THE IDEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF CHATTEL SLAVERY
Excerpts from a lecture presented by Molefi Kete Asante in Liverpool Town Hall on August 21, 2007 for the opening of the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.
Whenever I am in the city of Liverpool I feel quite connected to it like I am in an American city, a city with familiar images, histories, and dynamics. In many ways it is like Charleston, Savannah, Baltimore, and my own city, Philadelphia. Of course the link is truly historical but Liverpool has a visceral impact on me, a descendant of enslaved Africans whose ancestry goes to Sudan and Nigeria. I will never know if the ships that took my ancestors to the Americas were built and outfitted here at the Mersey.
Slavery is not a passé subject although it has an ancient history. Modern countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas still suffer from relentless and peculiar forms of human bondage, whether it is the Saudi Arabian businessman who holds a Filipino against her will or an American who employs a Mexican and works him for endless hours without relief knowing that the Mexican without legal papers will not report abuses for fear of deportation. In these cases, of course, we have individuals willing to “sell” their labour for food and shelter. There are severe situations of labour stress in economies like China and India where people are forced to work in horrible conditions for little pay. They are often taken advantage of but it is not the same as the slavery that uprooted millions of Africans.
Slavery is a destructive activity. It was not outlawed in Saudi Arabia until l963 and in Mauritania until l980. Even now in 2007 we still hear and read of cases of human slavery in Sudan and Mauritania. What is it about societies that support and encourage the enslavement of people deemed infidels, inferiors, pagans, or just workers? It is often true today as it was true from the 15th to the l9th centuries that the dissonance between personal greed and personal morality overwhelms the situation. Greed tends to win out. Obviously there is fundamental hypocrisy in all attempts to degrade other humans as less than one’s self. What could be any more revealing than the European whites in America who declared for their own independent rights while they held in bondage more than 100,000 Africans?
The thread that held these contradictions together was the acceptance of the idea that Africans were chattel, property. By the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the English Colonies of North America had experienced more than one hundred years of steady indoctrination in the legal idea that Africans were chattel and on the moral idea that Africans had no rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness that whites had to respect.
Thus, the origin of race and racism in the seventeenth century became a basis for categories of subordination and hegemony. Although today we are aware that the race myth is problematic, the European colonists and slave traders of the 17 and 18th centuries were sure that there were genetic, and biological differences that constituted whites as superior beings to blacks. Thus, what whites were constructing was something more sinister than ritualistic racial bigotry; they created an oppressive systematic form of dehumanization of Africans. One might claim that the leading opinion-makers, philosophers, and theologians of the European enslavers organized the category of blackness as property value. We Africans were, in effect, without soul, spirit, emotions, desires, and rights. Chattel could have neither mind nor spirit.
Since slaveholders owned enslaved people these people, who were not human in the sense of rights and aspirations, according to the whites, were simply means of production and capital accumulation. We could have been robots as far as the slaveholders were concerned.
Let us see now if we can shed more light on the meaning and processing of the term chattel slavery. This term is at the very core of the debasement of Africans that accompanied this massive transfer of people against their wills from one continent to another. Chattel slavery has been rudely misunderstood, treated almost gingerly like it was some decent term to describe a quaint practice that was acceptable to high society.
There are reasons for the way chattel has been understood or misunderstood by contemporary society. In the first place, there is this belief that the forced migration of Africans to the Americas and Caribbean was simply the outgrowth of a demand for labour on the part of an expanding Western economy.
The theory is that the population decimation of the Native Peoples in the Americas and Caribbean led to a more intense demand for labour for the production of goods and metals. Labour, of course, is one thing; chattel slavery is an entirely different thing.
While slavery was not unknown in Europe it is safe to say chattel slaves were not paid for their labour because they were seen as “things.” Aside from food and shelter the enslaver had no responsibility to the enslaved, but would allow the enslaved no space to have responsibility for himself or herself.
Now let us turn the screws a little bit tighter on chattel. One reason I insist on speaking of the enslavement of Africans as chattel slavery rather than slavery is because in the English language it is possible to confuse a certain idea of servitude with slavery. An African who was enslaved had no personal or private rights and was expressly the property of another person to be held, used, or abused as the owner saw fit. Imagine the hell of this predicament and you are on the edge of the nightmare of chattel slavery.
Two events in the British occupied areas of the Caribbean and the Americas must be seen as contributing to the ideological foundation of chattel slavery. The first event was in Barbados and the second was in South Carolina. Slavery was established in Barbados in l636 but it would take nearly thirty more years for the colonists to refine their legal basis. Indeed the Barbadian Slave Code of 1661 was the first code establishing the English legal base for slavery in the Caribbean. It was adopted by the American colony of South Carolina in l696 introducing the basic guidelines for slavery in British North America. Ten years earlier in l686 South Carolina had established a slave’s position as freehold property which meant that such individual as property could not be moved or sold from the estate. This was similar to serfdom in medieval Europe. However, by the time South Carolina adopted the ideas of the Barbadian Slave Code the African had been degraded to chattel giving the enslaver absolute control and absolute ownership. Actually the South Carolina law meant that enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and mulattoes could be bought and sold like any property and the condition of their children would also remain that of the enslaved.
In a more refined ideological sense, chattel kept producing chattel, even when it was one human giving birth to another.
But where does this idea of ownership of a person begin?
The word “chattel” is akin to the word “cattle” and in fact both words share a common origin in Medieval Latin and Old French. The word capital comes from the same root.
Chattel Slavery means that one person has total ownership of another. There are two basic forms of chattel, domestic chattel, with menial household duties and productive chattel, working in the fields or mines. Those closest to the enslaver by virtue of space were the domestics and they were usually accorded a higher status in slave society. But to say higher status is not to say much when the idea of chattel slavery was that the human was not a human but a thing. I do not say that the human was dehumanized because I do not hold that such is possible, but what is possible is to reduce another person in your own mind to the level of a cow, dog, cat, or chair. This is the meaning of chattel. As you would not consult your dog, you would not consult a chattel slave. As you would not concern yourself with the comfort of a tool, a plough or a hammer, you would not concern yourself with an enslaved African’s comfort. What is chattel is not human in the mind of the enslaver. A chattel could not have protection under law although there were enough codes to regulate the use of the enslaved.
Laws were enacted to strip the enslaved of all protection of law. There was hardly any restraint on the enslaver’s will, lust, and physical force. If a white person murdered an enslaved person it was only a misdemeanour punishable by a small fine, sort of a nuisance tax. An enslaved person could only attack a white person in defence of his own enslaver’s life. Africans were executed for plotting their own freedom, for burning corn in the fields or stacks of rice or teaching reading and writing to another African.
The Negro Act of 1740 in South Carolina also established death for teaching another African “the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, or herb.” Since Africans were chattel laws had to be passed to insist that Africans be dressed. Some enslavers refused to clothe the enslaved. This is one of the dubious achievements of the Barbadian Slave Code. Enslavers complained but they had to dress their slaves plus it was considered quite erotic to see well-developed young African men and women walking around in the nude. But if chattel had to be dressed, what kind of fabric had to be used. The law said that slaves could not dress “above the condition of slaves” and that their clothes could only be made from a list of coarse fabrics. Furthermore, since Africans were chattel there was no reason for them to assemble. Indeed, those Africans in violation of these provisions were subject to flogging.
There are two implications of the chattelization of Africans: (1) the invention of the white race, and (2) the commoditization of the African. In the first instance, out of a heterogeneous group of Europeans who did not claim to be of the same race, and did not perceive themselves in a common way, there was invented a new reality, “the white race”. What the slavers knew that they had in common was that they were not black. So long as they could not find any African in their ancestry they could become a part of this new creation, a formation of white people who were a reaction to the blackness of the enslaved Africans. This was an all-class formation; a white person could emerge from any class and be considered more privileged than a black from any class, even if one observed that the black, for example, was a descendant of African royalty.
But Africans were ‘troublesome’ chattel, a fact that made a lie of the idea that we were not human and could not think. In many ways enslaved Africans assaulted the system of enslavement and sought to bring the system down.
Of course, in recent years what we have now seen is that whiteness has become a property in the same racist societies that gave us blacks as chattel property.
The commoditization of Africans established a pattern that would become the fundamental method of transferring wealth in a capitalist society. Who could accumulate wealth by dispossessing Africans? The whites could do it because they had acquired the privilege of whiteness regardless of their origins by virtue of the chattelization of Africans. Thus, accumulation by dispossession became one of the principal ways Africans in the United States were systematically constrained and restrained, economically, socially, and psychologically.
Vast wealth from the European Slave Trade fuelled the British economy at the same time that Africans were being reduced to things. A commodity could have no rights, no feeling, no sentiments, no religion, and no thoughts. While it is good and decent that this year Britain celebrates the bicentennial of the British abolition of the slave trade by marking the end of slavery with stamps, exhibitions, speeches, and memorial services, one still asks, if slavery was wrong, irreligious, and immoral in l807, why not in 1707 or 1657?
One cannot truly see the value of abolition without discovering what it was that was abolished. Prior to 1807 the British Parliament passed numerous laws and regulations to encourage and support the trade in human beings. Yes, of course, one could argue that this was before the giants of abolition really transformed public opinion. Nevertheless, one cannot forget, even if one wanted to, that here in Liverpool the economy thrived on the building of slave ships and the transport of Africans from the continent to the Americas.
Nothing is more authentic at this moment than the recognition that a great wrong was done and that Liverpool stood in the center of the chaos. However, today with the new museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery, Liverpool has leaped ahead of other cities in dealing with its troublesome past. By doing so, the people of this city and this region have gone a long way toward repairing the damage that was done by the busy slavers.
Forward Ever! Backwards Never!