America’s ‘Peculiar Institution’: Slavery and the Making of a Nation

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By Imam Khalid Griggs

Slavery, in all its hideous iterations throughout history, was, paradoxically, the outgrowth of “civilization.” In more primitive groupings of human beings such as hunters/gatherers or subsistence farmers, slaves would have been viewed as burdensome additions to an already tenuous existence. There was no hidden or apparent advantage in being responsible for the food and shelter of another person when survival, itself, was difficult and uncertain. With the development of villages and towns, along with the establishment of commercial farming and craft development, cheap or unpaid workers became desirable. There were many ways for a free person to end up as a slave, including inability to pay off a debt, being captured by adversaries during raids, kidnappings, or wars. Slaves and their societal status have been outlined in ancient legal works such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, and in religious texts such as the Old Testament, the Quran, and the authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Slavery has also been chronicled in the practices of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. With the advent of Islam, all justifications for enslaving another human being were eliminated except for prisoners of war. However, Muslims were commanded to feed them the same food as they ate, to clothe them as they were clothed, and not to overburden them.

Throughout the annals of history, slavery was mostly a life-long condition of brutal bondage with escape being an offense punishable by death. The Old Testament stipulates that if a person from the Hebrew tribes had a Hebrew slave, after six years that slave was to be released. That did not apply to “foreigners,” meaning anyone who was not a Hebrew, and enslaved persons from other nations or temporary residents living among the Hebrew people, could be enslaved for life. The Quran and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) provided any and all slaves the potential for freedom, and those who owned slaves were given religious incentives to liberate them. In a narration contained in Sahih Bukhari, narrated by Abu Hurayra, The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire as he has freed the body parts of the slave.”

The Transatlantic Slave Trade – Unrivaled Brutality

Of all the historical periods of slavery, with its cruelty and exploitation for personal and economic gain, the transatlantic slave trade is perhaps unrivaled in its brutality, and its continuing detriment to African-American social and economic life in the U.S. is highly visible. The first recorded shipment of African slaves to the Americas was captained by Sir John Hawkins, a pirate, merchant, British naval commander, and slave trader. In October 1562, John Hawkins set sail from England to Sierra Leone on a 700-ton ship purchased by King Henry VIII and loaned to him by Queen Elizabeth. Hawkins named the vessel “The Good Ship Jesus,” despite his plundering and pirating and, ironically, he was known as a religious gentleman who insisted that each member of his crew “serve God daily.”

Hawkins was aware of the Spanish and Portuguese need for African slaves to transport to the New World to labor in their newly colonized lands in the Western Hemisphere. Upon arriving in Sierra Leone, Hawkins and his crew joined in the country’s native wars, and at one point set fire to a village of 8,000 inhabitants. Five hundred natives of Sierra Leone were captured by Hawkins and his men, “partly by the sword, and partly by other means,” according to Hawkins own description. One of the other means was to deceive the unsuspecting Africans by telling them that if they came with him peacefully, without resistance, he guaranteed for them free land and riches. Queen Elizabeth gave her permission for Hawkins to transport Africans to the New World “only if they did so by their own free consent.”

Hawkins was not yet done as he pirated a Portuguese ship, commandeering 70,000 pieces of gold. His human cargo of 500 Africans was smuggled in and sold on the island of the Dominican Republic, a Spanish possession. The official policy of the Spanish government at that time was that slavery was not allowed in their Western possessions. The 1531 decree by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forbidding the presence of African Muslims in the West was officially still in effect, but rarely enforced. Slaving was a profitable enterprise. While the Spanish government offered a weak pretense that they did not want slaves in the West, the British played no such charade. In 1619, a Dutch ship, the White Lion, pirated 20 enslaved Africans from a Spanish ship. Landing in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia for repairs, the Dutch sailors sold the slaves to the colony in exchange for food and supplies.

Chattel Slavery and Tobacco

The newly-arrived slaves in Jamestown started a 240-year love affair between the land that was to become the United States of America and the immensely profitable institution of chattel slavery. The British immediately understood the profitability of tobacco once the Native Americans introduced them to smoking and the medicinal use of the plant. Virginia was an ideal climate for tobacco production. After receiving a favorable review of tobacco from England, the British in Virginia proceeded to drive Native Americans off their ancestral homelands so that tobacco and British colonizers could replace them. Although the British, Spanish, and Portuguese attempted to enslave Native Americans, it was quickly determined that Native Americans were not easily subjugated. Foremost among the reasons was that Native Americans had the advantage of intimately knowing the land. It was virtually impossible to capture them once they escaped their bondage. Secondly, the Europeans brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity, and over a short period of interaction with Europeans, disease decimated their once prolific numbers, killing up to 95 percent of the population.

The colonization of North American territory in the late 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s by the British, Spanish, and French corresponded with the rapidly developing slave population in this country. As the British demand for tobacco increased, tobacco growing states like Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia increased their growing and production. Planting and harvesting tobacco were labor-intensive operations that motivated an ever-rising demand from planters for slave labor. The transatlantic slave trade also generated a new class of slavery-related jobs in the colonies, including brokers, patty rollers (slave patrols), and overseers, as well as a new class — ultra-wealthy landowners who planted vast tracts of tobacco. This wealthy planter class (“planter” generally defined as an owner of property and 20 or more slaves) included most of the “Founding Fathers” of the American republic including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. As a result, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, undoubtedly beautifully-worded documents, elucidate the rights and privileges of White, male land owners, including the right to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries. Excluded from the Constitutional assurance of these rights were those who did not own property, as well as females, African Americans, Native Americans, and non-White immigrants. For the purpose of taxation, African slaves were designated three-fifths of a human being.

When the United States entered the business of transporting human cargo in the bowels of slave ships from Africa to America, the cruelness of the slave trade exponentially increased. American slavers preferred the less expensive markets in Central or East Africa to the more common areas on the coast of West African. To increase their profit margins, American slavers also specialized in capturing and buying African children since more of them could be crammed in holding areas below deck. Slavery in the U.S. was more brutal, and culturally and religiously destructive than its counterparts in the Caribbean, Central and South America where slavers did not routinely separate slaves of the same tribe, family, language, or religion. Thus, In Brazil, the mainly Muslim slaves held on to their religious beliefs and practices, and among them were very learned Muslims. A well-known rebellion took place in Bahia, a northeastern state, in 1835. The Muslim slaves organized a revolt against their enslavers, calling it a jihad. Their struggle to obtain freedom was short-lived, but it shows the critical mass of Muslims that existed in Bahia at the time.

The Cotton Gin – Growing Profits and Demand for More Slaves

The last two decades of the 1700s, following the American Revolution and the founding of the United States of America, saw the abolition of slavery in a number of Northern states, and the abolitionist movement grew. George Washington, first president of the U.S., had owned 318 slaves at the highest point, and had sanctioned slavery throughout most of his life. But in a letter to his secretary and close friend Tobias Lear in 1794, five years before his death, Washington wrote about selling a lot of his land in the Southern state of Virginia. “I have another motive,” he wrote, that “is indeed more powerful than all the rest, namely to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings; but which imperious necessity compels.” The more industrialized North was naturally less dependent on slave labor than the mostly agriculture South. Northern states, however, were the primary brokers of Southern products to be distributed on the world market. In addition to cotton, the South was the primary producer of agricultural products for export to England. As cotton production increased, primarily due to the needs of England, the capacity of the South to meet demands seemed doubtful at best. Growing and picking cotton was not only labor intensive, but required tedious and time-consuming effort to separate the sticky seeds from the cotton.

In 1793, a Massachusetts farmer named Eli Whitney invented a machine, the cotton gin, which would revolutionize cotton production. Before the cotton gin, it took 10 hours to produce one pound of cotton. The cotton gin would eventually produce 1,000 pounds a day at a fraction of the cost. This revolutionary invention increased cotton production from 138,000 pounds a year to 1,600,000 pounds. “King Cotton” would grow to become 50-60 percent of the new nation’s exports. Before the cotton gin, the full production of cotton, by hand, could not be done quickly and cotton was not profitable. When the cotton gin quickened and increased production, slavers needed greater numbers of slaves in the field to keep up with demand. So the cotton gin not only made cotton growing profitable, it further entrenched slavery as a Southern profit-making institution.

In fact, chattel slavery was the engine that ran the economic expansion during the 17th and 18th centuries. Thomas Jefferson pushed Congress to outlaw the importation of slaves into the United States after January 1, 1808. This action was of great benefit to his home state of Virginia since it would become the slave breeding capital of the country after this legislation became law. Northern businessmen invested heavily in slavery, and the profitable buying and selling of African men, women, and children was augmented by the financial instruments that were created to facilitate and capitalize on slavery — “bonds backed by asset securitization,” the assets being the slaves themselves. Thus, human beings were used as collateral by the slave holders and traders to borrow money from banks.

In fact, many major corporations, including Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Brown Brothers Harriman, Barclays, and Wachovia, have acknowledged and apologized for their involvement and profiteering from the slave trade. With the ascension of the South’s “King Cotton,” the balance of power significantly shifted from the North to the South.

Slavery: ‘Our Peculiar Institution’

Slavery in the United States was a near-perfect confluence of the country’s push for economic expansion, religious justification for slavery (Genesis 9:20-27 for example), legal sanctioning and institutionalizing of White supremacy, and pseudo-scientific theories of the day that posited the inferiority of non-White races.

The dehumanizing, exploitation, and brutality against Black slaves in the United States represented one of the longest, most sustained assaults on human life and dignity in history. Slaves were characterized as sub-human, savages to be trapped like animals and brought to America to serve, without compensation, the interests of White supremacy. Black slaves built the White House and U.S. Congress, as well as many university buildings in the Northeast and South. In his monumental book, “Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” Craig Steven Wilder writes, “American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery…The academy never stood apart from American slavery, in fact, it stood beside the church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.” White supremacy and racism, and its despicable outgrowth, chattel slavery, fueled the economic engine of this nation’s past. In countless ways, the discrimination, brutality, and denial of rights continue into the present.

Those who participated in and profited from slavery euphemistically referred to it as “Our Peculiar Institution.” Better to call a spade a spade and realize that slavery was America’s “vile institution.” The racism at its core monopolized and kept power in White hands. It supported and vitalized wealth building for Whites only, and created a seemingly permanent underclass of African Americans whose ancestors toiled and suffered so that prosperity and power and privilege for the dominant class could be built upon their backs.

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