The collapse of logic & human culture

By Razib Khan | March 19, 2012 9:31 am

Slavery’s last stronghold:

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert to find something unimaginable: Her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors to die.

The usually stoic mother — whose jet-black eyes and cardboard hands carry decades of sadness — wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.

Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work.

“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.

Consider this. A father in a biological sense leaves his daughter out to die of exposure so as to increase the economic production of the mother of his daughter! Not only that, he obviously considers his daughter an animal. The full article is about slavery in Mauretania, a nation which maintains the practice in de facto form. Because this slavery clearly has a racial character, with a light-skinned population of North African origin enslaving a dark-skinned population of Sub-Saharan origin, there is an obvious “hook” for a Western, and particularly American, audience. But to be fair, if I can use that term, de facto slavery exists in organized form in other parts of the Sahel and Sahara (e.g., among the Tuareg), though the practice is far less pervasive in magnitude.


The reason I highlight this is to emphasize the “irrationality” in a biological sense of this behavior. Economic production is short term, while biological production is long term. A father should attempt to allow his child to flourish, so as to increase his fitness. One can probably save the biological rationale by arguing that increasing economic production redounds to the benefit of his legitimate children, but too often this strikes me as an attempt to preserve the coherency of the model at all costs. Stalin’s treatment of his eldest son is not so easy to rationalize. The point is that there are short term limits on the power of biological logic, as the frothy swirl of empirical events can sometimes dampen out the long term signal of inclusive fitness. In the long term biology wins out, but the long term can also be irrelevant to the case at hand.

This issue is not true of just biology. The a priori signal can be totally suffocated by the course of events. If one reads the Koran and the Hadith, the core canon of the religion of Islam, would one predict that this one religious-cultural complex would maintain and preserve the practice of slavery down into the modern era? The other civilizations of the past 1,500 years, that of the Christian West and East, and South and East Asia, did not practice slavery on a widespread scale (though the practice was known). In contrast, wherever Muslims went they brought with them slaves and slavery. The character of this slavery was not always quite so dehumanizing as that which flourished in the New World after the Columbian Exchange, but it was, and is, brutal nonetheless.

Over the past 1,500 years the Dar-al-Islam, served as a great siphon for slaves from the north, south, and east, Slavs, blacks, and Turks. Only after 1500, and especially after the rise of modern plantation agriculture in the New World, did the Christian West come to rival the Islamic nations in the practice of slavery (slavery disappeared in the medieval period after the last European pagans disappeared). And after Christendom abolished the practice Muslims continued it; Saudi Arabia did not abolish slavery until 1960.

Though Muslim apologists contrast the relatively humane condition of slaves under Islam to that under European rule (the latter being purely units of economic production), this is grading on a very generous curve. A large proportion of African male slaves were eunuchs, and these were the survivors of the procedure. This is discernible in the fact that mtDNA, maternal, African ancestry is noticeable across the Middle East, but Y chromosomal lineages, paternal, far less so. Not only that, but there was a racial hierarchy in slavery, with European and Turkic slaves generally monopolizing prestigious military posts, with Sub-Saharan Africans left to the role of household attendants (agricultural slavery was far less common in the Muslim world for various historical reasons).

One might contend that Muslim slavery was a dehumanization which impacted unbelievers, that the circle of humanism extended out toward the in-group. This is a plausible story, and is analogous to the practice of bondage in the Christian world, where pagan Baltic people were enslaved or subjugated in a particular brutal manner on account of their religious difference. But as we approach the early modern period outside of Africa sources of non-Muslim slaves disappeared. In the Mauretanian case you see hereditary race slavery of black Muslims by North African Muslims. Up until the early 20th century there was the danger that African Muslims on hajj would be enslaved on en route to Mecca, a practice which the kings of Saudi Arabia sometimes defended as ennobling a lesser race (through service to the superior Arabs).

My point with this digression is that even critics of Islam often admit that in its basis the religion is eminently egalitarian. Certainly in comparison to Hinduism, and even a faith like Roman Catholicism, with its division between the priesthood and believers. Superficially this collapses, insofar as there are distinctions between the descendants of Muhammad, the religious elite (the ulema), etc. But more fundamentally this most egalitarian of faiths on a priori grounds has perpetuated one of the least egalitarian traditions of the past 10,000 years down to the modern period. Why?

I would point out a major historical dynamic: there are three complex civilizations which have relied to a great extent on slave labor. The core Muslim world is one. That of the post-Columbian New World in certain locales is another. And finally, there is the world of Classical Antiquity. Setting aside the post-Columbian case, what Classical Antiquity and the Muslim world share is an overlap of geography and historical continuity. To a great extent the Islamic world is an heir to many of the traditions and customs of Classical Antiquity. Some historians would likely argue that slavery persisted in the Islamic world, and not in the Christian fragments of the post-Roman scene, because of the relatively economically advanced state of the former in relation to the latter! In particular, the persistence of a taxation system which was not based purely on labor service or goods, but specie. The truth of the matter is not relevant here. My point is that instead of looking at what Muslims say about their faith, this is a situation where historical contingency is far more informative. And that is a hard lesson too often forgotten.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, History
MORE ABOUT: History, Slavery
  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    Slavery was widespread in Christian Europe. In the High Middle Ages, Germany and Italy were full of slaves: most people were slaves in fact (Dhont 1971). Only France had lower rates of generic slavery within the Carolingian Empire, although servitude bound to the land (“serfdom”) was also widespread.

    Previously in Christian Rome again slavery was the norm and, when it stopped being productive enough they invented feudalism, by which slaves some times became ‘coloni’ (serfs) but by which most free people became also serfs, which was a form of slavery.

    In Eastern Europe slavery was so common and it was such a main source of slaves that the classical Latin word for slave (‘servus/-a’ > serf) was changed for slave (< ‘slav’). The main centers of this medieval slave trade were Prague and Krakow, with th early Ashkenazi Jews playing a central role in it (the same that Khazarian Turco-Jews did further East, selling slaves and furs to Byzantium and the Muslim realms).

    Conditions only improved as the Black Death caused workforce to be scarce, forcing lords to improve conditions in order to prevent their slave labor from running away to more promisory lands like the new lordships of East Germany (later they would evolve towards harder serfdom but they were initially favorable in order to incite colonization).

    In general Western Civilization has relied massively on slavery (or serfdom, often impossible to pick apart from classical slavery) and only economic reasons, very specially industrialization and the development of Capitalism have changed that to an economy in which workers are forced to hire themselves for survival instead of being bought and sold by external owners.

    By the way, I was reading today on how St. Patrick was probably a slave trader himself, even if he manipulated his own biography to pretend to be a escaped slave.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    by which slaves some times became ‘coloni’ (serfs) but by which most free people became also serfs, which was a form of slavery.

    the magnitude of your argument rests on this. i think there is a difference between serfdom and slavery (classical, islamic, and new world post-columbian).

    also, stop talking to me like i’m a moron. it gets annoying. of course i know most of the points you’re talking about (you are free to talk to your readers that way on your weblog).

  • John Emerson

    The Norse traded slaves, the Muslims traded slaves, the Venicians traded slaves, the Greeks and Romans traded slaves, the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese traded slaves, and so on. Jews had no special importance in the slave trade.

    There is de facto slavery in Saudi Arabia, mostly foreign women whose employers confiscate their passports. A Filipino-American friend of mine helped rescue a Filipino slave whose master had the nerve to bring her to the US with him.

  • pconroy

    @John,

    Don’t forget the Danes, and Fort Christianborg – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osu_Castle

    Don’t forget the Irish, especially under my putative ancestor Niall Naoighiallach (Neil of the Nine Hostages) pillages all of Western Britain and parts of France and carried off slaves.

    Also, the Barbary Corsairs, who ravaged the the Mediterranean, and ventured as far North as Ireland and even Iceland.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the Venetians traded slaves

    the italians in general were critical in the translocation of slaves from eastern europe to the muslim western med. when xtian powers controlled the western med. of course they kept some.

  • Justin Giancola

    @1 “and, when it stopped being productive enough they invented feudalism”

    I don’t believe anyone “invented” feudalism; rather, it was naturally born from the protocols of Germanic kingship, and these people eventually came to be the political elite across arguably most of Europe. For similar reasons as in Germanic society you had “feudal” societies elsewhere in the world.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    @1, 2, 4: Lots of societies traded slaves. Not nearly as many, in practice, if not in law, accepted or expected the kind of treatment Ms. Yarba received. Slave holding societies have always expected slaves to know their place and minimized their legal rights. But, brutality and gratuitous insult for the sake of viciousness weren’t always the norm.

    “Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert”

    It is probably not a coincidence that the harshest elements of Islam happen to thrive among marginal desert herders, not unlike those among whom Islam (and Judaism in its harsh Leviticus/Deuteronomy era) arose in the first place. Neither Christianity, nor any of the still living Eastern religions, in contrast, were religions of herders. The early Christians were city people. early Hindus and Buddhists were farmers more than herders.

    Query if the harsh early Islamic and Jewish doctrines reflect the harshness of lifeboat economics – “somebody must starve and it won’t be me.”

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    Razib:

    “the magnitude of your argument rests on this. i think there is a difference between serfdom and slavery (classical, islamic, and new world post-columbian)”.

    Slavery (excluding serfdom=colonate) existed in Europe and was overwhelmingly dominant, as I said in the first paragraph, in many countries in many periods. That’s the core of my argument.

    In addition there was a somewhat different from of slavery whitewashed as “serfdom”.

    Idealizing European history is not honest history. Europe has risen from the ashes of obscurantism and oppression (up to a point) only in the Modern Age, specially in the last century or two.

    “also, stop talking to me like i’m a moron”.

    I talk to you like you are misrepresenting reality, what may be because of ignorance (I don’t want to think you willingly lie to your readers, do you?)

    You are wrongly projecting the notion that slavery was rare in Europe, when in fact lack of widespread slavery was the rare thing upon a time.

    “of course i know most of the points you’re talking about”

    I cannot know, because you don’t mention them: not only you did not mention serfdom at all but you made it look as if there was never, barring Pagan Rome any significant slavery in Europe, what is nothing but Christian apologetic BS.

    In any case, if I do debate with you, I’m not trying to insult you – but just express my disagreement backed by facts. If I thought you are a moron, I would not follow your blog, much less comment in it.

  • Justin Giancola

    Maju, in your first post are you saying Jews were the sellers?

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com Peter

    There is de facto slavery in Saudi Arabia, mostly foreign women whose employers confiscate their passports. A Filipino-American friend of mine helped rescue a Filipino slave whose master had the nerve to bring her to the US with him.

    Not that such things never happen in America …

  • Patrick

    @1, 8:
    This is a pretty simple disagreement: you’re saying that serfdom is slavery, and Razib is saying that it isn’t. Frankly, you’re not correct here; serfdom isn’t slavery, even in a “whitewashed” form, nor is it a singular institution or productive regime that persisted unchanged across the centuries. Being a “serf”, if that’s even a viable distinction (and I’m not saying that it is) wasn’t the same on an ninth-century Carolingian estate as it was in fourteenth-century Poland; legal status varied significantly, actual practice even more so. If you want to talk about the scale of serfdom as an institution, even taking into account all of the necessary caveats about varying legal status and practical local and regional differences, you’re even less correct: there were a great many free smallholders throughout the European Middle Ages, and serfdom was never the be-all, end-all norm.

    To address your specific points: first, the Black Death had the exact opposite effect on peasant-aristocracy relations. In order to prevent labor shortages, landlords clamped down on what labor they did have, thus triggering (e.g.) the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England. Second, as far as St. Patrick is concerned, that article is at best an overinterpretation and at worst dead wrong: the author’s argument rests on a specific definition of decurion (a local Roman office). We know that what a decurion did varied a great deal from place to place, and we have no idea at all what the office meant in early fifth-century Britain, much less whether an attempt to shirk his responsibilities led Patrick to trade slaves in Ireland. Third, it was more likely Christian merchants than Ashkenazi Jews trading slaves up to the tenth or eleventh century, but trading slaves doesn’t make medieval Europe a slave society. Fourth, the coloni-slavery idea is an old historiographic argument, and your statement is about fifty years out of date; the equation slaves-coloni-serfs=slaves hasn’t been accepted for a long, long time.

    I’d be happy to go into more depth if you like.

  • AndrewV

    @#8
    “You are wrongly projecting the notion that slavery was rare in Europe, when in fact lack of widespread slavery was the rare thing upon a time. ”

    I actually did not get that at all. My impression is that the degree (which may quite possibly be viewed as a distinction without difference) is different in the continuation of the practise in modern times.

    @#9
    Does it matter? I speak as someone who has “Christian” ancestors who profited from the slave trade. I also have ancestors who believed that thieving was an honourable profession for that matter.

  • Justin Giancola

    ^yes it does, cause the inverse of my question as to determining what he was putting across could be they were the slaves.

  • AndrewV

    @13 I believe understand the context of your question now.

    BTW… my assumption is that the only time Jews were enslaved was in Egypt. Which I suppose, could show that my grasp of history in that context may be lacking.

    I am still pondering the article and in particular these statement by Razib:

    “A father in a biological sense leaves his daughter out to die of exposure so as to increase the economic production of the mother of his daughter!”

    And:

    “My point is that instead of looking at what Muslims say about their faith, this is a situation where historical contingency is far more informative. And that is a hard lesson too often forgotten.”

    I hope this does not get me banned, but it may amuse some of you to note that my initial reaction to the article was “How typical of a Khan to bring up something like this”.

    In other words I am unsurprised, whereas I would have been, had it come from the mouth, so as to speak, from someone named Singh or Maharahaj.

  • Clark

    Is there a generally accepted definition within anthropology of what constitutes slavery? It seems to me a lot depends upon how the word is used.

    For instance it seems to me that many prostitutes appear to be slaves to me. The big question is whether it has legal recognition (or even de-facto recognition) or not. So, for instance, in the western United States well after the end of slavery you could find prostitutes where the police would protect the owners rights with respect to them whether or not it was technically legal. Every now and then you still hear about slavery in the US such as those tomato picking latinos in Florida recently or various prostitution busts in various places.

    I don’t know if anthropologists would call all those cases slavery even if it does get called that in newspapers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    fuck anthropologists ;-) to me the difference between a slave and a serf is quantitative, not qualitative. with that being said, a slave is eviscerated of cultural moorings, and is property to be exchanged without compunction. 19th russians serfs and dalits arguably lived below the standard of american black slaves, using natural increase as a judge. but black slaves were bought and sold, and totally dispossessed of the basic elements of human existence on a fundamental and a prior level (serfs and untouchables were brutalized, and their families destroyed, but this was more in the breach of the normal expectation). russian serfs and indian dalits were not as atomized, but could form coherent and temporally continuous communities.

  • Clark

    Well I’d never say that among people who might be anthropologists…. (grin)

    I guess if we make it hinge upon exchange then a lot of prostitutes are slaves – especially in parts of Asia and Africa (from what I’ve read) But illegal immigrants imprisoned and forced to work without pay or escape aren’t because they aren’t sold?

    To me it seems more a semantic issue. Which I don’t mind getting into but then I tend to see such issues as just figuring out the language of the person I’m talking with and adopting a common usage. But in terms of analysis it probably is an important point to know whether people are exchanged like goods rather than just enslaved. (Although as that word choice suggests perhaps English just isn’t suited well to these distinctions – maybe a neologism would be helpful)

    In terms of visceral reaction I guess it’s the enslaving that’s horrific to me whether the people are sold or not. I have to admit that I had a reaction when I read that quote you gave that was pretty unexpected. I was truly horrified in a really deep and emotional way even though I’m sure that was a common event through most of the planet’s history. Perhaps that shapes how people treat the language. Possibly it’s just having kids. I remember in college being able to read such things in a much more objective way. Now I just can’t separate out the emotion any more. It makes analysis hard.

  • Dan

    Maju calls serfdom slavery because Wikipedia told him so. There is a giant difference between serfdom and chattel slavery however, and in my opinion wikipedia misuses the word ‘slavery’ for maximum effect. At Wikipedia there are often no grownups in charge.

    The distinctions between what we conventionally think of as slavery and feudal serfdom are many, but the central difference (and it is a big one) is that serfs were not bought and sold. They were contracted to the land they worked, but it was a contract and they could not be kicked off the land. They had a place to live that was legally protected with a court system. When the world was violent and lands were gained and lost through frequent battle, having a place to live and work, and land to farm was a very big deal.

    What is important to recognize is that serfdom was typically entered into voluntarily, presumably because individuals were previously in a worse situation. What’s worse than serfdom? Having no land to work, no job, and no protection in a violent world.

    Where in history have people voluntarily entered into chattel slavery? Shouldn’t that tell you there is a difference?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    What is important to recognize is that serfdom was typically entered into voluntarily, presumably because individuals were previously in a worse situation. What’s worse than serfdom? Having no land to work, no job, and no protection in a violent world.

    on the balance i don’t think this is true. depending on how you define ‘volunteer.’ as an example, the debt and dispossession which roman freeholders experienced after returning to their land after long periods of service as citizen soldiers. though i think this is a complicated issue and i need to think about it in detail (certainly one can imagine a village appealing to a local group of bandits to become their ‘protectors’ as the lesser evil).

    Where in history have people voluntarily entered into chattel slavery? Shouldn’t that tell you there is a difference?

    this was not uncommon in antiquity. if the alternative was starvation. and some educated greeks famously entered a rather cosseted slave life for purposes of social advancement. though these latter were very much exceptions. though again, if the choice is starvation and becoming a slave, is it really ‘volunteering’?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #17, my major issue re: slaves vs. serfs/indentured servants/downtrodden, etc., is that slaves are stripped away of expectations of normal socialization to a greater extent because they’re atomized. prostitutes can marry and have children and families, all the while plying their trade. slave prostitutes can not marry, and they may not be allowed to have children. in antiquity there were cases were slaves were enjoined not to breed because of the cost of extra mouths to feed. in contrast there were other circumstances where slave farms grew up to breed hands to work the great latifundia of sicily.

  • juan

    Is there good data on what % of American slaves were actually bought and sold during their lifetime – as opposed to being born into a slave family on a plantation and living out their entire lives belongning to the same owner as their mother?

    For a child born as a slave in America — what were the odds that they would be sold away to a different owner? I’ve never seen data on this. Thx for any pointers.

  • omar

    I posted this on my facebook and a couple of friends immediately took issue with what they assumed were the violent anti-Islam prejudices of Razib Khan. And this is not an uncommon reaction among my friends. Leaving aside what (justified or unjustified) prejudices Khan may harbor, the objections raised are usually not justified by any specific claim in the post. The objections appear to be triggered by the quick and dirty assessment that anyone writing about Muslim slavery is very likely a neocon Zionist or a “useful idiot” who has uncritically accepted a certain narrative of Western superiority that “everyone” knows is wrong.
    This is one of my recurring issues and I just had the thought that there must be stuff written about this particular problem. Some articles (or entire blogs) devoted to this topic; not “common mistakes in internet arguments” but specifically how to get past the standard assumptions of liberal/leftist friends one knows to be well-intentioned and with whom one has a specific bond. Friends who are not random people on the internet you can brush off or attack or ban or insult… There must be something out there on this particular topic…
    Anyone?

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    #9 As far as I know both Khazar and the earliest known Central European (Ashkenazi) Jews were very active in the slave trade. They were not the only ones, of course: Varangians and Christian Slavs (Czechs notably) and others surely also participated. It was just way too common an socially normal: there was just no social debate on slavery, not until the development of Humanism in the Modern Age, and even then… pretexts were sought such as religion, first, and race, later.

    #11 (Patrick): “the Black Death had the exact opposite effect on peasant-aristocracy relations. In order to prevent labor shortages, landlords clamped down on what labor they did have, thus triggering (e.g.) the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England”.

    As far as I know: lords were in the continent more concerned on their peasants running away to somewhere else, where the workforce would be welcomed. Also the worst lands were simply abandoned as result, improving overall productivity. However maybe in England things were different for some reason?

    The Drang nach Östen in Germany also had that effect, although this one almost stooped on its heels with the Black Death.

    “there were a great many free smallholders throughout the European Middle Ages, and serfdom was never the be-all, end-all norm”.

    I am not the historian but just citing some (for this I mentioned Dhont). Of course there were some free peasants but these were concentrated in border areas (where they would act as militiamen) or areas that had resisted the feudalist drive of the late Roman Empire and successor states, such as the Basque Country/Gascony.

    “but trading slaves doesn’t make medieval Europe a slave society”

    According to Dhont most peasants in Italy and Germany were slaves in the Carolingian period, only in France serfs and free peasants were majority and slavery somewhat less common. These slaves were probably not even traded in most cases but just forced to be slaves of the landlords.

    Some slaves had upward mobility anyhow, but it was rare and restricted to domestic slaves, some of which were even made nobility (they were considered more reliable by the monarchy than traditional power-mongering counts, dukes and barons).

    “the equation slaves-coloni-serfs=slaves hasn’t been accepted for a long, long time”…

    This is a secondary debate because strictu senso slavery also existed, was dominant at times, was sanctioned and accepted, etc. But for me serfs were clearly semi-slaves (of course you can always see the glass half full and say they were semi-free instead). In any case the lord had virtually all power over them.

    Notably I do not have the impression that Muslim peasants were more oppressed than European ones or that slavery was more common in the Muslim World than in the Christian one in the Middle or even the Early Modern Ages. It was a long but totally Modern process of intellectual and legal emancipation which drew Europe into a freer and somewhat more egalitarian period. In the Middle Ages Muslims were more egalitarian in fact (aristocracy did not exist in the degree that it did in Europe, nor did serfdom), although the status of women was probably most of the time better in Europe (for reasons totally alien to Christianity but rather of Pagan roots).

    #18 (Dan): “Maju calls serfdom slavery because Wikipedia told him so”.

    Not at all. I have not even read the Wikipedia article(s) as I write this.

    Slavery is indeed a complex subject and serfdom is a form of slavery IMO but my main point was that slavery senso strictissimo was very important in Medieval Europe, specially towards the East, only gradually declining in importance. Slavery was only abolished in Europe (and secondarily and very reluctantly also in the European colonies) since the French Revolution and not a day before.

    “Where in history have people voluntarily entered into chattel slavery?”

    Rome issued laws forbidding the sale of oneself as slave and other such incidences (selling the wife and children… what not?) These laws obviously responded to real incidences, whether common or rare I can’t say but people pushed to homelessness an unemployment without any sort of welfare may find in some cases slavery as a lesser-evil option: at least a master would probably take minimal care of his/her property.

    On the other side resistance to land appropriation and reduction to serfdom of formerly free peasants fed some of the most virulent revolts that the Roman Empire ever saw (the Bagaudae), arguably causing its collapse.

    #19 (Razib): now you are speaking well. I agree with what you said in the last comments.

    #21 (Juan): “For a child born as a slave in America — what were the odds that they would be sold away to a different owner? I’ve never seen data on this”.

    Probably many. Stories about broken families and even slaveowners selling their own mix-blood daughters abound. Also, as the import of slaves was banned constitutionally, in the last decades slave-breeding became a major business (although slave-smuggling also existed) to cater for the growing demand of a quickly expanding “Dixie” (of the confederate states, only four existed when the USA gained independence, the other seven were newly formed ones). I do not have links right now but surely a search with these pointers may bring you to more clear data (I’ve certainly read some very impressive stuff on slave breeding in the USA before the Civil War).

    #22 (Omar): while Razib’s initial stand seems to fall quite a bit near those archetypes (i.e. unduly idealizing European history), it is also true that Muslims must do self-criticism. Things are not black and white and Islam (or customs of Muslim culture) has been used and is still used as pretext for many abuses, in Africa or in the Arab emirates very specially.

  • omar

    Maju, “unduly idealizing European history” in what way? justified or unjustified (in what context)? compared to what “reality” that he is unaware of or consciously wishes to hide?

  • Clark

    Razib (19) I didn’t mean to imply that prostitutes as slaves were common. I’d expect that in the current market the majority are making the decision freely (or at least relatively freely – I’m not sure how to take drug addicts or those who experience abuse as children). Even advocates don’t seem to indicate prostitute slaves from asia were that common in the United States. The issue in the 19th century especially in mining towns is probably a bit trickier. The life expectancy was short (suicide was high) and I believe abortion was pretty common. But I just don’t know of studies on the relative amounts (or even how one could gather such statistics in a trustworthy fashion).

    I take your point though and agree completely with it. Presumably even among slave cultures in the past there were varying degrees of autonomy given to slaves culturally. However the tradition seems to have kept the potential of the loss of most autonomy and the allowance of treating them the way people treated animals as goods. Autonomy might be seen as relative and seen in the context of relative autonomy often given to animals.

    One thing I’ve often wonder about is how peoples instincts towards empathy are disabled in these cases. Clearly it happens and not just among slave cultures. (Think how some Nazis were able to look at Jews – in many ways the same sort of loss of empathy) Yet it seems that many kept a degree of empathy but still treated other humans as non-human. (Much like many Americans have empathy to an abused dog or cat but wouldn’t give them the rights of a human) There clearly are two cognitive mechanisms at work. Something akin to empathy and de-humanization. The interview in that article you linked to by the slave owner who changed into an opponent was in particular extremely interesting to me relative to these inclinations.

  • Isabel

    “#17, my major issue re: slaves vs. serfs/indentured servants/downtrodden, etc., is that slaves are stripped away of expectations of normal socialization to a greater extent because they’re atomized. ”

    I believe indentured servants in the American colonies were restricted in the same way, as far as freedom to form families and have children, and were bought and sold also, and also were exploited as far as not getting out in the agreed upon time, etc.

  • Patrick

    Maju (23), I am a historian of the European Middle Ages, and I know the literature on these topics pretty well. I don’t know how to be more clear about this – there’s a reason the (extremely extensive) historiography talks about serfdom as a state of semi-freedom, rather than semi-slavery, and it isn’t a “glass half-full” type of situation. There’s a real difference between the legal rights a serf possessed (and they did), even in the absolute worst conditions, and chattel slavery; this is a case in which terminology matters, and trying to paper over that very real and important difference (tomato, tomato, potato, potato) isn’t going to win this argument. You’re also missing the fact that vertical ties of dependence, which is essentially what serfdom boils down to in a strong form, actually carried some significant benefits for the people in question. There was undoubtedly slavery in the European Middle Ages (most notably female servants, ancillae, in high and late medieval Italy), but serfdom simply wasn’t slavery in the sense in which the term is normally used.

    I’m not sure that it’s useful to keep arguing this point, since your information isn’t correct, but there were freeholding peasants pretty much everywhere throughout the Middle Ages. You could have a family of semi-free peasants living and working right next door, in the same village, to a freeholding family; this is borne out by the fourteenth-century court rolls in Brigstock (England), for example. It wasn’t just a border phenomenon. I don’t know where you’re getting the “feudalist” drive of the later Roman Empire – if you want to talk about feudalism, either in the Marxist sense as a mode of production or the more technical definition as a social/political system and ideology, you need to go about six hundred years later.

    This is what I was trying to get across to you: Dhont is not right, largely because of his looseness with terminology, and has been superseded by more recent historiography on the topic. If you want to make this argument, and make it have some actual force, then you need to read the current literature (e.g. Harper 2011 on late Roman slavery), not something that made an overreaching argument and was criticized heavily as such at the time of publication.

    Again, I can go into more depth, but your basic argument is full of terminological, evidentiary, and substantive holes.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #26, indentured servants in theory could gain those rights back, and often did. slaves could too if they managed to buy their freedom, but this was less common from what i gather. also, indentured servants had more ‘rights’ than slaves.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    @Omar: see my previous comments. I’d hate to be too redundant.

    @Patrick: I respect your presumed knowledge but talking of legal rights for peasants in the Middle Ages is a joke: who would judge the lord if he broke the “law”? C’mon! You are not just seeing the glass half-full your imaginary glass is overpouring in fact.

    Anyhow, what do you say about Dhont’s claim on German and Italian peasantry being mostly slaves in Carolingian times? What do you say about the Slave slave trade?

    “e.g. Harper 2011″

    Alright. A bit too modern for me to have noticed at all but I take notice.

    “You could have a family of semi-free peasants living and working right next door, in the same village, to a freeholding family; this is borne out by the fourteenth-century court rolls in Brigstock (England), for example”.

    But England is known to be an exception, with abundance of yeomen, which almost did not exist in the mainland. England’s underdevelopment in terms of feudalism is generally acknowledged as a key advantage when it came to trascend the feudal system into Capitalism. The same happens a within Spain with Basque and North Catalan free peasant societies, which helped to develop local Capitalism, while the rest of the peninsula languished under the feudal yoke. Or similarly is the exceptional case, already in the 20th century of the Baltic states in relation to the Russian Empire.

    Exceptions do not make the rules – unless the rules change, that’s it.

    “I don’t know where you’re getting the “feudalist” drive of the later Roman Empire”…

    What?! You must be kidding me with your claim of being a historian – if so, you still need to complete your formation. The process of feudalization began in the late Roman Empire, as the Christians moved the capital to Constantinople, totally shattering the economic balance of classical Rome, in which the rich East paid for the expenses of Rome, Italy and its less well-off western “marches”. We studied this in High School, mind you (and then again at uni). As result the crippled Western Empire had to find solutions and did so forcing people to inherit their parents’ jobs and status (a typical element of the feudal system) and redesigning the economy around the rural villae. Landlords also found economical to free slaves as coloni (as new slaves were more and more expensive) but simultaneously they pushed free peasants into debt and losing their lands, also resulting in colonate. The feudalist drive caused the anti-feudal revolts in Gaul and later in the Basque lands, weakening the Empire in general versus the threat of invaders, now often perceived as a lesser evil by the angry populace.

  • Patrick

    Maju,
    It seems fairly clear at this point that you’re either trolling, you have zero interest in understanding this issue as anything other than black and white, or you have zero desire to educate yourself on the topic. Your Wikipedia definition of feudalism wouldn’t hold water with the most Marxist of current historians, let alone mainstream scholars working on aristocracy-peasant relations in the Middle Ages; read Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (he’s as Marxist as they come), and you won’t find anything about the later Roman Empire as a feudalizing period. Before you question my credentials or my education (I just passed my qualifying exams yesterday), try reading something written by a non-Marxist and see how well it fits your out-of-date ideal type. You’re trying to shoehorn evidence to fit a model that never existed as modern neo-Marxists imagine it, much less as Marx did.
    If that’s what you think happened in the later Roman Empire, then you got bad instruction in high school and university. The Roman economy was already in decline halfway through the third century, picked up a bit in the fifth, and then went into freefall in the sixth and seventh (see McCormick, Origins of the European Economy, and Wickham above). What “Christians” moved the capital to Constantinople? Constantine? Oh, your textbook must have left out that he didn’t convert until late in his life, nor did his policies privilege Christians over non-Christians (that really started with Theodosius I). There are a great many reasons that the late Roman economy declined, and they have very little do with the founding of Constantinople. Unless you’re forgetting, Ravenna was an imperial capital, too. What, exactly, did the rich East pay for in the West? Exchange networks went both directions, and unless you have new information on the distribution patterns of African Red Slip pottery you’re not correct here.
    You want to play in specialists’ playgrounds, you’d better bring better information to the party. Cutting a narrative out of a forty-year old textbook and treating it as holy writ – “Landlords also found economical to free slaves as coloni…” – doesn’t make you familiar with the primary source evidence. I saw you mention bacaudae above – they weren’t peasant revolts, at least in the fifth century (the third century is a tossup, since the evidence is limited), but the armed retinues of local elites who stepped into the power vacuum in Gaul according to the most recent work on the topic (in Mathisen (ed.), Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul).
    As far as the Slavs’ slave trade is concerned, that did run through lands controlled by the Carolingians, and has been argued to have fueled western Europe’s commercial expansion (by McCormick, cited above). I buy that argument, but the slaves’ destination was the Islamic world, not Carolingian-held territory. For peasants’ legal rights, ever heard of customary law? Social pressure? What “German” peasants in Carolingian times? There was no “Germany”, or “Italy” for that matter. You’re clearly not getting this, but chattel slavery wasn’t serfdom. The question is closed. I’m not even going to address your statements about England (see above for Marxist historians).

  • omar

    Maju,

    You did not get the question. You said “idealizing European history..” and I asked you HOW has Razib “idealized” European history? Can you be more specific. What comments in the original constitute idealization? Maybe I missed it, but what specifically do you mean by “idealize”?

    Its probably a minor matter and not the point of Razib’s post (and maybe not even yours), but it struck me because it connected with things I have heard from my friends, but I didnt want to judge you as being “left/liberal” in exactly the same way as friend X or Y. I was trying to get a clearer idea of what you meant..then we can argue about whether your assessment makes sense or not.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    @Omar: he declared that there was no relevant slavery happening in Europe: “The other civilizations of the past 1,500 years, that of the Christian West and East, and South and East Asia, did not practice slavery on a widespread scale”. My whole point is that this is not true (nor is true that slavery was so central to Islamic society and economy – more harem slavery than peasant slavery AFAIK).

    @Patrick: if you think I’m “trolling”, I do not have much more to say to you. Keep your self-complacent Christian superiority attitude. I have no idea why everybody keeps accusing me of “Wikipedianism”: I have no idea what Wikipedia says on the matter but if we do agree it may be because both are drinking from the same historic paradigm, of which you are a dissident – feel free however, there’s no truth without diversity of opinions. And about the snobbish “specialist” claim, debate that with my sister, who is the “specialist” in history but know much less about almost everything than I do (she just does not have any interest): what I mean is that you can be sanctioned by the academic system but know nothing or almost so, or know a lot of a small parcel and be almost blind for the rest.

    So far you have only mentioned examples of England, anyhow, what leads me to imagine that you are mistaking the part for the whole. In history, unlike in computing or genetics, things don’t change so much in 50 years: the same old registries mostly. I quote that book because it’s the one I have in my private library.

    You are even questioning the feudalism of the late Western Roman Empire, what the hell? You don’t like Dhont, then I’ll quote N.G. Pounds (in this matter only). Neither? Can we only quote right-wing revisionist Christian fundamentalist historians who would like to whitewash history?

    You’d like to impose your opinion based on an alleged “expertise”. I’d ask for more than that: I’d ask for respectable arguments and relevant data.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Keep your self-complacent Christian superiority attitude.

    stop accusing him of having a xtian superiority attitude. you yourself have quite the superiority attitude, which is quite rich. instead of having a discussion you seem intent on telling others what the Truth is, to which you have special access. very disappointing.

  • Patrick

    Maju,
    You’re absolutely trolling at this point. You insulted my education and specialist training, and seem incapable of ascribing my disagreement to anything other than snobbery and “self-complacent Christian superiority attitude” and nascent right-wing sentiments. Guess what, things DO change a great deal in history over a fifty year period: attitudes change, new sources (especially archaeological ones) are discovered, and we put those “registries” you mention into new and hopefully more accurate analytical frameworks. I’m proud of the thousands of hours of work I’ve put into my chosen field, just as I’m sure you’re proud of your expertise, and I doubt you’d appreciate someone who hasn’t invested that time and energy insulting your background.
    Your “feudal” definition of the later Roman Empire rests upon a Marxist paradigm that hasn’t been current in mainstream historiography for more than fifty years. I’m being honest here – no current historian would mention the word “feudalism” before 800, and there’s serious debate as to whether the term is even a viable description for a social/political regime, much less a mode of production in the Marxist sense (which has been thoroughly debunked).
    You’re the one who hasn’t presented any actual evidence, just an out-of-date and oversimplified grand narrative of the passage from slavery to serfdom. I’ve cited specialist literature, primary material from late medieval England, and if you want me to go outside of it, I’ve read the fifth-century letters of recommendation for laborers in Gaul (some of the sources on which your slave-coloni-serf equation is based), the ninth-century Carolingian polyptiques, and Visigothic and Roman law. You haven’t. Pounds is a great textbook (not specialist literature) for the central and later Middle Ages – I’ve always liked his discussion of the central Middle Ages – but he’s utter crap for the later Roman Empire. I’ll quote a review (Economic History Review 1977): “Unfortunately in some respects the book is seriously flawed. In part this is due to a certain lack of care in presentation which on occasion results in logical absurdity.” The reviewer then quotes two instances, both of which drastically understate the quality of life and legal rights of late Roman peasants. Pounds wrote a textbook – he offers grand narratives, not precise engagement with specific evidence. That’s the benefit of a textbook, but it’s also the drawback: narratives are often not correct in their particulars, and the paradigms they provide are going to be disproven later. That’s the nature of doing history.
    I apologize if I’ve gotten a bit heated. I’m certainly not trying to be insulting or a snob, just to put more information out there.

  • chris y

    Slavery was certainly commonplace in Anglo-Saxon England, de jure as well as de facto. William the Norman legally abolished it in 1067 CE, but the practice was sufficiently established that he and his successors were obliged to re-issue the edict several times over the next century before they were satisfied that the practice was abandoned.

    The Norman and Angevin elite in England were, of course, strong defenders of serfdom.

  • Eric

    Someone claimed that there is a higher chance to get pregnant between people of the same race (Black-Black etc.) than there is between people of different races (Black-Asian) is he/she full of shit Razib? Or is there some truth to that?

    Also, if I could have a good source for reference please.

  • AG

    Humans are able to do many biologically irrational things including suicide, birth control, communism, ect.

  • Eric

    Right (political ideologies aside- not a communist but didn’t want to give the impression I was anti-communism), but does the genetic distance between two races influence their rates for conception? Say between Papuans and Africans the FST is ~0.3, will they have a harder time producing offspring than two Africans?

  • omar

    Maju, going from “The other civilizations of the past 1,500 years, that of the Christian West and East, and South and East Asia, did not practice slavery on a widespread scale” to “idealizing European history”…thats the leap I am trying to pin down. How does that sentence translate into idealizing European history. Also, what does it mean to say “X idealizes European history”?
    Idealizes in what sense?
    About slavery in the Islamicate world, the point is that slavery as an institution (the notion that people can own other people, in the harem or in the fields…btw, literally millions of slaves were taken from Europe, central Asia, India and Africa, did they all become harem servants? I suspect your information is incomplete) was a normal and accepted part of classical Islamic civilization and has still not died out completely IN ITS TRADITIONAL FORM, unlike its fate in other societies (where it has either disappeared or mutated into forms that are no longer labelled slavery except as a figure of speech or as part of an exercise in propaganda). How widespread it was in various parts of Europe seems open to some debate, but even if Razib was factually incorrect in some way, how does that equate to “idealizing the West”?
    Whether serfdom or indentured servants (or working for Apple) are just alternative forms of slavery is an interesting debate, but I would certainly come down on the side of saying it is NOT the same thing. Things can share some common features without being the same thing. Where to draw the line is sometimes hard, and provides an interesting opening for propagandists but unless one is saying that for propaganda purposes, it makes little sense to me.
    “Idealizing European history is not honest history. Europe has risen from the ashes of obscurantism and oppression (up to a point) only in the Modern Age, specially in the last century or two”.
    Doc, by modern standards ALL major societies (I say major in order to avoid endless debate about small tribes in the Kalahari and suchlike) have risen or are trying to “rise” from a lot of obscrurantism and oppression. And of course modern standards coexist with a lot of rather serious problems within modern societies. Human beings can be rater nasty. Even Europeans. And of course, civilization is a broad term and great achievements and great evils can and do co-exist.
    Or are you by some chance one of those people who think human beings and human societies were actually rather nice until Europe discovered nastiness?

  • http://wulfkurtoglu.blogspot.com/ Wulf Kurtoglu

    #22 Omar, you might find Citizen Warrior useful – he tries to provide arguments to use with the general sheeple. http://www.citizenwarrior.com/

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Someone claimed that there is a higher chance to get pregnant between people of the same race (Black-Black etc.) than there is between people of different races (Black-Asian) is he/she full of shit Razib? Or is there some truth to that?

    makes sense on a priori grounds, but when greg cochran and henry harpending looked into it they didn’t find anything. i do suspect there are higher miscarriage rates because of immune conflicts, but this doesn’t always align with race. e.g., women with O blood group tend to miscarry A and B more often than O.

  • Isabel

    Omar:

    “Where to draw the line is sometimes hard”

    Well, where *would* you draw the line? Razib admitted that indentured servants were often bought and sold, had their family life and reproductive choices controlled, were legally beaten by their masters and worse; but he pointed out that they could get out of the situation more often than real slaves could. So, does the distinction revolve around how easily one can get out of the situation? Is that where we draw the line? Exactly where??

    This “distinction” seems to be a (suspiciously) moving target to me. Also, the need to make a distinction in the first place seems very powerful. It comes up in these discussions all the time. Whether something is really slavery or not. Slavery is defined as ownership, buying and selling of people. Someone points out indentured servants being bought and sold. Then it’s argued that it isn’t really the same. And so on. Well, define it more accurately then!

    “…thats the leap I am trying to pin down. ”

    the leap from indentured servitude to working at Apple is rather large as well.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4CVZnGJIzQ

  • Isabel

    “unlike its fate in other societies (where it has either disappeared or mutated into forms that are no longer labelled slavery except as a figure of speech or as part of an exercise in propaganda).”

    Also, this seems really cynical; are you implying that efforts to bring attention to modern situations that are continuations of slavery such as sex trafficking or child labor, etc (or thought to be) can only be “exercises in propaganda”?

    Sorry if this is getting off topic- I am admittedly not a historian, so I have had little chance to be bored by this slavery/not slavery debate. I actually think it’s really interesting from an evolutionary biology standpoint, how human groups turn into ant colonies as they grow in size, always settling into some form of semi-permanent hierarchy.

  • omar

    “situations that are continuations of slavery such as sex trafficking or child labor, etc (or thought to be) can only be “exercises in propaganda”?”
    calling them slavery is an exercise in propaganda. Maybe a good exercise, but still an exercise in propaganda. If enough people label it slavery enough of the time, then it will make sense to start calling them slavery. How many people is enough? Enough to satisfy me.
    You can argue about the definition till the cows come home but most of the time we seem to be able to agree that people labelled slaves BY THEIR OWNERS are pretty much slaves.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    @Omar: sorry I won’t reply but I’m being insulted repeatedly as supposed “troll” by Patrick, who is happy in his Ivory Tower and Razib also intervened to back him, it’s not my space, so I decided yesterday to quit this conversation.

  • Patrick

    Maju, I’m sorry you feel persecuted; I hope we can argue again in the future, this was a stimulating conversation.

  • AndrewV

    @#44

    My view is that these ““exercises in propaganda” as related to “slavery” and “sex trafficking”, are arguments constructed under the principles of critical theory. The consequences can be entertaining despite the misapplication of resources.

    One example, is the imaginary US Superbowl sex trafficking, and the farcical attempts by the relevant authoritys to curtail something that does exist i.e. prostitution, in the search for something that does not.

    Debt slavery and wage slavery as it exists, may also be viewed in the same light. I would not be surprised if similar attempts are made at some point in the future, to conflate the situation in Mauritania, with for example Dubahi in the UAE or other countries in the future.

  • X

    You say that “The other civilizations of the past 1,500 years, that of the Christian West and East, and South and East Asia, did not practice slavery on a widespread scale (though the practice was known). In contrast, wherever Muslims went they brought with them slaves and slavery.” The comparison as phrased is of apples and oranges – _widespread_ slavery vs. _existence_ of slavery. If you compare like with like, it’s not obvious that there is any difference. The “Christian West” practiced slavery on a large scale in some regions and some periods (eg early modern US, Caribbean, Brazil), whereas in others it was merely sporadic (eg galley slavery in 17th century France.) As far as I can see, the same applies to the Muslim world: slavery was large-scale in a few regions and periods (eg Abbasid southern Iraq or 17th century Morocco) and merely sporadic in others (eg household slavery in early modern Syria or Iran), and abolition came, not coincidentally, within less than a century of the West deciding on it. As for China, the selling of children in times of famine was still commonly observed by missionaries into the early 20th century. If you want to compare slavery’s scale, how about some statistics?

    Incidentally, “European and Turkic slaves generally monopolizing prestigious military posts, with Sub-Saharan Africans left to the role of household attendants” is also quite an oversimplification. Military slavery in 17th century Morocco was primarily reserved for blacks, and in Mamluk Egypt black military slaves sometimes ended up on the throne (Abu’l-Misk Kafur being the famous case.)

  • Justin Giancola

    Patrick, just follow Maju’s blogs (click his name) and you’ll likely have plenty of opportunities for debate; he’s a magnet. Don’t be cross either Maju, as I just plugged you.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #48, you make some interesting points. too bad you come off as a total asshole. secondly: Military slavery in 17th century Morocco was primarily reserved for blacks, and in Mamluk Egypt black military slaves sometimes ended up on the throne (Abu’l-Misk Kafur being the famous case.) don’t be a douche and think that counter examples falsify a generalization. i’m aware of plenty of exceptions and counter-trends. i was simply stating the general case, which i was made aware of when reading about a black slave who did rise to high status in the military of egypt, to the resentment of whites on racialized grounds. similarly, the ottomans had a prejudice against the martial prowess of arabs (as opposed to say albanians), which i was only made aware of via records of attempts to undermine an arab general who had risen high in the ottoman military.

  • AndrewV

    Razib asked:
    “would one predict that this one religious-cultural complex would maintain and preserve the practice of slavery down into the modern era?”

    I maintain that cultural values are transmitted implicitly as well as overtly with outcomes that may be predictable only in hindsight.

    I was exposed to certain aspects of Lebanese and Syrian culture (subsets to be more precise), during my formative years so the sentiments expressed by Salwa al Mutairi (see below) did not much come as a shock. Nor should it to anyone with any appreciation, of the various mores associated with the region.

    However, and this should be noted, many Muslims have expressed repugnance and outrage about her views and maintain that she does not represent Muslim values.

    http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/men-should-have-sex-slaves-says-female-kuwaiti-politician
    “One of the countries where [I see this trade is possible] is Chechnya. The country is at war with another state, so there are some captives for sure. I say go and buy those captives, they might just die of hunger over there. I say go and buy them and sell them to merchants here in Kuwait who may otherwise commit a sin.”

    Values can be transmitted indirectly, in the sense that a man who boasts at a cocktail party about how his son tried to cheat him in business, is projecting a set of values by his attitude. Other signals may manifest that serve to underwrite and reinforce the social and institutional expression of those values.

    Meanwhile, all the other comments, while interesting in themselves, do not directly address what may be considered as one of, if not the main point of the article.

    Razib said:
    “The point is that there are short term limits on the power of biological logic, as the frothy swirl of empirical events can sometimes dampen out the long term signal of inclusive fitness.”

    Not that I have any insights to share for that matter. Apart from the obvious treatment given to the “other” in a tribal sense does any field of study such as Evolutionary Psychology or Sociobiology adequately explain this?

  • JK

    @#48 X:

    “and abolition came, not coincidentally, within less than a century of the West deciding on it”

    Not “coincidentally”? Yeah more likely it was decided looking down the barrel of the British Empire’s Royal Navy’s guns…..

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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