- Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age
Providing enslaved people with weapons and training them as soldiers might seem like a suicidal decision for slaveholders, yet from the ancient [End Page 519] Mediterranean world to the nineteenth-century United States, slave owners routinely did just that, relying on slaves in important military and political endeavors. The fourteen thoroughly researched essays in Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age are the result of a conference held at Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition in 2000. Though the majority of contributions focus on the Americas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, readers will find that the inclusion of studies of armed slaves in precolonial Africa, the early modern Islamic world, and classical Greece provide an opportunity to see how the practice of arming slaves varied across time and place. One of the major themes that emerges is the distinction between the formalized, routine practice of arming slaves in many African and Near Eastern Islamic societies, and the less regular, ad hoc ways that governments and masters armed slaves in the Americas. Taken together, these essays reveal that arming slaves usually posed less danger to the status quo or slaveholders' interests than one might assume, and that enslaved people derived numerous benefits from military service.
As Reuven Amitai's chapter on the Mamluks and John K. Thornton's study of the various types of armed slaves in Africa in the era of the slave trade reveal, Islamic rulers and African elites had few reservations about employing slaves as soldiers. Indeed, military slavery was often one of the most common forms of slavery in these societies. In contrast, European powers in the Americas were deeply ambivalent about arming slaves, although they did so on numerous occasions. As David Brion Davis explains, "the doctrine of necessity was often of ruling importance" in making the decision to arm slaves, and manpower shortages or other problems often meant that slaveholders were forced to overcome their ideological reservations (3). In the eighteenth-century British Caribbean and North America, for example, Philip D. Morgan and Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy show that while laws prohibited slaves from possessing firearms and slave owners were generally opposed to giving their slaves weapons, "they were always willing to make exceptions," with the most notable example being the Revolutionary War (183–84). The Spanish similarly found that manpower shortages and other problems made arming slaves in the Caribbean and South America a necessary evil for several centuries, as Jane Landers and Peter Blanchard reveal in separate essays. Even in the Confederacy, toward the end of the Civil [End Page 520] War racial attitudes had ultimately given way to wartime realities as slaves became the unlikely warriors for a racist slave society, a paradox skillfully analyzed by Joseph P. Reidy. In seemingly every slave society, apprehensions about arming slaves could be overruled when the need for soldiers became severe enough.
Why, one might ask, were enslaved people so often willing to fight on behalf of the societies that kept them in bondage? The essays collected in Arming Slaves reveal that enslaved people had good reasons to bear arms for slaveholders; becoming soldiers presented enslaved people with opportunities for advancement that they would have otherwise been denied. Moreover, in many societies armed slaves constituted a sort of slave elite—men with special privileges who formed a distinct sense of collective identity and were proud of their reputation as warriors. "At least some Muslim military slaves," writes Reuven Amitai, "evolved into a military and social elite, jealous of their privileges visà vis the general population and even their own progeny" (68). In east Africa, military slaves along the Zambesi River similarly "came to define themselves as sharers of a new social identity, Chikunda ('the conquerors')," Allen Isaacman and Derek Peterson explain. "Being Chikunda," they argue, "was for slave soldiers a way of dignifying their work with a clear sense...