Perhaps the oldest form of human oppression is that of slavery. Slavery, with its roots in antiquity (e.g., Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Israel, and Greece), is defined as the forced labor of one group by another. The institution of slavery, where the slave was considered merely a piece of animate property or chattel, was first developed by the Greeks. Brutality, to include whip ping, humiliation, and alienation, has been part of slavery from its inception. Slaves, stripped of their human dignity and title, were forced to abandon their family, culture, and personhood, as another owned their very being. Women, doubly exploited, were subject to sexual exploitation where they could be forced into prostitution or to submit to the sexual demands of their masters or their guests. Slaves during these periods, often accorded higher status, could be adopted and become legal heirs of the masters. Typically, these slaves were vested with special duties owing to their unique talents (such as teachers, actors, fighters, etc.). The modern system of slavery, a direct result of European imperialistic expansion, provided even harsher levels and degrees of exploitation, humiliation, and degradation.

The modern slave system beginning with the start of the Atlantic slave trade preserved many of the earlier exploitative conditions while creating unique variations of its own. Similar practices included the dehumanization and degradation of the slave in order to preserve order. Hence there were attempts to strip the slave of his identity, culture, and history, slaves were reduced to things (chattel property), and they were required to observe ritualistic etiquette and politically correct behaviors. These practices further served to reinforce the hegemonic structures of control and power. Modern slavery differed significantly in that it created race and racism to justify the institution. Slaves, not complacent, formed extensive networks of rebellion that greatly aided their attempts to revolt, escape, and contest the system.

The primary goal of modern slavery was to create a hyper exploitative system benefiting the master class. This institution is deemed hyper exploitative for it rested on the exclusive control of and the capacity to exhaust the total labor capacity of the slave. Hence, the average life expectancy of a slave was typically set at no more than 30 years of age. All of the produce, intellectual, physical, and even issue, were deemed to be the rightful property of the master. Death, escape, and the rarely utilized emancipation of the slave were the only release from this hyper exploitation. The fact that racial identity was integral to the system increased the likelihood that all persons of color, regardless of status (i.e., born free, emancipated, or escaped), were continually paranoid. Such paranoia was frequently manipulated (formally by race specific laws, bands of disgruntled whites, or caprice) to ensure continued servile behavior of both free and non free. Hence, slavery as a total institution shrouded persons of color regardless of status.

What few realize, when contemplating slavery, is the damage done to white and other forms of labor. Essentially slavery, with its capacity to hyper-exploit labor, displaced other forms of labor where it was in competition. Those of lower class position, but in the same racial caste as the dominant master class, found their positions tenuously dependent upon the good will of the master class. That is to say, their labor value was unduly suppressed by the cheaper labor value supplied by the master class. In those areas where there was a shortage of slave labor, the value of lower class white labor was lowered. Racism, in these situations, served to offset the lower value of lower class white labor both psychologically and socially. Therefore, the slave could be humiliated, brutalized, and displaced by the lowliest of white workers. Inappropriate etiquette or politically incorrect behavior on the part of the slave could result in beatings, maiming, or even summary execution. Alternatively, in those situations where labor was in surplus, then white labor was actually displaced. Such displacement only aggravated the racial divide, while those white laborers forced to relocate tended to reproduce racial exclusionary or bifurcated labor systems wherever they settled. Racism, based upon these racial exclusions, far outlasted the system of hyper exploitation that produced them.

Sexual exploitation within slavery served multiple functions to include the sadistic plea sure of the master class, increased profit owing to issue produced, and of course the further humiliation of the slave.

Within the Americas three distinct slave systems developed. The distinctions between these systems derive from different cultural, political, and economic realities. These different realities, for want of a better terminology, are best described as those under the Spanish, French, and English sphere of influence. The major distinctions between these four slave systems had to do with the form of contact situation that prevailed. The most significant reasons for the differences among the European colonies have to do with the American Revolution among the English, and the influence of the Catholic Church among both the French and the Spanish. We shall briefly describe these three systems.

Spanish imperialist goals, fueled by vague and overly hyped claims of rivers and temples of gold, led to the first official European ”set dements” in the Americas. These settlements, whose primary goal was to extract the claimed riches as fast as possible, soon led to disappointment as no rivers or temples of gold were found. Columbus and his men, undaunted, began to kidnap, imprison, ransom, and enslave the natives in their attempt to secure the illusive gold. Failing in this, the Spanish – still believing in hordes of gold just waiting for the plunder -sent more and more conquistadors to search out the prizes. With time, the only prize identified was the lush soils of the Amazon – and the Spanish colonial experience began. Maximization of exploitative goals led to, first, the enslavement of Native Americans, and later the importation of African slaves. The period of Spanish conquest, from 1519 to 1523, was characterized by extraordinary brutality and cruelty and decimated the indigenous population. Starting with a population of just over 4.5 million in 1519, the native population declined to 3.3 million in 1570 and to 1.3 million in 1646. The primary culprits for these declines were small pox and typhus, wars of extermination, forced labor, brutal work conditions in the mines and on the plantations, tribute taxes, and cultural genocide. The decimation of the native labor force increased the demands for alternative labor sources. These alternative labor sources were soon supplied by the Dutch and Spanish merchants in the form of the African slave. The Spanish, with no intent on permanent settlement, did not encourage large numbers of Spanish women to immigrate. Thus, the gender imbalance increased the likelihood of sexual exploitation, prostitution, and the creolization of the population. Under rare circumstances, the Catholic Church stepped in and insisted upon the formalization of these unions in the guise of marriage. With time, the societies that came into being reflected these blended racial origins, generated by slavery, of Spanish, Natives, and Africans.

The French, eager to fill Napoleon’s treasure chest and pay out mounting royal debt, entered the Americas with the express desire to maximize profits through trade. Their efforts in the Americas, centering in the Caribbean, Mid South and West, brought them into immediate contact with the Native Americans. Almost from the start, they established rather friendly relationships. As with the Spanish, the French soon realized that their profits could be greatly enhanced with the creation of a colonial presence, and hence more permanent agricultural communities were established. In order to maximize these efforts, the French relied more and more heavily upon the African as the chief source of exploitable labor. Owing to the short age of French women, again there was a heightened tendency to sexually exploit the African and Native American women. Thus prostitution, rape, and sexual abuse were often the result. Some of this sexual abuse was masked under the guise of formal marriages, which also served to provide access to greater resources among the indigenous population, legitimacy among the growing Creole population, and stability for the growing social structure.

The English, under the guise of freedom, initially promoted their imperialist expansion on the backs of lower class Europeans. It is important to point out that among the English, the first group to experience slavery was not the Africans but the Irish. English rulers, beginning with Queen Elizabeth and continuing through Cromwell and King James, in a systematic attempt to destroy the Irish people and their culture forced several thousand Irish into slavery in the Americas. Thousands of other Europeans, similarly positioned at the bottom of European society, were forced to serve masters in this land of the free. Of interest is the fact that before African slavery was normalized, these individuals were collectively viewed as slaves. With the advent of African slavery, these slaves found their status significantly altered as they now became defined as servants. Still with the further passage of time, lower status Europeans were allowed entry into the racial caste of whiteness. Whiteness accorded its participants the ability to discriminate against non whites, hence we note the birth not only of racism but also of a racialized hierarchy. Both racism and this racialized hierarchy were functional in maintaining control over the slavocracy that later developed.


  1. Berlin, I. (1998) Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Bel­knap Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Fogel, R. W. (1994) Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. Norton, New York.
  3. Franklin, J. H. & Moss, A. A., Jr. (2000) From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  4. Genovese, E. D. (1976) Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Random House, New York.

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