Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. V. - An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. V. - Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species 
An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was Honoured with the First Prize, in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785, with Additions (London: J. Phillips, 1786).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
As we have mentioned the barbarous and inhuman treatment that generallly fell to the lot of slaves, it may not be amiss to inquire into the various circumstances by which it was produced.
The first circumstance, from whence it originated, was the commerce: for if men could be considered as possessions; if, like cattle, they could be bought and sold, it will not be difficult to suppose, that they could be held in the same consideration, or treated in the same manner. The commerce therefore, which was begun in the primitive ages of the world, by classing them with the brutal species, and by habituating the mind to consider the terms of brute and slave as synonimous, soon caused them to be viewed in a low and despicable light, and as greatly inferiour to the human species. Hence proceeded that treatment, which might not unreasonably be supposed to arise from so low an estimation. They were tamed, like beasts, by the stings of hunger and the lash, and their education was directed to the same end, to make them commodious instruments of labour for their possessors.
This treatment, which thus proceeded in the ages of barbarism, from the low estimation, in which slaves were unfortunately held from the circumstances of the commerce, did not fail of producing, in the same instant, its own effect. It depressed their minds; it numbed their faculties; and, by preventing those sparks of genius from blazing forth, which had otherwise been conspicuous; it gave them the appearance of being endued with inferiour capacities than the rest of mankind. This effect of the treatment had made so considerable a progress, as to have been a matter of observation in the days of Homer.
Thus then did the commerce, by classing them originally with brutes, and the consequent treatment, by cramping their abilities, and hindering them from becoming conspicuous, give to these unfortunate people, at a very early period, the most unfavourable appearance. The rising generations, who received both the commerce and treatment from their ancestors, and who had always been accustomed to behold their effects, did not consider these effects as incidental: they judged only from what they saw; they believed the appearances to be real; and hence arose the combined principle, that slaves were an inferiour order of men, and perfectly void of understanding. Upon this principle it was, that the former treatment began to be fully confirmed and established; and as this principle was handed down and disseminated, so it became, in succeeding ages, an excuse for any severity, that despotism might suggest.
We may observe here, that as all nations had this excuse in common, as arising from the circumstances above-mentioned, so the Greeks first, and the Romans afterwards, had an additional excuse, as arising from their own vanity.
The former having conquered Troy, and having united themselves under one common name and interest, began, from that period, to distinguish the rest of the world by the title of barbarians; inferring by such an appellation, * “that they were men who were only noble in their own country; that they had no right, from their nature, to authority or command; that, on the contrary, so low were their capacities, they were destined by nature to obey, and to live in a state of perpetual drudgery and subjugation.” Conformable with this opinion was the treatment, which was accordingly prescribed to a barbarian. The philosopher Aristotle himself, in the advice which he gave to his pupil Alexander, before he went upon his Asiatick expedition, † intreated him to “use the Greeks, as it became a general, but the barbarians, as it became a master; consider, says he, the former as friends and domesticks; but the latter, as brutes and plants;” inferring that the Greeks, from the superiority of their capacities, had a natural right to dominion, and that the rest of the world, from the inferiority of their own, were to be considered and treated as the irrational part of the creation.
Now, if we consider that this was the treatment, which they judged to be absolutely proper for people of this description, and that their slaves were uniformly those, whom they termed barbarians; being generally such, as were either kidnapped from Barbary, or purchased from the barbarian conquerors in their wars with one another; we shall immediately see, with what an additional excuse their own vanity had furnished them for the sallies of caprice and passion.
To refute these cruel sentiments of the ancients, and to shew that their slaves were by no means an inferiour order of beings than themselves, may perhaps be considered as an unnecessary task; particularly, as having shewn, that the causes of this inferiour appearance were incidental, arising, on the one hand, from the combined effects of the treatment and commerce, and, on the other, from vanity and pride, we seem to have refuted them already. But we trust that some few observations, in vindication of these unfortunate people, will neither be unacceptable nor improper.
How then shall we begin the refutation? Shall we say with Seneca, who saw many of the slaves in question, “What is a knight, or a libertine, or a slave? Are they not names, assumed either from injury or ambition?” Or, shall we say with him on another occasion, “Let us consider that he, whom we call our slave, is born in the same manner as ourselves; that he enjoys the same sky, with all its heavenly luminaries; that he breathes, that he lives, in the same manner as ourselves, and, in the same manner, that he expires.” These considerations, we confess, would furnish us with a plentiful source of arguments in the case before us; but we decline their assistance. How then shall we begin? Shall we enumerate the many instances of fidelity, patience, or valour, that are recorded of the servile race? Shall we enumerate the many important services, that they rendered both to the individuals and the community, under whom they lived? Here would be a second source, from whence we could collect sufficient materials to shew, that there was no inferiority in their nature. But we decline to use them. We shall content onrselves with some few instances, that relate to the genius only: we shall mention the names of those of a servile condition, whose writings, having escaped the wreck of time, and having been handed down even to the present age, are now to be seen, as so many living monuments, that neither the Grecian, nor Roman genius, was superiour to their own.
The first, whom we shall mention here, is the famous Æsop. He was a Phrygian by birth, and lived in the time of Crœsus, king of Lydia, to whom he dedicated his fables. The writings of this great man, in whatever light we consider them, will be equally entitled to our admiration. But we are well aware, that the very mention of him as a writer of fables, may depreciate him in the eyes of some. To such we shall propose a question, “Whether this species of writing has not been more beneficial to mankind; or whether it has not produced more important events, than any other?”
With respect to the first consideration, it is evident that these fables, as consisting of plain and simple transactions, are particularly easy to be understood; as conveyed in images, they please and seduce the mind; and, as containing a moral, easily deducible on the side of virtue; that they afford, at the same time, the most weighty precepts of philosophy. Here then are the two grand points of composition, “a manner of expression to be apprehened by the lowest capacities, and,* (what is considered as a victory in the art) an happy conjunction of utility and pleasure.” Hence Quintilian recommends them, as singularly useful, and as admirably adapted, to the puerile age; as a just gradation between the language of the nurse and the preceptor, and as furnishing maxims of prudence and virtue, at a time when the speculative principles of philosophy are too difficult to be understood. Hence also having been introduced by most civilized nations into their system of education, they have produced that general benefit, to which we at first alluded. Nor have they been of less consequence in maturity; but particularly to those of inferiour capacities, or little erudition, whom they have frequently served as a guide to conduct them in life, and as a medium, through which an explanation might be made, on many and important occasions.
With respect to the latter consideration, which is easily deducible from hence, we shall only appeal to the wonderful effect, which the fable, pronounced by Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon, produced among his hearers; or to the fable, which was spoken by Menenius Agrippa to the Roman populace; by which an illiterate multitude were brought back to their duty as citizens, when no other species of oratory could prevail.
To these truly ingenious, and philosophical works of Æsop, we shall add those of his imitator Phœdrus, which in purity and elegance of style, are inferiour to none. We shall add also the Lyrick Poetry of Alcman, which is no servile composition; the sublime Morals of Epictetus, and the incomparable comedies of Terence.
Thus then does it appear, that the excuse which was uniformly started in defence of the treatment of slaves, had no foundation whatever either in truth or justice. The instances that we have mentioned above, are sufficient to shew, that there was no inferiority, either in their nature, or their understandings: and at the same time that they refute the principles of the ancients, they afford a valuable lesson to those, who have been accustomed to form too precipitate a judgment on the abilities of men: for, alas! how often has secret anguish depressed the spirits of those, whom they have frequently censured, from their gloomy and dejected appearance! and how often, on the other hand, has their judgment resulted from their own vanity and pride!
[* ]Homer. Odys. P. 322. In the latest edition of Homer, the word, which we have translated senses, is Αρετη, or virtue, but the old and proper reading is Νοός, as appears from Plato de Legibus, ch. 6, where he quotes it on a similar occasion.
[* ]Aristotle. Polit. Ch. 2. et inseq.
[† ]Ελλησιω ἠγεμονιϰῶς, τοῖς δὲ Βαρϐάροις δεσποϐιϰῶς χρασθαι· ϗ̀ τῶν μὲν ὡς φίλων ϗ̀ οἰϰείων ἴπιμελεῖσθαι, τοῖς δὲ ὡς ζώοις ἢ φυοῖς ϖϱοσφεϱέσθαι. Plutarch. de Fortun. Alexand. Orat. 1.
[* ]Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci. Horace.