Slavery in Essos: Daenerys Savior, Economy Destroyer, or Both?

Abstract

Although in modern-day society slavery is disapproved of and illegal, it is not that way in the continent of Essos in George R.R. Martins Game of Thrones. In the television and book series it is an integral part of the economy and culture of the region. Daenerys Targaryen is sold by her brother to the leader of the Dothraki; a tribe of barbarians who deal in gathering and selling slaves for whatever they cannot get themselves as they do not believe in money. Because of this experience and with her new-found power as queen of the Dothraki, she cannot sit and watch when faced with the reality of how the slaves, especially women, are treated and come to be. This starts her quest to free any and all slaves she comes across. Although it is a noble cause, she does it without a plan and due to this and her actions she damages the economy and sends many places into a state of despair as the newly freed slaves have no idea what they are to do now without any place to go, food to eat, or a job. Everything she does is short-lived though because through begging and reasoning from former slaves, merchants, and towns, slavery is gradually reinstated.

Consequences of Abolishing Slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones

a Digital Essay by Paulina Milling

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones has taken the world by storm, becoming more popular with every book and season. It is also chock-full of controversy due to its graphic depiction and conceptual representations of incest, rape, nudity, racism, sexism, and slavery. As the series progresses the viewer watches one of the main characters, Daenerys, on her quest to take back her family’s position on the Iron Throne, travel through the continent of Essos across the sea from Westeros and grow into her own. On this journey she comes across many towns and cultures filled with slavery; a practice that she abhorres. While Daenerys’ intentions of helping the people of Essos through eradicating slavery was noble, her impact on it was short-term and damaging due to her lack of understanding and consideration to the nature of the economy in the continent. She has no plan for what to do with the freed slaves, destroys a substantial portion of the economy, and due to a lack of instituting an economic replacement or remedy to the aforementioned abolished slavery, she only manages to really stop it in the short-run.

Daenerys starts out as just another meek woman character of higher class, with slaves and no real say in her future as everything is up to her brother. After she is sold for an army and faced with the cruel reality of where the slaves the Dothrakians sell and trade come from, this changes. Due to her position and newly found confidence from becoming khaleesi, she acts on impulse, despite knowing what she is doing is against their ways, and claims the women slaves so as to protect them. Because she acts rashly, however, she is without a long-term plan.

“I am the blood of the dragon, Daenerys Targaryen reminded herself as she turned her face away. She pressed her lips together and hardened her heart and rode on toward the gate… Slaves, Dany thought. Khal Drogo would drive them downriver to one of the towns on Slaver’s Bay. She wanted to cry, but she told herself that she must be strong… Dany’s hand clenched hard around the reins, and she turned the silver’s head. “Make them stop,” she commanded Ser Jorah…“Princess,” he said, “you have a gentle heart, but you do not understand. This is how it has always been. Those men have shed blood for the khal. Now they claim their reward.” “I will not have her harmed,” Dany said. “I claim her…” They passed other women being raped. Each time Dany reined up, sent her khas to make an end to it, and claimed the victim as slave…“You cannot claim them all, child,” Ser Jorah said, the fourth time they stopped, while the warriors of her khas herded her new slaves behind her. “I am khaleesi, heir to the Seven Kingdoms, the blood of the dragon,” Dany reminded him. “It is not for you to tell me what I cannot do.”[1]

This is one of the first times that her true nature comes out, showing the reader how she truly cares for people. On the other hand, she does not have a plan for these women, claiming them all as “hers”. They are saved from rape and slavery, but in the process become her protected slaves. In the end she may have helped their fate but does not do much to change it. Her actions here come with some harsh consequences as she messes with the tribe culturally, socially, and economically. Culturally, she is going against the customs of the Dothraki, putting her position of someone with power in an uneasy place. Socially, she is a woman and her power comes from her husband. She has called her Khal into question because although he is the strongest, her interference in the matters of the tribe that she does not have a right to interfere with, has such a substantial impact on the way the tribe operates both obviously and in underlying ways, that their position becomes challenged. This causes discord and challenges of strength against her husband from the tribe. Not only socially though, she has also put them to a disadvantage economically. The Dothraki take those they do not kill and sell them as slaves. Through her actions the tribe has just lost out on their pillaging “rewards” and the woman slaves they were going to sell. This is how they trade when they need things from others because they do not have or believe in any type of money system and are very primitive with how they interact. The slaves that she saves are not to be sold off as they are “hers” and under her protection. This is lost trading and therefore economic value. Not only are these women slaves not making the tribe anything but they are also causing them to use up valuable resources to keep them fed. Her violent outbursts in the name of ‘saving slaves’ just get worse from there and many come back to haunt her. The impact of her actions continues to have a direct influence, from the healer she “saved” ruining her position in the tribe and killing her baby, to the economic shocks it sends through the tribe. This healer causes Daenerys to lose her baby and her husband to become a barely-alive vegetable which leads to the tribe splitting up as only a few will follow their Khal-less Khaleesi. Her small group has nothing economically and this greatly hurts the people around her as well as her ultimate cause to take the Iron Throne. [2] As well as the initial impact, her increasingly violent actions to free the slaves impact her and her position of power, throwing her position as savior versus conquer into question, which negatively impacts the economy. The worse a ruler is perceived due to their actions by the people and those doing business around and with the ruler in question, the worse business economically becomes for them. This can be seen when Hizdahr zo Loraq begs Daenerys to allow him a burial of her father, whom she crucified because of her false perception of the man.

Because he is a much-beloved man and she crucifies him in a fit of anger, as well as with her other actions in the town, she damages her reputation and this weakens her appearance as a ruler. The way she takes over these towns as well causes others to not want to do business with them because she is viewed as a conqueror and others do not want to risk themselves. She damages the economy with her lack of a long-term plan, especially with the freeing the slaves that the economy in Essos run off of. These rash actions without a plan come back to her in many ways as they directly impact the economy. Her uncertain status as ruler later in the series causes and displays the economic instability, as she does not truly understand the slave’s state of mind or the economy of Essos and especially Slaver’s Bay where the economy runs on slave trading.

To fully understand the economic impact of Daenerys’ rash actions to free the slaves, one must first understand the world economy she affects. As explained when Ned Stark first becomes the hand of the king, the treasury is empty and the crown is in debt. It is in debt to other households, the Iron Bank, and some trading cartels. [3] The largest problem with this is the fact that,“[t]he Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is pretty much a basic feudal economy, generating very little income of its own. Instead, it has turned to the nearby Free Cities—each of which has a bank and a thriving trade in spices, cloths or slaves—for loans to fund its campaigns.” [4] This is extremely important to note the connection of Westeros and Essos as it shows just how much of an impact Daenerys has because her negative hit on the economy in Essos reverberates back and is felt in Westeros. As said later in the series when the economic impact of Daenerys’ actions starts becoming clearer due to the crippling state of cities, “Qarth is a city of merchants, and they love the clink of silver coins, the gleam of yellow gold. When you smash the slave trade, the blow [is] felt from Westeros to Asshai. Qarth depends upon its slaves. So too Tolos, New Ghis, Lys, Tyrosh, Volantis…” [5] Her actions send ripples all across the lands and affects dealings everywhere. The money in the free cities is generated through trade throughout the continent, including dealings with slaves and the product made by slaves such as the ones found in parts Slaver’s Bay that create beautiful products that are then traded and sold.

This blow is crippling because slavery is an integral part in the trading and dealings throughout the region. Slaves are an essential part of the way that trading the series works. “The slave trade supports the economy of Essos… and its influence is felt as far as Westeros. If the slave trade in A Song of Ice and Fire is half as important as that in the real world at its height, then no less than the 0.3 per cent of the world population was sold and bought at auctions…” [6] These slaves are everything from soldiers to crafters to tutors and create many of the products that are sold by the merchants; the key source of the wealth of the cities. There are the extremely wealthy and the poor and slaves; there is no middle class. By abolishing slavery, Daenerys has created such a large void that the trade of spices, clothes, etc. cannot fill it and sh has not done anything to help fill it with a substitution. Slavery is not the only thing that these towns depend on, but it plays such a large role in their business of trading and the overall economy, that it is something that cannot simply be abolished without consequences. To put it simply, “Daenerys destroys the local economy – slave trading” [7]. There are certain things that can be recovered from with time and a plan, but Daenerys is not one for thinking much past removing something she can not stand. One such example, similar to the slavery but on a smaller scale, is when Daenerys refuses to reopen the fighting pits due to her personal ethics. Despite the benefits and importance that they held for the people and economy of the town, she continually refuses. This paired with the lack of slaves puts the economy of this town and others in turmoil. The benefits are logical but not moral, but there are many, as stated by Daenerys herself:

“The fighting pits have been a part of Meereen since the city was founded. The combats are profoundly religious in nature, a blood sacrifice to the gods of Ghis. The mortal art of Ghis is not mere butchery, but a display of courage, skill, and strength most pleasing to the gods. Victorious fighters are well fed, pampered, and acclaimed, and the heroic slain are honored and remembered. By reopening the pits I would show the people of Meereen that I respect their ways and customs. The pits are far-famed across the world. They draw trade to Meereen, and fill the city’s coffers with coin from the far ends of the earth. All men share a taste for blood, a taste the pits help slake. In that way they make Meereen more tranquil. For criminals condemned to die upon the sands, the pits represent a judgment by battle, a last chance for a man to prove his innocence.” [8]

It may not be of the highest morals, and may seem horrible to some, but it is what works. Because of the large role that slavery plays in the economy, Daenerys’ impulsive actions without being thought out completely or well has a very damaging impact. And because she has no replacement plan to take slavery’s role in the economy, its abolishment is short-lived simply because it is not sustainable without it. [9] “Dany’s actions represent a top-down, violent attempt to reform a society she knows literally nothing about.” [10] To make it worse, she does not care about fixing the problems she created, she just cares about keeping her “freed men” that way. If she had done it gradually and come up with a better system or anything to take its place or, if it did not play such a large role in society, than maybe she would have been successful. Unfortunately, she is either unaware or uncaring of the economic impact of her continued actions and the way in which they were handled. Because of this it all falls apart a little by little as the economy and the people suffering due to its increasing failure, work to right what she has done. In many ways this is by subtly re-instituting slavery.

One of the biggest issues with taking away anything essential to a system, whether it is societal, ecological, or economical is that, unless there is something to take its place, it will fall apart and then work to right itself. This is usually done by creating a substitute or re-admitting whatever was removed to begin with. This can be seen in Game of Thrones from the violent acts of freedom performed by Daenerys to the people both voluntarily and forcibly being brought back into slavery as the series progresses.

Freedom may sound fantastic and in a modern society such as what we have today, slavery, even talking about it, is taboo. However, in the world of Game of Thrones, in the continent of Essos, it is a vital piece of their society, culture, and economy. Once the slaves are considered “free men” that piece is gone. Everything is impacted, even the slaves themselves, and not necessarily in a positive way. These freed people go to Daenerys claiming her as her mother, but it is not solely because of her position of apparent “savior”. They need her. All they know is what it is to be a slave.

Those that can will work for her or be her soldiers because that is what they know. They create “a family [that is] conceived not in genuine compatibility or a shared vision of the world but in desperate need and a rush of affirmation [and this] contains great potential for harm” [11] Just like how slaves who were freed in 1862 “found themselves as dependent on the Federal government for their existence as they had been on their masters.” People are homeless as they no longer are being taken care of by their masters, and many starve to death, unable to take care of themselves or their family. [12] Just like in the real world, these slaves are now homeless, jobless, and of the lowest position in society. They do not have the ability to much care for themselves and do not have a place, so they are forced to depend on Daenerys, who does not do much in the way of a ruling government past the “freeing of the slaves”. Many are unable to adjust to this new lifestyle and those that were tutors and slaves of a more delicate nature that were used to more lavish living-styles due to what type of jobs and for whom they did the work for are extremely unhappy in their new-found circumstances. “[They] are well spoken and gently born… [and as slaves they were] prized. In the Free Cities they [are] tutors, scribes, bed slaves, even healers and priests. They [are used to] sleep[ing] in soft beds, eat[ing] rich foods, and dwell[ing] in manses. Here they have lost all, and live in fear and squalor.”[13] As Daenerys states when Jorah Mormont suggests that she has liberated the slaves, not conquered them, “people learn to love their chains.” [14] This rings especially true with those that lived lives they can not hope to have as anything but the prized slaves they were. As time progresses, those that cannot cope set in motion the natural remedy of the society, socially and economically: the gradual reinstatement of slaves.

Supply and demand is a simple fundamental principle and is especially prevalent in trading-based societies such as what is found in Essos. It goes like this: if there is a demand for a product or service, someone will supply it. Because of the dependency on slaves, the sudden lack of supply and overwhelming demand further pushes the system to restore itself. As the regions around Essos feel the strain from the loss of slaves due to Daenerys’ interference in Slaver’s Bay demand grows and before long many are begging to buy slaves, offering prices double and triple to what they are worth. She holds out but in the end gives in as there are slaves filling the riverside begging to be sold to those that wish to buy them [15]. Not only this, but her disruptive actions have created enemies and caused there to be plotting against her with plans to enslave those she “freed” [16]. She ends up allowing the slaves that wish to sell themselves to do just that. Due to her lack of plan or instigation of something to help the weakened economy, most, if not everything, she does falls apart and as soon as she leaves the town goes back to the way it was before long.

This is a prime example of how the system corrects itself if left alone for long enough. A prevailing economic theory to describe these actions of the damaged economy is one from Adam Smith during the 18th century. It states that in a free market society, like the one found in the trading dominant culture of Game of Thrones, the economy will keep itself at its most effective and efficient without the government stepping in except to enforce the law, as if controlled by an ‘invisible hand’ [17]. Daenerys may have stepped in and stopped slavery, but that is the only thing that she has done to interfere. Because of this limited participation, the ‘invisible hand’ works through the people to slowly right itself and gradually reintegrate slavery. She has not implemented any type of governing system such as seen in modern society and because of this she cannot compete with it except to slow its progress in fixing what she damaged.

In the end, although she has good intentions, Daenerys’ quest to abolish slavery and give freedom to the people is short-lived and ultimately in vain. Had it not been done impulsively and instead done gradually with a plan, replacing slavery in the economy with something else or finding a way to progressively phase it out, then maybe it would have worked. However, Daenerys has neither a plan nor an understanding of society and how the economy fully depends on the slave trade and the consequences of simply abolishing it. Because of this she does more harm than good damaging the economy and, in the end, getting nothing but enemies and short-term results.

Endnotes

[1] Martin, George R.R. “61. Daenerys.” A Game of Thrones. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1996. 456-7.
[2] Game of Thrones, “Fire and Blood,” HBO, June 19, 2011, written by David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss, directed by Alan Taylor.
[3] Martin, George R.R. “61. Daenerys.” A Game of Thrones. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1996. 133.
[4] Boyle, Catherine. “The Economy Lessons Hidden in ‘Game of Thrones'” CNBC. April 4, 2014. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/id/101554292.
[5] Martin, George R. R. A Dance with Dragons. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2011. 270.
[6] Schito, Marco. “Queen Daenerys, the Slave Trade, and the Utilitarian Dilemma (en).” Rethinking Economics Italia. September 10, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://www.rethinkecon.it/queen-daenerys-the-slave-trade-and-the-utilitarian-dilemma-en/.
[7] Frankel, Valerie. How Game of Thrones Will End: The History, Politics, and Pop Culture Driving the Show to Its Finish. Thought Catalog, 2014. 148.
[8] Martin, George R. R. A Feast for Crows. London, England: Harper/Voyager, 2011. 583.
[9] Rosenberg, Alyssa. “A Song Of Fire And Ice, And Failed Insitutions.” ThinkProgress. August 26, 2011. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2011/08/26/304752/a-song-of-fire-and-ice-and-failed-insitutions/.
[10] Marvin, Taylor. “Game of Thrones, Racism, and White Saviors.” Smoke and Stir. June 22, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://smokeandstir.org/2013/06/22/game-of-thrones-racism-and-white-saviors/.
[11] Rosenberg, Alyssa. “‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: “Mhysa”.” ThinkProgress. June 10, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2013/06/10/2127411/game-of-thrones-recap-mhysa/.
[12] “Freedmen, The Freed Slaves of the Civil War.” Shotgun’s Home of the American Civil War. February 16, 2012. Accessed April 5, 2015
[13] Martin, George R. R. A Storm of Swords. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2000.667.
[14] Game of Thrones, “Mhysa,” HBO, June 9, 2013, written by David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter.
[15] Martin, George R. R. A Storm of Swords. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2000.668.
[16] “‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5 Spoilers: What Happens to Slaves in Meereen.” International Business Times – US Ed., September 3, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2015, http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.wlu.ca/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA381296312&v=2.1&u=wate18005&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=8766078744bc9fbd34dfdd57ae5b6d51/.
[17] “Invisible Hand Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. November 23, 2003. Accessed April 6, 2015. http://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/invisiblehand.asp.

Bibliography – Print

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Media –

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