Serfdom, When Europeans were Slaves (and No One has Demanded Reparations!)

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A Brief History

On May 15, 1848, Serfdom was abolished in the Habsburg Austrian region of Galicia, ending the slavery of peasants in an area now occupied by Poland and the Ukraine.  The freedom of the Serfs came about as a result of the Revolutions of 1848, a widespread revolt across Feudal Europe, a so called “Bourgeois revolution” against the monarchies that controlled lands not native to the rulers.  The upheaval was part of what Karl Marx was referring to when he predicted the people would rise up to overthrow the elites.  Serfdom was a form of slavery practiced in Asia and even in the Roman Empire as well as in 19th Century Europe.  Serfdom was not finally outlawed in the World until 1959, when Tibet finally banned the practice!

Digging Deeper

In the United States there is a hot debate beginning over the issue of reparations to African Americans, payments to all African Americans whether they were descended from slaves or not, for the reason that African Americans have been discriminated against even if they were not personally held as slaves or descended from slaves.  The logic employed says African Americans have had it hard because of slavery and the lingering effects of discrimination for the century plus after slavery was abolished.

An animation showing when United States territories and states forbade or allowed slavery, 1789–1861.  Map by Kenmayer (talk).

Americans of European descent often rail against the idea that their tax dollars will go to pay people that the European (White) Americans did not personally hold as slaves, and in most cases, neither did the ancestors of those European Americans.  (The author’s grandparents came to the United States around 1900.  Not only did they never own slaves, they came from Galicia where their grandparents were slaves!)  Americans with ethnic roots in Asia or the Middle East are also not necessarily all that keen about paying for reparations to people they have never done anything to, nor did their ancestors do anything to the ancestors of the potential payees.

People with wealth and power have held slaves as long as there has been civilization.  Virtually all of us are descended from people that were once slaves.  Many of us, knowing or unknowing, may have had ancestors that were slave owners.  Today the idea of slavery is so blatantly wrong that we forget how readily accepted it was for most of History.

Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (2nd century AD): the two slaves carrying wine jars wear typical slave clothing and an amulet against the evil eye on a necklace; the slave boy to the left carries water and towels, and the one on the right a bough and a basket of flowers.  Photograph by Pascal Radigue.

So who gets reparations?  Should only African Americans be paid for past discrimination, or should we include Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, Slavs, Oriental People and everyone else that is not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant?  Should only African Americans descended from slaves be paid reparations?  Or should all people of African descent be paid?  Should the percentage of African heritage in a person’s DNA be prorated to a payment schedule?  (Note: There are twice as many Catholic Americans than African Americans, and yet, there has only been 1 Catholic President and 1 African American President. There has never been a US President of Slavic descent, although around 20 million Americans are of Slavic descent. Nor has there been an Italian American President, although there are around 18 million Italian Americans. For that matter, Americans of Spanish descent make up a whopping 41 million of our population, and of course, there has never been a Hispanic American President of the US.)

If reparations are seriously considered, we have to determine how they would be paid for, as well as who gets paid.  The next major issue is, “How much?”  If we make the payment too small, it would be an insult and demeaning to anyone paid a trifle for past inhumanity done to them.  If the amount is anything approaching substantial, the cost would be mind blowing!  (There are about 40 million+ Americans of African descent in the United States today.  Thus, for every $1000 paid in reparations to an individual, the cost would be $40 billion.  Personally, the author believes a $1000 payment would be more of an insult than an apology.  What do you think?)

The proportional geographic distribution of African Americans in the United States, 2000.  The original uploader was Citynoise at English Wikipedia.

Reparations do have some historical background, as governments have paid reparations of one sort or another on numerous occasions.  The United States paid Japanese Americans that had been interned during World War II a payment of $20,000 each (or double that amount in current dollars adjusted for inflation) based on the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.  The reparations program for these people of Japanese descent was fraught with problems, issues contested in and out of court for various reasons, such as citizenship and the fact that the US interned Japanese people from Latin American countries as well!  (Did you know the United States had actually rounded up Latin Americans of Japanese descent?  History is full of such dirty little secrets.)  Only a bit over 82,000 Japanese Americans were paid the reparation, a much smaller number than the potential number of African Americans that would be paid reparations, but if African Americans were paid a similar amount, the cost would be a staggering $1.6 trillion (based on a payment of $40,000.)

African Americans have certainly been discriminated against from the origins of the United States as a place being colonized by Europeans right up to today, when discrimination is no longer tolerated by the law but is still practiced by Americans in more subtle ways.  Have “remedies” such as “Affirmative Action” and preference for hiring, scholarships to college and the like made up for such past discrimination?  At what point do we decide we are “equal” enough?  What about Hispanic Americans that have been consistently discriminated against for just about our entire existence as a country?  The Irish, Chinese, Catholics, Italians, Jews, and others have also suffered profound discrimination over the past 2 centuries of American History, and to some extent continue to be discriminated against.  What about those people that were slaves in countries other than the United States?  Should our country seek reparations for them?

Rioters breaking into Parish Prison. Anti-Italian lynching in New Orleans, 1891.  Art by E. Benjamin Andrews.

The author of this article does not have the answers.  We ask our Students and our other readers to tell us in the comments section below the article what they think should be done about reparations.  The subject is rather complex and defies any quick and easy answers.

Questions for Students (and others): Should the US pay reparations to people descended from slaves held in the Untied States?  Should the US pay reparations to all African Americans, regardless of when and how their ancestors or themselves came to the US?  Should other ethnic, cultural, or religious groups be included in reparations?  How much of a reparation payment is sufficient to avoid being an insult?  How should reparations be paid for?  What other comments or questions can you think of about the subject of reparations?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864.  Photograph by George N. Barnard (1819–1902).

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bush, ML. Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage. Routledge, 2014.

Meltzer, Milton. Slavery: A World History. Da Capo Press, 1993.

Winbush, Raymond. Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations. Amistad, 2003.

The featured image in this article, “Rzeź galicyjska” by Jan Lewicki (1795–1871), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.