Slave Trades: Changing Demographic Dynamics

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Picture depicting the acquisition of slaves in Western Africa entitled “Slavers revenging their losses” (picture courtesy wikipedia.com)

Slavery has existed almost as long as human and human settlements have. It has been discovered that organized slave industries have been in existence in ancient civilizations such as Sumer, Kemet (related to ancient Egypt) and many others. Slavery became synonymous with civilizations that implemented social stratification, where societies experienced separation of their human inhabitants based on imposed social class, ethnicity or actions. From social stratification there arose royal powers and nobility as well as occupational differences that kept certain tasks in a society ongoing. With such segregation of human beings, how did slavery occur? Why wasn’t it a part of hunter gatherer groups? Also, what part, if any, has slavery played in changing demographic dynamics in today’s world?

History of Slavery

This relief depicts a group of war captives being led away, dating back to the Akkadian era, Ancient Mesopotamia (photo courtesy histoclo.com)

The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BC), one of the oldest writings of significant length in the world, mentions slavery as an established institution. From there it became a common practice among almost every civilization, predominantly among Mesopotamian regions. Participation ranged from households with less than two slaves to entire caravans and ship loads transporting people to different cities and kingdoms. Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, Cush (Ethiopia) and Akkadia were venues of large slave trades. Slaves were created through various ways, including  debt slavery (paying off a debt by becoming a slave), slavery as punishment for a crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment and the birth of child slaves to slaves. Many historians and Anthropologists described the African continent as “the birth place of slavery” as many of the first ancient civilizations occurred in and around the Northern African region, which automatically meant that many of civilization’s institutions (including slave trades) would have started there. The most common examples of slavery, however, would be three main trades that occurred in relatively recent history:

  1. The Arab slave trade of natives of Northern Africa, Eastern and South-Eastern Africa, the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe initiated by the Arab Calliphate and Sultinate.
  2. The Pre and Post-Columbian slave trades which included the enslavement of Native American and Amerindian people predominantly by European settlers.
  3. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade of West Africans to the Americas and the West Indies.

The Arabic, Columbian and Trans-Atlantic Trades

Map showing routes taken by the Arabic Slave Trade during Medieval times (photo courtesy wikipedia.com)

The Arabic slave trade is one of the longest slave trades (if not the longest) in history, starting in the era of the Roman Empire and running right up to the mid-20th century. After the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD, many Arabic people adopted the religion and its principles, principles that were given by the prophet Mohammed which helped in the unification process of the territories of the Arabian peninsula. This led to the development of the Islamic empire which stretched from the Iberia region in Spain to the Indus river valley civilizations. The prospects of conquest therefore led to the necessity for labor and expanse, resulting in the slave trade. The Islamic Golden Age ran from the 8th to the 13th century and saw some of the greatest inputs in culture, religion, sciences, mathematics, astronomy and other areas the world had ever seen. This led to the increased desire of expanse, particularly with the presence of other competing and enemy territories, primarily the Byzantine Empire, the last known residuals of the Ancient Roman Empire. Under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), the capital of the Byzantines, fell into the hands of the Muslim Arabs, who were then known as the Ottomans. This conquest and the continuation and expansion of the Arabic slave trade into the now-conquered areas sparked on of the greatest turning points in world history; it created Northern and Eastern Africa and most of the Arabian peninsula into predominantly Islamic influenced and governed areas, a situation that still exists to this day. Before the intervention of the Arabs, many of these areas had predominantly Christian, Jewish, Ancient Greek, Latin or Individual Indigenous belief systems and cultural practices. The Arabic Slave Trade in particular decreased the size and influence of many tribes in Northern African regions, which has transformed the Demographics until this day. The Trade also aided in supplying laborers to eastern regions, primarily India, which diversified populations of regions that were oceans apart.

Map showing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from 1650 to 1860 (photo courtesy macquirelatory.com)

The Pre-Columbian and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trades occurred in historically relative close proximity to each other. Firstly, it began among Indigenous tribes, with the superior tribes capturing lesser tribes as prisoners of war and/or as debtors. However, Chattel Slavery was not implemented until the European introduction. “Chattel” refers to a type of slavery that captures an individual and strips them of general and specific human rights while seeing them as a commodity instead of as human being. This type of slavery was made prevalent by the European-initiated slave trades. This then coincided and blended unfavorably with the trade of Western Africans, transforming the Caribbean, the Southern United States, Central America and Northern South America into industrial regions instead of sovereign states. The Spanish, British, French and Portuguese were the major players in these trades, which is seen as today, as many  countries in the Western Hemisphere speaking either one (or sometimes two) of the languages that belonged to those four European colonial powers. The Dutch also played a part and, along with the U.K. and France, possesses overseas territories in the Caribbean region up to this day. The Pre-Columbian slave trade transformed into the Post-Columbian Slave Trade, as it intensified with the arrival of Christopher Columbus. This acted as the doorway that was necessary for acquiring African slaves, after it was seen that the Indigenous people were not adequate in the efforts which were defined by the colonial masters. It was discovered by various scouting missions conducted by European explorers that West African natives would be better suited for harder work as they were already adapted by their physique, their culture and their complexion, the latter causing them to bear longer a duration of sunlight than other ethnic groups. The Columbian Slave Trades occurred from the 15th to the 19th century, around the same duration as the Trans-Atlantic trade. The Trans-Atlantic trade, in particular, transformed Caribbean and North American demographics, with those countries having large populations of people of African descent. In many Caribbean countries, Afro-Caribbean natives make up between 80 and 90% of the population figures.

(Picture courtesy the CNN Freedom project blog)

Today, slavery is seen by all sovereign states as officially illegal. However, it is still practiced in various forms. The 1926 Slavery Convention, which was created by the then League of Nations and later adopted by the United Nations in 1948 banned slavery in every form. However, the term “every form” became extremely varied in the 20th and 21st centuries. Here, it involved Chattal slavery, as well as child labor, prisoner-of-war practices, human trafficking and enforced marriage. Many (if not all) have totally banned Chattal slavery, the form that has been conventionally seen as “true slavery”. However, many cultures have maintained certain marriage and ceremonial practices, which might be seen as types of slavery by other cultures. This has resulted in the transformation of  slavery into a subjective topic as well as an objective one.  It has also brought a realization that slavery, in its truest sense, is more prevalent in today’s world than it has ever been. In Mauritania, Western Africa, it is estimated that over 20% of the countries 3.89 million inhabitants are enslaved in undercover slave trades and movements, particularly in human trafficking. Other countries, such as those in North Africa, the African Horn, the Southern Arabian peninsula and South-East Asia have recorded extravagant numbers representing modern-day slavery. It has been estimated that there is as much as 46 million people enslaved today globally. Slavery has also taken on a figurative point-of-view by many, as the term is frequently related to people’s relationship with social and mass media, technology and other defined “addictive” factors. Although this might be seen as a subjective view, the observation of a drug addict and their relationship to their drug of choice might convince one otherwise.

The Concluding Factor

(Photo courtesy the Telegraph newspaper)

Many things can be observed and assumed from studying the occurrence of Slave Trades. They have had predominantly negative effects, not only on the immediate partakers, but on the generations that followed. For example, many African slave male figures were separated from their wives and children to work on plantations or in areas in isolation from their relatives. As a result, many have claimed that this could have initiated the trend of many African American and African Caribbean families existing without strong and visible male figures. Also, many regions in Southern Europe that were once under Islamic control began to adopt Christianity due to various historical interventions. This has led to increased tension of Muslims towards Christians as Christianity became the primary religion that developed on the door step of Islamic territory, and even within it. Slave Trades have brought about various instances of suffering but they have also radically transformed the global demographic situation. Their occurrence under the auspices of formal human settlements has begged the question as to why such “order” would bring such “suffering”. Also, a primary focal point in the history of slave trades has been the African man and woman and the role that they have played in the success of these trades; the involuntary role that is. Many questions that such a topic would bring life to cannot be answered within the realms of this general topic itself. It would take deep introspection and prayer as well as an appreciation and passion for accurate history to even understand certain things and grasp certain modern situations. As time goes by we will dive more into related topics and other topics in understanding how every thing, situations in the past and present, all play together to form the visible scenarios seen today. One thing is for certain, Slave Trades have indeed proven themselves to be changers of demographic dynamics; dynamics that have changed the globe forever.

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