As a prisoner, the experience has again been profound and compelling. It has provoked me to seek understanding and compare with great detail slavery in its rawest form (i.e., chattel slavery) and its concomitant-penal slavery. As time passes and wisdom finds me in my darkest hour, my studies regarding the moral indignities and origin of slavery, viz. penal slavery, has taken me on a journey throughout the historiographies of distant lands-France, England, Spain, Rome, Africa, and many other countries. Here, the art of subjugation has served as biblical inspiration for that which has given birth to today’s industrial prison grid.
To give a brief account of the history of slave-holding societies and the origins of penal slavery, I quote at length Orlando Pattern’s Slavery and Social and Death:
In France, Spain, England, and the Netherlands a severe form of enslavement of Europeans by Europeans was to develop and flourish from the middle of the fifteenth century to well into the nineteenth, this was penal slavery, beginning with galley slavery and continuing with its replacement by the Bagnes, or penal slavery in public works. Both were slavery in every sense of the term. They developed as substitutes for the death penalty at a time when there was not a prison system in Europe to accommodate the huge number of persons found guilty of capital offenses.
The enslavement of criminals who had committed capital offenses and other serious crimes was practiced in the great majority of premodern slave systems and in several European states down to the nineteenth century. Among a number of primitive peoples it ranked as the primary source of slaves-usually only where slavery existed on a small scale. It was an important source, for example, among the Ibos of West Africa and Goajiros of northern South America… In ancient Greece penal enslavement existed but was largely confined to metics, foreigners, and freedmen in central Greece; it was never a significant source of slaves. In Hellenistic Egypt it was of more economic importance; but since the main crime for which people were enslaved was insolvency to the state, the difference between this source of slaves and enslavement for debt was slight.
In Rome penal slavery was a far more established institution: a person convicted of a crime and sentenced to one of certain ways suffered capitis deminutio maxima, and became a slave. It was essentially capital punishment, and the capitis deminutio had all its ordinary results. Not all forms of capital punishment involved the reduction to slavery and only some categories of persons were affected (usually lower-class freeman). Only when the sentence was LIFE long was it slavery, and a distinction was drawn between temporary penal servitude in the mines and permanent slavery.
One variant in Rome harks back to the most primitive roots of slavery: persons who were condemned to die became penal slaves during the interval between their sentence and their execution… It must be emphasized that in Rome the enslavement of criminals was essentially a penal matter: as a source of slaves it was insignificant. Penal slaves did perform economic roles-mainly in the mines-but their contribution to the Roman economy was slight.
In several Oriental societies penal slavery was a significant source of both public and private slaves. It provided the bulk of slaves among the ancient Vietnamese, for instance, although slavery was never any real importance there. In Korea, which had the most advanced slave system in the Orient-and one of the most developed anywhere in the pre-modern world-penal slavery was never a major source of slaves. It was of greater significance in Japan. Here, prior to the sixth century A.D., the two primary sources were prisoners of war and kinsmen of criminals (as well as the criminals themselves). However, as slavery gained in economic significance during the sixth and seventh centuries, these were replaced by poverty and destruction as the principle sources.
In China penal enslavement was the foremost source of slaves… Significantly, those prisoners of war who were enslaved were first assimilated to the status of convicts. Unlike Rome, the strong emphasis on familial responsibility in China meant that a person’s wife and kinsmen were fully liable for his criminal actions. The number of such kinsmen varied but at times the law became draconian, involving the entire clan of a convicted person… [P]enal slavery, being the origin of both public and private slavery in China, gave the institution its name, and influenced Chinese conceptions of the nature of slavery and, as such, base (chien) and subject to physical mutilation.
[T]here was a threefold relationship between slavery and the penal system in the history of Europe. First, slavery remained a form of punishment throughout the Middle Ages… Second, over the medieval centuries the nature of punishment of free persons was strongly influenced by the kind only on slaves. Slavery, in other words, had an increasingly retrogressive effect on the treatment of convicted persons. [Third], penal slavery became from the Middle Ages down to the nineteenth century a means of recruiting labor for the mines, the galleys, and other public works, especially in Spain, France, Italy, and Russia… Punishment for crimes was the source or nearly all the vast number of public slaves who worked in the mines and developed the Siberian hinterland.
Slavery was often a punishment for capital offenses, whatever these might be… In some societies UNSCRUPULOUS RULERS [like today’s politicians] WERE OCCASIONALLY TEMPTED TO INCREASE THE NUMBER OF CRIMES FOR WHICH PERSONS MIGHT BE EXECUTED OR ENSLAVED. In West Africa the list grew with the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade. A number of Africans who ended up on the shores of the Americas were tricked into slavery. A common practice was for several of the many wives of an unscrupulous chief to seduce unwary young men, then accuse them of committing the capital offense of adultery with the wife of the chief….
Excerpt from chapter 8 of Domestic Genocide.
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