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Justifications of Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 442


Over time, justifications for slavery have changed profoundly. 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 justification for slavery that would have profound consequences for the future. This was the notion of the "natural slave." Slaves, in Aristotle's view, lacked the higher qualities of the soul necessary for freedom. Slavery was not only good for the master, according to Aristotle, it was also good for slaves, who received the guidance and discipline they were incapable of providing themselves.

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 perpetual 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 important in that it 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, there can be no doubt that racism inclined many Europeans to see sub-Saharan Africans as fit for little more than slavery. In the 15th and 16th centuries, many European Christians associated Africans with their Islamic enemies. At the same time, many Europeans devised a clear color symbolism. They associated whiteness with purity, while blackness had sinister and even satanic connotations, since black was the color of the Devil.

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