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Locke 3

Afro-American Slavery

The Execution of slave
What is a slave? One answer might be that a slave is a person who is owned by another person, and is thus divested of all freedom and personal rights. You can imagine what this could mean. A slave was the lowest person in the social hierarchy. Slavery, however, was different things for different people at different times. In 1492, while there were some moral qualms amongst Europeans about slavery, slavery was a widespread institution across the world. Part of what is interesting about the history of slavery is how the moral judgment of slavery changed in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, so that now, if you ask almost anyone, they will tell you that chattel slavery is one of the most morally obnoxious practices they can think of. This process of transforming the moral judgement about slavery was gradual and had a variety of different causes. In the end, however, the transformation in our moral assessment of slavery was so dramatic, it is hard to think of another concept which has undergone similar moral devaluation.

Loango slaves
Slavery existed in Africa in 1492. Slaves were sent across the desert to the Berber kingdom in North Africa along with gold. Europeans exploited and greatly expanded the already existing trade in slaves in Africa. African slavery was distinctively different from Afro-American slavery. The conditions of African slavery tended not to be as inhumane and horrific as the plantations of the new world.

Africans were generally enslaved for four main reasons:

  1. War
  2. Destitution
  3. Debt
  4. Crime

Europeans greatly expanded the already existing African slave trade by offering money and other commodities for larger and larger numbers of slaves. These inducements led Africans to go on raids to capture other Africans to sell into slavery. These became the "wars" which led to the enslavement of many. Whole societies came to be based on slave raiding. War often leads to destitution, thus people would sell their children into slavery to buy food for the remaining members of the family. Or, if one failed to pay one's debts, one could sell oneself into slavery in order to pay them. And finally, there were relatively few crimes for which one might be enslaved in African societies. These included murder, sorcery and adultery.

When you read Locke's account of slavery, and Equiano's Travels it will be important to keep this list in mind. Which of these reasons for enslaving people (if any) does Locke accept as legitimate? Which of these did Equiano experience?


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