An Excerpt: Slavery in Greece, Rome, the West Indies, and the English Colonies

Harold L Carter, “African American Odyssey:  African Heritage in WorldHistory and Human Biological and Cultural History”:

Slavery in Greece, Rome, the West Indies, and the English colonies:


Slavery in Greece and Rome

White Slavery in Greece and Rome

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (Simon & Schuster:New York), 1997]

Origins Of Slavery – Western Civilization’s First Slaves – Slavery In Greece And Rome:  

“Most settled societies at one time or another have employed forced labor; and most peoples, even the proud French, the effective germans, the noble English, the dauntless Spaniards and, perhaps above all, the poetical Russians, have experienced years of servitude.

Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves.” Aristotle, Politics.

In the golden years of both Greece and Rome, slaves worked as domestic servants, in mines and in public works, in gangs, and individually, on farms, as well as in commerce and in cottage industries.  They both managed and served in brothels, trading organizations, and workshops.

There were slaves in Mycenae (1600 B.C.- 1100 B.C.) , and Ulysses had fifty female slaves in his palace. … Athens (600 B.C. – 100 B.C.) had in her heyday about 60,000 slaves.  Her police force was a body of 300 Scythian archer slaves; her famous silver mines at Laurium employed over 10,000 slaves until a rebellion in 103 B.C. and 20 slaves – perhaps a quarter of those so employed – helped to build the ParthenonThe Athenians used slaves to fight for them at Marathon, even though they freed them first.

The Romans made use of slaves in all the categories employed by the Greeks, though they had many more domestic ones: a prefect in the days of the Emperor Nero might have 400 in his house aloneThere may have been 2 million slaves in Italy at the end of the RepublicFrom the first century B.C. to the early Third century A.D., the use of these captives was the customary way in which prosperity was created.

“That did not mean all these were equal: rural and urban domestic slaves lived different lives; a man working in a gang in the fields had a different life from one in a workshop in the city;  some slaves practiced as doctors or lawyers, and others acted as majordomos to noblemen, or as shepherds in the hillsCicero’s slave Tiro was a confidential secretary and was well educated; he even invented a shorthand named after himself.

Half a million captives seem to have been required every year in Rome during its most self-confident age – say, 50 B.C. to 150 A.DThe Roman state itself possessed innumerable: 700, for example, were responsible for maintaining the imperial city’s aqueductsPerhaps one out of three members of the population was a slave during the early empireOne rich lady, Melania, is said to have liberated 8,000 slaves in the early 5th century A.D., when she decided to become a Christian ascetic.

German, French and Saxon Slaves:

“… Caesar, it will be recalled, brought many captives home to Rome  from the Gallic WarsMany Germans were enslaved in later centuriesThen Septimius Severus brought  100,000 captives home after defeating the Parthians at CtesiphonFifteen thousand Gallic (French) slaves a year were exchanged for Italian wine in the first century B.C.  … Many slaves of old Rome were fair Germans, including Saxons:   ‘The beautiful faces of the young slaves’ wrote Gibbon, ‘were covered with a medicated crust or ointment which secured them against the effects of the sun and frost.’   (Footnote: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VII (New York, 1907), 244] They must have been from northern Europe, perhaps from the historian’s own land.”

The English and Slavery:

Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550 – 1812 (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill), 1968 indicated:

Omitted, forgotten, bypassed, or never discussedWhite Slavery in the Americas when “non-English white peoplewere treated as ( … the n’word …) in English History:

The English treatment of Scotsmen, Welshmen, and Irishmen

When the dominant “ruling class” – the English – “WhiteAnglo-Saxon Protestantgovernment “ruling elite” – behaved as “superiors” to those they considered “inferior” Scotsmen, Welshmen, and Irishmen”:

English discrimination against Welshmen, Scotsmen, and Irishmen;

The necessity of peopling the colonies transformed the longstanding urge to discriminate among non-English peoples into a necessityWhich of the non-English were sufficiently different and foreign to warrant treating as ‘perpetual servants’?  The need to answer this question did not mean, of course, that upon arrival in America the colonists immediately jettisoned their sense of distance from those persons they did not actually enslave.

They discriminated against Welshmen and Scotsmen (the latter who, while admittedly ‘the best servants),’ were typically the servants of Englishmen.

Religion:  servants not slaves:

There was a considerably stronger tendency to discriminate against Papist Irishmen, those ‘worst’ servants, but never to make slaves of them.  [Footnote 108:  The designations are a prominent planter’s, quoted in Higham, Development of the Leewad Islands, 169, also 170on.]

Capties during warfare – never treated as slaves in England or the colonies – treated a lot different than the African slaves:   [Note:  More recent research during the first decade of the 21st century disputed this!]

And here lay the crucial differenceEven the Scottish prisoners taken by Cromwell at Worcester and Dunbar—captives in a just war!—were never treated as slaves in England or the coloniesCertainly the lot of those sent to Barbados was miserable but it was a different lot from the African slaves.

In New England they were aquickly accommodated to the prevailing labor system, which was servitude.

As the Reverend Mr. Cotton of the Massachusetss Bay described the situation to Oliver Cromwell in 1651:

The  Confederate South’s treatment of “freed African slaves” –  “debt peonage” and the “black code” for freed African slaves:

It wasindicated:  [Note:  Scots treated different than “Negroes” in the West Indies, Barbados, Bermuda]

The Scots, whom God delivered into you hand at Dunbarre, and whereof sundry were sent hither, we have been desirous (as we could) to make their yoke easy.  Such as were sick of the scurvy or other

diseases have not wanted physick and chyrurgeryThey have not been sold for slaves to perpetual servitude, but for 6 or 7 or 8 yeares, as we do our owne; and he that bought the most of them (1 heare)

buildeth houses for them, for every 4 an house, layeth some acres of ground thereto, which be giveth them as their owne, requiring 3 dayes in the week to worke for him (by turnes) and 4 dayes for

themselves, and promisteth, as soone as they can repay him the money he layed out for them, he will set them at liberty.’

[Footnote 109:  Boston, July 28, 1651.  W. H. Whitmore said W. S. Appleton, eds.,

Hutchinson Paoersm 2 vols.  (Prince Society, Publications (Albany, 1865), 264-265.  For prisoners to Barbados see Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 152-159.]

Here was the nub: captive Scots were men ‘as our owne.’  Negroes were notThey were almost hopelessly far from being of the English nation.  As the Bermuda legislature proclaimed in 1663, even such

Negroes ‘as count themselves Free because no par.ticuler masters claymeth their services, in our judgments are not Free to all nationall priviledges.’ “

[Footnote 110:  Lefroy, comp., Memorials Bermudas, II, 190-191.]  [Jordan 1968: 88-89]

Indians treated differently – though some were enslaved:

Indians too seemed radically different from Englishmen, far more so than any EuropeansThey were enslaved, like Negroes, and so fell on the losing side of a crucial dividing line.

It is easy to see why: whether considered in terms of complexion, religion, nationality, savagery, bestiality, or geographical location, Indians were more like Negroes than like EnglishmenGiven this resemblance the essential problem becomes why Indian slavery never became an important institution in the colonies.  Why did Indian slavery remain numerically insignificant and typically incidental in character?  Why were Indian slaves valued at much lower prices than Negroes?  Why were Indians, as a kind of people, treated like Negroes and yet at the same time very differently? 

Certain obvious factors made for important differentiation in the mind of the English colonists.  As was the case with the first confrontation in America and Africa, the different contexts of confrontation made Englishmen more interested in converting and civilizing Indians than Negroes.  That this campaign in America too frequently degenerated into military campaigns of extermination did nothing to eradicate the initial distinction.  Entirely apart from English intentions, the culture of the American Indians probably meant that they were less readily enslavable than Africans.

By comparison they were less used to settled agriculture and their own variety of slavery was probably even less similar to the chattel slavery which Englishmen practiced in America than was the domestic and political slavery of the West African culturesBut it was the transformation of English intentions in the wilderness which counted most heavily in the long runThe Bible and the treaty so often gave way to the clash of flintlock and tomahawkThe colonists’ perceptions of the Indians came to be organized not only in pulpits and printshops but at the bloody cutting edge of the English thrust into the Indians’ lands.

Thus the most pressing and mundane circumstances worked to make Indians seem very different from NegroesIn the early years especially, Indians were in a position to mount murderous reprisals upon the English settlers, while the few scattered Negroes were not.  When English-Indian relations did not turn upon sheer power they rested on diplomacy.  In many instances the colonists took assiduous precautions to prevent abuse of Indians belonging to friendly tribes.

Most of the Indians enslaved by the English had their own tribal enemies to thankIt became a common practice to ship Indian slaves to the West Indies where they could be exchanged for slaves who had no compatriots lurking on the outskirts of English settlements.

Virginia statutes:  Indian slavery

[Footnote 111: Hening, ed., Statutes Va., II, 299.   A good study of Indian slavery is needed, but see Almon Wheeler Lauber, Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States (N.Y. 1913).

“In 1627 some important Cari Indians proved unsalable in Virginia and were turned over to the colony; the General Court decided that since the Caribs had stolen goods, atempted murder, tried to run away to the Virginia Indians, and might prove the downfall of the whole colony, the best way to dispose of the problem was to hang them.”

McIlwaine, ed., Minutes Council Va., 155.]”  [Jordan 1968: 89-90]



About Harold L Carter

Bachelor of Science, Columbia University Masters degree, Ohio State University Undergraduate National Officer, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Eastern Asst Vice President, when a student at Columbia University Profile Photograph: Mom & Me, when I was a graduate student
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