Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 February 2018

An interesting life through the eyes of a slave driver

How To Manage Your Slaves
How To Manage Your Slaves
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Books on self-help and business management have always been popular and many of them make useful reading, but one I picked up recently comes from a very different angle.

Given its intriguing title, How To Manage Your Slaves, one feels that had it been published 2,000 years ago, it might well have topped the bestseller charts. I couldn't resist buying it and found the content both amusing and well researched, with lots of interesting historical facts concerning the ownership of slaves.

Now before you explode in anger at my purchasing and enjoying a book with such a politically incorrect title, bear in mind that it was written by Dr Jerry Toner, an Irish professor of classics at Cambridge University, using the voice of Marcus Sidonius Falx, a fictitious Roman of noble birth and a wealthy slave owner, as the narrator.

It is Falx who gives us detailed advice on purchasing slaves, how to encourage them to work harder, how to punish them and, in general, how to ensure we can get the best out of them while taking care they don't murder us in the meantime.

It even touches on the delicate matter of controlling sex among slaves, as well as with their owners, and when to set them free, which was apparently quite a common reward for being a good slave. The content gives us an insight into what life was like when people had a very different mindset to today and should be read in that context.

One wealthy Roman apparently kept a slave solely to note and remember the names of all the people they met and then remind his master of whom they were when required. Now that would have been useful. How many of us encounter embarrassing moments when we cannot recall the name of someone we know well? Politicians and auctioneers take note.

I would imagine also that anyone involved in difficult negotiations with intransigent trade union leaders might yearn for a time when you simply told your slaves what to do and if they refused or made a botch of the task, you could have them whipped or even put to death.

While the narrator is a fictional character, the book contains fascinating historical data as well as some horrific descriptions of the treatment meted out to any slave who attempted to defy his or her owner. But there were also many who gained their freedom and even went on to become wealthy Roman citizens and slave owners in their own right.

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How To Manage Your Slaves deals with the period when the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers, but we must also remember that slavery was the norm in Ireland and Britain from long before that time, and continued for many centuries.

In the early fifth century, St Patrick was captured and taken as a slave by Irish raiders while St Brigid was the daughter of Brocca, a Christian Pict and a slave in Ireland. Early Irish law also makes numerous references to slaves and semi-free sencléithe, and from the ninth to the 12th century, Dublin in particular was a major slave trading centre.

The King James I Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid-1600s, thousands of Irish men and women were sold to Antigua and Montserrat and by then, 70pc of the total population of Montserrat consisted of Irish slaves.

In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers. Some will argue they were "indentured servants" but, in reality, there was no difference.

The British were not the sole perpetrators of course and on June 20, 1631, the village of Baltimore in Co Cork was attacked by Algerian pirates from the North African Barbary Coast. They killed two villagers and captured almost the whole population of over 100 people, who were put in irons and taken to a life of slavery in North Africa.

It was only by the early 19th century that the ethics and morality of enslaving people was questioned and eventually banned, although it still continues to the present day in a more limited manner and under various guises.

Throughout the 'free' world, there are domestic servants still living in slavery and immigrants kept in awful living conditions. We are told that some are often paid virtually no wages, but are afraid to speak up for fear of being deported.

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The man who has nothing is truly free

Slavery comes in many forms and it is said that the only man who is truly free is the man who has nothing.

Some who own their homes become slaves to maintaining it and keeping up with mortgage payments.

Then there are wage slaves who spend their lives in the pursuit of money for status and to support and educate their families without spending time with their children, later realising it is now too late and life has passed them by.

Others, as they commute to work, might at times gaze in envy at a dropout from mainstream society living a simple life in the countryside. In the past, hermits and religious solitaries shunned wealth and chose poverty.

It is a form of freedom that Jesus, for one, recommended to his followers when he said: "Cast away your earthly goods and follow me."

So what is a slave? Many are slaves to alcohol and drugs, and most of us have become slaves to consumerism.

Just ponder on the aspirations of the average family in the 1950s and what they considered adequate for comfort and compare them to the same family today. It's a sobering thought.

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