Friday, 5 August 2011

Galley Slaves

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One of the most recent forms of European slavery were galley slaves.

I was not aware of this until I read the essay by C.S Lewis's brother Warnie (Warren Hamilton Lewis) in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (which was the original publication of Tolkien's essay/ lecture On Fairy Stories). The essay was later included in Warnie's delightful book The Splendid Century: life in the France of Louis XIV.

Galley slavery was one of the most extreme and brutal forms of slavery - using men as motors until they died.

Warnie explains how expediency (?necessity) drove the French Monarchy into doing this in response - mostly - to the terrible problem of North African piracy in the Mediterranean. In effect, France used slaves (mostly convicts, but also Huguenots) to prevent its own subjects being captured and enslaved.

Barbary pirates could not be defeated by sailing ships, and apparently volunteer oarsmen were tried and were unforthcoming, or found wanting.

A similar dilemma was faced in the West Indies where African slaves were used in agriculture. When slavery was abolished in the British Empire the plantation owners could no longer survive economically and were compelled to introduce indentured labourers from India (a system rather like military service: these were contractually time-limited slaves who were freed after a certain number of years. After which they often went on to adopt middle class jobs.)

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The point is that - for a given population and a given task - some things are possible with slaves that are not possible without them. Hence there is an intrinsic tendency for slavery to return except if it is continually and actively suppressed; as has been obvious around the world over the past several decades.

Once the will to eliminate slavery at any cost had dissipated, and once that the wish to eliminate slavery was no longer backed-up by overwhelming force (i.e. the British Empire collapsed or was dismantled) - then naturally the institution of slavery returned wherever it was expedient (i.e. in agriculture based, pre-industrial societies).

Instead of eliminating slavery, the Western powers now support it (albeit indirectly). So obviously there is a lot more of it.

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5 comments:

dearieme said...

"contractually time-limited slaves": not really. I must chide you about this - real slavery was so appalling that I dislike all equating of other things to slavery - damn few things are like slavery.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - "real slavery was so appalling that I dislike all equating of other things to slavery " - well, I don't want to seem an apologist, but that isn't really true of all slavery, for example among the Romans. House slaves were often treated reasonably, even when field slaves were worked to death.

The Crow said...

I find the concept of being "appalled" a very strange one. It suggests being a mere observer, as in watching a movie. An essentially passive condition.
When one actually participates in the process of life, one ceases to be appalled.

I've done jobs that were no different to slavery.
To survive, I had to do them, yet they did not return energy equal to energy expended.
One escapes by not being attached to survival.
And lo: I survive, anyway.

JP said...

real slavery was so appalling that I dislike all equating of other things to slavery

I hope you don't think that "real slavery" was always the same as "the worst excesses of Caribbean or antebellum South plantations" -- because it wasn't. And even the antebellum South wasn't as bad as it's made out to be. Almost every history today takes the abolitionist point of view, of course.

Brett Stevens said...

Every time I drive past an squalid apartment crammed with electronic junk, or a rusted and rotted shack with a high-end sports car next to it, I am reminded that slavery was for the most part probably a benign institution. I do not mean this in a racial context; I mean this in the context of European serfs and later indentured servants and captured slaves in wartime. Slavery guarantees survival through management of the affairs of those who are otherwise incompetent to do so. Wage-slavery merely doubly punishes them, first by making them work ugly jobs and next by punishing them for their own incompetence, then when they decline at the end of life, passes the expense on to the socialized fund.