Contemporary images and theories of slavery have become deeply entwined with the constructions of modern slavery in the New World. This entwinement is due to the reality that the institution of slavery was the primary mold of the conquered New World. From its overall scale, its rationalization of labor, and its integration within a capitalist mode of production to its legally sanctioned discipline of the body and its powerful demographic and geographic effects, slavery in the New World constituted the most ambitious enterprise of this sort. From the 16th to the 19th century, nearly 11 million people were shipped as slaves to the Americas and were forced in what was historically unprecedented to labor for the remainder of their lives in societies run by culturally, linguistically, and ethnically distinct people. Not surprisingly, anthropology’s images and theories have drawn largely from the abundant historiography of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean. They thus tend to depict slavery in its American and Caribbean plantation form, where African slaves were property (as legally defined in the Code Noir), subject to compulsory labor, familial separations, and systematic dehumanization. Variations in these representations do exist, however, including the idyllic way Brazilian slavery has been represented by Gilberto Freyre (contrasted with the institution of slavery in the United States). Despite its scale and historical importance, modern Euro-American slavery was but one incarnation of slavery among many others present across a wide spectrum of societies. Historians, in particular, have generated a substantial body of work on the patterns and pervasiveness of slavery in Europe going back to the Greeks and Romans and persisting through medieval Christendom.
Early anthropological investigations focused on slavery as a social, quasieconomic institution, and monographs from the period document the extent to which different societies practiced slavery. These first writings forwarded two main concepts, warfare and cannibalism, as the explanatory sources of slavery. The potential production value of enslaving enemy bodies captured during wartime came to be valued over immediate killing. Cannibalism, with its rituals of keeping captives before killing them, also reaped the benefits of forcing their captives into labor during these waiting periods. Anthropology proffered that as humankind moved toward more complex agricultural and sedentary societies, the economic rationale for slavery grew, spawning the exploitation of new sources for obtaining slave labor. Accordingly, profiteers obtained slaves through kid-napping, legal punishment, conquest, debt, piracy, and trafficking.
To this point, anthropology articulated its discussions and commentary on slavery through an evolutionary framework. From this evolutionist view, modern slavery in the New World was a remnant of past primitive practices—as anachronism—rather than constitutive of the creative forces of modern times, specifically the intersection of agrarian capitalism with a colonialist racial ideology. Contemporary anthropological debates on slavery have sought to avoid interpretations that reduce slavery to its New World institutionalization. This endeavor, combined with the availability of extensive materials on the diversities of practices of slavery in different societies, most notably Africa (with the works of Igor Kopitoff, Suzanne Miers, and Claude Meillassoux) and South Asia, have led to the reevaluation of key characteristics that historians and social scientists used to define slavery, namely property and compulsory labor, both derived from the conceptualization of slavery in the New World. Some anthropologists in fact question the use of the legal notion “property” as a universal construct, which, Kopytoff describes as changing “with different cultural and socioeconomic contexts.”
The rights that the notion implies do not provide an understanding of other forms of slavery, especially where kinship and community relations figure centrally, and due to the structure of the political economy, the commodification of the bodies of others is not at issue. In the same vein, compulsive labor, so much a distinctive feature of the New World experience, brackets an understanding of those forms of slavery (for example, domestic slaves or slave educators in ancient Rome) that do not necessarily imply the same level of socially alienated compulsory work. Kopytoff suggests that conceptualizing slavery in terms of property and compulsory labor can only lead to the opposition slavery versus “freedom,” which is a Western Enlightenment construct, obscuring a more complex relationship with other categories (such as citizenship and other cultural modes of identification). Meillassoux and Kopytoff’s works have contributed to this displacement of concerns regarding slave and slavery by conceptualizing slavery as a dominant institution in Africa, in rupture with traditional Western constructs.
Anthropology has not been fully at ease in theorizing slavery. Indeed, a thorough review of anthropological research on slavery does not take us much further than it took Kopytoff or Meillassoux, almost a quarter of a century ago. It is perhaps the recency and even the contemporaneity of the phenomenon that define this uneasiness and “silence” of anthropology to generate serious and sustained theoretical considerations. Moreover, the study of slavery from the anthropological perspective presupposes an epistemological evaluation of the condition for a possible legitimacy of its own discourse about an object that partially was instituted out of a shared rationalization process. Anthropological narratives about slavery emerged at the core of a crucial contradiction in which both, modern consciousness about slavery and the “primitive other,” raison d’être of classical anthropology, were engendered by the same Enlightenment project. The latter provided the analytical tools to think about primitive societies and their primitive practices—such as slavery—while, paradoxically, its enlightened philosophers were claiming freedom for those outside the dark world of slavery to guide the path of humanity. The task for anthropology is thus to evacuate the heavy ethnocentric biases that are embedded in these analytical categories to think about societies and slavery and to move beyond the established analytical framework that is too present in the traditional historiography and sociology of slavery.
- Meillassoux, C. (1986). Anthropologie de Yesclavage: Le ventre de fer et d’argent. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Miers, S., & Kopytoff, I. (Eds.). (1977). Slavery in Africa: Historical and anthropological perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and social death: A comparative study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Watson, J. L. (1980). Asian and African systems of slavery. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.