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 idea of Victorian movies may seem weird – people in the 19th century able to watch films – and yet it actually happened!
We’ve grown up with TV and film so the idea of living in a world were there are no recorded motion pictures would seem bizarre – even more so with our smart phones and social media.
But up until the 1880s, film had never been experienced. There had been crude motion pictures using a series of slides projected on to a screen but movies were unknown. However, once the Victorians discovered the technology – there was no going back!
The dawn of Victorian movies!
Victorian movies became a staple of popular entertainment by the turn of the 20th century.
Documentary and drama in primitive form developed pretty quickly. Many of the Victorian movies were purely observational – pointing a camera at people and just marvelling in the ability to capture them moving.
Here is a heap of footage of industrial workers leaving factories and mills at the turn of the 20th century, which I find fascinating. Note the youngsters who just stare at the camera as if they’re about to experience something.
London traffic seems to have mesmerised film makers with its hustle and bustle. As a Londoner myself, the presence of so many horses and what seems to be smog (fossil fuel pollution) is really striking.
Royalty got in the act and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was the subject of a very long film circulated around the empire. Here is Victoria attending a garden party. She loved being the obvious star of Victorian movies.
I’m being a bit flippant of course. But there are still people who get incredibly upset if you dare to suggest that Jesus might not have been something approaching blond and blue eyed.
The ethnicity of Jesus has been exciting people for two millennia. From very early on in the history of the church, there was a concerted attempt to divorce Jesus from his own Jewish background. To do this meant emphasising his alleged divinity over his human self.
At its most extreme, there was the Third Reich in the 20th century trying to turn the Messiah into a member of the master race. Some Nazi occultists even tried to suggest that he was descended from a special race of humans from the Arctic!!
Before we get going on the whole Jesus being blond or not question – a quick note to say that I’m going for the spelling “blond” and not “blonde”. Largely because I know American readers tend to use “blond” more. Though in Europe they can be more interchangeable and in France it’s blond for a man and blonde for a woman.
Anyway, that’s you grammar obsessives dealt with! Now on with the show…
Jesus – probably not blond
The first thing to state is that there’s nothing much by way of a physical description of Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament. We’re not told if he was tall, short, dark or fair. Brown-eyed or blue-eyed.
And we’re not informed because it wasn’t deemed to be important to the early faithful. Some Christians even took the view that the human form was something evil that we needed to shake off. So the physical appearance of Jesus was not a thing to dwell on.
Did the Romans turn Jesus blond?
But then Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire – we see a big change. Any lingering reservations about graven images of Jesus fly out the door. He is the new God of the Romans!
Roman depictions of Jesus drew on pagan iconography more than you might like to think. On the Vatican museum website, there is a photo of a statue of Christ as the good shepherd and an acknowledgement that this imagery borrowed heavily from that of Apollo.
Apollo was a God of the sun with a halo and forever at this most youthful and virile – and possibly blond. Jesus also sometimes pops up in Roman Christian art as Apollo’s father – Zeus – enthroned in majesty. He acquires long hair and a beard – though more often dark haired than blond.
Jesus – not blond and with short hair
In the Greco-Roman tradition, philosophers and people of great learning were bearded. But at the time that Jesus was alive, the Roman elite were clean shaven and short-haired. Only after the Emperor Hadrian in the following century do emperors go bearded.
Among Jewish people in Judaea, there’s a suggestion that clean shaven may also have been seen as desirable. In his letters, St Paul doesn’t appear to approve of the hipster look declaring that “long hair was a shame unto a man”. So our long-haired blond Jesus wouldn’t have impressed Paul very much.
And this hang up about long hair continues into the Middle Ages with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century ranting against the king and his court being too hirsute. Then, according to an account, he took a pair of scissors and cut the king’s hair!
That said, Jesus had already acquired long flowing locks in most images of him – especially on the cross.
America and the blonde Jesus
It’s in the United States, in the 19th century, that we see the greatest angst over the skin and hair colour of Jesus. Especially in the slave-owning southern states where owners spent a surprising amount of time vexing about what kind of Christianity to impose on their slaves.
What they didn’t want was slaves to view Christ as a supreme master of all to whom they could appeal or emulate. After all, Jesus knew the lash of the whip and died humiliated on the cross. That sounded more like a slave’s life than that of a master.
So, there seems to have been a certain impetus among white Americans to ensure that Jesus was depicted very much as a Caucasian European. Even his Jewishness evaporates. And with the rise of the Mormons comes the idea that a fair-skinned Jesus even visited America after his resurrection.
Jesus the blond working for the enemy
In 2010, Aurum Press published my biography of the black British boxer Errol Christie – No Place To Hide. Errol was a good friend and sadly died of cancer in 2017. He often used to remark how his Jamaican mother would invoke the name of Jesus during family rows.
But he would look at the blond, blue-eyed representation on the walls and wonder just whose side the risen Christ was on. He certainly didn’t look like a champion for black rights, Errol used to quip to me.
Every day, I walk past the Imperial War Museum on my way to work. I was aware that in its vaults, the museum was sitting on huge amounts of black and white World War One footage. You know the kind of thing. Silent movie films where the troops look like extras in a Charlie Chaplin comedy only there are bombs going off and millions losing their lives.
To mark the centenary of the end of WW1 – or The Great War as it was called until WW2 came along – the Imperial War Museum asked film director Peter Jackson to do something amazing with all this footage. Jackson, as you all know, was the man who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy and some very interesting art house movies before that.
Jackson, it turns out, has a massive interest in the 1914-1918 conflict that engulfed Europe and drew in the United States from 1917. His grandfather fought in WW1 and he’s always wanted to know what it was really like. So, Jackson has taken the footage and done more than just colourise it. He’s used his technical production facilities in New Zealand to bring the soldiers back to life.
He also got access to masses of tapes from the BBC of interviews conducted with WW1 soldiers in the early 1960s for a documentary series that aired fifty years ago. Jackson used some of that audio to give us first hand testimonies from those who lived in the trenches and fought for King and Country (or the Kaiser for that matter).
How Peter Jackson made They Shall Not Grow Old
They Shall Not Grow Oldis for those of us who ever met WW1 veterans (and I did as a much younger man) a very moving experience. There is something about the First World War that touches my generation much more than the story of WW2, even though it was closer to us. That’s unfair on those who fought Hitler but WW1 has its own very unique atmospheric. It’s no good denying it – we feel very deeply about those soldiers.
That said, Jackson found that the audio testimonies presented a surprisingly different picture to the one he expected. Many men (and they were men mainly) who enlisted to fight, were only too happy to get away from miserable lives back home. And when the war ended, it was like being fired from a job. Of course, there were also those whose lives were wrecked or ended by the war – but it’s an interesting perspective. Go see if you can!
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.