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A brief history of the "peculiar institution:"

19th century to the present time

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Topics in this essay:

bulletAbolition in Britain during the 19th century
bulletAbolition in the U.S. during the 19th century
bulletThe cost in human suffering and lives
bulletSubsequent Developments

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Abolition in Britain during the 19th century:

After a series of delays caused by Wilberforce's health, stonewalling in the House of Lords, the war with France, a British bill was finally passed in 1806. It prohibited the sale of slaves by the British into other countries, and prohibited the importation of additional slaves into the new British colonies in the Caribbean. A second bill was passed in 1807 in which "all manner of dealing and trading in slaves...[was] utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful." A final bill in 1811 made slave trading punishable by execution or exile. By this time, about 2.8 million slaves had been transported by the British.

Although the British slave trade had now ended, slavery itself continued in various British colonies. An Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. It was successful in forcing the government to pass laws to improve the treatment of slaves. After some slave revolts and mass executions, outraged public opinion in Britain forced passage of a Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in 1833. This ended slavery in Britain and its colonies, including Canada. Through a series of treaties and the capture of over 1,000 slave ships, the slave trade was finally snuffed out by 1865.

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Abolition in the U.S. during the 19th century:

Anti-slave activity in the U.S. lagged significantly behind that of Britain, Canada, and other British colonies. Some milestones were:

bullet1800: By this time, slavery was economically marginal in the Northeast states. An act of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (now OH, MI, IN, IL & WI). States north of Delaware also did not allow slavery. The southern states retained slavery for almost another century. The industrialized North and agricultural South had long been divided on economic grounds. This was joined by a "growing sense of a moral and social divide based on attitudes towards slavery." 1
bullet1807: A federal ban was placed on the importation of new slaves into the U.S.
bullet1810: A census was held; the black population was found to be 1,377,080.
bullet1819: The "Missouri Compromise" is reached in Congress. It allowed each new state to be admitted to the Union with its slavery laws intact. However slavery was prohibited in that area of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of latitude 36' 30".
bullet1820's: The "Underground Railroad" began as an informal network of safe houses which helped runaway slaves escape to freedom   It was mainly organized by  Quakers and Mennonites. 2 "It existed rather openly in the North and just beneath the surface of daily life in the upper South and certain Southern cities. The Underground Railroad, where it existed, offered local service to runaway slaves, assisting them from one point to another." 3 Harriet Tubman (circa 1820 - 1913), a black abolitionist, walked to freedom. Then she returned 19 times into slave territory and led over 300 individuals, including her family and relatives,  out of slavery. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker abolitionist who harbored runaways slaves in her Philadelphia home. 

Not all traffic was northbound. There were also two escape routes to Spanish held territories: via Florida and Mexico. About 1,000 slaves successfully escaped to the North each year. Many more were caught and returned to a horrendous fate.
bullet1833: Over 1,000 regional, state and city groups joined together to found the American Anti-Slavery Society
bullet1840's: By this time, the slavery issue had emerged in the U.S. as a major conflict. In the northern states, "a small but articulate group of abolitionists developed. In the South, white spokesmen rallied around slavery as the bedrock of Southern society." 4 The issue of slavery became so volatile that Congress debated whether it could even be discussed. Between 1836 and 1844, the House of Representatives argued over their "gag rule". It prohibited any discussion of slavery and whether the right of petition should include the petitioning against human bondage. The gag rule angered many Americans who were anxious to preserve their freedom of political expression. The overall effect was to add support to the Abolitionist cause.
bullet1850: The "Compromise of 1850" is approved by Congress. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia. California was admitted to the union as a free state. Slavery was permitted in the new territories of New Mexico and Utah.
bullet1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an author and the daughter of a Christian minister. She became one of the first women to earn a living by writing, by publishing the best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin. It publicized the evils of slavery to the general public.
bullet1857: Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the US Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision. It stated that the US Congress could not prohibit slavery in any state; that an African-American could not be an American citizen; and that slaves were not considered persons. A runaway slave only became safe if he/she escaped from the country. 2
Benjamin Drew, an American abolitionist working with the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society, visited towns in what is now Ontario, Canada in the mid 1850's. He interviewed refugees who had successfully fled to Canada, and recorded their stories. 6 Slavery was becoming more widespread at this time, and starting to become entrenched in some territories to the West of the Mississippi river.
bullet1861: The slave population totaled about 4 million. The Civil War began on APR-12 with an southern attack on Fort Sumter, SC. 180,000 African-Americans served as soldiers; 25,000 as sailors. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian, wrote The Battle Hymn to inspire Union soldiers.
bullet1863: President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1863-JAN-1. 7 It applied only to the "rebellious states" and stated "that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free." It allowed African-Americans to join the Union Army and Navy. Unfortunately, the Proclamation did not free a single slave:
bulletThe loyal border states who did not secede from the Union were still allowed to keep people enslaved.
bulletPersons in the south that had already come under Northern control were also able to retain their slaves.
bulletThe remaining Southern states ignored the Proclamation.
bullet1865: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ended slavery on 1865-JAN-31. It states: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

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The cost in human suffering and lives:

bulletAs many as 17 million slaves were exported to North Africa, the Middle East and countries on the coast of the Indian Ocean.
bulletAt least 5 million African slaves were exported via the Red Sea, East Africa to other parts of the world.
bulletAt least 12 million slaves were exported from Africa to North America, South American and the West Indies.
bulletPerhaps 4 million Africans died in wars that were caused by the slave trade and in forced marches.

"It is estimated that some five percent died in Africa on the way to the coast, another thirteen percent in transit to the West Indies, and still another thirty percent during the three-month seasoning period in the West Indies. This meant that about fifty percent of those originally captured in Africa died either in transit or while being prepared for servitude." 7

In the American colonies, "a slave was chattel--an article of property that could be bought, punished, sold, loaned, used as collateral, or willed to another at an owner's whim. Slaves were not recognized as persons in the eyes of the law; thus they had no legal rights. Slaves could not legally marry, own property, vote, serve as witnesses, serve on juries, or make contracts. The offspring of female slaves also belonged to their owners, regardless of whom their fathers were." 7

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Subsequent Developments:

Slavery in North America was closely connected to race. "Although there were black, mulatto and American - born slave owners in some colonies in the Americas, and many whites did not own slaves, chattel slavery was fundamentally different in the Americas from other parts of the world because of the racial dimension." 8 Elsewhere in the world, slaves were often of the same race and same or similar culture as the slave owners. An ex-slave could mix freely into society. A generation later, their former slave status would be forgotten. This is not so in North America. The effects of slavery lived on in the form of racial segregation and racial intolerance; both are still with us.

An estimated 30% of the population of Brazil and the United States were descended from slaves, as of 1950. In Cuba and the West Indies, it is estimated at 15%. 1

Slavery was abolished in most of the world during the 19th century. It has been outlawed by a number of international conventions: 9

bulletThe Slavery Convention of 1927-MAR-9
bulletThe Forced Labour Convention of 1930, and
bulletProtocol amending the Slavery Convention of 1953-DEC-7. Signed by Canada in 1953; ratified by the U.S. in 1956.
bulletThe U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, of 1957-APR-30. 9 Ratified by Canada in 1963, and by the U.S. in 1967.
bulletThe U.N. Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others of 1951-JUL-25.

In 1962, Saudi Arabia became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. However, slavery continues today in a few countries:

bullet"According to the United Nations, the United States and a number of human rights groups," slavery continues in the Sudan 10 (The Sudanese government vigorously denies that the practice exists.) In 1999-JAN, Christian Solidarity International announced that it had released 5,066 Sudanese people from slavery in the previous four years by buying their freedom. It is not clear whether they were actually slaves who were purchased. They might have been prisoners of war being redeemed, or kidnap victims being ransomed. 11 The Muslims in the  north of Sudan are engaged in a long-standing civil war with the Animists and Christians in the south.
bulletFour human rights activists in Mauritania, North West Africa, gave an interview to a French TV crew in early 1998 about the continued slavery in their country. They were arrested.
bulletTrafficking in children and women for purposes of prostitution continues in many countries. Child labor is common. People are still trapped in indentured servanthood which differs little from actual slavery.

Slavery is still advocated in North America by some Reconstructionist Christians and a few racist fringe groups within the Christian Identity movement.

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References used:

  1. Duncan Clarke, "History of American slavery," PRC Publishing, (1998)
  2. William Still, "The Underground Railway," Ayer Co. The book may be ordered at: http://www.scry.com/ayerctlg/4416487.htm
  3. "Aboard the Underground Railroad" at: http://www.cr.nps.
  4. "Slavery in the United States," Encarta Concise Enclopedia at: http://encarta.msn.com/encartahome.asp
  5. Benjamin Drew (ed.), "The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves, Boston, MA, (1856). Selections at: http://history.cc.ukans.edu/carrie/docs/usdocs.txt/ (site no longer available)
  6. The National Archives and Records Administration has the text and images of the Emancipation Proclamation at: http://www.nara.gov/exhall/featured-document/eman/
  7. "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.html 
  8. P.E. Lovejoy, "The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery," at: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~slavery/essays/
  9. "Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices", University of Minnesota, Human Rights Library at: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/
  10. C. Hunter-Gault, "Shackled Youth," PBS Online Backgrounder, 1996-AUG-19. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/august96/
  11. "Help fight slavery," News item; source unidentified; Globe and Mail, 1999-JAN-30.

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Religious violenceSlavery > here

or Home page > ChristianitySlavery > here

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Copyright 1999, 2000, 2002 & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-JAN-18
Latest update: 2003-AUG-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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