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COMMENTARY: HISTORY FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN

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Why Did Slavery Last So Long?

There is something wrong with this question, namely: slavery still exists. For example, in recent years slave raiders from northern Sudan have captured young people, and these youths have worked against their will for individuals in the north. Some of those enslaved are now returning to their hometowns. On the BBC website do a search for slavery.

In Cambodia there a people primitive enough to force girls and boys into sex slavery – to gain wealth for themselves. And men primitive enough to keep the slavery alive by feeding money into it as customers.  

So why has slavery lasted so long? For the same reason that people have exploited work animals such as mules, donkeys, oxen and horses: because the work animal was useful and cheap enough. There was also the owner considering himself more important and superior than the creature he was exploiting.

Women from ancient times into the twentieth century were also considered property. Because it suited those who had the power to maintain this kind of relationship.

Slavery increased because of advances in technology. The advance in sailing made possible the new development in the Americas and the transportation of slaves to these new areas. But slavery's intensification brought it more notice and more opposition. In the United States, opposition to slavery was led foremost by the former slave Frederick Douglass and in Britain and the United States by religious dissidents, beginning with those having Anabaptist roots: Mennonites and then Quakers. And they were joined by some of those religious dissidents called Methodists.

Slavery declined in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia after farmers there switched from tobacco growing to the growing of grains, which required less manpower. Because of the plantation economy that existed in the South, slavery lasted longer in the United States than it did in Britain and Canada.

In addition to the contribution of dissident religious denominations, opposition to slavery was part of the broad movement called the Enlightenment that came after the Middle Ages and extended into the 1800s, a movement against authoritarian attitudes.

Leading intellectuals who helped create the Enlightenment held that all people had a natural dignity. Voltaire complained that hundreds of thousands of slaves were sacrificing their lives so Europeans could quell their new taste for sugar, tea and cocoa.

Copyright © 1999-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.