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Video transcript
(chair rolling) Hi, my name is John Green. This is Crash Course World History and today we're going to talk about slavery. Slavery is not funny. In fact, it's very near the top of the list, of things that aren't funny. Today's episode is going to be a little light on the jokes. I'm going to help you understand what pre Civil War Americans, often euphemistically referred to as the "peculiar institution." (fast lively music) Slavery is as old as civilization itself, although it's not as old as humanity, thanks to our hunting and gathering foremothers. The numbers involved in the Atlantic slave trade are truly staggering. From 1500 to 1880 C.E. somewhere between ten and twelve million African slaves, were forcibly moved from Africa to the Americans. About fifteen percent of those people died during the journey. I know you're saying, that looks like a very nice ship, I mean, my God, it's almost as big as South America. Yeah, not to scale. Those who didn't die, became property. Bought and sold like any commodity. Where Africans came from and went to changed over time. In all, forty eight percent of slaves went to the Caribbean, and forty one percent to Brazil. Although few Americans recognize this, relatively few slaves were imported to the US, only about five percent of the total. It's also worth noting, that by the time Europeans started importing Africans into the Americas, Europe had a long history of trading slaves. The first real European slave trade began after the fourth crusade in 1204, the crusade that you will remember as the crazy one. Italian merchants imported thousands of Armenians, Circassian, and Georgian slaves to Italy. Most of them were women who worked as household servants, but many worked processing sugar. Sugar is, of course, a crop that African slaves later cultivated, in the Caribbean. Camera two side note. None of the primary crops grown by slaves, sugar, tobacco, coffee is necessary to sustain human life. In a way, slavery is a very early human by product, of a consumer culture that revolves, around the purchase of goods that bring us pleasure but not sustenance. You are welcome to draw your own metaphorically resonant conclusions, from this fact. One of the big misconceptions about slavery, at least when I was growing up, was the Europeans somehow captured Africans, put them in chains, stuffed them on boats, and then took them to the Americas. The chains and ships bit is true. As is the America part, if you define America as America, and not as 'Merica. But Africans were living in all kinds of conglomerations, from small villages, to city states, to empires, and they were much too powerful for the Europeans to just conquer. In fact, Europeans obtained African slaves by trading for them. Because trade is a two-way proposition, this meant that Africans were captured by other Africans, and then traded to Europeans in exchange for goods. Usually like metal tools or fine textiles or guns. For those Africans, slaves were a form of property, and a very valuable one. In many places, slaves were one of the only sources of private wealth, because land was usually owned by the state. This gets to a really important point. If we're going to understand the tragedy of slavery, we need to understand the economics of it. We need to get inside what Mark Twain famously called, "A deformed conscience." We have to see slaves both as they were, as human beings, and as they were viewed, as an economic commodity. Right, so you probably know about the horrendous conditions, aboard slave ships, which, at their largest could hold four hundred people. It's worth underscoring that each slave had an average, of four square feet of space. That is four square feet. As one eyewitness testified before Parliament in 1791, they had not so much room as a man in his coffin. Once in the Americas, the surviving slaves were sold in a market, very similar to the way cattle would be sold. After purchase, slave owners would often brand their new possession, on the cheeks, again, just as they would do with cattle. The lives of slaves were dominated by work and terror. But mostly work. Slaves did all types of work, from housework to skilled crafts work, and some even worked as sailors. The majority of them worked as agricultural laborers. In the Caribbean and Brazil, most of them planted, harvested, and processed sugar. Working ten months out of the year dawn until dusk. The worst part of this job, which is saying something, because there were many bad parts, was fertilizing the sugar cane. This required slaves to carry eighty pound baskets of manure, on their heads up and down hilly terrain. Mr. Green, Mr. Green! Isn't there a poop joke in there somewhere? No, me from the past, because this whole thing is too depressing! When it came time to harvest and process the cane, speed was incredibly important. Once cut, sugar sap can go sour within a day. This meant that slaves would often work forty eight hours straight, during harvest time, working without sleep in the sweltering sugar press houses, where the cane would be crushed in hand rollers and then boiled. Slaves often caught their hands in the rollers, and their overseers kept a hatchet on hand for amputations. Ugh. I told you this wasn't going to be funny. Given these appalling conditions, it's little wonder that the average life expectancy, for a Brazilian slave on a sugar plantation in the late 18th century, was twenty three years. Things were slightly better in British sugar colonies, like Barbados, and in the US living and working conditions were better still. So relatively good that, in fact, slave populations began increasing naturally. Meaning that more slaves were born than died. This may sound like a good thing, but it is, of course, its own kind of evil, because it meant that slave owners were calculating, that if they kept their slaves healthy enough, they would reproduce and then the slave owners, could steal and sell their children. Or use them to work their land. Either way blah! Anyway, this explains why even though the percentage of slaves, imported from Africa to the United States was relatively small, slaves and other people of African descent, came to make up a significant portion of the US population. The brutality of working conditions in Brazil, on the other hand, meant that slaves were never able to increase their population naturally. Hence the continued need to import slaves into Brazil, until slavery ended in the 1880's. So, I noted earlier that slavery isn't new. It's also a hard word to define. Like Stalin forced millions to work in the gulags, but we don't usually consider those people slaves. On the other hand, many slaves in history, had lives of great power, wealth, and influence. Like, remember Zheng He, the world's greatest admiral? He was technically a slave. So were many of the most important advisers to Suleiman the Magnificent. So was Darth Vader. But Atlantic slavery was different and more horrifying, because it was chattel slavery. A term historians used to indicate that the slaves were moveable property. Oh, it's time for the open letter? (chair rolling) Ow! Oh! Ah! An open letter to the word "slave." But first, let's see what's in the secret compartment today. Oh, it's Boba Fett, noted owner of a ship called Slave One. And apparently a ballet dancer. Doo, doo, doo doo, doo, doo, doo doo, doo (singing) Stan: That's a fine approximation of ballet music. (laughs) Thank you Stan. All right. Dear slave, as a word. You are overused. Like Brittany Spears, I'm a Slave, number four, letter U. No you're not! Boba Fett's ship, Slave One, a ship can't be a slave! More importantly, slave, you are constantly used, in political rhetoric and never correctly. There's nothing new about this, witness, for instance, all the early Americans claiming that paying the stamp tax, would make them slaves. And that was at a time when they knew exactly what slavery looked like. Taxes, as I've mentioned before, can be very useful. I, for instance, like paved roads. But even if you don't like a tax, it's not slavery. Here, I have written for you, a list of all the times that it is okay, to use the word slave. Oh, it is a one item long list! Best wishes, John Green. So, what exactly makes slavery so horrendous? Well, definitions are slippery, but I'm going to start with the definition of slavery proposed, by sociologist Orlando Patterson. It is the permanent, violent, and personal domination, of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons. According to this definition, a slave is removed from the culture, land, and society of his or her birth, and suffers what Patterson called social death. Ultimately, then, what makes slavery slavery, is that slaves are dehumanized. The Latin word that gave us chattel, also gave us cattle. In many ways, Atlantic slavery drew, from a lot of previous models of slavery, and took everything that sucked about each of them, and combined them into a big ball, so that it would be the biggest possible ball of suck. Stan, am I allowed to say "suck" on this show? (bell ringing sound) Nice! Okay, to understand what I'm talking about, we need to look at some previous models of slavery. Let's go to the thought bubble. The Greeks were among the first to consider otherness, a characteristic of slaves. Most Greek slaves were barbarians, and their inability to speak Greek, kept them from talking back to their masters, and also indicated their slave status. Aristotle, who despite being spectacularly wrong about almost everything, was incredibly influential, believed that some people were just naturally slaves. Saying, "It is clear that there are certain people, "who are free, and certain people who are slaves by nature. "And it is both to their advantage, and just for them to be slaves." This idea, despite being totally insane, remained popular for millennia. The Greeks popularized the idea that slaves should be traded from far away, but the Romans took it to another level. Slaves probably made up thirty percent, of the total Roman population, similar to the percentage of slaves in America, at slavery's height. The Romans also invented the plantation, using mass numbers of slaves to work the land, on giant farms called Latifundia. So called, because they were not fun ... dia. The Judeo-Christian world contributed as well, and while we are not going to venture into the incredibly complicated role, that slavery plays in the Bible, because I vividly remember, the comment section from the Christianity episode, the Bible was widely used to justify slavery, and in particular, the enslavement of Africans. Because of the moment in Genesis, when Noah curses Ham. Saying, "Cursed be Canaan, the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers." This encapsulates two ideas vital to Atlantic slavery. One, that slavery can be a hereditary status, passed down through generations. And two, that slavery is the result of human sin. Both ideas serve as powerful justifications, for holding an entire race in bondage. Thanks thought bubble. There were even more contributors to the ideas, that led to Atlantic slavery. For instance, Muslim Arabs were the first to import, large numbers of Bantu speaking Africans into their territory as slaves. The Muslims called these Africans Zanj, and they were a distinct and despised group, distinguished from other North Africans by the color of their skin. The Zanjian territory held by the Abbasids, staged one of the first big slave revolts in 869 C.E. It may be that this revolt was so devastating, that it convinced the Abbasids, that large-scale plantation style agriculture on the Roman model, just wasn't worth it. But by then, they'd connected the Aristotelian idea, that some people are just naturally slaves, with the appearance of sub Saharan Africans. The Spanish and the Portuguese you no doubt remember, were the Europeans with the closest ties to the Muslim world, because there were Muslims living on the Iberian Peninsula until 1492. So it makes sense that the Iberians would be the first, to absorb these racist attitudes toward blacks. As the first colonizers of the Americas, and the dominant importers of slaves, the Portuguese and the Spanish helped define the attitudes, that characterized Atlantic slavery. Beliefs they'd inherited from a complicated nexus, of all the slaveholders who came before them. In short, Atlantic slavery was a monstrous tragedy. But it was a tragedy in which the whole world participated. It was the culmination of millennia of imagining the other, as inherently lesser. It's tempting to pin all the blame for Atlantic slavery, on one particular group, but to blame one group is to exonerate all the others, and by extension, ourselves. The truth that we must grapple with, is that a vast array of our ancestors, including those we think of as ours, whoever they may be, believed that it was possible for their fellow human beings, to be mere property. Thanks for watching. I'll see you next week.