Slaves and Adoption

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Photograph of a slave boy in Zanzibar c. 1890


Slavery is one of the most pervasive of human institutions. Until two hundred years ago hardly anyone had any doubts but that slavery was divinely ordained and a perfectly acceptable practice. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. It is mentioned a number of times in the Bible without criticism and was practiced by just about every culture which had the opportunity, was powerful enough, and needed the labor slaves could provide.

In a few cultures, slavery was not a terrible condition for the slaves themselves - they were fairly well looked after, not worked too hard, could have some influence on their owners, and had some opportunity for advancement and even freedom; and there are examples in this list of slaves who were eventually adopted by their owners. But in most cases slavery was degrading psychologically and physically for its victims and morally brutalizing for its practitioners.

Almost by definition slaves are deprived of contact with their birth families, either when they are initially captured or when children born into slavery are separated from their families by sale of the parents or children to others. They are grossly mistreated, emotionally abused, and in every way their condition is morally insupportable. Perhaps the finest description of the effect of slavery on the families of its victims is this passage from early in Toni Morrison's great novel Beloved:

… in all of Baby's life, as well as Sethe's own, men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn't run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby's eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make up for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her third child, a boy, with her - only to have him traded for lumber in the spring of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. That child she could not love and the rest she would not. "God take what He would," she said. And He did, and He did, and He did and then gave her Halle who gave her freedom when it didn't mean a thing. Slavery and near-slavery are still practiced in a number of cultures in spite of being outlawed by international law.

This list includes a very few, particularly from the United States, of the many salves who managed to overcome incredible obstacles and not only become literate, but great writers, scientists, religious leaders, etc. They should be taken as just a few examples of many, many possible entries. And there are literally millions more who deserve inclusion, who may be unknown to anyone, but who in the face of a powerful and cruel social and economic system, simply managed to stay sane and keep their dignity, and in many cases, fight against slavery - great achievements indeed in the light of their circumstances.


Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, 1993-97 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross. (London: Oxford University Press, 1957) Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by M. Cary, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949) ("Slaves") Fryer, Peter. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. (London: Pluto Press, 1984) Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1987) New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, editor-in-chief Geoffrey Wigoder. 7th edition. (New York: Facts On File, 1992) ("Slaves and Salvery") I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Charles Johnson and Yuval Taylor. 2 volumes. (Edinburgh: Payback, 1999) Colley, Linda. Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002) Two Internet central sites among many for searching the Web about slavery: "Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation." Available at: Yahoo. "Top : Arts : Humanities : History : U.S. History : Slavery." Available at:

See Also: Carver, George Washington Cugoano, Ottobah Douglass, Frederick Equiano, Olaudah Sancho, Ignatius Wheatley, Phillis