CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 18. . . .January 14, 2011.
Five Thousand Years of Slavery.
Marjorie Gann & Janet Willen.
Toronto, ON: Tundra, 2011.
168 pp., hardcover, $29.99.
Grades 6-11 / Ages 11-16
Review by Val Ken Lem.
Reviewed from Unproofed Galleys.
There is no question that in the Bible slaves are considered human beings, but this was not so in Greece and Rome. Greeks called slaves andrapoda, which means “man-footed beings,” and Romans called them little ones or little boys regardless of their age. Owners named their slaves as if they were pets, or kept the names the dealers had given them on the auction block, which often promised an admirable quality – perhaps Hilarus for “cheerful” or Celer for “swift.” The degradation continued with the owners branding the slaves with hot irons, and speaking to them as if they were children.
Many works on slavery focus on the African slaves brought to the New World or, more specifically, to the United States. Gann and Willen are sisters living in Ontario and Maryland respectively, and together they have more than sixty years experience as writers, editors and educators. They have written an invaluable work that sets slavery into a much larger continuum that predates recorded history and continues even today in all parts of the world. They begin with accounts from the earliest written story: the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, and quickly move on to other examples of slavery in the ancient Near East, followed by a chapter on ancient Greece and Rome. Recurring threads are the desire of slaves to be free and the early emergence of abolitionists who objected to the normalized practice of owning and controlling other human beings.
Gann and Willen are engaging storytellers. They effectively use subheadings to identify changing topics as chapters unfold. Readers learn about topics such as how slaves were bought and sold, how the laws governed slaves and their owners, the work and living conditions of slaves and, for the lucky ones, how they could become free. Appropriate maps and illustrations, many in colour, enliven about half of the pages. Sidebars, sometimes extending onto two pages, are used to explain concepts or recount pertinent events. One of the most dramatic sidebars tells the story of the medieval Children’s Crusade at the beginning of the thirteenth century that ended with thousands of children enslaved or dead. Another powerful tale is that of Little Ephraim, an African slave trader who himself was enslaved, eventually freed, and who returned to the only economic livelihood that he knew – slave trading.
Global variations in slavery are revealed in accounts of slavery in Europe when Vikings were the scourge of coastal communities, in lands where Islam was the dominant religion, and in pre-colonial Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. Considerable attention is paid to the Atlantic Slave Trade that saw more than 11 million African slaves transported to South America and the Caribbean between 1500 and 1870. The drawn-out battle by British abolitionists to end slavery in the British Empire has its own chapter. Similarly, accounts of slavery in North America and the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States following the Civil War are explored in two chapters. Landmark publications, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are identified, and many notable figures in history are introduced, including Lucie and Thornton Blackburn who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
The history of slavery in Asia and the Southern Pacific could have been more fully developed. Instead, the chapter is somewhat rushed and emphasizes a new form of slavery, debt bondage, that emerged in India whereby people in debt sold themselves to wealthy landowners who settled their debts in exchange for their labour. In China, the practice of selling children, especially daughters who became household slaves and often eventually concubines or prostitutes, continued until the Communist Revolution of the 1940s ended the old power structures.
The final chapter on slavery is too brief to do justice to the topic. Gann and Willen report some surprising cases of slavery, such as the American government’s defacto enslavement of the Pribilof Aleuts. Totalitarian regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and contemporary China, all abused or continue to treat political prisoners and prisoners of war like slaves forced to manufacture products, work on farms or in mines or at other hard labour without compensation. The rise of child slavery at the hands of warlords in many parts of the world continues to destroy young lives. Fortunately, there are efforts to end enslavement of children used as labourers in cocoa farms in parts of Africa or in carpet mills in Pakistan. Likewise, there are activists trying to combat human trafficking and exploitation of immigrant farm workers in America. The assassination of activist Iqbal Masih in Pakistan was the inspiration for Craig Kielburger who went on to found Free the Children. The book includes helpful suggestions on ways that readers can help to combat modern day slavery, and it provides the websites for four antislavery organizations.
The surprisingly large problem of slavery today is global as well as local in nature, and the authors are correct in documenting cases in developed countries, including the United States, where people who are tricked by human traffickers may end up in slavery either for a long or short time. The authors, cognizant of the innocence of their youngest readers, shy away from emphasizing the true nature of much of the human trafficking of both children and adults – sexual exploitation and prostitution. They do state that, at times throughout history, slaves might end up as concubines or prostitutes, but they do not dwell on this fate. Even the index that is generally very detailed does not have any entry for prostitution, although it does have an entry for human trafficking. Students at the secondary level, and perhaps even the middle school level, should also have access to Kevin Bales’ and Becky Cornell’s Slavery Today (Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2008) for a more detailed overview of modern slavery and the global problems of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and debt bondage.
The list of resources consulted includes some excellent websites. The book also includes a time line. Five Thousand Years of Slavery deserves a widespread distribution in school and public libraries.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian with collection liaison responsibilities for English, history and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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