There are more slaves today than at any time in human history, reported Benjamin Skinner, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. An estimated 27 million people in the world are forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence, in forced marriages, in sex-trafficking and prostitution.
Though mostly illegal and called by different names, slavery nevertheless exists today in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Southeast Asia, Romania, Sudan, Haiti, Brazil, Latin America, and even in the United States.
It was reported in Time magazine, Jan. 18, 2010: “Despite more than a dozen international conventions banning slavery in the past 150 years, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history.”
Ancient cultures made slaves of those captured during wars in Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, China, India, Africa and Rome. Julius Caesar conquered in Gaul and brought so many captured “slavic” peoples into to Rome that the term “slav” took the connotation of permanent servant – “slave.” Over half of Rome’s population were slaves.
Another form of slavery was generational indebtedness, spread by Roman Emperor Diocletian. The Roman economy was so bad that people unable to pay their mortgages abandoned their properties, renounced their Roman citizenship and went off to live with the barbarians. Diocletian made it so people could never be free from their debts, tying them and their children to the land in perpetuity, creating the feudal system.
When Muslims conquered areas of Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean, over a million Europeans were carried off into slavery. Medieval Catholic religious orders of the Trinitarians or Mathurins collected donations to ransom people from Muslim slavery. Muslims enslaved an estimated 180 million Africans over its 1,400 year expansion.
In pre-Columbian America, the Inca Empire had a system of mandatory public service known as mita, similar to the Aztec’s tlacotin. When Spain conquered the New World in the early 1500’s, conquistadors deposed Indian government leaders and ruled in their stead. In the Inca Empire, where Indian populations had been trained to obey government orders, they willingly obeyed their new Spanish leaders, even though it often meant dying in forced labor such as in the Potosi silver mines. Spaniards set up a system called encomienda or repartimiento, which was similar to feudal France’s Corvée “unfree labour.” Priests like Bartolomé de las Casas, Franciscan friars, and Papal Bulls ended the enslavement of Indians.
Those wanting slaves replaced Indians with Africans purchased from Muslim slave markets. Slavery began in Cuba earlier and lasted longer than most anywhere in the Americas. A notorious trade triangle developed with Havana, Cuba, at its center: slaves from Africa to sugar from the Caribbean to rum in England.
In North America, Christian missionaries and movements, especially Quakers, Moravians and Methodists, were a voice of conscience against slavery.
Many poor Europeans sold themselves as “indentured servants,” a temporary slavery for seven years, in exchange for transportation to America. King James I, followed by Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, sold over 500,000 Irish Catholics into slavery throughout the 1600s onto plantations in the West Indies Islands of Antigua, Montserrat, Jamaica, Barbados, as well as Virginia and New England.
Later, during the years 1714-1756, persecution and oppression of the Irish grew so intense that thousands sought to escape British control by selling themselves as “indentured slaves” in exchanged for passage to the New World, usually Pennsylvania, hoping to take advantage of William Penn’s promise of toleration. Historian Will Durant wrote in “The Story of Civilization”: “The Irish scene was one of the most shameful in history.”
Some North American Indians were sold into slavery in the West Indies.
The first African slaves were brought to North America on a Dutch ship to Virginia in 1619. Haiti had several slave revolts against the French government. The fear the revolts would spread were a factor in Napoleon selling the Louisiana Territory.
Importation of slaves to the United States ended in 1807, but in 1839, an international incident occurred. A Portuguese ship from Sierra Leone sold 53 slaves to Spanish planters on the Cuban ship Amistad. On July 1, 1839, the African slaves broke free of their shackles and seized control of the ship, demanding to be sailed back to Africa. The captain misdirected the ship, sailing slowly east during the day, but quickly west at night, landing at Long Island, New York, where the slaves were arrested.
The Amistad case went to the Supreme Court. Former President John Quincy Adams, now 74 years old, defended the jailed Africans. Adams stated, “By the blessing of God, I will argue the case before the Supreme Court.”
He wrote in his journal, October 1840: “I implore the mercy of God to control my temper, to enlighten my soul, and to give me utterance, that I may prove myself in every respect equal to the task.”
Francis Scott Key offered John Quincy Adams legal advice. Adams shook hands with Africans Cinque and Grabeau, saying: “God willing, we will make you free.”
John Quincy Adams, known as “Old Man Eloquent,” argued in court: “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men than this Declaration.”
Against all odds, John Quincy Adams won freedom for the Africans. President James Buchanan wrote Dec. 19, 1859: “When a market for African slaves shall no longer be furnished in Cuba … Christianity and civilization may gradually penetrate the existing gloom.”
After the Civil War was fought in the United States to end slavery, a revolt began in Cuba in 1868 by a farmer of Spanish descent crying out for racial equality, freedom of speech and freedom of association. Spain put down the Cuban revolt in the Ten Years War, killing thousands. A Spanish Royal decree finally ended slavery in Cuba in 1886.
In 1895, another rebellion began in Cuba and Spain sent 200,000 soldiers to put it down. Thousands were put into concentration camps where they suffered from starvation, disease and exposure. Yellow press journalism excited the American public, who demanded President William McKinley intervene.
The USS Maine was sent to Havana, and on Feb. 15, 1898, it blew up in the harbor under suspicious conditions, beginning the Spanish-American War.
President McKinley approved the resolution of Congress: “Whereas the abhorrent conditions which have existed for more than three years in the island of Cuba, so near our own borders, have shocked the moral sense of the people of the United States, have been a disgrace to Christian civilization, culminating, as they have, in the destruction of a United States battle ship, with 266 of its officers and crew, while on a friendly visit in the harbor of Havana, and cannot longer be endured. … Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives … that the people of the island of Cuba are and of right ought to be free.”
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