claim to an entire continent and eradicated most of its native
peoples, the Christian conquerors of North America came into
possession of an immense
land. The rapid exploitation of its
potential required a vast labour force and, until a surge
in European migration in the later 19th century, this was taken
against its will out of Africa, leaving
of that continent permanently damaged. On the southern plantations
of tobacco and cotton the captive labourers enriched an elite
who themselves provided trade and custom for the northeast
and the Old World. Christianity,
malleable as ever, morphed not only into the self-justifying
into the uplifting
faith of freedom and salvation of the slaves themselves.
trick for the cult of a west Asian sun-god.
Slavery – Divine
early Church drew support from slaves it never condemned the
practice of slavery. On
the contrary, Holy Scripture thoroughly endorses the enslavement
of lesser races
us that the forced conversion of the heathen is a noble
Christian purpose, saving
souls for the true God. All
are "equal before God" but
for eighteen hundred years Christianity aided and abetted slavery
and taught explicitly the barbarous notion that slavery was in
accordance with Divine Will.
your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy
male and female
slaves from the nations that are round
You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you
and their families that are with you, who have been born in your
land; and they may be your property.
You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a
possession forever; you may make slaves of them, but over your
people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness."
– Leviticus 25.44
writer Ambrosiaster of
the 4th century, in commentaries on Paul's epistles,
compounded the iniquity by concocting the racist notion
that slavery originated with Noah's
curse upon his son Ham, which
actually fell upon his unfortunate grandson Canaan.
the end of the flood, Canaan's daddy caught sight of
Noah roaring drunk and prancing about naked. Is that a sin
fablelizing equated the fearsome curse
with the dark skin of Africans,
rationalizing that Canaan had turned
black before settling in Africa. In the
true spirit of biblical justice, the curse
was inflicted on all subsequent descendents. Thus
the reality of centuries of enslavement and torment of millions
found biblical justification in a yarn about drunken revelry.
And they call it a
prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings
man under the dominion of his fellow ... Moreover,
when men are subjected to one another in a peaceful order,
the lowly position does as much good to the servant as the
proud position does harm to the master ... This servitude
is, however, penal, and is appointed by that law which enjoins
the preservation of the natural order and forbids its
– St Augustine, City of God (De Civitate Dei), XIX, 15.
By the time
the Church came to power it was already a major slave owner,
preserving at least
one aspect of ancient Roman civilization. But what the Church
rapidly jettisoned were pagan Rome's laws concerning the rights of
slaves and the possible attainment of their freedom. Slavery
in Christendom was for life.
As early as
340 the Church Council of Gangra (today's Çankiri
in Turkey), in reaction to rival Manicheans urging slaves to
free themselves, adopted as law a slave's "Christian
obligation" to submit to the authority of the slave
master "as if to God". The Council decreed:
on the pretext of religion teaches another man's slave to
despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and
not to serve his master with good will and respect, let him
I (590-604), reportedly, had been moved to describe English slaves
as "Angels, not Angles" – but not "free
those slaves and close down the slave market",
markets which continued in a city otherwise rapidly decaying
under papal rule. The
attitude of Pope Martin I (649-653) was perhaps typical of later
pontiffs when he ruled against "unjust slavery" which
of course left open the door to a "just slavery" of
heathen races and captives taken in war.
no time after antiquity did the slave trade ever leave the
Mediterranean. Christian Europe was aggressively seizing
Muslim slaves with the same pitiless inhumanity that Muslim
states were seizing Christian slaves.
slaves were at work on the rebuilding of the Cathedral
of Santiago de Compostela in 1150, just as Christian
slaves were working on the Mosque of Kutubiyya at Marrakesh." – (Thomas,
traders exported as many as 17 million slaves
of all races to the ports of the Indian Ocean, to the
Middle East and to North Africa. For three hundred years,
from the Barbary states of Tunis, Tripoli and
Algiers ravaged the
coasts of Italy
off their human prey and extinguishing
the last vestiges of "Roman" civilization. As
late as the 17th century English captives,
taken by Arab corsairs, were being sold in the slave
market of Constantinople. In total, perhaps a million
Europeans were enslaved by Muslims, most consigned to short
and brutal lives in galleys, mines and quarries.
a very early date, the
peripatetic Jews established
themselves as slave traders across Europe.
Islamic conquests, Jews were uniquely placed to ship
human cargoes between the Muslim and Christian worlds.
Licensed by Christian princes, and recognized as
"people of the book" in the lands of Islam,
Jewish slave traders shipped Slav and Germanic captives
south in exchange for
Islamic crafts and science, much sought after in
the Christian north.
monotheistic tyrannies especially prized black skinned "Ethiopians" for
their perceived strength and docility, though warfare rewarded
the victor with slaves of all races. The legitimacy of "just
title slavery" was
incorporated into the official body of Canon Law of Pope
Gregory IX (1227-1241):
is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery
in which a man serves his master as his
slave, is altogether lawful. This
is proved from Holy Scripture. It is also proved from reason
it is not unreasonable
that just as things which are captured in a just war
pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so persons
captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors.
All theologians are unanimous on this."
– Leander, Quaestiones Morales Theologicae, Lyons 1668 - 1692,
Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3.
the maritime empire of Venice, whose fleet
sailed under the banner
the evangelist St Mark, dominated the Mediterranean slave
trade. Africans bought in Alexandria were sold in European
whilst Slav captives taken from the shores of the Black Sea
were sold to Turks
Arabs. Professed Christianity made no difference. Venetian merchants
were as happy to sell youths of "heretical" Orthodox
as those who were merely heathen. In the east, these young
men were used as eunuchs and Janissaries, the young women
and prostitutes. Many
thousands of slaves also served on the patrician estates
of Italy, on the galleys that protected the Venetian trade
monopoly and on the sugar plantations of Cyprus
trade in human bondage which enriched Venice, along with
the spices, was eventually challenged
by other Christian states on the far west of Europe.
the Portuguese entered tropical waters in the 15th century
the shipment of African slaves back to Europe began.
In 1488, King Ferdinand of Spain sent a hundred Moorish
Pope Innocent VIII, who passed them on as gifts to his cardinals
and cronies. The papacy gave the trade its blessing and
the monastic houses took their share of shackled humanity.
the century was out, the first European adventurers had reached
the islands of the Caribbean and were cruising the coasts
of the Americas. At opportune moments, they snatched unsuspecting Indios and
took them back to Europe, where they were exhibited as exotic
trophies and sold in the slave markets of Seville, Toulouse
taken from the shores of New England, was Squanto,
a Wampanoag Indian captured by an English gang
in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto actually
got free of
the monks who bought him, worked his way across Europe
to England and joined a British ship bound for Newfoundland
as an interpreter. From Newfoundland Squanto made his way
back to Massachusetts, only to find that, in his absence,
European diseases had wiped out everyone in his village.
Pathetically, Squanto was able to greet the struggling
that came ashore in 1620 in their own language. No
Hollywood epic for this guy.
pope, Alexander VI, made clear to his Iberian compatriots
that they had
full and free permission to invade, search out, capture
subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers
and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as
their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and
other properties and to reduce their persons into
– Bull Eximiae Devotionis, 1493.
slavery did indeed follow for millions as the Spanish carved
out their vast empire in the
Americas. The "Requerimiento",
drafted in 1510, warned indigenous peoples that death
or slavery was imminent if they
did not immediately submit to Spain and
Roman Catholicism. Of course, the guileless natives would
not have understood a word of the imperial rescript declaimed
by a priest as the Conquistadors sharpened their
blades. Unfortunately, the natives of the Americas made poor
slaves – they died at an alarming rate. But "black gold"
would arrive to more than make up the loss.
Slaves – White,
Red and Black
the conquest of the Americas, and the annihilation of its native
a vast demand for labour was answered by ramping up supply
Africa. Tribal warlords ("Slattees") on
the coasts of Senegambia and Guinea (the so-called "Ivory
Coast", and "Slave Coast") waged aggressive
war against tribes of the interior to service the insatiable
found a more compendious way of procuring African slaves,
by prevailing upon them to make war upon each other, and
to sell their prisoners. Till then they seldom had any wars;
but were in general quiet and peaceable. But the white men
first taught them drunkenness and avarice, and then hired
them to sell one another. Nay, by this means, even their
Kings are induced to sell their own subjects."
Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, 1774.
profits to be made from African slaves , the "self-replicating
black gold", attracted the avarice of all
the maritime nations, not just Portugal and Spain (the
slavers) but also Holland, Denmark, France and England.
In 1560 the enterprising English captain John Hawkins
began slaving voyages to Spanish America, where he
made illegal sales to the Spanish colonies.
the course of the next three centuries, 54,000 sailings
would carry over eleven million enslaved Africans to
the New World (for numbers, see Thomas). Perhaps
as many that survived the sailings died in transit.
into the settlements of North America where they became
the foundation upon which first the colonial and then
the republican economy was built.
search for cheap labour
were enslaved not because they were black but because,
being nearest to the plantations, they were cheaper to transport, were available in greater numbers and
were accustomed to agricultural labour in a hot climate ... But .. it was easier to justify inhuman cruelty
when it was employed against people that it could
be alleged were a lower form of human life or not
human at all." – Hart, From Occupation to Independence, p17.
At first, to
tend the "cash crop" tobacco plants of Virginia, "indentured
servants" were brought in from England as a source
of cheap labour. Orphans were preferred, many of them kidnapped
from the streets of London or other port cities of Europe, "servants" who
in fact could be sold and traded.
than willing, migrants joined them: debtors and victims of the
English courts, deposited in the "penal" colony of Georgia. In
1652, following the final defeat of the Stuart army at Worcester
of the English civil war, a stock of two thousand Scottish
prisoners were sold to the plantations of Barbados
in the aftermath of the Indian war in New England in 1675,
Indians were transported by Puritan ship owners
from Boston to the proprietary colonies of
the South. The native Americans however easily escaped or succumbed
to European diseases – but
by then the African alternative had presented itself.
As early as
1619 the Dutch showed up off the coast of Virginia with a
cargo of twenty Africans, which they traded for food, but the
full potential of captive black labour was not immediately obvious:
first two generations Africans were treated, it seems, much
like other indentured servants. But after the Restoration
of Charles II in 1660 the planters could no longer be blind
to the opportunities suggested by the example of the Caribbean
sugar islands, which now took African slaves in huge numbers
with correspondingly huge profits."
From 1621 the Dutch
West Indies Company began importing blacks for servitude
in farms along the Hudson valley. But dominance of the slave
trade soon passed to the English and by the end of the 17th
century, England was leading the world in the trafficking of
established between English mercantilism and the ports of Africa
transformed slave trading from a limited aspect of inter-tribal
warfare into a capitalistic enterprise of global dimensions.
A few hundred British aristocrats,
motivated by commercial gain, established and controlled
a worldwide industry and from it amassed family fortunes.
Their accumulated capital
and trading houses and stoked the Industrial Revolution.
first, the Royal
African Company enjoyed
a monopoly in the trade and shipped several thousand slaves annually
at immense profit. But by
1698 other envious English merchants
the government to open the slave trade to all. The number of slaves
transported on English ships jumped dramatically, to
more than 20,000 a year.
blacks were brought to Britain by the slave ships.
being hidden as a degrading traffic in inhumanity, the
had an exotic public visibility. It became the
height of fashion for aristocratic ladies to have a black page,
footman or personal servant and the great households of 18th
century English society often had a
black servants, brought back from the plantations by naval captains,
colonial governors and merchants.
So well established
were the English in the slave trade that early
in the new century (in the Treaty
of Utrecht of 1713) the
British won the "asiento",
an exclusive license to ship black slaves from Africa to the Spanish
controlled territories of the Americas. The golden age of slaving
had arrived. British ships would transport nearly 3 million African
slaves before the prohibition on British involvement in 1807.
American slavers would continued their trafficking for another half
Whip and the Gospel
of the Christian "world mission" was to Christianize
the conquered and enslaved races, the plantation owners of
Virginia and the Carolinas from the first were hostile to such
feared that if the
became Christians there would be a clamour for their
freedom. But as the number of slaves grew from thousands to tens
of thousands more voices spoke of the Christian duty
to instruct the heathen multitude in the true faith.
In 1660 the
English king, Charles II, pronounced in favour of teaching Christianity
to slaves. The
message from the pulpit was hardly revolutionary. Slaves were
chastened by an assurance that their servitude
God himself, that they must work hard, be honest, humble, and
above all else, obedient. Though every man might be equal before
this world the black man's fate was to serve the white man.
Virginia Assembly remained cautious. In 1667 it enacted its own
bill specifically disavowing that baptism granted
freedom to slaves. Nonetheless, in
1734 the religious fervour of the "Great
allowed blacks to join Methodist
and Baptist Churches for the first time – with separate
seating, of course – and in 1758 slaves in Lunenburg County
formed the earliest black
church in Virginia. The early years of the Republic
saw a rapid Christianization of blacks, both
slave and free.
Whitefield, fierce Calvinist and founder of the school
that would later become the University of Pennsylvania.
Whitefield – Evangelist
for Jesus and Slavery!
Whitefield, was the father of American Evangelicalism.
He campaigned not only for Jesus but for the legalization of
slavery in Georgia in the 1740s (it was made legal
travelled repeatedly throughout the American colonies,
preaching reputedly more than 18,000 sermons (or maybe
one sermon 18,000 times).
death near Boston in 1770, Whitefield bequeathed his
own slaves to Selina of Huntington, the wealthy English
countess who had financed his career.
in the Christian Republic
The crops which
would transform the impoverished southern colonies of the U.S.
into enclaves of wealth and leisure – tobacco, cotton,
and rice – required many hands. This predisposed the
region towards slavery because none but slaves would endure the
unremitting toil in an agrarian wilderness.
of Independence may have talked grandly of "all
men created equal" but the Constitution recognized
held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof,
escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or
Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour,
but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such
Service or Labour may be due." – Article IV, Section
2, paragraph 3.
At first, the
emerging industrial centres of the North also
deployed slaves but, with the mechanisation of factories, mines
and mills, a more flexible and adaptable wage economy became
established, devoid of the paternalism of a slave society and
tapping successive waves of cheap immigrant labour.
the early 1800s slavery had become a phenomenon primarily
of the South but the northern economy continued to benefit
both from the products of the South and from the needs of
the southern economy, a symbiotic relationship recognized
by a federal law as late as 1850 which required that runaway
slaves, even those who had escaped to the North, were to be returned
their rightful "owners". Slave laws defined slaves
as chattel, the same category assigned to horses and cows.
of the southwest frontier after the Louisiana
purchase and the War of 1812 rejuvenated
the southern slave economy as the cotton belt spread from Alabama
and Texas. Some 400,000 slaves were traded and shipped from
the upper to the deep South. Output of cotton soared
from half a million bales in 1820 to more than four million
by 1860, some 75% of the world's raw cotton output and earning
over fifty per cent of U.S. export income (Rice, et al,
p166). Slavery was not only Christian: it was highly profitable.
Spirits in the Sky – Jesus becomes
starts preachin' I ... had to preach what massa told me and
he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the massa they
goes to Heaven but I knowed there's something better for
them, but daren't tell them 'cept on the sly.
I done lots. I tell 'em. iffen they keeps prayin' the Lord
set 'em free." – Black preacher.
forced relocation of Africans to North America, with its cross
mixing of tribes and language groups, effectively extinguished
their worship of traditional African gods. Indeed, enslaved Africans
not denied to slaves even in pre-Christian
speaking their own language and retaining their
enforced conversion must have disguised true sentiments.
First encounters with Christians took the form of whip-bearing
and slave owners. Those not totally crushed by their incarceration
must have retained vestiges of ancestral religion and fused
the white man's Christianity with elements of traditional
belief. For some, this meant Islam: merchants,
had established a Muslim presence in Ghana,
and Mali as early as the 12th century. Thus coastal
tribes, slave-raiding into the interior, would
have carried off Muslims.
In their land
of exile, confronted by evangelical missionaries, Muslim slaves
may have recalled stories from their own version of the Old
would have recognized a religion
text, with creation myths, priest-healers, and an ethical
system. To the enslaved, the promise of "life after death" had
an obvious palliative value. And when in Church, they were not
working. Though slave codes prohibited teaching slaves to read
and write, reading the gospel was the path to literacy and the
hope of eventual freedom.
slave, as well as the slave owner, found something useful in
the fable of Christ. The story of the Israelites' successful
from bondage, and
agony of Jesus "crucified but triumphant", were readily expropriated
as messages of freedom. With the religious meeting the only
form of organized activity
permitted the slave, the Black church
had value as the one institution that slaves could call their
own. Not surprisingly, Black preachers led the earliest slave
revolts – notably the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 – and independent
black churches led the struggle for liberty and civil rights
of slaves and free blacks alike.
frees his Slaves?
In the latter
half of the 18th century the rationalism of the Enlightenment began
to permeate even the cloistered world of theology. Thoughts
of "liberty, equality and fraternity" would soon
cause convulsions in France. Even during the American Revolution
property owners, whilst seeking liberty from the English king,
feared "the mob". A whole race held in subjugation did not bode
well for the future.
of Christians – drawn
mainly from the ranks of non-conformist movements in
the North (Mennonites, Quakers, etc.) recognized
that even though slavery was condoned by
many passages in the Bible, it was profoundly immoral and
contrary to the spirit, if not the words, of scripture.
Distressed by the suffering of slaves (particularly during
shipment), which now offended their Christian sensibilities,
a movement began for the abolition of the trade and the
institution of slavery.
in the fierce competition for memberships, congregations
be built from the lost black sheep. The
Baptists, whose lack of educational requirements or
complicated procedures for ordination made it especially easy
for blacks to become ministers, quickly won a following
among the black population. Free Blacks, no longer slaves
but subject to fierce discrimination, themselves formed independent
churches: the African Methodist Episcopal Church;
the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Confederacy – the Last True Christian civilization?
"On the lawfulness
of holding slaves ... the right of holding slaves is clearly
established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."
– Rev Richard Furman, President, Baptist State Convention. Charleston,
24th December, 1822.
Article XXXII: That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the
truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either
the Old or New Testaments, or
who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety
of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust
or profit in the civil department within this State. – North Carolina’s
House. The plantation lifestyle. The "Old South" was
a world apart, a society of affected gentility and opulent
leisure. In great white
Christian gentlemen" drank, brawled and gambled
whilst their wives and daughters idled away their lives in
Christian virtue. And beneath the surface a darker world, of
pitiless exploitation and brutal white overseers, of whippings
and lynchings, of masters taking sexual advantage of their
slave women, and poor white sharecroppers venting their frustrations
on a race and a class even more despised than themselves.
response to the stinging
rebukes of northern abolitionists, southern Christians
rallied to the defence of their world. Their interpretation
of scripture clung tenaciously to a literal understanding of
the words – and the words were very clear. God
Indeed, Genesis 9.25,27
could be given a powerful new prescience. Shem was
held to mean "dusky" as opposed to Japheth meaning "fair",
thereby rendering "Japheth shall be enlarged
and dwell in the tents of Shem"
into a biblical prophecy of white displacement of the "red Indians".
Completing this divine revelation was the subsequent enslavement of the
black African descendents of "Ham"! The Bible
was thus shown to be true in a literal sense and
southern society validated as completely in accord with God's
slave owner thus felt certain that he was carrying out God's
plan by buying and using slaves.
adapted to southern slave society like a domestic tabby cat reverting
to a feral scavenger. White
evangelicals moved from radicals on the margin to mainstream
conservatives. They were established, they were respectable – and
they were racist.
Birth of Biblical Fundamentalism
" The Negroes
thus imported were generally contented and happy ... Careless
and mirthful by nature, they were eager to find a master when they reached the
shore, and the cruel separations to which they were sometimes exposed, and which
for the moment gave them excruciating agony, were forgotten at the sound of their
rude musical instruments and in the midst of their noisy dances.
The great Architect
had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the
sphere in which they were thrown, and
His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited
to the degraded position they were destined to occupy. Hence,
their submissiveness, their obedience, their contentment."
R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the
United States of America, 1858
provided ample justifications for slavery but there were practical
as well. As a "child race" the Negro needed a paternal
guiding hand. By nature, lascivious and indolent the Negro needed
moral guidelines, which Mosaic Law and the Abrahamic Covenant
the institution of slavery, the African's rude disposition was
both restrained and corrected. The
South remained free from the strange new sects spawned
in Northern and border states in the wake of the second "Great
" Few of
the remarkable religious "isms" have taken root among
us. We have been so irreverent as to laugh at Mormonism and
Millerism, which have created such commotions farther North;
and modern prophets have no honor in our country. Shakers,
Rappists, Dunkers, Socialists, Fourrierists, and the like,
keep themselves afar off".
Hammond, Governor of South Carolina, 1845. "Hammond's
Letters on Slavery," The Proslavery Argument, 117; Q. in
Christian "issues" like
temperance and benevolence, which so easily led to an anti-slavery
stance, were viewed with disdain. While
the new Christian movements convulsed the
South secured itself within a conservative, "fundamentalist" framework,
interpreting the Bible as a literal guide not merely to faith
but also to political, domestic and personal life. It was a world-view
of Christian patriarchy, implacably hostile to modernism, rationalism
and liberalism, all perceived as snares of the Devil.
and Baptist churches, which had hitherto straddled the "North-South"
divide, were torn apart. The Anglican communion alone
was able to survive the slavery debate without schism.
York had become a thieve's market where pirates disposed of
loot taken on the high seas ... The
British navy was refused permission to search any American
slaver ... most slave ships, in the 1850s, not only flew
the American flag but were owned by American citizens."
the British empire came to an end after the 1831 Jamaican rebellion.
The sedition had been led by a slave and Baptist preacher, Sam
Sharpe, whose original plan had been the use of non-violent resistance
to force abolition. In the event, violence took over and Sharp
himself was hanged.
the end to their own slave trade, the British were forced by
economic necessity to press other nations to follow suit. A
special fleet, the West Africa Squadrons,
policed the coast of Africa
searching for slave ships. Brazil was intimidated into compliance
by the Royal Navy.
challenge came from slave ships flying the American flag. That nation
would tear itself apart resolving the issue of slavery in the 1860s.
Jesus fought on both sides, of course.
Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade – The History of the Atlantic
Slave Trade (Picador, 1997)
Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters (Palgrave
Andrew Sinclair, A Concise History of the United States (Sutton, 2000)
A.Rice, J. Krout, C. Harris. United States History to 1877 (HarperCollins,
Steve Martin, Britain and the Slave Trade (Channel 4, 1999)
Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents – The Indian Story (John Murray, 1992)
Richard Hart, From Occupation to Independence (University of the West Indies,
Divine, Breen, et al, America – Past and Present (Longman,
Noam Chomsky, Year 501 - The Conquest Continues (Verso, 1993)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2005
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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