I’ve not yet seen the Academy Award winning “12 Years a Slave,” but the clips and conversation about slavery and brutality are visceral. Writer John Ridley said in a radio interview that he hoped the film would promote continuing conversations about these difficult subjects. So here are some semi-random thoughts from my end:
By most of the historical markers that we have—journals, histories, memoirs, records chiseled on stone—slavery and brutality have been part of the human condition forever. Wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, human sacrifice, human trafficking, purges, and genocide are all over the historical record—and in today’s news bulletins.
One hardly knows where to start! I just finished reading Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. He begins with the expansion of agriculture in Europe and the travels of the Norse into North America in the warming years—roughly 800-1200 A.D. And finds that even where milder weather made for an expansion of population and agriculture, the folks doing the work—peasants, farmers—lived and worked at the mercy of weather and crop failures every year.
Nobles and the Church fared better—owning and overseeing and accumulating the surpluses from good years. Where warming was not so benign—in most of the world, all suffered: warming brought drought brought California hunter gatherers to their knees, destroyed Mayan cities and their sophisticated irrigation systems, collapsed the complex pre-Inca trade and food systems, and emptied Chaco Canyon. So, even without man-on-man violence, it’s been a hard road for most human inhabitants much of the time. (Life expectancy in Winchester in British Isles in 11thcentury 24 years!)
When Europeans came to the New World, chased, I think, in part by the Little Ice Age that followed the Great Warming, most came as indentured servants. Fathers brought teenage children to the docks and gave them to ships’ captains to take somewhere else, where they could work and eat. First meetings with indigenous people were most often pleasant, dominated by curiosity, need, and even sexual companionship. But disease, theft, wars, and slavery fueled by greed and misunderstanding soon prevailed. Estimates on devastation of indigenous population on European contact in the years following 1492 run as high as 90 percent! We know that present-day New England was depopulated at the Puritans’ arrival. And we have Las Casas’ reports on the populations of Hispaniola and the Indies. He says that the population of that Island went from millions to about 200.
“From that time onward the Indians began to seek ways to throw the Christians out of their lands. They took up arms, but their weapons were very weak and of little service in offense and still less in defense. (Because of this, the wars of the Indians against each other are little more than games played by children.) And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” … They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”
And where does one go from there? Cambodia? Rwanda? Syria? Slavery might be less prominent today, though reports of trafficking and children impressed into battle are rampant.
So life, as Hobbes told us, is, for most, “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The thread that runs through all of it has to do with power and difference. The difference is established by wealth, health, religion, race, class, tribe, and gender, and the brutality is fueled by hunger, fear, greed, and by seeing “others” as less than human. We can account for today’s brutality by chronicling divisions—increasing divisions of wealth, health, religion, etc. Ironically, the person on the world stage who is speaking this truth is the new Pope, heir to the throne from which Indians’ humanity was debated and yesterday’s horrors were justified.
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