Commentary: Slavery as Social Death
Contributed by Hannah Barker. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
This question tests students’ understanding of the concept of slavery as a form of social death. The concept was first proposed by Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist, in Slavery and Social Death, his comparative study of global slavery. Although this book is now dated in some of its language and analytical details, Patterson’s definition of slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonoured persons” (p.13) and his contention that “the most distinctive attribute of the slave’s powerlessness was that it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death… because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside of his master, he became a social nonperson” (p.5) remain analytical touchstones for scholars of slavery.
Document 1 makes reference to the connection between social death and literal death for slaves in Aztec society. As the passage explains, Aztec people who sold themselves or their family members into slavery as a survival strategy in times of famine could hope to buy their freedom again later. Aztec warriors captured in battle, however, could expect literal death. Their sacrifice was the key to a set of religious rituals aimed at maintaining the cycle of seasons and of time, as explained by Inga Clendinnen. Even though Aztec captives died in a literal sense, students can debate whether they also experienced social death or whether their deaths contributed to the stability of a society in which they were still seen as members.
Document 2 presents a textbook example of social death in the context of Native Illinois society. As explained by Starna and Watkins, members of the Iroquois confederation and similar cultures carried out raids in order to capture replacements for members of their community who died. When the raiders returned with a captive, the elders of the dead person’s family could decide either to take revenge for the death by killing the captive or to fill the dead person’s place by adopting the captive. In that case the captive lost his or her old social identity and took on the social identity of the dead person.
Document 3 introduces food and language as indices of social integration and belonging. Slaves imported to China from the Indian Ocean (the exact origins of these dark-skinned, curly-haired slaves are ambiguous, as explained by Don Wyatt) had to undergo social death and transition into a new, liminal identity as a slave by changing their diet and learning to understand Chinese. Wyatt points out that the Chinese often used food as a metaphor for civilization (the cooked) and barbarianism (the raw), so the terms in which Zhu Yu describes this change in diet are significant. It is also significant that the social death of dietary, linguistic, and cultural change could sometimes result in literal death.
Documents 4-6 emphasize religion as an index of social integration and belonging, especially the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism practiced in the premodern Mediterranean. In this historical context, as explained by Hannah Barker, enslaveability was based on religious difference: Christians were not supposed to enslave Christians, Muslims were not supposed to enslave Muslims, and Jews were not supposed to enslave Jews. The forced conversion of a slave to the religion of his or her master was part of the process of social death, not an occasion for manumission.
The Iberian context of Document 4 was characterized by frequent, small-scale raiding for slaves across religious borders, as described by Stephen Bensch. Fraudsters took advantage of this: a free Muslim woman would pose as an enslaved Christian, under go sale, then reveal her true identity and take a share in the proceeds of the false sale. The fraud depended on buyers’ confusion about religious difference, social death, and slavery.
In the Ethiopian context of Document 5, explained in detail by Habtamu Tegegne, King Gälawdéwos sought to prevent the forced conversion and social death of his subjects by banning the sale of Christians (the majority religion in premodern Ethiopia) to Muslims (who would export and convert them). It is notable that the king did not prohibit Christian ownership of slaves or the sale of non-Christians to Muslims. His primary concern seems to have been forced conversion away from Christianity and its association with social and spiritual death, not slavery in general terms.
In the Egyptian context of Document 6, Jews (as well as Christians) lived as protected minorities in a predominately Muslim society. Just as the king of Ethiopia sought to prevent the conversion of slaves to any religion other than Christianity, the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt sought to prevent the conversion of slaves to any religion other than Islam. Jews were therefore allowed to own slaves, but only Jewish ones. In this case, the decision to bring a dispute among Jews into an Islamic court threatened the Jewish community’s safety. If they were found to be in possession of a slave who was not a Jew, she would be confiscated, her master would be punished, and that punishment might be collective, affecting the city’s entire Jewish population. By testifying that she was a Jew and had been born as a Jew (therefore not a convert), the enslaved woman averted this danger. However, her statement raised a new set of questions in the Jewish context because it was inappropriate for a Jewish man to enslave and seclude himself with a Jewish woman. To resolve this paradox, the members of the community wrote to Maimonides for advice. In his response, Maimonides advised that the master should either send the enslaved woman away from his house or free her and marry her. Craig Perry analyzes this case in greater detail.
Finally, Document 7 presents an example of intrinsic enslavement, in which slaves were created by exclusion from within society rather than by integration from outside society. During the Chosun dynasty, Korean children abandoned by their parents during a period of famine could be adopted and degraded to nobi status. Again, their social death and loss of free status were connected with a perceived reprieve from literal death. The complex implications of nobi status are explained by Kim Bok-rae, but in this context it can be considered equivalent to slavery.
- Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
- Inga Clendinnen, “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society,” Past and Present 107 (1985): 44-89.
- William A. Starna and Ralph Watkins, “Northern Iroquoian Slavery,” Ethnohistory 38, no. 1 (1991): 34-57.
- Don J. Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
- Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black SEa Slaves, 1260-1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
- Stephen P. Bensch, “From Prizes of War to Domestic Merchandise: The Changing Face of Slavery in Catalonia and Aragon, 1000-1300,” Viator 25 (1994): 63-93.
- Habtamu Tegegne, “The Edict of King Gälawdéwos against the Illegal Slave Trade in Christians: Ethiopia, 1548,” The Medieval Globe 2 (2016): 73-114.
- Craig Perry, “Conversion as an Aspect of Master-Slave Relationships in the Medieval Jewish Community,” in Contesting Inter-Religious Conversion in the Medieval World, ed. Yaniv Fox and Yosi Yisraeli (London: Routledge, 2016), 135–159.
- Kim Bok-rae, “Nobi: A Korean System of Slavery,” in The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, ed. Gwyn Campbell (London: Frank Cass, 2004), 153-165.
Citations for DBQ Sources
- Aztec Slaves. Translated from the Spanish. Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar, translated by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 279-280, 282, and 286. Contributed by John Verano.
- Warfare in Illinois Indian Culture. Contributed by Robert Michael Morrissey. Published in Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 (Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., 1896), vol. 67, 169-173.
- Foreign Slaves of Guangzhou. Translated from the Chinese by Don J. Wyatt. Zhu Yu, Pingzhou ketan, Mohai jinhu ed. (Shanghai: Bogu zhai, 1921), 2.4.
- Concerning Sellers of Male and Female Slaves, section 119. Translated from the Spanish by Maria Olsen and Hannah Barker. Original Arabic text and Spanish translation in Muhammad ibn Abi Muhammad al-Saqati al-Malaqi, El buen gobierno del zoco, ed. and trans. Pedro Chalmeta and Federico Corriente (Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2014), 135-155.
- Habtamu Tegegne, “The Edict of King Gälawdéwos against the Illegal Slave Trade in Christians: Ethiopia, 1548,” The Medieval Globe 2 (2016): 89.
- A Legal Query to Moses Maimonides. Partially translated from the Judeo-Arabic by Craig Perry in “Conversion as an Aspect of Master-Slave Relationships in the Medieval Jewish Community,” in Contesting Inter-Religious Conversion in the Medieval World, ed. Yaniv Fox and Yosi Yisraeli (London: Routledge, 2016), 135–59. Original text from Moses Maimonides, Responsa of Maimonides, ed. Joshua Blau, 4 vols. (Jerusalem: Hierosolymis Mekize Nirdamim, 1986).
- The Law of Enslaving Starving Children. Translated from the Korean by Kim Bok-rae. Published in Suk-jong Jung, Research on the Social Upheavals in the late Chosun Period (Ilchokak, 1983), 182.