Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How many lives did slavery save?

In the most recent episode of Radio Derb, the eponymous host comments:
The further we get away from the age of slavery, the more angry people seem to be getting about it.

Well, some people. You know … black people. Slavery was a nearly universal feature of human society until the early-modern period, and was no respecter of race or nationality. A few years ago I reviewed Robert Davis's fine book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. Davis is a professor of history at Ohio State. In his book he tells the story of Muslim slave-raiding across the Mediterranean.
I wonder how many lives the "institution of slavery" (a phrase that is probably more obfuscating than it is clarifying, since the variables have, well, varied a lot across time and place) has saved throughout anatomically modern human history.

Lots of slaves became as much as a result of capture by an opposing military force engaged in campaigns in which human booty was not the official (or primary) objective. It's often safer and almost always easier for a fighter to kill his potential captive than it is to subdue him, keep him alive, and get him to a market or trade caravan--especially civilians inside a town that has been successfully sieged--but because that captive tended to be worth more alive than dead, there was a strong monetary incentive for the fighter not to kill or maim him. It's not as though slavery came without risks--volcanic ash wasn't the only thing to explode out of Mt. Vesuvius; Nat Turner's rebellion brought slave owners' worst nightmares to life; under the Yuan dynasty, Chinese slaves apparently often targeted their direct co-ethnic owners rather than their Mongol overlords during uprisings and rebellions.

Net-net, are there more people alive today than there would otherwise be had no person ever been held in involuntary bondage to another? Presumably it's an impossible question to answer and of course it's an evil one that only an evil person would even think to ask.


Anonymous said...

Another perspective is the fate of all the African slaves taken to the Arab world. Not many seemed to have survived. The lucky ones came to the U.S.

Anonymous said...

In a Malthusian world, if you remove part of population (as slaveS), there is more place and food for the others. I wonder how many of millions taken as slaves to USA would die anyway because of food constraints.

MM said...

No such thing as evil historical questions!

I've only studied the history New World "colonial-style" Atlantic slavery, and given the usual qualifications that a slave had a pretty short life expectancy + the mortality rates on slave ships, I suppose you'd need to establish just how many slaves were allowed to bear children who survived into adulthood themselves?

My recollection of that history, taught by a very knowledgeable old Western Civ. professor who was by no means conservative, was that something like 90% of African slaves were sent to the Caribbean, the West Indies, Brazil, etc. where they were worked to death in short order under really harsh conditions: very hot climates, textile factories, plantations, with gender segregation, etc. The high mortality rates probably accounted for the constant need for replacements.

The professor then characterized U.S. style slavery as "much less harsh" but by no means humane. Families were not always broken up, and there was more of an opportunity to become freedmen. Some of that comes across in film depictions of the Antebellum South, but to my knowledge, nobody's ever shown the really harsh conditions and high mortality rates of the British, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies. Except maybe Werner Herzog... : )