Amanda Brickell Bellows–Slavery: Past and Present

Today we welcome a guest post from Amanda Brickell Bellows, author of American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination, out now from UNC Press.

The abolition of Russian serfdom in 1861 and American slavery in 1865 transformed both nations as Russian peasants and African Americans gained new rights as subjects and citizens. During the second half of the long nineteenth century, Americans and Russians responded to these societal transformations through a fascinating array of new cultural productions. Analyzing portrayals of African Americans and Russian serfs in oil paintings, advertisements, fiction, poetry, and ephemera housed in American and Russian archives, Amanda Brickell Bellows argues that these widely circulated depictions shaped collective memory of slavery and serfdom, affected the development of national consciousness, and influenced public opinion as peasants and freedpeople strove to exercise their newfound rights.

American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination is available in paperback and ebook editions.

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Slavery: Past and Present

It is a tragic fact that slavery has long been a part of human civilization. Systems of bonded labor have existed in societies ranging from ancient Sumer to Rome and from medieval Europe to colonial America. Its forms have evolved over the centuries in response to changing political, economic, and social conditions. Across space and time, man has shown his willingness to dehumanize others for personal gain.

In 1755, the French scholar Louis de Jaucourt reflected on the presence of slavery in the past and in the present. Writing about slavery in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he lamented that

“slavery was introduced by the law of the strongest, that law of war in offense of nature, and by ambition, thirst for conquest, love of      domination and apathy. To the shame of humanity, it has been accepted by almost all of the world’s peoples. Indeed, we could hardly cast our eyes on sacred History without discovering the horrors of servitude . . . . across the face of the world, in all times, places, and nations.”[1]

Jaucourt’s words resonated during an era when the transatlantic slave trade rapidly expanded. Historians David Eltis and David Richardson describe it as “the largest transoceanic forced migration in history,” a phenomenon that began in the fifteenth century with Portuguese slave traders’ capture of West Africans.[2] The transatlantic slave trade lasted through the nineteenth century and included the participation of France, England, the United States, Spain, and the Netherlands, whose slavers captured and transported millions of Africans to colonies in North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Scholars estimate that 12.5 million Africans were forcibly sent to the New World; almost two million people died during the difficult journey.[3] The transatlantic slave trade ultimately changed the course of human history, with devastating consequences for those who were torn from their homelands and exploited for profit.

Participants in the abolitionist movement, which began in the late eighteenth century, ultimately helped ban the slave trade and slavery in the New World. The earliest advocates of abolition were often members of evangelical Christian groups or were influenced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment period who examined ideas of free labor, individual liberty, and equality.[4] Abolitionists attacked the slave trade and its supporters, efforts that led to the prohibition of the importation of enslaved people to the British colonies and the United States in 1807 and 1808. During the rest of the nineteenth century, slavery would be abolished in the British colonies, Spanish colonies, French colonies, Dutch colonies, and in the United States and Brazil.[5]

Despite the important advances of the nineteenth century, slavery persists in the twenty-first century. Scholars estimate that there are more than 40 million enslaved people today who generate $150 billion through illegal networks of forced labor and human trafficking.[6] Modern slaves include not only men, women, and children laboring in agricultural and industrial sectors, but also those in forced marriages, work camps, and those engaged in involuntary sex work. 71 percent of modern slaves are female and 29 percent are male; the countries with the highest prevalence of slavery are located in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.[7] There is still much work to be done to address the root causes of modern slavery, to emancipate those currently in bondage, and to prevent the enslavement of future generations. An understanding of slavery’s long and dark history can help us understand and tackle these tremendous challenges.

[1] Louis de Jaucourt, “Esclavage,” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, translated by Naomi J. Andrews (Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2012), accessed on January 27, 2020 at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.667. Originally published as “Esclavage,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:934–5:939 (Paris, 1755).
[2] David Eltis and David Richardson, “A New Assessment of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” in Extending the Frontiers: Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 1.
[3] Estimates from “Slave Voyages,” accessed at https://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/estimates on January 24, 2020.
[4] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 56, 75, 114, 357.
[5] “Slavery in History,” adapted from New Slavery: A Reference Handbook by Kevin Bales, Second Edition (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 55-68, accessed at https://www.freetheslaves.net/about-slavery/slavery-in-history/ on January 24, 2020.
[6] “Slavery Today,” Free the Slaves, accessed at https://www.freetheslaves.net/our-model-for-freedom/slavery-today/ on January 24, 2020.
[7] “Global Findings,” Global Slavery Index, accessed at https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/global-findings/ on January 24, 2020.

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Photo by Mark Brickell

Amanda Brickell Bellows is a lecturer in history at The New School.