10 Myths and Misconceptions About Slavery

10 Myths and Misconceptions About Slavery


Slavery is a controversial subject that really shouldn’t be controversial at all, as we all know it to be wrong. However, despite the fact that all countries in the world have formally outlawed it, it still persists in record numbers. This is because slavery will often change its name, hiding its true form in order to skirt the law. Humanity is making a concerted effort in modern days to wipe out slavery, but it is extremely pervasive. It has existed in society as long as recorded history, and many of the reasons it’s able to thrive are not well known. The common myths about slavery can make it harder to fight the problem, and deal with the core issues that cause humans to do such evil to each other.

10. Many Abolitionists Were Actually Quite Racist Themselves

One of the most common beliefs is that abolitionists were saintly anti-racists who believed that we should live in a kumbaya world where everyone is equal. The truth is a lot more depressing. While a lot of abolitionists did indeed believe that slavery was morally wrong – most did, and were disgusted by the practice – many were actually incredibly racist. Even most of the most strident abolitionists believed that black people were inferior to white people, and would never be able to properly integrate into white society. Many of them believed that once the black people were freed, that they should be sent back to Africa.

Lincoln himself in a speech arguing with Stephen Douglas stated that black people were inferior, and would never properly integrate with white people. While he believed that slavery was wrong, he also believed that black people should be either sent back to Africa, or better yet, given their own island somewhere – as they would now also be so far removed from other Africans in terms of culture and language. While Lincoln may have been against slavery for moral reasons, that doesn’t mean that he thought black people were his equals.

9. The Irish Were Not Slaves In The Early United States

One of the most commonly repeated memes about slavery, often quoted by people trying to shout down black people who complain about racism, is the claim that Irish were also slaves in early America, and that they “got over it” and so should black people. This claim is a huge misrepresentation of the truth, although there are certain shades of truth to it. Where people get the myth from is that a lot of the early Irish who came to America were actually extremely poor, and needed money to get passage to the colonies and a chance at a better life. In order to afford this, they would sign contracts for periods of often about seven years or so, promising to work for that person to repay the money they put up to get them across the ocean. These people were known as indentured servants, a term many of you have probably heard before.

Some people confuse this with slavery, but it is very distinct in that while the person temporarily owns your labor, they do not own you – basically you are repaying a debt. At the time, slavery was a very specific definition that involved having no rights as a human being, and even your children being slaves as well. In indentured servitude, there was never any such thing as inherited slavery. The Irish did not have it great at first, indentured servants were not very well treated, but it was not slavery. And it was in no way similar to the horrors African Americans faced as slaves in the early colonies.

8. Jewish Slaves Did Not Build The Pyramids

Many people who take very literal interpretations of the bible are convinced that Jewish slaves built the pyramids. Even the biblical evidence for this is more scant than many people actually realize, and yet the myth persists. This is likely because it is featured in so many books, movies, games, and other popular culture that it would be almost impossible to remove from the human consciousness at this point, but there is simply no evidence to back it up.

There is no archeological evidence that any Jewish people lived anywhere near the area around the time that the pyramids were being built. Worse yet for the claim is that even more recent evidence has shown that the builders who helped construct the pyramids were actually highly skilled and very well paid laborers. Even if Jewish people were in the area at the time, and helping make the pyramids, and the archeological evidence pointing to it is just missing, the idea of them being slaves or being mistreated doesn’t fit the evidence. The builders of the pyramids, as far as archeologists can tell, were basically well paid experts who enjoyed what they did.

7. The Common Claim That “Only A Small Percentage Of Southerners Owned Slaves” Is Simply Untrue

One of the most common lies told is that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights. This is, of course, hogwash, as the South’s own constitution literally states that the secession is because of slavery, and because they think they are superior to black people and have the right to own them as property. It is very clearly stated in black and white, and yet the myth persists, largely aided by a ludicrous argument that “only a very small percentage of rich landowners owned slaves.” However, the truth is that close to 50% of Southern households did own slaves depending on the state, and certainly not just the big plantations. Most small farmers had a few slaves, and those who didn’t own one aspired to slave ownership.

Owning slaves back then was like owning a car: lower middle class and up tended to have them, and everyone else wanted them. It is also ludicrous to say that those who didn’t own slaves didn’t have a vested interest in the system either. They lived in a region where the economy ran entirely on slavery, and everyone aspired to be a rich slave-owner. Southerners were enthusiastically fighting in the Civil War, and they were fighting for the right to own black people and use and abuse them as property.

6. Slavery Has Not Always Meant The Same Thing Through History (In Some Cultures Slaves Had Rights)

Today when we think of the word slave, we think of someone who has no property at all and nothing that actually belongs to them. They are a slave until someone frees them, or finds a way to rescue them – they have no way to pull themselves out through legal means. They are unable to ever own any of their labor, and belong to a master who can sell them, use them, or discard them as they please. However, in many ancient cultures such as the Aztecs or the Babylonians, slavery was a much different arrangement, and wasn’t the kind of full ownership we think of today.

In some cultures in the ancient world, slaves could live in their own homes, buy their own food, got partial wages from their work, and could own property. In some cultures, there were hierarchies where slaves actually owned other slaves. In cultures like the Aztecs and the Babylonians, you could actually make extra money outside of your enslavement and eventually buy your own freedom, something that most would imagine to be an impossibility for someone held in bondage. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean things were always easy for a slave in the ancient world. For example, a disobedient slave in Aztec culture could be sold for a high price as a sacrifice if he was publicly proven to be disobedient enough three times.

5. Pirates Were More Likely To Free And Assimilate Slaves Into Their Crew Than Keep Them As Property

When most people think of pirates, they think of the surliest and saltiest sea dogs, who take property, kidnap innocent people from ships, rape women, pillage towns, and generally cause havoc. However, much of this is due to propaganda against pirates back in the day, to make their reputation look worse to the public. While pirates did indeed raid vessels, and would certainly go after merchant ships they could get their hands on, their targets more often than not ended up being military vessels. They also ended up raiding a lot of slave ships.

While there are occasions they would choose to sell the slaves, or dump them overboard, most would actually give slaves they came across a chance to join their crew, and were surprisingly race blind when it came to how they structured their societies. Pirates all worked together and preferred not to use slaves at all. They felt that slaves were likely to do shoddy work, or attempt sabotage, so if you weren’t going to just kill the prisoners outright, it would be better to see if you could assimilate them into the crew. More paid crewmen were always useful and former slaves tended to be hard workers looking to prove themselves. It is said that the infamous pirate captain Edward “Blackbeard” Teach had 40% former slaves as his crew, showing a very different side to pirates than most people tend to think of at first.

4. Contrary To Popular Belief, Slavery Is Legal In The United States (For Incarcerated Prisoners)

Many people believe that slavery is illegal in the United States, but this isn’t, strictly speaking, true. The 13th amendment outlaws slavery, but while it lists a lot of protected groups, it conveniently leaves out incarcerated prisoners. This was specific language back in the day that those in the old South were very deliberately wanting, because they needed a way to keep as much slave labor as possible – their economy was built on it and ran on it. So, they decided if they could still use prisoners for free labor, they could make all kinds of laws that specifically targeted black people, punish them for minor infractions, and then put them right back to work for free.

In the United States today, this currently plays out on a large scale in the United States criminal justice system. Prisons are not designed well for rehabilitation and have high recidivism rates, leading to most criminals being in and out for life. Many prisons today are also operated by private companies, who use the inmates for labor to make a profit, paying the inmates either nothing or next to nothing for all of their hard work. These companies try to make deals with states to send a certain amount of prisoners, so they can keep their cells full, and maximize their slave labor force. Unfortunately, this ends up having a racial component, as a very large percentage of people in prison are young black men, who tend to be targeted as suspicious by law enforcement.

3. The Claim That “Slavery Is Illegal In All Parts Of The World” Is Very Misleading

Many people will tell you that slavery is illegal in all parts of the world, as if that is some kind of celebration. However, the truth is that slavery has not only gone underground, but is still functioning in many places in the world as strong as ever – it is just disguised in different names, or in clever legal speak to fool you into thinking the problem has gone away. No country has legally sanctioned official slavery anymore, but there are many countries today that have economies that basically survive on what amounts to slave labor of the vast majority of their citizens.

Many of the smaller countries in Africa, especially along the Ivory Coast, suffer from this issue. While slavery may be officially outlawed on the books, children are still forced into labor at a young age, and put through brutal conditions – their only pay is being kept alive to work until they cannot work anymore. There are many situations like this around the globe, where the governments of countries take slavery off the books legally, but turn a blind eye to practices that amount to the same by any definition of the word. Until some of the more exploitative countries start passing more basic fair labor and workers’ rights laws, and start enforcing laws against child labor, the problem will not go anywhere and their people will continue to be horribly mistreated.

2. Not All Illegal Immigrants Realized They Were Illegal, Until Their Traffickers Told Them

Many people are under the impression that those who end up illegally in other major countries have done so on purpose. However, this is not always the case. Human traffickers – also known as slavers – have a very clever and nasty trick they use on vulnerable people in poor countries. They will tell them that they have a job opportunity in another country and that they can get them to the country and get them all the legal documentation they need to work. Once they arrive at the country of origin, the trap is sprung. Either there were no documents in the first place, the documents are destroyed by the trafficker after arriving, or just kept as a threat by the trafficker.

Regardless, the immigrant is now told that they have to basically work for the trafficker as a slave and do whatever they are told, or the trafficker will out them to the police for being there with no documentation, leaving them completely on their own to face first arrest and then deportation. To make matters worse, this is usually done by men to young ladies, who they can physically threaten and coerce. The woman cannot go to the police because she is afraid they will realize she has no documents, and the woman has no one to turn to, being a stranger in a strange land. Also, this doesn’t just happen to women for sexual purposes, it is also a common way around the world to gain control of large amounts of male slave labor, both for manual labor and sexual services.

1. The Slaves In Nicer Southern Houses Were Not Well Treated, Nor Happy With Their Lot

One of the most common claims repeated over and over by slavery apologists is the lie that the slaves in the nicer houses were “well treated” and overall were better off being slaves and happy with their lives. Now, there is a certain amount of brainwashing where people are taught to be as happy with their lot as possible, and it was certainly preferable to working in the fields, but that doesn’t mean that black household servants were well treated members of the family who didn’t have anything to fear. Slaves in households may not have had to do the brutal, hard work of the fields, but a single mistake or infraction could lead to horrible punishments, and vicious whippings in front of everyone.

Despite these truths, tour directors at slave exhibits have been asked, sometimes aggressively, by patrons to explain to them how good black people really had it in households, and how well treated they were, and how much better off they were with slavery. As you can imagine, they are not asking so much as demanding, but the tour directors won’t have it. The truth is that even the ones with the kinder owners still had to deal with the possibility their loved ones would be cruelly sold off at a moment’s notice, and they had no freedom and no choice at all. No matter how much some people try to twist the concept in their minds, there is no situation in which people are happy that they and their children are held in slavery.

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