Five Thousand Years of Slavery

Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen, Tundra Books

May 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Forget comfortable assumptions about slavery as a terrible habit we’ve outgrown. Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen, in a crisp history of this ancient element of human life, let us know not only where slavery has been, but where it is today, in places you might not expect. In the cucumber fields of South Carolina? Yes.

Five Thousand Years of Slavery is a valuable recounting of the long, shameful story of enslavement, practiced in ancient Egypt and Roman Italy, by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and, as we know, in the United States, even though freedom was the country’s founding rallying cry.

Free men can live with slavery by assuming slaves are inferior people, the writers explain, giving moving examples of this unhappy justification. Among things new to me — the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages marched many of those children into slavery rather than to Jerusalem. “Blackbirding,” we learn, was the practice of kidnapping people of the New Hebrides and other Pacific islands in order to sell them in Australia and other labor-short regions. Meanwhile, in Britain, slave-trade abolition support grew in the late 18th century and people gave up sugar on the grounds that it was produced by slaves.

The authors, sisters who each have a background in writing and education, saw a need to bring realization of slavery then and now to a young audience and tell their story in clear, accessible prose. But the story resonates with all ages.

Five Thousand Years of Slavery is available at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s shop and through the website, where sources consulted for the book and further information also can be found. Grade: B