Sun | Jul 22, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | Slavery more universal than freedom

Published:Monday | April 17, 2017 | 12:10 AM

I captured this quote from Michael Abrahams’ popular column titled ‘Why I walked away from Christianity’, from the part where he essentially presented a moral indictment of the religion:

“The God of the Bible … had no issue with slavery, which most Christians will agree is barbaric and cruel. There is nowhere in the Bible where God condemns it. As a matter of fact, He gives guidelines regarding how slaves should be managed.”

Strictly speaking, Abrahams here states a fact. But he does it in such a manner as to give an implication that is either highly misleading or outright false. The implication, as I read it, is that Christianity is not only guilty, but uniquely guilty for slavery.

The great irony is that it is Christianity and Christians, more than anything or anyone else, who were responsible for ending slavery. I imagine that simple statement will come as a bit of a shock for those drenched in the fantasies of voguish theories in the academy. But it is nonetheless true, and doesn’t become less true because it doesn’t sit well with current orthodoxy.


My focus here, and the first thing to understand, is that slavery, or some very very near cousin of it, was a common and unexceptional feature of every civilisation we know about.

It was widespread throughout Asia, and is found well-developed in the Chinese Shang dynasty (18th century BC), meaning that China had a solid four millennia of slavery until, resulting from contact with Western ideas, it was outlawed in the early 20th century.

The Indian subcontinent had slavery from prehistorical times as well. It was well established in 1 BC, and we know that it flourished between the 10th and 18th centuries. By the 19th century, there were nine million slaves in India. Korea, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Nepal, Malaya all had slavery.

The Middle East was full of slaveholding societies, stretching from the dawn of recorded time. In Babylon, Hammurabi’s laws reveal it as a central institution. Ancient Egypt was a slave society, and one where, at certain points, if your owner kicked the reed basket, you would join him underground.

Of course, as Dr Abrahams tells us, the Hebrews and Palestinians had slavery, and it is evidenced in the books of the Old Testament. But as I hope I’m showing, this is a small rivulet in the mighty Nile of slavery. More consequential to the triumph of ideals of liberty in our own age is the story in the much-derided Bible of liberation from Egyptian bondage.

The Ottoman Empire was based on a vast slavery system, with janissaries being culled from Eastern Europe and Africa to serve as bureaucrats and soldiers. Indeed, no land that fell under Islam was without slavery. Even today, Isis is re-establishing slavery in its strongholds, and Abdullah el-Faisal might very well institute it in Jamaica in a heartbeat, if he could. Ask him! He’s not shy.

As we come west in our little tour, we find Europe steeped in slavery. Except, that is, during the much-maligned Dark Ages between the 4th and 10th centuries, when the Church supposedly ruled supreme (another myth). But slavery goes way back to when Europe enters the written historical record.
Ancient Greece and Rome were, of course, slave societies. The success of the Greeks in the Persian Wars meant they were richly rewarded with slaves. The Romans searched for slaves and bounty in Gallic and Celtic tribal land, which themselves held slaves.

The fearsome ‘Northmen’, the Vikings, were tremendous slavers, which is why they raided so much. Russia was, essentially, an enormous slave colony. The Slavs were so accustomed to the yoke they lent our language the name for human bondage.

The 11th-century Domesday Book records no less than 10 per cent of England as slaves. Today’s France and Germany were steeped in slavery.

Native American cultures routinely accepted and practised slavery. Don’t expect to hear about it from sentimentalists romanticising the natives now that there aren’t many left, but slavery wasn’t something brought by Europeans to the New World. It was here already, among the Pawnee, the Klamath, the Yurok, the Creek, the Comanche, the Aztec, the Inca, the Mayans, the Carib, and the Tehuelche. The Tupinamba of Brazil would eat their slaves, which is a tasty little twist.

All over Africa, slavery was practised, and over the many centuries. African slavers, along with their Arab counterparts, were responsible for trapping and trans-shipping some 18 million souls eastward to the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade between the 7th and 19th centuries by some accounts, almost twice as many as came west in the 300 years of that trade.
We descend from the Africans sent westward between the 16th and 19th centuries. Their experiences may have been uniquely bitter, but slavery wasn’t being introduced to a world otherwise blossoming and bursting with freedom.


The key point here is that what is uncommon, unusual, and precious, is freedom. What is exceptional is to live in a society where if you hold another in bondage, the police are empowered to lock you up, because the practice is outlawed. That is not the common experience of mankind.

So the orientation cannot reasonably be shock that Hebrews living 3,000 years ago had slaves, or that they put into the mouth of their God rules about regulating how slaves were treated. Those rules, after all, would have meant an improvement in the lot of the enslaved.

And the question is not, “Where does slavery, subjugation, and bondage come from?” That’s easy. If you’re in any doubt that such malevolence arises without too much inducement, just eavesdrop on a few conversations in Upper St Andrew or the right parts of St James. Therein you will find attitudes to the gardener, helper, or store clerk entertained by bon vivant progressives that are indistinguishable from planters discussing their nannies. We are not so far away from the men of old as many would like to think.

The harder, and more interesting question is, “Where does our idea of freedom and commitment to liberty come from?” Or: “Where did we get the moral equipment and orientation to view slavery as an abomination?” Now we have ourselves a mystery!

To answer it, I am convinced, you must look at the moral architecture of Christianity and that “God of the Bible” that Dr Abrahams too breezily dismissed, but that the abolitionists and our direct ancestors seized and heroically put to use.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to