Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?
I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.
Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.
They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.
Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.
Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.
During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.
In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.
Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.
The view of journalists today among the public is at an all time low. This is not good for democracy. Especially when that hatred is fuelled by populist politicians who resent being scrutinised….by journalists. But this is a new phenomenon – journalists in the past were loved, not hated by the public.
I have to declare an interest here. I’m a former journalist (BBC News, Sky News, Financial Times magazines, etc) and still a paid up member of the National Union of Journalists. And it depresses the hell out of me to see ill-informed people on Twitter writing BS about the so-called MSM. So I’m writing this blog post as a well overdue corrective.
The public loved journalists – even in the pillory
The path to creating a free press was a treacherous one. Not for nothing does the US Constitution protect the right of free speech. Because in the Old World – that right was non-existent or permitted at the whim of an absolute monarch.
Into the early 19th century, British journalists and publishers were literally placed in the pillory for producing work that offended the establishment. Just to be clear – they were put on trial and then taken to a wooden post with a yoke and fixed by their head and hands to be pelted by the mob.
But in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – the ‘mob’ often didn’t comply. They came out and supported the hapless journalist in the pillory. They loved them for defending liberty and exposing corruption and vice. How different from today!
Daniel Defoe – journalist loved by the public
One of the many journalists placed in the pillory was the author of Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe. Aside from writing a great yarn (based on real events) about a castaway, Defoe was essentially a tabloid journalist. He was also a bit of a spin doctor for the government.
In 1703, he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. It was intended to be a ribald commentary on the attitude of the Church of England to Protestant dissenters on the one side and Catholics (or “Papists”) on the other. The CofE was likened to Christ with a dissenter thief on one cross and a Papist on the other. All pretty silly and Defoe wrote the whole thing tongue in cheek.
But the Church of England and government took the pamphlet very seriously and he was charged with sedition. The pamphlet was burned by the public hangman and Defoe went into hiding. However, he was discovered and put in three separate pillories around the centre of London for maximum humiliation.
The public, though, admired Defoe for his literary bravery and instead of throwing rotten vegetables at him – brought flowers and sang songs. Including a song he’d written for the occasion!
Public loved journalists who stuck it to the king!
Even though Daniel Defoe was cheered by the public – the experience of the pillory undoubtedly freaked him out. So much so that he agreed to spy on another journalist, Nathaniel Mist. Mist’s early 18th century weekly journal was hugely popular and it poked fun at the new German speaking king of Britain – George I.
Mist described the great grandfather of George III (who lost the American colonies) as a “cruel, ill-bred uneducated old tyrant”. He served a short prison sentence and like Defoe was sent to the pillory. Also like Defoe, the public cheered him on as a free spirit. But then Mist fled to France unable to handle the pressure and threats from the government.
Edmund Curll – also loved by the public
Edmund Curll was another early 18th century figure in the publishing world. This time, a publisher as opposed to a journalist. His sin in the eyes of the church and state was to publish both radical political works and pornographic tracts. Almost as if to cause maximum rage in respectable society.
One publication, Venus in the Cloister, alleged that while the church was prudish, Jesus Christ had believed in sexual exploration. This was a translation of a French work that went on to influence the notorious Marquis de Sade.
Curll eventually earned a place in the pillory where, like Defoe and Mist, he was treated rather kindly by the crowds. And the list of pilloried and prosecuted journalists loved by the public – in Britain particularly – goes on and on.
What a sad contrast with today when many of the public would rather side with power against free speech. Or, worse, take the word of YouTube charlatans and hucksters as the truth ahead of people who are on the front line trying to report what is happening in the real world.
Below is the arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez in 2020 while reporting on protests following the death of George Floyd. A modern pillorying of a member of the ‘fourth estate’.
Homosexuality throughout history has been a matter of concealment, adapting or risking an open expression of your sexuality. In the last hundred years, it’s clashed head on with the relatively new science of psychology.
My parents both worked in psychiatric care in the 1960s and I recall a particular book they had about gay men called – The Homosexual Outlook. It was a classic work of post-war psychology that would be laughed at now – by most people.
That psychology tome on homosexuality had an unintentionally hilarious chapter titled On the gayest street in town and it detailed, as if describing the mating rituals of an animal species, how gay men hook up.
Two strangers approach each other gingerly and then one chap might say – ‘say fellow, have you got the time?’ Apparently, they would then analyse how the other person was holding their cigarette and on the basis of that decide whether to take things further!
Ironically, this 1953 psychology study was actually a defence of homosexuality – but you’d struggle to think so today. This was a time when American gay men were still firmly in the closet with a few heroic exceptions. And the world of psychiatry still treated same sex relationships as a disorder.
Early psychology and homosexuality
Go back another 50 years and you have the best selling work on psychiatry – Degeneration– by Max Nordau. He thought that human beings were gradually degenerating as a result of urbanisation.
Writing in the 1890s when Europe was enjoying a cultural and artistic boom, all Nordau could see was decadence and the destruction of human minds. And he saw the open display of homosexuality as a big part of the problem.
He had several targets and one of them was – Oscar Wilde. Nordau was particularly offended that Wilde had “walked down Pall Mall (an upmarket street in London) in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches with a picturesque biretta on his head and a sunflower in his hand”.
Nordau – speaking for many conservative chaps in the world of psychology – angrily dismissed this very visible expression of homosexuality as “anti-social ego mania”.
In a rather curious abuse of psychology, Nordau attempts to argue that human dress is primarily about exciting the opposite sex in order to encourage procreation.
Because Wilde is dressing just to annoy people, he “evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity”. Say that phrase with a Germanic accent and you capture the flavour of Nordau!
Psychology versus the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde
And he goes on: “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime”. Nordau was particularly shocked that when Wilde was asked about the real-life murder of a woman called Helen Abercrombie, he blithely remarked: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do – but she had very thick ankles”.
He puts this all down to Wilde’s uncontrolled ego and – in a more sinister observation – says that Wilde “is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct”.
In truth, Nordau wasn’t a great psychiatrist. In fact, he was a conservative snob and bigot who cloaked his prejudices in the upcoming science of psychology.
But, incredibly, up until the 1960s, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder with some linking it to narcissism and a dysfunctional ego. The American Psychiatric Association only voted in 1973 to de-classify same sex relationships as a mental illness.
Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.
Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.
In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.
Lewis Powell – handsome but violent
Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.
The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.
Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.
Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.
The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.
Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.
Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.
There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels
Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven. They rebelled against God and were cast out. They became ugly and hideous.
But they did not lose their power. Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell. And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body
It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening. That might be your open mouth for example. Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud. She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.
People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf.
Bad case of food poisoning? Maybe. Very probably. But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?
So how to get rid of a demon? How to treat a ‘demoniac’? Well, an exorcism of course.
In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism. Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed. She could not cross herself. She behaved strangely. Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking.
So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.
As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense. A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession!
The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth! And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet. And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her. After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons
Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells. A crime punishable by death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer.
She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness. For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave.
This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up! The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.
Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her. So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.
Aaaah…but fairies you say. They’re nice spirits aren’t they? Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages. The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney. To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.
Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs. They were only invisible when they wanted to be.
Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head.
Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.
Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members
If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place. A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling.
A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child. They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.
So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then?
Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.
Unfortunately, babies did die. And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.
So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!
Ancestry.com allowed me to discover that an ancestor of mine – falsely identified as a police officer in the NYPD – was actually a US Cavalry lieutenant who fought in the Spanish American war.
In a pile of old photos from the Irish side of my family (Dad is from the Emerald Isle), there’s always been a couple of photos that confused us. A moustachioed gentleman in some kind of uniform in the early 20th century. Who was he? What was the uniform?
Ancestry.com identifies Lieutenant Francis McEnhill
Well, the mystery has been solved thanks to doing some work on Ancestry.com – which I’ve become horribly addicted to. It has given us a very full picture of an interesting guy.
Some of my relatives talked about an Uncle Francis who emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone, in what’s now Northern Ireland. They speculated that he might have become a police officer in the NYPD because of the uniform in the photo.
If he had been aware of their musings, Francis might have been deeply offended.
Because Uncle Francis, it transpires, was in the US Cavalry! An immigrant to the US, he married the daughter of a senior New York military officer James Joseph Butler (1832-1910) who had fought alongside a future US president, Chester Arthur, in the American civil war – with the Union, not the Confederacy. This familial connection seems to have smoothed the path for Irish-born Francis to join the US cavalry.
War record revealed on Ancestry.com
And what a time to have joined! Lt Francis McEnhill (born 1872) was very soon in Cuba and then the Philippines fighting with American forces against Spain – the colonial ruler of these two countries. From 1898, President William McKinley used various pretexts and a fevered press campaign to justify attacking what was then Spanish colonial territory.
This heralded America’s arrival on the world stage. Spain was a declining imperial power and these countries were sad remnants of a once huge empire that covered all of central and Latin America. The war, begun by McKinley and continued by Teddy Roosevelt, led to the US annexation of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.
Ancestry.com reveals the sad death of Francis McEnhill
Francis enjoyed the military life. But he seems to have picked up some bug in the Philippines that destroyed his health. Tropical disease was rife and did impact the cavalry. Whatever he contracted led to encephalitis. This was a death sentence back in those days.
Poor Francis ended up in a hospital in Philadelphia where he died in 1909. Thanks to Ancestry I’ve even found the bill sent to his widow for the coffin, transfer of the body back to New York state and things like the silk Stars and Stripes to be draped over his casket. Also through Ancestry, I now know that he’s buried at Sacket’s Harbour – which was once a major military base.
It’s a quirk of the digital age that I know more about Uncle Francis than my Irish granny, who was his niece, did in the 1970s. She only had sketchy details about him to share. But through the power of the internet and Ancestry.com, I have a surprisingly detailed picture of my dashing ancestor.
As a postscript, I discovered his military chest on Craigslist where a young man had bought it in a house sale. The name Francis McEnhill was on the side of the large wooden crate and documents relating to the widow’s pension were found inside with the gold cavalry insignia you can see on his uniform in the photo.
I offered this young man a very generous price but he chose to give it to a local military museum. I guess it’s gone to a good enough home!
Lieutenant Francis McEnhill – Born 10 June, 1872 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Died 3 June, 1909 in Philadelphia, buried in Sacket’s Harbor
So what was the difference between slavery in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago and slavery in the American south 150 years ago. The answers may surprise…
American slavery was very real – here is the grim evidence!
First of all – this is me holding a copy of the Richmond Enquirer – a newspaper from Virginia. This is an original newspaper from 1840. I bought it from an antique dealer a few years ago. And on the front page are some grim reminders of American slavery.
The front page is not like newspapers or websites today – it’s full of small ads and announcements. And shockingly, there are ads for forthcoming slave auctions. Plus there are pleas from slave owners to help them retrieve their runaways.
So – how did American and Roman slavery differ?
The American South defined slavery in racial terms. In the Roman Empire, anybody could end up a slave regardless of skin colour. The Romans, you could say were equal opportunities slavers! So, you might be a Roman citizen living in Syria of Arab ethnicity who owned a Germanic slave captured in one of Rome’s wars on the Rhine frontier.
In other words, a man of Middle Eastern complexion could own a man of blonde and blue-eyed appearance. To the Romans, your status was everything – your race was a lesser factor.
Roman slaves did what we regard as high status jobs. If you went to a doctor, had your accounts worked on, watched an actor at the theatre or met the manager of a local business – all those professionals could have been slaves in ancient Rome. There were slaves in the fields and mines kept in chains and subject to unbelievable brutality. But there were also slaves in what we would regard as white-collar and managerial roles.
This was simply not the case in the American south. The idea of a white family going to an African-American doctor for a consultation would have been unthinkable in early 19th century Virginia. Ditto having your accounts done. Slaves were overwhelmingly in menial, agrarian roles on the plantations. The variety of roles you’d have found in Rome didn’t exist in the American south.
Routes to becoming a slave were very different. In Rome it might involve:
Being a prisoner of war
Born into slavery because your parents were slaves
Abandoned babies often were reared as slaves
You were the citizen of a city that had rebelled against Roman rule and you and your neighbours were carted off as slaves
Your debts had forced you to sell yourself into slavery
American routes into slavery tended to be less subtle:
You were an African American in the southern states
You had been captured or sold in Africa and sold on to slavers who then transported you to the New World – the Caribbean, Latin America or deep south
Freed slaves could be very successful in ancient Rome. The Romans borrowed a practice called manumission from the Greeks. This was a very smart idea. Slaves were encouraged to earn a wage on the side – maybe doing something like basket weaving – and they would save some of their money. At an agreed date, they would approach their master and buy their freedom at a pre-determined price.
For the master, this was great. Slaves were depreciating assets – as all that work wore them down. So now, the master had a tidy sum of money with which to pop down to the slave market and get a replacement. The freed slave still had social obligations to the former master but could otherwise pursue a successful career. Some freed slaves did surprisingly well. The emperor Claudius made considerable use of clever Greek freedmen as advisers.
Slaves were freed in the American south from the 17th century onwards but on nothing like the Roman scale. In fact, American slave owners seem to have been more reticent to give slaves their liberty. The only reason I can think of is that by this period in history, slavery was so obviously a rotten institution. By the early 19th century, the United Kingdom – once an enthusiastic slave trader – had outlawed it.
I suspect American slave owners thought that emancipating one slave could lead by degrees to freedom for all. That kind of concern never bothered a Roman in a world where all societies had slave ownership. There was simply no economic alternative. Whereas by the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern industrial capitalism was arriving on the scene with people hiring their labour to factory bosses.
The chances of freed American slaves succeeding while they remained in the south were pretty poor because of the strong racial element. An American ex-slave was easily identifiable whereas a Roman ex-slave could blend into the population. Most manumitted African Americans retained a very servile status compared to Roman freed slaves.
American slavery made less and less economic sense. New farming technology and the growing of a wider variety of crops made slavery a bit redundant in economic terms from the mid-18th century onwards in the American south. However, studies have concluded that for some landowners and slave traders, investing in human beings was extremely lucrative.
Bluntly, if nobody had been getting rich out of it – slavery would have collapsed long before the American civil war. The investment yield on “slave capital” could be as high as 13% – comparable to investing in the 19th century railroads. It might seem both distasteful and odd to us now, but there were little old ladies in Worcester, England who invested in slaves in the Caribbean or Virginia in much the same way you might invest remotely in shares or bonds today. You can find these records online.
This kind of investment in slaves required a level of financial sophistication and technology unknown to the Romans. They simply bought a human being and put him or her to work. End of story. It was the economic norm and there was no other known way of powering a ship forward (galley slaves), heating a posh house (the hypocaust) or quarrying all that marble to build lovely temples to the gods.
Whereas American slavery could be replaced instantly by harnessing industrial methods and hiring workers. There was simply no good reason for continuing a pre-feudal form of labour in the 19th century. By the end, when the south lost the civil war, plantation owners who had supported the Confederacy just seemed to be flaunting their slaves like trophies as opposed to making a profit and running a proper business.
Sexual abuse of slaves. In both Roman and American slave systems, sexual abuse was common. The main difference would have been that certain sexual practices were condemned by Christian doctrine – sodomy for example – whereas in ancient Rome, no such restriction was in place.
Slaves in Rome could be openly advertised for their sexual capability – heterosexual and homosexual. Ointments were applied to remove body hair and, it was thought, to delay the onset of puberty. For example, a hyacinth bulb dipped in sweet wine and applied on a teenage slave’s body was thought to keep it artificially youthful. Boys might also be castrated to satisfy the demand for young eunuchs.
Sex between slaves and owners was tolerated in ancient Rome and even celebrated on The Warren Cup – a goblet you can see at the British Museum in London. But there were social conventions. The owner had to be dominant and not passive in the sexual act. The slave had to be in very much the submissive role. Some of these relationships may have been consensual – but you can bet a great many more were not.
Sexual abuse also happened to slaves in the Americas but not openly advertised. In one case, an African American man was forced to rape a slave woman in front of the owners for their amusement. Families were split up at slave auctions with women and children then left exposed to their new owner’s whims.