Digital History

The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery

Justifications of Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 3029



Many ancient societies considered slavery a matter of bad luck or accident. Slaves in these societies were often war captives or victims of piracy or children who had been abandoned by their parents.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle developed a new justification for slavery: the notion of the "natural slave." Slaves, in his view, lacked the higher qualities of the soul necessary for freedom.

In the Christian world, the most important rationalization for slavery was the so-called "Curse of Ham." According to this doctrine, the Biblical figure Noah had cursed his son Ham with blackness and the condition of slavery. In fact, this story rested on a misunderstanding of Biblical texts. In the Bible, Noah curses Canaan, the ancestor of the Canaanites, and not Ham. But the "Curse of Ham" was the first justification of slavery based on ethnicity.

It was not until the late 18th century that pseudo-scientific racism provided the basic justification for slavery. Yet even before this era, Europeans associated whiteness with purity. Blackness had sinister and even satanic connotations since black was the color of the Devil.

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