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In transcribing the following portion of Baker’s article I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable, if a bit rough, OCR text. I have indicated page breaks, added both subtitles and additional paragraphing for easier reading on screen, and linked this text both to another part of his essay and other documents on this site, including articles from other Victorian journals, maps, and illustrations from contemporary periodicals. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow

“From whatever point of view we regard slavery, it is an unmitigated evil. . . . I have endeavoured to exhibit the evil of slavery, while describing the difficulties attending a too sudden emancipation.” — Samuel W. Baker


Baker’s essay on the ancient history of slavery, its relation to certain religions and societies, and his recommendations for ways to end it in Egypt contains a bewildering concatenation of apparently opposed ideas and attitudes. His fierce hatred of slavery as an abomination makes a sharp contrast with his anthropological or sociological understanding of the role slavery plays in various societies just as his apparent advocacy of “women’s rights” (his term) collides with his shocking racism where the inhabitants of subsaharan Africa are concerned. Even that racism seems odd when he sympathetically discusses both the differences between tribes or ethic groups and describes successful attempts to introduce crops and thereby improve their health and safety. In addition to his unexpected use of enfranchisement rather than the usual emancipation when referring to freeing slaves (which suggests that the formerly enslaved immediately receive the right to vote), two particularly strange attitudes and ideas stand out: first, his firm belief, which derives from what I have termed his anthropological approach to individual societies, such the West Indies and Egypt, that although slavery is an abomination, slave owners in a society based upon that evil institution are not themselves guilty of any crime against humanity or even violation of moral law. From this assumption stems his insistence that although slavers — those who capture and enslave other people, in this case Africans — should be exterminated, people who own slaves must be compensated for their freed slaves. The practical political value of such an approach as a means of appeasing former slave owners so they don’t revolt and overthrow the government ordering emancipation seems obvious enough, but Bake’s emphasis upon the moral need to do so strikes a modern reader as bizarre. Second, given his emphasis upon explaining the effects of slavery to the nature of specific societies, one finds odd his complete inability to relate the work habits of subsaharan Africans to their climate and his consequent racist statements about Negro laziness. Such dismissive racism seems particularly unexpected when he explains how simply providing piace, seeds, and basic equipment allowed African groups to create flourishing agriculture. Still, he is a man who clearly believes slavery an abomination and who has managed to clear an entire portion of Africa of slave traders. — George P. Landow

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he war between the Turks and Greeks which happened in our own time. The ruthless massacre of the Greeks was followed by a wholesale system of slavery. Young boys and lovely girls were torn from their blood-stained homes to be come the slaves and to gratify the lust of their brutal conquerors. That dreadful example of our friends the Turks represented the barbarity of remote ages. How many of our ancestors among the noble Britons perished as gladiators in the Roman arena? The Roman conquest of Britain furnished slaves celebrated above all others for their stature, personal beauty, and courage. From time immemorial the adverse fortune of war resulted in the slavery of the captives. This was a universal rule. It appeared that to enslave a fellow-man was a natural human instinct.

Slavery in Seventeenth-Century England

At the present day we regard the distant past with horror, and we are inclined to be almost incredulous to the historical accounts of wholesale slavery and massacre. We must at the same time remember that so recently as the reign of James II political prisoners of our own kith and kin were sold as slaves to toil and die in the tropics of the West Indies. The maids of honour of the Court of James II. (not 200 years ago) received presents of Englishmen condemned for treasonable offences. These victims of the law were sold by the Queen’s honourable maids to work upon the sugar plantations of Jamaica; and the proceeds of the flesh and blood of their own countrymen assisted to deck the fair persons of these courtly angels. When we regard such deplorable facts face to face, we must perceive the immense improvement of society, which in 150 years from that date resulted in the emancipation of all slaves in British possessions. This magnificent example of humanity, at a cost of 20,000,000l. to this country, was the most noble act in the history of England. Less than a century and a half before that time Englishmen had been sold as slaves. Englishmen now determined that freedom was the natural inheritance of every human being, that the dark-coloured skin, in the eye of Him who had created it, was entitled to the same justice as the white.

From that hour England proved her right to represent true Christianity. Steadily has our country worked in the cause of liberty, not only for the black savage, but for our own people. This great example, heroically made at an immense sacrifice, stirred up the hearts of other nations, which joined in the good cause; until at length the question of slavery was raised in the New World. The interests of the South were supported by slave labour. Civil war commenced on a gigantic scale. The great political convulsion in America terminated in the emancipation of the slaves.

Slavery, the Ottoman empire, and Islam

By this grand act, the result of England’s first example, the whole civilized world had declared against slavery. The only slave-holding powers with whom we are in communication are Turkey and Egypt, combined as the Ottoman empire. All Christian countries had agreed upon the freedom of the blacks. The Moslem alone represented oppression, and resisted the great movement of liberty. We have already seen that the actual question of slavery rests upon religious creeds. The Mohammedan believes in the laws of Moses and in those of the Koran, which encourage, or at the least sanction, the slave trade. It is therefore impossible to convince so fanatical a people of the crime of slave trading. They have the answer ready— “You are Christians, and your laws prohibit slavery. “We are Mohammedans, and our laws permit it. We believe that we are right, and you, being infidels, must be wrong.” If the Mohammedans were more powerful than Christian countries, they would scorn and defy our interference.

Slavery is, in fact, a necessary institution to Mohammedanism. According to the laws of the Koran, a believer may have four wives at the same time. Thus, should each male take advantage of the law, a female population would be required four times as numerous as the male. Polygamy is the root of domestic evil, and must ruin the morality of any country. The destruction of domestic morality will entail a species of barbarism throughout the country where polygamy is permitted. The women remain ignorant. If educated, they would never permit so great an insult to their sex. It is therefore in the interest of the men that the females should remain without education. Nothing can be so detrimental to the prosperity of a country as the ignorance of women. The Mohammedan girls are married to men whom they have never seen until the bridal day. Very few can either read or write. They are kept prisoners in the harems, jealously guarded by black eunuchs; and they know absolutely nothing of the outer world, few having an idea of any country beyond their own, of which they know but little. Whether the world is round or square they could not tell. Ignorance begets idleness. The life of the harem is passed in frivolous, and not always modest, conversation. The time is killed with difficulty by such amusements as the dancing girls, the almah, and the tittle-tattle of female friends, assisted by as much sleep as can be coaxed from the day by languidly lounging upon the divans in a state of dishabille. It is not to be supposed that harem life is a terrestrial paradise, where love revels in undisturbed harmony. Every house is full of discord in proportion to the number of wives and concubines. Jealousies innumerable, together with “envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness,” form the domestic bill of fare for the polygamist. It follows as a matter of course that uneducated mothers are incapable of instructing their children.

The little ones born in the harem are witnesses of the jealousies and bickerings of the various mothers from earliest in fancy. They grow up with the feelings of hatred for their half-brothers that such an example would insure. The boys are launched into school-life without those sterling rudiments of education and that mother’s fond advice that is with us the sheet-anchor throughout our lives. They leave the harem not only ignorant, but wicked; full of low cunning, and without the slightest regard for truth. As the boy's early life has been passed in jealousies and hatreds among the women and their offspring in the harems, so he carries these feelings into life. He grows up without affection -—cold, selfish, hypocritical, cunning. and fanatical. He possesses no love of home, for his home was one of divided affections comhined with hatreds. Without a love of home there can be no love of country; thus in Mohammedan countries there is no patriotism, but only fanaticism. This miserable position is mainly due to polygamy ; thus the result of the system is the moral ruin of a country.

It is natural that a great demand for women should, to a certain extent, render them indolent. The young girl grows up with the certainty that, without any exertion on her part, she will eventually be provided for by marriage. She has therefore no inducement either to cultivate accomplishments or in any way to improve her present condition. She thus passes her early years in the idleness and ignorance of the harem until her turn shall arrive for marriage; after which, she will expect a staff of slaves to be in constant attendance. Female slaves, according to the present domestic arrangements of Turkey and Egypt, are absolutely necessary in the harems. It is impossible to hire Arab women as domestic servants. Women are too scarce, owing to polygamy; therefore, being made independent by marriage, they will not engage as servants. Slaves are the only resource; but even these are frequent additions to domestic difficulties.

The female slaves of Turkey and Egypt may be divided into three classes —Circassian, Abyssinian, and negresses. The Circassians rank the highest ; and although they commence their harem life in the position of slaves, they are usually advanced to the dignity of wives. Thus a married lady has frequent cause to be jealous of her own slaves, who, having gained the affections or won the admiration of her husband (their master), may become his wives, and, if young, may enjoy greater favour than herself, the mistress.

The Abyssinian girls are remarkably pretty, with large eyes and delicately shaped features. These girls are brought down from the Galla country by the slave-dealers from Abyssinia. That beautiful country, which, had we not wantonly deserted it, might have become of great importance, is now a prey to anarchy. The opposing tribes are only too happy to sell their female prisoners to the Arab slave-traders. These people bring down the young girls in gangs by various routes, but the principal outlet is the Red Sea, about Massowa. A great market is at Gallabat, the frontier town of Abyssinia. There I have seen them crowded together in mat tents, waiting for purchasers from those commissioned to procure slaves by the wealthy Arabs and Turkish officials. At Gallabat a handsome young girl of sixteen is worth about 15l., but the same girl at Cairo would fetch 40l. or 50l. The Abyssinians are a much advanced race compared with the negroes of Central Africa. The women are very affectionate and devoted to those who show them kindness. Thus, as they combine beauty with devotion, they are much sought for, and command a high price in the market. They are seldom purchased by common people, as their price is too high, and they cannot earn money by bodily labour like negresses, being too delicate and unable to sustain fatigue. Although they are generally termed Abyssinians (Habbesheea), I have never met with a true high-caste Abyssinian girl—these would be Christians; where as all I have seen have been Gallas—a Mohammedan race. Many of these poor girls die from fatigue on the desert journey from Gallabat to the seacoast. Those who reach Khartoum, or the towns of Lower Egypt, are sold to the wealthy, and generally take a high position in the harems, often becoming the wives of their purchasers. In the Soudan I have met several charming Abyssinian ladies, who, having married European residents, have become perfectly civilized: proving that the race is capable of great advancement.

We now arrive at the lowest class—the negress—the slave “par excellence," as accepted in England. The negro slaves are captured from every tribe between Khartoum and the equator. There is no slave maps, but every slave has been kidnapped by the slave—hunters of Khartoum. Before I suppressed the slave trade of the White Nile, about 50,000 slaves were brought down from the countries bordering that river every year. The young girls are preferred when about seven or eight years old, as they are more readily taught the work required. The best looking girls are taken north, and are distributed to the various markets by diverse routes; some to the Mediterranean, via the desert from Kordofan to Tripoli; others to the Red Sea, and many to Egypt. The negresses purchased for the harems occupy the position of either simple slaves or concubines, according to the desire of their proprietor, but they very rarely, if ever, attain to the dignity of wives, as they are properly regarded as the most inferior race. They are accordingly in the common position of servants.

This short description of the domestic position of female slaves will be sufficient to explain the want of cohesion throughout Mohammedan society. There are few fathers, but many mothers. There is so constant an admixture or foreign blood that it is difficult to decide a true ethnological position. In one family there may be by the various mothers a half Circassian, half negress—half Abyssinian, half Arab, half Turk; and this motley group of half bred children will in their turn procreate a second generation of half breeds, by intermarrying with women of strange races. Such a progeny must be incapable of the feeling of patriotism. They belong to no special race, and consequently they take but small interest in the prosperity of the country. Each prosecutes his selfish interests. There is no nationality; not even a patriotic ejaculation common to other countries. . . .

Suppressing Slavery and the Slave Trade

If we accept the present miserable state of Northern Africa as the result of Mohammedan conquest and occupation, and believe, as I have suggested, that the domestic laws—and especially polygamy—are the curse of the country, the first step towards a wholesome reform must be the suppression of the slave trade, which will reduce the number and supply of women. If the sexes are nearly balanced, polygamy will by degrees cease to exist. When education shall have improved the intellectual condition of women, and the suppression of the slave trade shall have proscribed the imports of foreign women, the natural instincts of their sex will determine their domestic position. Women will refuse to remain like herds of females belonging to one male, and they will be enabled to assert the natural right of one woman to be the sole conjugal companion of one man. This will be one of the great moral results of the suppression of the slave trade: that women shall no longer be subjected to such competition, by reason of extra ordinary numbers, that they must sub mit to the degrading position in which they are now placed by polygamy. If women are in moderate numbers, they will be enhanced in value, and they will be able to assert “women’s rights;” but they, like all other articles, will be reduced in value when the supply exceeds the demand. At present the free trade in foreign women in Egypt and Northern Africa reduces the value of the home production; thus they have no escape from the degradation of polygamy.

England’s Errors in the Emancipation of Slave in the West Indies

From whatever point of view we regard slavery, it is an unmitigated evil. In a short outline we have traced its origin to barbarous ages, and we have admitted that such an institution is incompatible with civilization. At the same time we must admit that the question is surrounded by many difficulties. In England we at once cut the Gordian knot, and by an Act of Parliament we suddenly emancipated our slaves and rewarded the proprietors with an indemnity of twenty millions. There can be no question that the act was chivalrous, but at the same time foolish. There was a lack, not only of statesmanship, but of common sense, in the sudden emancipation of a vast body of inferior human beings, who, thus released from a long bondage, were unfitted for a sudden liberty. The negroes thus freed by the British Government naturally regarded their former proprietors as their late oppressors, from whom they had been delivered by an Act of Parliament. This feeling was neither conducive to harmony nor in dustry. The man who is suddenly freed requires no logic to assure him that he has been wrongly held in slavery; his first impulse is therefore to hate his former master. A slave who has through out his life been compelled to labour, will naturally avoid that labour when freedom shall afford him the oppor tunity. Therefore the sudden enfranchisement of a vast body of slaves created a ruinous famine of labour, and colonies that had been most prosperous fell into decay; the result of ill-advised although philanthropic legislation. If a value had been fixed upon every negro slave as the price of liberty, and he had been compelled to work with his original master at a certain rate per day until he had thus earned his freedom, the slave would have appreciated the benefit of his industry; he would have become industrious by habit, as he would have gained his reward. At the same time he would have parted, or perhaps have remained with his master, without an imaginary wrong.

Ending Slavery in Turkey and Egypt

The emancipation of slaves must be gradual, especially in such countries as Turkey and Egypt. England may play the philanthropic fool, and throw away twenty millions for an idea, but how can we expect a poor country to follow so wild an example? This is one difficulty. We press Egypt to emancipate her slaves and to suppress the slave trade; but the emancipation would be most unjust and in judicious unless compensation were given to the proprietors who had purchased those slaves when slavery was an institution admitted by the Govern ment. A Government has no more right to take away a man’s slave than his horse or his cow, unless some wrong has been committed in the acquisition. Where a Government cannot afford to pay a general indemnity for a general enfranchisement, it is absurd for Eng land to press for a general emancipation. We will even suppose that the slaves were suddenly emancipated throughout the Egyptian dominions, what would be the result? One half would quit the country and return to their old haunts of savagedom. Others would become vagrants; the women would set up drinking and dancing houses, and a general demoralization would be the result.

The present physical condition of slaves throughout Egypt is good. They are well fed, and generally are well treated by their masters. In many cases a slave rises to a high rank. I know an instance where a slave rose to the high position of Pasha and Major General. One of the lieutenant colonels under my command had originally been a slave; and most of the officers in the Soudan regiments had risen through good conduct from the same low origin. Among the upper classes, the domestic slaves are frequently in a better position than other household servants. A servant may give notice to his master, and change his situation at will; thus he loses the confidence that would be reposed in the slave who actually belongs to his master. Slaves are generally proud of belonging to a master; and I have frequently heard them speak with contempt of those who have no proprietor, as though they were so inferior that they were generally disowned. It is a mistake to suppose that the slaves throughout the East are anxious for delivery. Negroes do not care for change. If they are well fed and clothed, and not overworked, they are generally faithful and contented. Among the lower classes, the slave always eats from the same dish as his master; and there is a feeling of pride in his position, that he forms a portion of the family. The eunuchs are especial favourites, and are always acceptedas members of the household entitled to peculiar consideration. They are accustomed to eyery luxury, and take the highest positions in the houses of the wealthy.

It has been remarked that the Viceroy of Egypt, if in earnest, should set the example of liberty by emancipating all the slaves of his harems. Such re marks can only proceed from those who are utterly ignorant of the position of eunuchs in a royal household. These effeminate personages never work; they are perfectly incapable of earning a livelihood by any other occupation except that in which they are engaged. To set these people at what is called “liberty ” would be to turn them on to the streets to starve. This being the general position of slaves in Egypt, the question of enfranchisement is extremely difficult. Liberty would certainly not improve the temporal condition of the slaves. At the same time, slavery should be suppressed. “To must remember that the population of Egypt is unequal to the amount of labour required for the cultivation of the land. The principal fellahs, or farmers, of Upper Egypt are large proprietors of slaves. These negroes work the water-lifts for irrigation, and perform the chief labour on the fields. They are contented and well-conducted people, who would certainly not be improved by a sudden emancipation, which would as certainly bring ruin upon the farmer, whose land Would be thrown out of cultivation. The more intimate we become with the subject, the greater is the difficulty in dealing with slavery so as to be just to all parties. We have no right suddenly to snatch up the cause of the negro, and bring a verdict of guilty against his master. If we determine to offer justice to the black man, we must also preserve some show of equity towards the white. No one has a greater horror of the slave trade than myself, and perhaps no one has made greater personal efforts to suppress it; but I must acknowledge that custom and ancient laws have granted a right to certain races, according to their religious belief, not only to bold, but actually to trade in human beings. To carry out our views of philanthropy we exert moral force on land, and physical force at sea; but we must admit that the physical force has achieved more than the moral in the suppression of the African slave trade. Notwithstanding our efforts during many years, it is notorious that the slave trade still flourishes to a large extent, which proves that this old institution is so deeply engraved upon the hearts of certain nations that they will run the most dangerous risks in such an enterprise. If we are determined to suppress this abomination, we must sternly insist upon its suppression, but this must not be in vague terms. The nuisance is admitted, and the evil must be vigorously attacked. At the same time, a certain respect is due to Turkey and Egypt.

The Viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, has taken the initiative at the request of European powers, especially Eng land. The great difiiculty is a decided plan of action. The assumed case is as follows:—

We are now determined to enfranchise him, therefore we must decide upon his future position. In my opinion, we must make a distinction between those negroes who have been slaves, and those who are the free inhabitants of their own country, when we consider this important question.

I have endeavoured to exhibit the evil of slavery, while describing the difficulties attending a too sudden emancipation. The wisest course would be a gradual eufranchiscment, commencing from a certain date; and I would suggest that in this instance we should pay some respect to Mohamme dan powers by so far adhering to the Mosaic law as to adopt the principle of the Hebrew term of bondage—“ then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.” By adopting this course the slaves would be gradually educated for liberty, while the interval of seven years would enable their proprietors to make certain domestic arrangements that would prevent con fusion on the day of jubilee. I believe that a reform thus quietly carried out would simply change the slave into a free servant, and that few would leave their old masters. At the same time that the blessing of freedom would be conferred upon the slave, no actual wrong would have been inflicted on his master. The seven years’ gratuitous service would be the price of liberty, and would cancel the first cost of purchase. [187-193]

Related Material about, Egypt, the Sudan, and the British Empire


Baker, Samuel W. “Slavery and the Slave Trade.” Macmillan’s Magazine. 30 (July 1874): 185-95. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Cornell University Library. Web. 3 September 2020

Last modified 3 September 2020