Past present: The slave story

January 20, 2013


In the ancient period, there were different ways in which a person could have become a slave. Predominantly they were prisoners of war in addition to poor people who had to pay back loans to landlords, but were unable to do that and became slaves.

Philosophers and thinkers in that society did not condemn slavery. In ancient Greece, slaves were engaged for all kinds of work, including forced labour. Some of them were forced to work in silver mines where not only the working conditions were dangerous but the atmosphere was so polluted that they did not live for very long.

As the great Roman Empire was being built, a large number of prisoners of war were brought to Rome where the aristocracy forced them to work on their agricultural plantations. There were domestic servants in every noble’s house.

They were controlled through strict administrative measures. If a slave was found conspiring against his master, all domestic slaves would be executed as a punishment and warning to others. Slavery continued in nearly all ancient societies.

When the Spaniards controlled South America, slaves were imported from Africa and slave trade became a profitable business.

Africans were captured either by rival tribes or slave hunters and shipped to the new world in the most inhuman and miserable conditions.

In every city of America there were slave markets where slaves were sold. Families would be separated and no kindness or mercy was shown by slave dealers and purchasers.

So far our source of information about slavery is based on several books by Western writers. In 1847, for the very first time, Henry Bibb, an African, wrote about his experiences as a slave and the maltreatment he suffered at the hands of his owners in a book, Adventures and Narrative of an African Slave. The version of his book was verified by his former owners. He wrote how he suffered pain, humiliation and insults. It became the voice of a person who was not treated like a human being. He described the laws, customs, practices and traditions that favoured slavery.

Slaves were forbidden to read and write or to attend religious meetings. Their marriages were not solemnised by a religious person. Slave girls and women were physically abused by their masters. They worked from morning to dusk with only half an hour for lunch break. There were no medical facilities or sick leave. In case of death, they were buried unceremoniously.

A squad of supervisors would force them to work by flogging them in public and insulting them. For violating rules there would be severe punishment. If a slave tried to run away from his master, gangs of slave hunters equipped with guns and hounds would chase him and bring him back for handsome awards.

Henry Bibb was born and brought up as a slave. He married a slave girl but wanted to become a free man. He succeeded in his first attempt and reached Canada which was under British control and where slavery was banned. He did not stay there very long but returned to Kentucky to take his family to Canada. He was captured and resold along with his family to another person.

He made another attempt to run away with his family but once again was captured and brought back. This time he was sold while his family was retained by the owner.

His last owner was an Indian chief who was kind and more human in comparison to his earlier master. After the death of his Indian master, he ran away to Detroit where he learnt to read and write, and hence wrote his experiences as a slave.

He launched a campaign and exposed the horrors of slavery and the brutal treatment of slave owners in the southern states. He failed to reconcile with his wife and daughter, so he remarried and started a new life as a free man.

Henry Bibb’s autobiography depicts how African slaves were exploited and treated inhumanly. Although slave owners claimed to be good Christians yet they violated all Christian values and victimised their slaves. Henry Bibb’s writing helps us understand the institution of slavery in America. It is not surprising that even the founding fathers of America did not condemn slavery as there is mention of it in the American constitution.