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The problem of slavery in the United States is a complex and multi-dimensional set of social, economic, political, civil, cultural, and racial issues that are deeply ingrained in the American history. Slavery was a major human tragedy and genocide of African people, which has no parallel in modern history with the exception of the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis during World War II. Therefore, the main aim of this paper is to analyze the history of slavery in the U.S. and to evaluate its influence on the contemporary society.
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Since the establishment of the first European settlements in North America, slavery has played an important role in the development of capitalism and functioning of the region’s economy. The owners of plantations grew large amounts of different plants, such as rice, tobacco, indigofera, cotton, and sold them mainly in Europe. The rapid growth of plantation areas has led to a tremendous need for cheap labor to work in the field. To solve this problem, European colonizers decided to use slave labor from Africa. Nearly 10-15 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean between 1500 and 1900, and today, it is considered the largest movement (deportation) of people in the world history (Mintz, 2009). The Transatlantic slave trade between West Africa and the New World began in 1619 (Colley, 2011). It was a serious crime against humanity because free African people were kidnapped and sold as a property to buyers. The trip to America lasted nearly a month, and many slaves suffered and died during it. All ships were overcrowded with slaves, and there were no adequate ventilation, necessary nutrition, medical and hygienic accessories for anybody. Moreover, slave dealers did not recognize or respect human rights and needs at all. According to a former slave-ship captain John Newton, slaves on the ships were “like books upon a shelf...so close that the shelf would not easily contain one more” (Mintz 2009, p. 11). On the whole, the colonizers did not pay attention to the poor health conditions of the slaves, and it was not a grave concern to them when a number of the slaves (usually 10-25%) died under inhuman conditions.
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Furthermore, the situation became even worse after the slaves reached their destination and slave traders sold them to the owners. Different tortures and physical punishments were common among the slave owners who thus stimulated their slaves to work effectively, controlled their behavior, and stopped any possible revolts. In particular, women suffered from their owners, who not only raped them but also often forced into prostitution taking their meager income afterward. The slave owners planned to make their slaves entirely dependent on them and to regulate their behavior, movements, and lives in every possible aspect. It was forbidden for slaves to have education or to learn how to read and to write, and their behavior and activities were under strict control. Slave revolts were accompanied by mass executions, and catching a runaway slave was similar to hunting with dogs and guns organized by the owner. After a slave was caught, the owner could cut off their ears or nose, castrate them, or even beat to death in order to punish. This forced mass deportation of people significantly influenced the world economy of the 18th-19th centuries. As a result, even after the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, it was merely a beginning of the fight for equal economic, cultural, and democratic rights for former slaves.
Since the beginning of slavery in America, racist ideology was used to explain the conquest of Africa and slavery system. The supporters of the exploitation and oppression of “black people” argued that, in general, Africans were not humans and significantly differed from “white people.” The capitalists and planters, as well as their supporters in the American universities, courts, banks, governmment, and churches, became rich due to the slave labor and trade. At the time, a huge state propaganda machine worked in the U.S. to proclaim the supremacy of “white people.” Moreover, Catholic and Protestant churches supported the legal and physical enslavement of “black people.” Distinguished historians, scientists, priests, politicians, journalists, and writers, many of whom were slaveholders, systematically claimed that “black people” had no traditions, culture, history, or morality and that they were biologically inferior to “white people” being narrow-minded, obedient, lazy, and cowardly by nature. Racial wars that erupted in the United States in the 20th century were largely a consequence of these ideological concepts that were firmly entrenched in the mentality of people not only from the southern U.S. but also from the northern part of the country. A French historian Jean-Michel Deveau stated that it was “one of the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity in terms of scale and duration” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, n.d.).
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To conclude, more than 300 slave riots on the American plantations, some of which became large revolts, such as Stono Rebellion, the New York City Conspiracy, Gabriel’s Conspiracy, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, were officially documented. These protests showed that people wanted and needed freedom and they would continue to fight against injustice even in the most desperate circumstances. Evidently, the slave-owning system is responsible for not only the death and enslavement of millions of Africans but also for moral damages and changes that it brought to society as a whole creating racial prejudice, racial barriers, and racial discrimination for several centuries. Moreover, the era of slavery significantly influenced the contemporary American history, culture, society, and economy becoming a solid basis for the formation of the capitalist system.
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