Thursday, May 29, 2014


The book is essential but it did not reach completeness on the subject


Let’s be clear from the very start. This book is essential on the subject of slavery and the slave trade and it is worth all the time you may spend on it and around it because you will want to check a lot of information it contains. I will make a series of remark on the content and the matter of the book.

The first remark is that he does not spend time on what was before Islam in the world he is going to speak of, hence in Europe, Africa and Asia. He starts very clearly with the official date of the founding of Islam 622 CE and hardly anything before, apart from some detail on Muhammad before his migration to Medina. Slavery was a very common fact in the Roman Empire for one example, but also in most civilizations in the Middle East. Slavery is clearly codified in the Old Testament for one, and only one, example. The hypothesis is that slavery, or rather some type of dependent social organization or division of labor, was invented with the emergence of agriculture, starting after the Ice Age, when the water started to rise around 12,000 BCE. This slavery gave the community the mobility it needed to cope with that new form of social work and social organization.


In fact Segal should have discussed the real status of these early slaves knowing that anyway the social organization of the hunters-gatherers was not freedom really because there must have been a strict division of labor to take care of the children for three if not more years, and then hunting required some strict planning and coordination of all the hunters. Gathering was more relaxed as for an activity but there were a lot of predators, so gathering must have been organized collectively too, and any lack of work intensity or work efficiency might mean less to eat for the community. The concept of personal freedom did not exist really and the shift to the agricultural division of labor implied some kind of hierarchical organization and authority so that slavery might have been very slow to appear per se. The defensive or offensive war slavery was another thing. Military action was compulsory and prisoners became slaves, or were at least attached to the victors. But at the same time we have to consider the practice among American Indians, for example the Powhatans in what was going to become Virginia. The prisoners were used in two different ways: some became the ritualistic victims of some celebration, and some became the “slaves” of the families of the dead warriors. In fact they were integrated in the families. Both fates were accepted as normal. We have to keep in mind that human sacrifice was a normal fact in these old times in many forms, for example gladiators in Rome.

That’s what is missing in the book, a real historical perspective that would explain at the beginning of Islam that the practice of slavery all over the known world was so wide that Muhammad could not even think of going against it, just like Abraham did not reject having a son from his Arab slave servant.


The book though insists on the rejection of slavery by principle that Muhammad expressed along with some recommendation about treating slaves properly but we must keep in mind the harem was not invented by Muhammad, nor by Islam. Can we think Abraham was in love with his Arab slave servant? Of course not, at least not with the meaning we give to the word today, and anyway he had at least two women in his life, his wife and his Arab slave servant. The book is clear though about Muhammad recommending good treatment of slaves, manumission for slaves, miscegenation with slaves and the exoneration of Muslims from slavery. But the book also shows that this seems to be without any direct consequences, though he also gives several testimonies about the way slaves are treated and it comes to the simple idea that on their way from the catchment zone to their destination, hence in the hands of the merchants, conditions were squalid and inhuman, but when arrived in their owners’ homes they were then treated quite correctly, most of the time.

He insists on the fact that these slaves, a majority of whom were women (a clear difference with the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in America since in Mexico parity between men and women was only reached at the end of the 17th century) as home servants for women or concubines in the harem, as house servants for both women and men with the special case of eunuchs in the harem, and as outdoor servants for men. He also insists on the fact that many men were used as business employees by their owners. Slavery was mostly an urban phenomenon, with only a small portion of slaves used in plantations or on agricultural estates. There he is misguided about Spain and America. Spain had slaves under Islam of course, but the practice was kept after the Reconquista and the noble families had many slaves in Spain long before Christopher Columbus who himself was in Africa in 1483 and took part in the nascent slave trade from the west coast of Africa to Spain. We can even consider the Spaniards kept the in-coming routes from the Maghreb or along the coast. The book does not explore this problem. It is capital because in Mexico, Hispaniola and Cuba the Spanish noble families will move with their black slaves and slavery was an urban phenomenon too and dominant as such in Mexico. Even if slaves were imported later on to work on plantations, when the Native Americans on the various islands had been totally wiped out, Cortez himself in Mexico had a more positive view of this plantation industry and he was the first one to use water-power to work his first cane sugar mill, which sounds normal since in Europe water mills – and wind mills – had done all sorts of mechanical tasks since the 10th century on the advice and guidance of Benedictines. Segal reduces thus the vision of slavery in America exclusively to the English practice starting in 1619 and the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia till the end of it in 1863-1865. That enables him not to study the role of the Spanish and French Catholic churches that more or less tolerated slavery without ever condoning it entirely and insisting on the religious rights of slaves and the religious duties of slave owners, which the protestant and Anglican churches did not do at all.

He opposes white slaves from Europe and black slaves from Africa. At the same time when white Christian Europeans were no longer available the Moslem world did very well without. It would be interesting to think of John Smith, the founder of Jamestown and Virginia who was a war slave when captured by the Ottomans before escaping and then becoming a contract-holder in the first expedition to Virginia in 1607. He never gave any real detail but the whole episode does not seem to be that dramatic to him, but essentially how could he be a militant for individual freedom when slavery was the good side of being made a prisoner in a war, when we know that these wars against the Ottomans were the scene of atrocious facts like the systematic impaling of prisoners on the European side by the famous Count Dracula, and probably quite a few more. We too often look at the past with our eyes and not with the eyes of an historian. What about the famous drawings by Goya on the Disasters of War? Not to speak of the Inquisition, both the older one against the Cathars, and the more recent one in Spain and then Mexico. People were still drawn, hanged, disemboweled and quartered in England at the beginning of the 17th century just before Bartholomew Fair as a public entertainment under the indirect but consenting auspices of the Saint Bartholomew Church next door. And the French kings kept the breaking wheel torture and execution up to 1789 when the French Revolution stopped it to replace it by the guillotine or mass drowning in the Rhone or the Loire..

In such a context I do not see how a majority of people, or even more than a few isolated voices could be heard speaking against such atrocities and slavery among them, especially when it was “humanely” performed like when in the Mali Empire the Charter of Kurukan Fuga in 1235 was devised by Moslem Sundiata after his victory over the animists Sossos, saying among other things that the slave owner owned the slave but not his bag, meaning the slave had some private territory, his bag.


In fact the book is becoming really fascinating when Segal starts studying how this practice changed little by little from a war custom according to which all prisoners are made slaves, or even some fake war raids with the only objective of making prisoners to turn them into slaves later on, to a systematic commerce and industry practiced by merchants who only saw a way for them to get rich fast, even if 50% of the captives died along the way. Then he studies the routes and the complicities they needed including in black Africa where some tribal chiefs protected their own tribes by selling away the members of other tribes. When we know the minority Tutsis were the dominant tribe over the majority Hutus in Rwanda in all those centuries when that slave trade developed in Eastern and Central Africa, we can understand that the potent force of these centuries of being the cattle of the dominant minority can still pervert the minds of the descendants of this exploited majority. That slave trade came to an end in Eastern Africa only late in the 19th century, if not in the first half of the 20th century.

The book is thus very clear on the routes and types of trades. Trans-Saharan from the sub-Saharan Sudan, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, either to Morocco, or to Libya or to Egypt. Across the Red Sea to Arabia and beyond to the Middle East. Along the Eastern coast of Africa from Mombasa to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and then Iran Iraq, Pakistan and India, at times even farther. The case of plantation slaves are rare but they are important in Zanzibar or on the coast where they cultivated cloves, among other exportable produces. The worst case in that trade was the eunuchs. European eunuchs were only deprived of their testicles, but African eunuchs were deprived of both their testicles and their penis, level with the abdomen castratian as they said. The death toll was extremely high though we do not have much data on the subject.


We can only have tentative evaluation of how many people were captured and ended up in slavery, with already a great difference between the two figures, an even greater difference if we can assess the targeted population before and after the raid, due to the death rate of the mostly collateral casualties of the catching in the surrounding population, immediately or delayed because of starvation and wounds; due to the heavy number of casualties in the transportation of the captives; due to the extremely high death rate of the total castration boys and young teenagers were submitted to; not to speak of the death toll because of the weather change when arriving at their destination. This very mortiferous and death-inflicting situation explains why there are so few descendants: they died like flies in many ways and their position was not favorable to procreation. Marriage was not an obligation in any way and most women were used as concubines, which implies that the children who could be born from such unions were not exactly always wanted and welcome.

The book becomes probably better when Segal speaks of the slow and long process to abolish this slave trade that has not yet been completely terminated. The English were those who did most to end that practice through negotiations, treaties and commercial pressure. They hesitated at first and managed to get the trade itself banned, a ban through which it was always easy for the slave traders to wiggle, before understanding they had to ban slavery itself. Internationally slavery was totally banned by the United Nations in 1948. But yet it survives even in Sudan where the partition of the country was supposed to put a stop to the enslaving of Southern Christians by Northern Moslems. We all know what is happening right now in Nigeria where several hundred girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram to prevent their education and to sell them into slavery. On that level of modern forms of slavery, I will personally regret he does not have a word for the several hundred million Dalits in India. These are not even human cattle, since they are considered not human at all by the Hindus.

On the other hand the French were easily convinced that they had to get to a compromise. It is this compromise that explains today what happened in Mauritania after their independence. The white Arab or Berber Muslims systematically expelled the blacks from Mauritania, on the simple principle that made them consider Blacks as inferior. That was a case of ethnic cleansing that would not have happened if slavery had been banned and actually suppressed by the French colonists, which was not the case. French colonists often considered they did not have to do anything against traditional practices as long as they did not hamper their interests. It was the same principle that made them blind to excision that was considered as a custom they did not have to interfere with.


Altogether the book more or less estimates that the transatlantic slave trade cost about the same amount of victims and casualties as the slave trade towards the Moslem countries, though they say but did not insist on that the former lasted only three centuries whereas the latter lasted thirteen centuries, which means the former was a lot more intensive annually. Yet the book states but does not insist enough on the fact that in the 19th century, after the transatlantic slave trade was terminated, after slavery itself was finally abolished in French colonies and in the USA, the slave trade towards Moslem countries amplified tremendously leading in Eastern Africa and Central Africa to the absolute extermination by death or by deportation of entire villages, at times entire areas. But we have to keep in mind the battle is hardly finished. There are still many million slaves in the world and first of all the Dalits and all the sex slaves who are necessarily young with practices that vary from plain slavery to prostitution which is more a dependence of the prostitutes or hustlers on their pimps rather than sex slavery to their masters.

As a conclusion I could say the shortcomings of the book are the result of the very object it targets that locks him up in a historical period and a geographical zone that do not enable the capture of the subject from a global point of view, and particularly in an historical perspective that does not retrospectively project our own values and ideas onto the past. We cannot judge the inhumane practices of the previous centuries with the humane values of our own time. That kills the historical perspective we need to understand how humanity came to invent such evils and how the human kind has managed to get mostly out of them.



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