was no abolitionist. While he felt that slavery wasn't a great thing and that slaves should be freed, he also felt they should all be packed up and shipped back to Africa. He didn't relish the idea of a biracial society at all. He had also made it clear throughout his career that he did not feel the federal government had the ability to end slavery. Instead each state had to make its own decision. So Lincoln clearly wasn't going to free the slaves.

Causes of the Civil War

So why did the civil war start? The author's contention is that the South's decision to secede was driven by several events.

First, the ideological tide did seem to be turning against slavery in America. New states were being fought over if they should be 'free' or 'slave' and there was a general feeling that America should probably get rid of slavery, eventually, somehow, maybe. Not today certainly, or tomorrow or maybe in the lifetime of the people with such genteel thoughts, but eventually.

Second was the British example. Britain was the most powerful empire in the world and they had, at extraordinary expense to themselves, freed their slaves. The results had been an unmitigated disaster for slave owners. Yes, they gotten some compensation. But fundamentally their entire way of life collapsed. Once freed the British slaves, rather than working for a pittance of 'wages' under the horrible conditions required to produce commercial quantities of cash crops had instead chosen to switch to subsistence farming. Subsistence farming may not be a great life but compared to life on the plantations it was heaven on earth. The end result was that the British plantation system collapsed and with it the livelihoods and perhaps even more importantly, the way of life of the slave holders themselves. To make matters worse the British were quite energetic in trying to get other countries to get rid of their slave systems. So not only did the Southern states have a real world example of a major power rejecting slavery as well as the awful consequences for themselves it would create but they also had the fear that even the milquetoast abolitionism that was taking hold in the North was really the result of British influence. In other words, from the South's perspective there was now a very real possibility that the next up and coming Empire of America would be enabled by the existing Empire to destroy the Southern rich white's way of life.

But probably the straw that broke the camel's back really was the election of Lincoln. To be clear Lincoln was about as far from an abolitionist as one could get without actually being a slave holder. Lincoln was repeatedly clear that he thought blacks a deeply inferior race and had no desire to create a bi-racial society. He did feel that slavery was wrong but he also felt that the federal government, under the constitution, had absolutely no power to do anything about it. His feeling was that slavery would, if kept contained to the Southern states and not allowed to spread to new states, burn itself out and when it did all the blacks should be packed up and shipped off to Africa. So, to be clear, Lincoln was in no way a real threat to slavery in America. But the thing about Lincoln wasn't really who he personally was, but rather what he represented.

Thanks in part to article 1, section 2, paragraph 3 of the United Stated constitution all slaves held in the South counted as 3/5s of a person for the purposes of apportioning seats in the house, senate and electoral college. For the majority of the country's history this had meant that the President was almost always a Southerner (or someone the Southerners found acceptable) and that the Congress and Senate were dominated by the South. Lincoln, for example, was the 16th president. Of the previous 15 presidents 9 were southerners.

To understand how profound Lincoln's election was let's look at a few numbers. Lincoln was elected without wining a single Southern state. In fact, apparently zero votes were cast for him in 10 of the 15 southern slave states and he only won 2 out of 996 counties in all the Southern states. (The previous facts stolen from Wikipedia who attributes them to Larry D. Mansch's book "Abraham Lincoln, President-Elect: The Four Critical Months from Election to Inauguration.") That a president of the United States could be elected with essentially zero Southern support made it absolutely clear that the North now ran the country.

So in a sense Lincoln's election did cause the civil war but not because of anything Lincoln said he would do but rather what he represented, the end of Southern political domination and hence the ability, in Southern minds at least, for British influence to continue to drive northern emancipation/abolitionist thoughts until they would inevitably become strong enough to end slavery. So for the South the writing was on the wall and it was time to get out while the getting was good.

Now, really, was it all that simple? As the author goes to great pains to point out, no it wasn't. But even the summary of the events leading up to Lincoln's election make up a good section of the book. We would have to talk about John Brown and Harper's Fairy. We would have to talk about the internal politics of the Democratic party and the internal split between the Northern and Southern candidates. We would have to talk about the Dred Scott decision and the meaning of popular sovereignty as championed by folks like Stephen A. Douglas. We would have to discuss the British role in Texas as well as in supporting American abolitionist movements. All of which is touched upon in the book. Then there are issues that the book only alludes to but didn't go into such as the different economic needs of the North and the South (as well as the MidWest) and the problems that caused. Trying to nail down something as complex as the civil war to a few causes is hopeless and to the author's credit he doesn't try. Instead he creates a tableaux with many parts that give the reader a sense for the fervent, fears and hopes of the time and how they all mixed together to eventually produce all out war.

The emancipation proclamation and the 13th amendment

The book spends the last chapter before the epilogue talking about the civil war and the path to the emancipation proclamation. The details are interesting but the upshot is that Lincoln fought more or less until the end of the civil war to not end slavery. He felt the constitution simply didn't give him the power. The emancipation proclamation was more or less forced on him (in idea, not substance) by the peoples of the North. Not out of any great love of the slaves but as vengeance for the horrors of the civil war. But even more than popular will, what really seems to have driven Lincoln was military necessity. The slaves were the economic and agricultural backbone of the South. If the South was to be defeated and brought back into the union that back bone had to be broken and the emancipation declaration was the vehicle to do it.

What's interesting about the emancipation proclamation is that it did not end slavery in America. Lincoln issued the proclamation using his war powers authority as a means to remove key materiel (slaves) from an enemy (the states that succeeded). So the four slave holding states who hadn't joined the confederacy were not affected nor areas of succeeded states under effective Northern control. Lincoln also offered to void the proclamation for any state who rejoined the union before the proclamation went into affect, but none did.

True 'freedom' (in the most limited possible sense given what would happen to blacks in America after the civil war) didn't come until the later passage of the 13th amendment which finally banned slavery everywhere in the United States.

The consequences of how slaves became 'free' in the United States continue to haunt America to this day. There never really was a real national consensus that blacks were people deserving of rights. To the extent that existed at all, it wouldn't become real until the civil rights of the 1960s. Reading the book and other material I get the impression that the 13th amendment had a lot more to do with punishing the South than about the inalienable rights of all people to be free. And soon after the Civil War, once the South was let back into the Union, blacks would again be slaves in all but name. But that is a story for another time.

Slavery in the rest of the New World

Even after the Civil War in America slavery continued to be practiced in Cuba and Brazil who both used it to greatly enrich slave owners. Cuba would eventually free its slaves as part of general upheavals in the fading Spanish empire. Spain finally abolished all colonial slavery in 1886.

Brazil experienced slavery differently than America. Brazil's slave population was never terribly good at natural growth and as the international slave trade was shut down new slaves were hard to get (although smuggling still continued). Also manumission was more common in Brazil and Brazil's 1864 to 1870 war with Paraguay required a lot of soldiers, many of whom were slaves and died, thus further reducing the Slave population. Over time a domestic movement grew to enable emancipation and in 1887 a large number of slaves just ran away from many plantations and the government seemed unwilling or unable to stop them. In 1888 90,000 poor immigrants from Europe showed up in Brazil and so lowered concerns about a lack of alternative labor should the slaves be freed. So finally in early 1888 slavery was officially end in Brazil.

Why didn't the slaves rebel?

One wonders given how many slaves there were, why didn't they rebel? The answer is - they did. In fact there were whole 'marooned' cities of escaped and rebelled slaves. It's hard to know how often slave revolts occurred because it was a scary topic for whites, especially in areas with small white populations and large black populations. It's also hard to be sure how many revolts were real or imagined. There were serious rewards (minimally including freedom) for slaves who reported revolts so this created some perverse incentives. By far, the most famous slave revolt was in Haiti. The only country in the world where the slaves threw out their masters and took over. Of course the west, after failing to conquered Haiti directly, had to punish Haiti for its temerity. Punishments that one can argue continue to this day, especially if one looks at the cables leaked by Wikileaks about Haiti.

But for all the slave revolts, victory was hard. Even in the more remote Caribbean islands where there were many more slaves than masters the situation was dire. First, slaves came in different classes and the higher 'class' slaves were well motivated to keep the other slaves down. Second, even if a revolt succeeded eventually the army of the sovereign power would show up and kill lots of folks to make things 'right'. So unless one's goal was to die it was hard to run a successful revolt. Also running a revolt is no easy thing. Training, material, planning, etc. are all needed. In many parts of the new world slaves were worked so hard they had no time to think, only to survive. And even in places like America where slaves were relatively better treated they were brought up, trained literally from birth, to believe in the system they lived in. That kind of pervasive brain washing isn't easy to get over or beyond.

So slaves did revolt but the logistics of a successful revolt were so daunting that in all cases but Haiti it was largely hopeless.

Did slavery make American democracy possible?

One of the ideas mentioned by the book is the thesis by Edmund S. Morgan that racism and slavery made American democracy possible. The essence of the argument is that before racism white people separated themselves based purely on class. An upper class white would see, especially in the colonial era, as much separation between himself and a lower class white as he would with a black man. This created an internal division amongst whites that made the idea of general sovereignty (at least amongst white males) unthinkable. But racism finally provided the glue that gave all whites a common foundation. Thanks to racism all whites now saw in themselves a common cause, a common humanity that made of them a unified whole. It was suddenly possible to think in terms of all whites as one 'race'/'people' and to think about the rights that the people should have as a whole. Thanks to racism it was possible for whites to define a difference between 'us' (white people) and 'them' (black people, Indians, mulattos, etc.). This, Dr. Morgan argues, created the foundation for Democracy in America. I will need to read Dr. Morgan's book on the subject, American Slavery, American Freedom, to learn more. It is a fascinating idea.

2 thoughts on “Inhuman Bondage – A Book Review”

  1. Sounds like a great book. Thanks for sharing this summary. I wish I had learned more meaningful, analytic and critical history when I was growing up (as opposed to a sanitized and broad stroke view).

    Regarding the economics of slavery, how to answer the following two questions using the historical record:

    -is slavery still profitable when you can’t socialize its costs (catching and bringing slaves back, using legislation to restrict free movement and property rights of slaves, bringing the army over when they revolt)?

    -without these socialized costs, are slave-based projects more profitable than voluntary-based projects? It seems that lower productivity and innovation would make slave-based solutions fall behind more or less quickly.

    That said I can also see the argument that competitive forces may not be _sufficient_ to overturn slavery is the culture overwhelmingly favors slavery (but at least those competitive force seem like them would be pushing in the _right direction_ and tend to favor softening of slavery over time?). Also, if culture indeed overwhelmingly leans towards slavery, then why was legislation necessary (it seems superfluous to legislate when there is no or too little dissent).

    You point out that “the higher ‘class’ slaves were well motivated to keep the other slaves down”. Arguably, similar tricks where used in totalitarian regimes to protect the rulers and their system, but that did not prevent the collapse (only delayed it somewhat).

    One nitpick on “In fact, it was exactly against the economic interests of the general society (and not just slave holders) to get rid of slavery since the enslavement of slaves made profits not just for the slave holders themselves but also for all the peoples who benefited from the products that slaves made.”
    This argument isn’t sufficient, as the second order benefits of whatever is produced also exist when the production doesn’t involve slavery. Are slave-produced goods actually cheaper (ie. more profitable) when you account for socialized costs of enforcement?

    PS: Off-topic, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend the recent movie “The Help”, which touches on the civil struggles of the 1960’s.

    1. Profitability of Slavery – The point the book makes is that for the people who actually ran England Slavery was a net positive. The points you make would mostly translate as a burden on the lower classes (e.g. the ones who had to go and fight and die in the jungles (most died btw from disease, not fighting)) which is not something that those who made the decisions about slavery (the upper classes) could care about. So the fact that the upper classes decided to get rid of slavery appears (no one, including the author, is quite sure) to actually have been (from their perspective) an altruistic decision.

      Was slavery profitable without the social costs? – If we ignore the damage it does to the lower classes then the economic data in the book is overwhelming – Slavery was (and is) insanely profitable Having read a number of sources on slavery we know that slaves tried their best in many cases to slow down or sabotage work. But the kind of work they were used for was largely (but not exclusively) so mindless that it was pretty hard to ‘fake it’ and innovation was a bug, not a feature. Picking cotton by hand is simply not something that requires much intelligence, just back breaking labor. Over thousands of years slavery consistently proved itself as a very profitable enterprise for all involved which is why it’s still alive and well today in many parts of the world. Economically, it works well in certain areas, at least for the tiny group of Slave holders.

      Competitive Forces – I am unaware of even a single example where competitive forces ever got rid of slavery, anywhere. In each and every case slavery ended either because the slaves largely died out (e.g. throughout South and Central America, the conditions were horrific), because altruists decided they hated slavery (e.g. England) or as a side effect of something else (in America this was largely a side effect of the civil war). And when I finish my next book review I’ll give a summary of how America didn’t actually free it’s slaves after the civil war. That, in point of fact, Jim Crow (and really the Black and Pig laws) were many times worse in many ways than slavery ever was and had all the same types of theft of choice.

      Legislation – Legislation never leads, it follows. In other words people first decide they want slaves to be free and then they pass laws to reflect that decision. This is a common mistake i see in people’s thinking, especially around civil rights in the U.S. The various civil rights acts didn’t free black people in the 60s, the decision of many Americans that blacks shouldn’t be treated as effectively slaves is what freed them. The civil rights legislation just reflected that. A particularly useful test of this thesis is the era after the civil war and the 13th and 14th amendments. Once the union troops were withdrawn all the ‘freedom’ for blacks quickly collapsed and constitution or no constitution blacks were re-enslaved in all but name.

      ‘High class Slaves’ – Systems collapse when a sufficiently powerful group of people decide to end the system. In the vast majority of cases (e.g. coups, revolutions, etc.) this is typically a small group of rich (either directly or via benefactors, e.g. all the countries America helped to destroy all over the world in the name of fighting communism) people. In a handful of cases it’s ‘people power’ where large groups of individually weak people get together to form a strong front. But I think one can reasonably argue how often that approach has worked. Looking at the Arab world, for example, it seems like the Arab Spring is leading straight to an Arab Winter where particular leaders might be replaced but the same regimes and power structures stay in place. Plus ca change…

      Nitpick – I generally agree but the specific case I was referring to was the production of sugar and cotton. At the time the technology didn’t exist (and wouldn’t exist for hundreds of years) to produce either commodity using machines. So the only way to get sugar or cotton was through back breaking labor with a horrific mortality rate and soul crushing amounts of work. This was labor that again and again freed people absolutely refused to do. This was one of the reasons that after the revolt in Haiti it’s economy fell apart (well that and a concerted attempt by just about all the western powers to destroy Haiti, primarily through French induced crippling debt, but that’s another story). Once the slaves were free rather than continuing to grow sugar in particular which was worth insane amounts of money on the world market the slaves mainly chose to become substance farmers. There isn’t much (well any) profit in substance farming but the quality of life it gave the slaves was radically better than the horrific lives working on the plantations. Since Slaves were a tiny portion of the population and slave labor led to the wide spread availability of cotton and sugar I don’t think it’s far fetched to argue that it brought a lot of benefit to a lot of people. But I do agree that this is a point that one shouldn’t just assume is true once all costs are included.

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