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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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WORLDWIDE SLAVERY - Part II: The Pervasiveness of Tyranny

In this essay, we will attempt to bring perspective to some of the origins of human bondage and how persons, from nearly every culture and ethnic background, have been forced into slavery by powerful invaders.  As we delve into this difficult and important topic, we will learn how early empires, governments, and marauding profiteers have participated in this heinous crime. We will see evidence of slavery reflected in some of the earliest architectural records of human development in the area of the Mesopotamian Valley, modern-day Iran, and cultures around the world.

The Sumerian civilization existed between 2,900 BCE to 1,750 BCE.  Prior to their becoming an organized culture, people roamed the hills and plains of Mesopotamia in small groups of nomadic hunter-gathers.  Eventually, environmental changes brought about increasingly arid conditions causing groups of nomadic peoples to gather together to share food supplies.  As tribes began to coexist, they learned to raise farm animals and cultivate crops in the sunbaked clay soil found between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  They also developed a common language, created shelters, and eventually, built clay brick walls around their compounds.

As the Sumerian culture grew, they gravitated toward strong leaders who could protect them from outside foes.  In time, the Sumerians dominated weaker cultures, stripping them of their weapons and properties.  Those not killed by the Sumerian warriors became their slaves.  Like later tyranny-based cultures the world over, the Sumerians developed a class system.  Individuals who found favor with those in power increased their status in the military or fulfilled various administrative tasks, such as scribes and tax collectors.  The rest of the people provided functional tasks.  The labor-intensive work, such as service to the military, and construction of buildings and roads, was performed by the lower-class Sumerians alongside the slaves.

Throughout history, strong leaders became emperors, pharaohs, and kings, relegating their populations to lives of servitude.  Along with housing extensive artifacts and records depicting the major accomplishments of ancient civilizations, research libraries and museums provide ample evidence of the prevalence of the use of slave labor.

The region of Mesopotamia was united by the powerful king, Hammurabi.  His four-ton, seven-foot-tall stele, or granite pillar, now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, is covered with cuneiform characters proscribing strict laws regarding everything from commerce to personal responsibility.  It also established the rules for the ownership and treatment of slaves.  Slave owners were required to provide shelter, food, and water for their slaves.  Beyond that, slaves could be used for domestic, agricultural, and heavy labor tasks.  Included in the ranks of slaves were captives from wars, fellow Babylonians who had run afoul of the law, and slaves purchased from the African slave markets.

From as early as 1500 BCE, African slave traders captured sub-Saharan Africans and shipped them up the Nile River to Egypt to be used for slave labor.   African slaves were also sold to countries surrounding the Indian Ocean.

Leading up to the 1st century BCE, the Roman Empire had begun to establish itself by attacking neighboring Italian states while enslaving nearly one-third of Italy’s population.   

Slavery continued unabated during the so-called Middle Ages and the Modern Era for the next 1,600 years.  While all ancient cultures had slaves, this essay will first focus on the path of slavery as it gradually makes its way across the ancient empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Arabia, Africa, Greece, and Rome.

While the Greeks, primarily in Athens, were far more advanced in terms of civic culture, philosophy, art, and architecture, the Roman army was superior in strength and ultimately defeated Greece.  Educated and skilled Greek citizens were purchased by wealthy Romans to be teachers, domestics, artists, and craftsmen.  However, the majority of captive Greeks were uneducated and became the bulk of the Roman slave trade.   As a testament to the brutal lives of slaves, when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it killed thousands of people living in nearby Italian towns.  Pompeii, one of the towns in the path of volcanic debris, was engulfed in toxic ash, perfectly preserving all of its inhabitants.  Among the bodies found in Pompeii were groups of slaves permanently chained together with just enough links of chain between them so they could perform their work.

The Roman Empire had not only conquered numerous states surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, but its highly organized and powerful army ultimately seized control of significant cultures, including Spain and Egypt, and as far north as France and England, as well.

It has been estimated that during the height of its reign, the Roman Empire had enslaved over 15 million people.  Unique to Roman law, once its army conquered a culture, its surviving inhabitants who were compliant with Roman governance, were considered to be Roman citizens.  As such, it was customary for middle to upper-class citizens to own slaves as domestics.  Wealthier citizens owned large numbers of slaves to work in agriculture and do dangerous and labor-intensive work in quarries and mines.  However, the majority of slaves were used by the government to build roads, cities, and monuments, as well as for service in the military.  They had no societal value, and some were even used for entertainment, fighting for their lives against gladiators and fierce animals in the Roman coliseums.

In the western hemisphere, the Olmecs were the first great civilization of the Americas.  They inhabited Mesoamerica as early as 1,200 BCE, and for over 800 years became the dominant culture among the less-developed tribes in Central America.  They built stone city centers for the ruling classes, and earthen and stone pyramid temples for ritual ceremonies.  Similar to the Egyptian culture, their art, architecture, and mastery of geometry were impressive.  Massive stones had to be quarried, transported, and carved for the construction of these often-towering edifices.  To build such empires, the ruling class not only used slaves from conquered tribes but also compelled their own people to spend their lives as slave laborers.

The powerful Olmec culture began to decline by c. 400 B.C. likely due to ecological changes affecting their agricultural development, excessive expansion, and perpetual wars with other tribes.  

The cultural descendants of the Olmecs were the Aztec and Inca cultures.  Though less advanced than their predecessors, the Aztecs and the Incas continued to engage in battles with other tribes, taking land, treasuries, and human captives.  The defeated warriors were ritually dismembered and, as evidenced in their temple art, cannibalized.  Other people, even children, were used as human sacrifices to appease their multiple gods.

As the power of these ancient empires in Mesoamerica continued to decline, indigenous cultures in North America were identifying themselves as individual tribes, such as the Anasazi, Navaho, and Cherokee.  Some tribes in the southwest farmed the land and built adobe dwellings, while other tribes were semi-nomadic hunters.  They followed the seasons and herds of animals to sustain their cultures. To maintain and increase their territorial dominance, fierce battles among tribal warriors ensued, resulting in the merciless mutilation of defeated warriors.  Taking slaves from among defeated tribes was also customary well into the 16th and 17th centuries.

History is clear that for most of the world’s population mere survival was a struggle.  Aside from constant wars, they had to contend with droughts, ice ages, and deadly plagues lasting decades.  In addition, finding food and shelter from the elements, while fending off human and animal attackers, dominated every aspect of their lives.  Under these conditions, even for those not already enslaved, survival may have depended on offering themselves to the service of more powerful leaders.

However, for more than 5,000 years, forced human bondage has been the fate of countless millions of men, women, and children from every cultural background.  After thousands of years of entrenched slavery, in the mid-1700s, anti-slavery movements began to emerge.   For this essay format, the following is a partial timeline of some of the early people and events, in North America and England, that began to convince the citizens, and eventually, their governments, to formally abolish slavery:

1775   Pennsylvania - The Quakers formed the Society for the Relief of Free 
 Unlawfully Held in Bondage;                      
1787   England – William Wilberforce establishes the Anti-Slavery Society in London;   1787   U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves;
1789   Philadelphia – Benjamin Franklin helped organize the first Abolition 
1831   Massachusetts – New England Anti-Slavery Society founded in Boston;
1833   England – Slavery ends in the British Empire;
1833   Pennsylvania – Founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society;
1839   Amistad Revolt;
1840   England – World Anti-slavery Convention held in London;
1858   Illinois - Abraham Lincoln condemned slavery in his “House Divided” speech;
1863   Washington, D.C. – ratification of Emancipation Proclamation

Despite the hard-won successes of abolitionists from the late 17th and 18th centuries, the scourge of slavery continues today in a number of countries around the globe. It may be difficult to recognize that many products used in modern-day economies are produced in countries condoning the use of slave labor.   It is estimated that in the 21st century, there are more enslaved people working in factories and mines than at any other time in history.   At the same time, in today’s free societies, there are more opportunities to educate ourselves about these onerous practices and support the work of modern-day abolitionist movements.