REMARKS AND DEFINITIONS
The condition of a slave is seldom a subtle
thing, but the definition of "slavery" for the purpose of broad
cross-cultural comparison is a very subtle and controversial matter. The
condition of Caribbean (and US) slaves fits with the definition
most of us would invent, for the simple reason that most of us have some
sense of modern New World slavery, but little acquaintance with what's
been called "slavery" at other periods of European history and what's been
described by Europeans as "slavery" in other societies. But is a "slave"
in the industrial agricultural societies of the Caribbean the same thing
as a "slave" in 1800 on the Coast of BC, or in Ghana in 1500, or Rome in
1BC, or China in 1400?
Here, we needn't get too tangled in this nuanced
question, since our problem is to understand what slavery was (and how
it changed) in a limited region and a limited time-period. However, the
controversy of definition is enlightening in many ways, since it draws
our attention to different facets of what was lost by those who actually
had to live the life in the Caribbean, and thus of what they may have hoped
to regain. That means it also informs any discussion of "resistance" to
I think that today the ordinary Westerner's
response to the question: what is a slave? would involve: 1)
person as property & 2)
opposite of "free". But it isn't simple to say what property is.
And most people are unfree in certain ways (indeed, most are unfree
in very many ways), while much labour is forced labour in one way or another.
Notice that the definition of a descriptive term like "slave" is in question
both when the term is used and when it is not: words mean what they do
because of the way they connect and contrast with other words. (For
example, a person could be in the situation of a slave, even though it's
called something else: what it's called doesn't change the situation, but
may affect attitudes toward it.)
"Freedom" is a highly charged concept in the modern
West, having many uses, all controversial (and notice that it's one of
the West's most touted exports in a neo-colonial world). It's understandable
that an untiring scholar of slavery, the Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson,
has gone on to write about how "freedom" is used in the West, and how it
got that way. He makes the critical point that our modern notion
of freedom arose in a world where slavery was widespread, so that slavery
always provided an image of what freedom wasn't [1991
In the West (but not everywhere else) "freedom" became the opposite
A final remark: in most contexts it's
more important to characterize the slave-holding society as a whole
than to talk of "slavery" in the abstract as a relation between two persons.
[original references and footnotes
I. Dictionaries The point here is the
interdependence of concepts: the ways in which they circle around each
1. Alexander Reid: Dictionary
of the English Language (Edinburgh: 1846)
Freedom: liberty; independence; privilege; exemption; facility;
frankness; licence; familiarity
Freedman : a slave manumitted
Freeman (or -woman): one who enjoys liberty; one not a slave
or vassal; one possessed of peculiar rights or privileges
Vassal: one who holds the land of a superior; a tenant; a subject;
a dependent; a servant; a slave
Slave: one held in bondage Slavish:
servile; mean; base
Bondage: captivity; slavery; imprisonment Bondservant:
Prisoner: one confined in a prison; a captive; one whose
liberty is restrained
Serve: to work for; to attend at command; to obey; to worship;
to supply with food; to assist; to answer; to conduce
Servant: one who serves another
Servile: slavish; dependent; cringing Servility:
slavery; mean submission
Standard Dictionary (Edinburgh: 1915)
Freedom: liberty; particular privilege; facility of doing anything;
Liberty: state or condition of one who is free; privilege; immunity;
licence; freedom of action or speech beyond civility or decorum; state
of being disengaged
Immunity: freedom from service or obligation; particular
privilege or prerogative; state of not being liable
Slave: a person wholly subject to another; a bondman; drudge
Slavery: state of a slave; servitude; drudgery
Subject: (adj) ruled by another; liable; prone; submissive
Bond: that which binds; obligation; state of being bonded; a
writing by which a person binds himself
Bonds: chains; imprisonment Bondage:
Bondman: male slave Thrall: a slave;
Drudge: one who labours hard in servile employments; a slave
Drudgery: hard labour; toilsome work; ignoble toil
Servitude: state of a slave; compulsory labour
II. What is Slavery?
3. From H. J. Nieboer 1910 Slavery
as an Industrial System.
"A slave is the property of another, politically and socially [a slave
is] at a lower level than the mass of people, and [performs] compulsory
4. In his editor's introduction to Asian
and African Systems of Slavery (1980), James L. Watson
distinguishes between closed slave systems (in which the slave remains
a slave and a sort of permanent outsider) and open ones (in which
the slave's social status may change: e.g., by being incorporated into
the kinship group of the master). He then gives this: "...definition of
'slave' that can be applied cross-culturally, irrespective of local variation
and historical era: Slaves are acquired by purchase or capture, their labor
is extracted through coercion and, as long as they remain slaves, they
are never accepted into the kinship group of the master.... I would argue
that the property aspect of slavery must be accepted as primary; this is
what distinguishes slavery from all other forms of dependency and involuntary
5. From Robert Ross 1985 "Slavery", in The
Social Science Encyclopedia (Adam Kuper
& Jessica Kuper, eds.).
The definitions of slavery are as numerous as the
societies in which slavery was to be found, and for good reason. The rights
which owners had over their slaves and the duties by which they were bound
constituted a bundle whose composition varied from society to society,
although the slave's rights were always heavily circumscribed. Nevertheless,
certain elements can probably be considered part of all these bundles:
(1) The slaves were initially outsiders, brought by force to serve their
new master, or they were in some way expelled from full membership of their
society, for instance because of debt or as the result of a criminal trial.
They might of course be the descendents of such individuals, depending
on the degree to which a given society was prepared to assimilate slaves
to full membership. (2) At least in the first generation, slaves were marketble
commodities, at any rate where commercialization was present in any recognizable
form. In other words, they were a species of property and it was this which
distinguished slaves from other forms of forced labour. (3) Slaves had
specific, generally inferior, occupations within the total division of
labour. (4) Slaves were only held in their status by force or the threat
of it, and in many ways the ending of the necessity for this marked a slave's
full assimilation into the society.
...[T]he various slave systems may perhaps be distinguished
according to two criteria, namely the degree of 'openness' and the extent
to which the system of production was organized around it.
As regards [openness], particularly in societies
whose social systems were organized around kinship groups, slavery could
be a valued means of expanding the size of that group and the number of
dependents an important individual had beyond the limits set by the natural
processes of reproduction. Since slaves were by definition outsiders, and
thus people without kin of their own, they and their descendents could
be incorporated into their owners' group, albeit often in an inferior position....
With regard to the second criterion, while slavery
as such has existed in an enormous number of societies, the number in which
it has been crucial to the organization of production has been relatively
few. Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and in modern times, the Southern United
States, the Caribbean and parts of Brazil are the best known of these,
although there were a number of other parts of the world, such as seventh-century
Iraq, eighteenth century colonial South Africa, Zanzibar in the nineteenth
century, and parts of the Western and Central Sudan in the same period,
for which a convincing case could be made....
6. Claude Meillassoux 1975 L'Esclavage
en Afrique precoloniale.
In the present state of research, there is really
no general theory that allows us to identify slavery or the objective conditions
for its likely emergence. Recognition of the phenomenon is still empirical
or implicitly comparative. Empirical recognition is based on pinpointing
one or more terms applied to servile states (but such terms are not always
exclusively applied to slaves); on the condition of legal subordination
to the absolute authority of a master (but a condition shared with other
persons not classed as slaves); on the legal and economic condition that
allows masters to sell such people and/or claim their total produce (but
a condition that is also shared with the master's dependent kin, with people
pledged for debts, etc.). No formal criterion has been brought to light
that allows us to make a categorical distinction between slaves and all
the comparable social components.
7. David Brion Davis 1982 Slavery
and Human Progress.
...common fallacies that often distort comparative
discussions of human bondage. The first misconception is to assume that
the institutions of numerous societies can be amalgamated into "ancient
slavery", "Muslim slavery", "Latin American slavery" ...without reference
to time, place, and changing socioeconomic conditions. Even within a relatively
circumscribed region, such as the British Caribbean in the eighteenth century,
differences in climate, topography, soil, demographic structure, and stages
of economic development contributed to significant variations in the institution
of black slavery. ...[S]lavery was never a uniform or static system; it
was not the automatic result of a few simple conditions... and it cannot
be understood apart from a matrix of variables including kinship and economic
structures, social stratification, cultural values, and ethnic, religious,
or racial ideologies.
A second fallacy is to assume that the slave's juridical
status defined his actual condition....
A third and related danger is to exaggerate the
moral distinction between the supposedly benign paternalism of traditional
household slavery and the supposedly absolute exploitation of plantation
slaves producing staples for a capitalist world market. Admittedly, these
two forms of bondage served different purposes in societies that must conceptually
be kept distinct. But as we shall see, apologists for modern plantation
slavery repeatedly invoked the model and precedent of domestic servitude
sanctioned by the Old Testament. It is a grave mistake, as Eugene Genovese
has shown, to interpret planter paternalism either as mere rationalization
or as incompatable with cruelty and oppression. 'Wherever paternalism exists,'
he points out, 'it undermines solidarity among the oppressed by linking
them as individuals to their oppressors.' There is no reason to assume
that premodern forms of bondage were more benign or free from every species
of violence and exploitation. 'There is no known slave society,' Orlando
Patterson writes, 'where the whip was not considered an indispensible instrument.'...
Finally, it was not uncommon for diverse forms of
slavery to coexist within a single premodern society.
8. Igor Kopytoff 1982 "Slavery" Annual
Review of Anthropology #11.
The definition of slavery as a form of property
and compulsive labor continues to appeal. Yet the definition runs against
a long-established approach in anthropology to the concept of property.
As [Ruth] Bunzel put it, the concept by itself is a 'meaningless abstraction',
leaving us, ethnographically speaking, with 'a miscellaneous collection
of equities, rights, interests, claims, privileges, and preferences.' 'Property'
is merely a shorthand term for a bundle of legal rights, be it in people
or in objects --rights that remain to be specified in any particular instance
and that vary from object to object, from society to society, and from
period to period. This is something, of course, that legal theorists take
for granted. To say, then, that a slave is the 'property' of the master
is to say: 'the master exercises some unspecified rights over the slave'
-- hardly an informative statement. Morever, when such rights are specified
('the master may sell or kill the slave', or 'the slave's belongings are
not his but his master's'), we still need to know what rights govern other,
non-slave relationships (thus, the kin group may also have the right to
sell or kill its 'free' members, and any member's belongings may turn out
to be corporately controlled). This conundrum is particularly evident in
African slavery, where the rights we most closely associate with 'property'
(such as saleability, right of free disposal or destruction, rights to
income) are often held by a corporate lineage equally in its 'slaves' and
its full-fledged members.
...the reduction of the American and British Caribbean
slave into a piece of 'property' corresponds to the rising notion of nascent
capitalism that a free Englishman should not have his property infringed
upon by the state....
Since the property definition 'dehumanizes' slaves,
it is not surprising that scholars should then discover a 'contradiction'
of their own making between the notions of people-as-things and of people-as-people....
The idea of this contradiction has long haunted Western intellectual thought
about slavery.... Hegel transforms the contradiction into a complex dialectic
in which the respective identities of the master and slave become mutually
dependent, and one finds an echo of this view in Genovese's nuanced analysis
of the interdependent master-slave relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll.
But, alas, in straight ethnographic terms, the contradiction is not always
easy to find. As Patterson pithily puts it, there is no evidence that a
Jamaican planter felt the contradiction between 'his slaves as things in
the fields and as persons in bed.' And in the innumerable societies where
slaves were acquired as social entities --as wives or retainers-- the contradiction
need not be greater than in any relationship of subordination.
9. Kopytoff, reference as above.
Definitions in terms of property and compulsory
labor commonly oppose slavery to 'freedom.' But freedom is a notoriously
ethnocentric concept.... Ethnographically, the opposite of slavery in most
societies (and with the striking exception of the modern West) is some
notion not of autonomy but of citizenship, of civic belongingness, of attachment
to structure rather than detachment from it (so the 'freeman' of colonial
New England was the locally anchored property holder -- the very opposite
of the autonomous wanderer). Simmel has pointed out that for the ancient
Greek citizen (as for most of premodern mankind) 'freedom' was coextensive
with the protection of citizenship.
10. Orlando Patterson 1982 Slavery
and Social Death. I think
Patterson's book is the most important recent attempt to provide a comprehensive
study of world slavery, and so his surprising "preliminary definition"
deserves thoughtful attention. Initially, it seems cryptic, but it isn't:
think about it, esp. in relation to the Kopytoff remark above.
...a preliminary definition of slavery on the level
of personal relations: slavery is the permanent, violent domination
of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.
11. Karen Fog Olwig 1993 Global
Culture, Island Identity: Continuity and Change in the Afro-Caribbean Community
of Nevis. In this short
passage from a larger discussion, she begins to move us from the nature
of slavery to the nature of resistance. The difference, of course, is that
the masters define slavery, but resistance is defined in the acts of the
In their discussion of African
slavery Kopytoff and Miers emphasize the importance of membership in a
kin group as a criterion for holding full citizenship in African societies.
Attachment to a kin group via a patron therefore presented the best African
strategy of negating a slave status. This is in contrast to modern Western
thinking, where freedom, meaning personal autonomy unhindered by social
bonds, is regarded as the opposite of slavery. The Western conception of
freedom has played an important role in many of the historical works on
slavery in the New World, where rebellion and maroonage, involving the
severing of all ties to the hated system of slavery, have been seen to
constitute the main form of resistance. The African background suggests,
however, that the negation of the slave status might have been sought via
attempts at creating ties which generated for the slaves a position of
belonging in the society.
While a significant minority
of the slaves improved their condition through ties to their masters, or
mistresses, the majority did not find such relationships particularly conducive
to any sort of advancement and incorporation into the colonial society,
but rather found themselves placed irrevocably in the bottom of the society
working in large gangs on the sugar plantations. The social fields which
the slaves established in connection with their music and dance, economic
activities, kinship and family, religious beliefs and practices provided
for these slaves the most important contexts within which they could develop
ties and communities of belonging. Some of these fields, most notably the
secretive obeah practices and the religious cults which invoked
sources of power outside the control of their master, challenged the master's
absolute position of authority and therefore posed a serious threat to
the plantation system. Most of these spheres, however, initially developed
in a sort of symbiotic relationship with the plantation system and were
perceived by the masters to be harmless and perhaps even beneficial....
III. Who ISN'T Called a "Slave"?
12. Orlando Patterson 1982 Slavery
and Social Death: A Comparative Study,
pp. 44-5. Patterson distinguishes between intrusive
and extrusive conceptions of slavery: roughly, between systems in
which the slave's social death is represented as due to inherent outsiderhood
and systems in which it is represented as due to the fall of an insider,
who was therefore "expelled from normal participation in the community."
Below, he argues that the West became so committed to the image of a slave
as an outsider who could never achieve honor, that it could not call any
treatment of its own people "slavery." Notice that this discussion is meant
to negate comments such as that by Ross (#5), and that examples are given
in the comments of Linebaugh
and Rediker read earlier.
...It is almost universally
believed by European and American writers and readers of history that slavery
was abolished in the northern part of Western Europe by the late Middle
Ages. Yet in France, Spain, England, and the Netherlands a severe form
of enslavement of Europeans by Europeans was to develop and flourish from
the middle of the fifteenth century to well into the nineteenth. This was
penal slavery, beginning with galley slavery and continuing with its replacement
by the Bagnes, or penal slavery in public works. Both were slavery in every
sense of the term. They developed as substitutes for the death penalty
at a time when there was not a prison system in Europe to accomodate the
huge number of persons found guilty of capital offenses. To be sure, the
growing incidence of such offenses was largely a reflection of the increase
in the number of acts legally so defined. Indeed, there is growing evidence
that the legal redefinition of crime and the resulting increase in penal
and public slavery was largely determined by the need to regulate labor.
It is truly extraordinary
that European scholars have either neglected this whole aspect of the subject
or defined it as something other than slavery when they have recognized
it. When we look for reasons it is too easy to claim that there has been
a conspiracy of silence, or worse, a deliberate attempt to distort the
historical facts. My own feeling is that there has been a genuine failure
to recognize the institution for what it was owing to the pervasiveness
of the intrusive conception of slavery in the Western intellectual consciousness.
The same framework may explain the neglect of modern Russian slavery by
West European scholars. Galley slavery and slavery in the Bagnes are immediately
recognizable to anyone who understands the institutions in extrusive terms.
When the King of France issued a royal letter to his judicial authorities
requesting them to provide for the galleys "all malefactors... who have
merited the death penalty or corporeal punishment, and also those who they
could conscientiously declare to be incorrigible and of evil life and conduct,"
he was issuing a call for more public slaves in much the same way that
an oriental or Russian monarch would have done. The only difference was
that the oriental or Russian ruler would have known that he was requesting
more slaves and felt no qualms about it, whereas the French king, with
his intrusive view of slavery, either believed he was requesting some other
category of labor or conveniently persuaded himself that he was.
13. Carole Pateman 1988 The
Until late into the nineteenth century the legal
and civil position of a wife resembled that of a slave. Under the common
law doctrine of coverture, a wife, like a slave, was civilly dead.
A slave had no independent legal existence apart from his master, and husband
and wife became 'one person,' the person of the husband. Middle- and upper-class
women of property were able to avoid the full stringency of the legal fiction
of marital unity through the law of equity, using devices such as trusts
and pre-nuptial contracts. But such exceptions... do nothing to detract
from the strength of the instituion of coverture.... Sir Henry Maine remarks
in Ancient Law  that:
I do not know how the operation and nature of the ancient Patria
Potestas can be brought so vividly before the mind as by reflecting
on the prerogatives attached to the husband by the pure English Common
Law, and by recalling the rigorous consistency with which the view of a
complete legal subjection on the part of the wife is carried by it.
...Under coverture, a wife was required to live where
her husband demanded, her earnings belonged to her husband and her children
were the property of her husband, just as the children of a female slave
belonged to her master. But perhaps the most graphic illustration of the
continuity between slavery and marriage was that in England... wives could
be sold at public auctions... [an event] occurring regularly from 1553
through to the twentieth century. ...[T]he sale of slaves and the sale
of wives existed independently; the abolition of the slave-trade had no
effect on the trade in wives....
...If a wife committed adultery, her sale could
enable her lover to avoid action under the law of criminal conversation.
The law was based on the assumption that a wife was (like) property; a
husband could sue another man for damages for restitution --for injury
to his property-- if his wife committed adultery. A successful case was
brought in Dublin as recently as 1979.
...Even today, the comparison between marriage and
slavery remains relevant in one respect in those states of the United States
and Australia, as well as in Britain, where the law still sanctions marital
rape. Lord Hale's The History of the Pleas of the Crown laid down
in the eighteenth century that 'the husband cannot be guilty of a rape
committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial
consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her
husband, which she cannot retract.'... The marriage contract, on this matter,
is a contract of specific performance.
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