Letter: An atrocious history

Posted 10/20/22

To the editor:

"If a slave says to the master, 'you are not my master,' the master shall cut off the slave's ear." Code of Hammurabi, circa 1,780 B.C. 

Sadly, an increasing number of …

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Letter: An atrocious history


To the editor:

"If a slave says to the master, 'you are not my master,' the master shall cut off the slave's ear." Code of Hammurabi, circa 1,780 B.C. 

Sadly, an increasing number of people finish school believing that the horrors of slavery began in America, were uniquely American, ended with the Civil War, and were primarily an issue of race. 

This is far from accurate and ignores the fact that slavery has existed since the dawn of man.

Slavery had already existed for thousands of years when, in the mid-7th-century, Muslims started taking the first of what would become millions of people from Africa. Captured males were sent back to Arab lands, and those put to work in homes were castrated, a horrific procedure with a fatality rate as high as 90%. Non-castrated males were forced into military service, while females worked in the home and/or were sex slaves. Over the next 1,000+ years, an estimated 80 million Africans, ⅓ males and ⅔ females were taken. Given the dangerous journey and brutality of the captors, only 20-30% survived. In total, it's estimated that over 60 million died before they even arrived at their destinations. 

It is difficult to determine who the "first" slaves were in America, but what we do know is that the practice of some form of slavery existed here for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. In parts of the Caribbean, before Columbus's landing, slavery was fairly common. In Central and South America, the Aztecs, Mayans, and other empires had slaves. It was not uncommon for the victors in battle to take prisoners; the lucky ones were enslaved, the unlucky ones were killed, used as human sacrifice, or in some cases - eaten.   

In the mid-1400s, Europeans took the first Africans to Europe. As the Europeans began to expand into the Americas, they looked toward Africa for labor. To meet this demand, the rate of Africans capturing other Africans increased dramatically, and so began the "Slave Triangle." The total number sold into slavery and taken to the Americas is estimated to be over 12 million. Due to the harsh conditions, approximately 10-15% died en route. The vast majority of those who survived were sent to South America and parts of the Caribbean; surprisingly, only 3-4% landed in what is now the United States. 

Lest you be misled, Europeans did not escape the horrors of slavery unscathed. Estimates are that over 1 million Europeans were captured and forced into slavery just in Northern Africa and the Ottoman Empire alone. Vikings routinely raided the coast of Ireland, England, and other parts of Europe, often murdering villagers or enslaving them. 

The horrific practice of slavery would continue for centuries until countries such as Great Britain and the United States, at great cost in blood and treasure, fought to eliminate the horrific practice. Unfortunately, the success wasn’t complete - slavery still exists today. Current estimates range from 20-40 million people, including many women and children, who are often used as forced laborers, sex slaves, and even for organ harvesting. It is a travesty that deserves greater attention. 

The unfortunate reality is that for thousands of years, slavery, at one point or another, has touched nearly every part of the world, from India, China, Sweden, Brazil, and to Nigeria, the United States, and beyond. Almost every group has played the part of vile slave owner as well as tortured slave:  Africans, Europeans, American Indians, Asians, and the list goes on. All have been victims, and all have been perpetrators. Given the diversity of such a group, I would argue slavery isn't a function of race, religion, or culture but rather stems from the depravity of man.

Matthew Fletcher


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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.