How Christian Slave Owners Used the Bible Story of Ham to Justify Their Enslavement of Africans

The transatlantic slave trade was one of the darkest chapters in human history, and its impact on the African population cannot be overstated. Among the many reasons used to rationalize this inhumane practice, some Christian slave owners relied on the biblical story of Ham to justify the enslavement of Africans.
The Bible Justification of Slavery: Interpreting the curse of ham
Image credit: atlantablackstar.com

The story of Ham originates from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. According to the narrative, Noah got himself overdrunk that he went to bed stark naked. In his unsightly state, his second son, Ham, saw him and for some ignoble reason, Ham’s best instinct was to tell his brothers, Shem and Japheth, about their drunk and naked father. Unlike Ham, Shem and Japheth covered Noah’s nakedness without looking at it. When Noah awoke from his drunken sleep, he was greatly displeased to learn of what Ham did. In his rage, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, to be a slave to Shem and Japheth.

The Bible didn’t say why Noah drunk himself senseless. It also didn’t say how Noah learned of Ham’s stupidity. Yet, the most troubling part of this story is why he cursed Canaan and not Ham? Is it possible that Noah was still drunk when he laid the curse wrongly on his grandson? Many accounts have tried to give historical reasons for cursing Canaan instead of Ham, but it is difficult to tell which of these accounts is true.

Biblical Justification for Slavery: Interpreting the Curse of Ham

The story of Noah and his sons is one that struggles to make sense. This makes it a story with the potential that man could forge into a tool to serve his purpose. So, it happened that during the era of massive slave trade in the US, man found a task for this story.

The slaveholders claimed this passage of the Bible was a justification that slavery was biblical and shouldn’t be frowned upon. Despite that the story made no mention of the skin color of Noah’s children, these slaveholders claimed that the black race descended from Ham, and like Canaan, to come from Ham is to be a slave. Some slaveholders removed Canaan entirely from the story and bestowed the curse on Ham whom they claimed was the progenitor of the black race.

Biblical Justification for Slavery: Interpreting the Curse of Ham

The Christian slave owners felt a strong need to validate slavery as biblical, as many of them adhered to Christianity. In an attempt to endorse their morally reprehensible trade, they repeatedly manipulated the story of Noah and his sons to suit their interests. By doing so, they hoped to alleviate any guilt and secure religious backing for their exploitative practices.

The misuse of the biblical story of Ham had severe consequences for millions of African men, women, and children who were forced into slavery. By distorting religious teachings to suit their interests, Christian slave owners perpetuated a cruel system of exploitation, causing immeasurable suffering and loss for generations of Africans and their descendants.

Furthermore, such misinterpretations tarnished the reputation of Christianity itself, as the religion was used to perpetrate and endorse an institution as abhorrent as slavery. This has led to a long-lasting legacy of mistrust and skepticism toward Christianity among many African communities.

Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie is a writer and a reader. He is also a firm believer that man's idiocy is the reason he claims he's a higher animal.

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