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The Many Faces of Slavery

July 2nd, 2009

slavauctionWhen Americans think about slavery, they usually envision African tribes being captured in droves by white European men and transported by the hundreds in the holds of small wooden ships.  They envision rows and rows of black men standing in fields of cotton being whipped by white men.  They picture “Mammy” and all she represents.

But slavery goes back much farther than that.

Did you know that the term “slave” was coined in tenth century AD by the Germans?  They were enslaving so many “Slavs” that the name became the term they used for any captive servants.

Slaves have been obtained by many different cultures in many different ways.  Sometimes they were prisoners of war, debtors, criminals.  In some cultures, parents who found themselves in desperate situations would sell their children into slavery.  Pirates would capture and enslave men, women and children of ships and towns they pillaged.  One of the most popular methods in history seems to be capturing your enemy or competitor and forcing them into slavery, thus protecting yourself or your investment.

The first known slaves were the wardu of eighteenth century BC Babylon.  But in Babylon, slavery was more a legal status than what we often envision it to be.  Slaves of the Babylonian era occasionally owned property.  They often engaged in business, borrowed money and bought their freedom. They were allowed to marry free people and have children, which freed them.  And for the most part, their masters treated them well provided they kept in line.

We know more, however, about the slaves of Athens in seventh century BC.  Greek slaves were the full property of their owners.  They owned nothing and were not permitted to breed or marry.  House slaves were sometimes treated well, but female house slaves were often raped and tortured.

The ones who got the worst of it, though, were the miners who were often worked to death in a short period of time.  Often, men sentenced to death would be sent to the mines rather than immediately executed.

The police of Athens were slaves.  Most of the slaves, though, worked in a domestic capacity because it was considered shameful to be another man’s servant.  The elite of Athens would not take on positions such as secretary, personal assistant, nurse, maid, etc.

Roman slaves of second century BC are probably among the most famous.  From being secretarial staff to the Roman emperor, to being forced to participate in Gladiator combat, the Roman slaves probably had the widest range in status of all the slaves of history.  During the Roman empire, chain gangs started to appear in fields and men were forced to fight soldiers and beasts for their lives.

During this time, the slaves revolted numerous times.  The event we all know and love, lead by Spartacus, was during the time of the Roman empire.

Throughout  sixth through fifteenth century AD, slaves were no longer used for the amusement of the elite and their owners.  Chain gangs started to die off.  The positions most slaves held were running households, offices and armies.  And they were most often found around the Mediterranean.

In the 1400s, the Portuguese went on an expedition and ended up at the Cape Verde islands.  Here, they began their foray into the trade of the indigenous people of the islands.  They used the natural landscape of the islands to transport their precious cargo to and from the countries they traded with.

In 1619, the first Dutch trader to bring slaves to the colonies touched ground in Jamestown.  He was in need of food to feed his crew and offered the African people he had in his hold in return.  At the time, colonists were using white indentured servants and Native American slaves.

What I find funny is the colonial people didn’t begin using the word “slave” for their servants until the matter of legal status and rights came into play.  It seems even they weren’t sure exactly what their servants were to them.

During colonial slavery, Native American women and African men began courting each other and having children due to the high ratio of African men to women (3:1) and the low ratio of Native American men to women.  While many Native American slaves were able to flee to other areas thanks to their skills and knowledge of the land, the ones left behind worked the fields and houses with the African slaves and were treated much the same.

Colonial slaves were beaten, raped, tortured.  They were denied the right to learn, vote, be human.  But they were also treated kindly by some owners.  Loved as if they were part of the family.

Colonial slaves were often forced to take on the last name of their owners, but many were happy to do so.  How they were handled was different from household to household.  No one class treated their slaves in any specific manner.

Today’s slaves often choose their situation.  They beg to be owned.  They submit themselves to the will of another.

They’re  most often found in the house wearing leather wrist and ankle cuffs.  They’ve probably got a blog or two and talk about which whip they like best.  And they argue with dominants about definitions of words that have been defined for thousands of years.  Because they have that luxury.

People often try to compare consensual slavery to historical slavery.  They use historical slavery as a reference for the consensual slaves of BDSM culture.  As if the two could somehow compare with each other.

They say things like “Slavery’s illegal so you’re not a slave.” or “The only true slaves are historical slaves.”

Those of us who are slaves in a kink capacity are not so stupid that we don’t know that.  Most of us acknowledge the fact that, even with the games sadists get up to, our plight could never compare to theirs.  We know what the law says.  We know what society thinks of our owners.  We understand that there are people out there who would fight tooth and nail to free us even as we fought to remain enslaved.

We don’t care.

We call ourselves slaves because we try to do what we are told.  Regardless of what that is.  Despite how we feel about it.  And we don’t always enjoy it.  And it feeds something in us.

Some of us have to be forced to commit acts required of us on occasion.  And that feeds something in us, too.

Historical slaves probably hated it every step of the way.  They were stripped of their pride and their dignity.  They were made to do things considered too low for others to do.  And they didn’t ask for it.  It was thrust upon them because another people believed themselves better.  Of higher authority.

Though my heritage is part Native American, I cannot imagine what that felt like.  I’ve never lived it.  I probably never will.

I chose to be owned.  I am human property.  While my lifestyle could never compare to what the slaves of history went through, by definition He is my master.  And I His slave.

Does my claiming that cheapen what they went through?  What some non-consensual slaves are still going through?  Maybe.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  But obviously it must not bother me too much.

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