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.
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.
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.