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Core Course 1: Prof. Dr. Klaus Weber

Historical Practices and Discourse of Unfree Labour


Course description:

Only in Western Civilisation has individual freedom become the core social and political value from which most other political values derived. In many non-Western cultures the very word for freedom (or what comes closest to it) refers to a lack of social integration: delinquency, debauchery, failure etc. Yet, the emergence of the Western idea(l) of freedom stands in sharp contrast to the fact that European Empires established one of the most oppressive and efficient systems of bondage ever: New World plantation slavery. Some scholars claim that such sharp contrasts, from Ancient Greece and Rome to American sugar and cotton plantations, have been the precondition for the modern concept of freedom in the first place.

This course will compare forms of unfree labour around the globe, from Antiquity to the 19th and 20th C., and highlight the economic, cultural, climatic and geographic conditions which shaped those labour regimes. Some systems, e.g. plantation slavery in the Americas, have been designed to serve capitalist eco-nomic interest. In many African societies slavery was meant to strengthen clan and family based economies. Some states built their power on armies of military slaves, or employed slaves even in bureaucracy. In comparing the variety of these regimes, the course will focus on the line between slavery and non-slavery, which was drawn rather sharply by Roman law, but quite blurred in the Muslim world and in many African societies. It shall have a particular focus on the rare moments in history when the rejection of slavery became dominant even among the free portion of the population.


Obligatory reading:


1.  The Emergence of the Idea of Freedom: Ancient Greece and Rome

Patterson, Orlando: 1991, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, New York: Basic Books (Chapter 13: The Triumph of the Roman Freedman, 227-257).

2.  Serfdom and Slavery in the Early Modern World, and Discourses of Abolition

Kolchin, Peter: 1980, In Defense of Servitude: American Proslavery and Russian Proserfdom Arguments, 1760-1860, in: The American Historical Review 85 (4): 809-827.

3.  Legacies of New World Slavery: Gender & Class

Anderson, Bridget: 2000, Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour, London – New York: Zed Books (Chapter 8: The Legacy of Slavery: The Amercian South and Contemporary Domestic Workers, 126-158).

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5.  Who is a Slave?

McKee, Sally: 2008, Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy, in: Slavery & Abolition 29-3: 305-326.

6.  Forced Labour in the 20th Century

Herbert, Ulrich: 2000, Forced Labourers in the Third Reich: An Overview, in: International Labour and Working Class History 58 (Fall): 192-218.


Recommended reading: