History is fascinating. I’m not an expert on the subject, but endless mind-boggling information can be learned from it. There are mountains of immersive, counter-intuitive accounts of topics like the brutality of war, connections between leaders, and their psychology. The best historians illuminate ample factors involved with global conflicts that no one else seems to consider. They taught me that economic trade, foreign policy, and geopolitics are almost inexorably connected with history. This subject helps me learn that world events are a hell of a lot more complex than the way they are commonly portrayed in the media.
Slavery apparently took place throughout the majority of human history. So pretty much only historians who specialize in it have a good understanding of it. However, I think that Dan Carlin does an excellent job of painting a broad picture in his engrossing podcast called Hardcore History. He teaches history as a story, with discussion of motivations behind actions, and quotes of first-hand accounts.
Carlin’s episode on slavery reiterated this information for me: it existed throughout history, was essentially ubiquitous, and no race was safe from it. Since people began forcing others to do their work, the whole world copied that. Why do manual labour, when you can make someone else do it? Entire societies were built and maintained on the backs of slaves. It wasn’t black people alone who were subjected to this either. Every race of people could be forced into slavery. Whether you were black, brown, white, yellow, purple, or any other colour, you could be captured and enslaved. That doesn’t mean that each race was equally represented in slavery of course. As Carlin said at one point, white slaves were coveted, and cost more because they were rare. However, contrary to popular belief, a lot of the first slaves that came to America were white Irish people. Apparently, the majority of slaves were black Africans, but these Irish were just as dehumanized. They even used to be referred to with the N word, which is still used in a derogatory way towards black people.
It wasn’t just white people enslaving the rest of the world. Since it happened globally, whites enslaved blacks, black people enslaved whites, brown people enslaved black and white people, and vice versa. Everyone enslaved everyone. Thousands of years ago, common practice for a conquering army shifted from killing civilians, to enslaving them. If you’re a ruler, you might as well turn the people you’ve invaded into a free work force, rather than letting them go to waste, right?
As many people know, most gladiators were slaves too. They were often prisoners, who were forced to fight for their lives as a form of entertainment. For centuries, crowds flocked to see men brutally kill each other.
Sex slavery was a huge industry too. This is a horrifying component of the issue. Since these people didn’t always want to have sex with their masters, an unfathomable amount of rape happened. It wasn’t even seen that way. You can’t rape property, so if you look at a person in the same way, then you’re not doing anything wrong.
According to Carlin, slaves were cheap, and everyone was encouraged to have them if they could afford them. They were looked at as commodities rather than people. Even the poor often had a few slaves. It was considered fair for people to have them, as if they were a necessity. Everyone wants their own personal helpers, right?
Generally, the richer people were, the more slaves they had. But the most mind-blowing information I learned from the podcast is this: Even slaves had slaves! Yes, civilization was so deluded that even those forced into slavery seemed largely unable to see that contradiction. Those who had their freedom taken away in favour of being beaten and tortured like wild animals subjected others to the same fate. Apparently, some slaves earned money by running companies for their masters. They used some of their earnings to buy products with the highest ROI, (return on investment) which were slaves.
Innovation was hindered for centuries by slavery. When you have people doing all your manual labour for you, inventing labour-saving devices doesn’t even occur to you. That’s why the invention of the cotton gin played a massive role in the abolition of slavery in the United States. If you can buy a machine that processes cotton way faster and cheaper than several slaves, that’s a great investment. Collective mindsets being slowly, painfully changed might have been much more responsible for this abhorrent concept’s demise. However, innovation does appear to have done a lot to help free slaves.
To me, slavery is one of the best ways of showing how all of humanity can be deluded about morality. Even Aristotle, with all his wisdom, owned and approved of slaves. It took thousands of years for people to understand that it is wrong to make someone else your property. This seems like common sense now, which is why it’s so dumbfounding. If I kidnapped someone and forced them to do manual labour, almost everyone would think I’m a crazy psychopath. No sensible person would do that today. As far as I know, only barbarians and warlords in third world countries still do it. But it was probably commonplace for the majority of history. It took thousands of years for us to give this a second thought.
Maybe one of the largest problems was the nearly inevitable cycle of oppression. Someone above you gets mistreated, they pass it on to you, and you do so with those beneath you. One of the easiest ways to gain power was through slavery, so perhaps that’s one of the reasons that it lasted so long. It’s hard to give up privilege once you get it. Would you want to let go of valuable tools that you considered to be property, especially with little-to-no incentives? It’s hard for us to look at human beings this way now, but conformity can create enormous moral blind spots.
Slavery makes me wonder what current collective behaviour might be viewed as evil in the future. Maybe it’s eating meat. (though I’m not saying that vegans and vegetarians have the right idea) Perhaps it’s mining in war-torn countries for raw materials that we use for our smartphones and other devices. Who knows? Only the future will tell us what we are all doing now that could be seen as unimaginably contemptuous. Maybe I and other people making similar predictions are wrong, but history suggests that this trend isn’t going to stop. In my opinion, we should always remember that we might not be as righteous as we think we are.