The destination for history

Slavery in history


Slavery has existed for millennia in varying forms in all parts of the world. Affecting all races, gender and age groups. It is only in recent times that it has been globally outlawed with the United Nations General Assembly adopting the declaration of human rights in 1948 that specified that freedom from slavery is a universal human right and it is to be prohibited in all forms.

Historically, there are many different types of slavery including chattel, bonded, forced labour and sexual slavery. The key characteristics of slavery are ones generally agreed such as the loss of freedom of movement and legal rights.

In the ancient world, slavery developed for a number of reasons including economic necessity especially in civilizations and agricultural economies where larger workforces were needed. Domination was another factor. War produced not only spoils such as gold but also people to take as slaves which eventually also became a form of status symbol. The more slaves you had, the wealthier and more influential you were.

The oldest known slave society was the Mesopotamian and Sumerian civilisations located in the Iran/Iraq region between 6000-2000BCE. The oldest known written reference of slavery is found in the Hammurabi Code of 1754 BCE which states "If anyone take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death."

Egypt was also another civilisation whose economy also depended on slavery. The relationship between slave and master was set down in law with some restrictions such as slave owners could not force child slaves to do unduly harsh physical labour. There were no slave markets and any transaction of buying or selling slaves had to be overseen by government officials. There is also the famous biblical narrative of the Exodus whereby the Israelites were led to freedom by Moses with archaeologists theorising that this may have happened in the New Kingdom period (1550-712 BC). This old testament narrative is one of the earliest known written record of slaves attaining freedom.

Ancient Greece could be argued to be the world’s first true ‘slave society’ whereby the majority of the economy was dependent on slave labour. Slaves made up a third of the total population with the wealthier classes viewing manual labour with distain. However, Ancient Greece did offer a form of manumission for slaves whereby they could buy their freedom or were freed at their master’s discretion. It wasn’t total freedom, as they never were legally allowed to become a full citizens and the majority were still obligated to provide some duties to their former masters. There is also some evidence of the ethics of slavery being questioned. One such case is Bishop Gregory of Nyssa who lived in the 4th century BC who argued that ‘slavery was incompatible with humanities creation in the image of God’.

With the decline of Greece and the expansion of Rome, slavery also expanded. At the height of the Roman empire up to 30% of the total population were enslaved with the majority being made up of conquered peoples. We also see the emergence of slavery used for ‘sport’ rather than labour such as gladiatorial fights and large-scale brothels. Slave revolts were not uncommon during this time. There were again strict rules around slavery and even harsher punishments for slaves who revolted. One such case included a slave who killed his master. As retribution, all the slaves in the master’s house were executed. Slaves during this period could also operate as skilled craftsmen and women such as hairdressers, painters and even tutors to young children. Rome differed from Greece in that freed slaves could become full legal Roman citizens with rights.

The fall of the Roman Empire led to what is commonly known as ‘the dark ages’ or medieval period. With the decline of the Roman empire came the loss of large-scale markets. We do not concretely know what happened to the large proportion of Roman slaves, presumably with the large-scale loss of the estate of the masters and ruling classes, slave prices crashed or slaves were simply left to their own devices. In Britain we can see a slow reorganisation of society after the Romans left and the emergence of serfdom much later. One interesting story is of an English slave called Balthild, who rose to be queen of the Frankish king Clovis II in the 7th Century. As Queen Regent for her young son, she abolished the trading of Christian slaves and freed all young child slaves.

During the Anglo-Saxon years slavery was still prevalent especially so when Vikings had invaded and conquered large parts of the island. Vikings left no written records (few could read nor write) but there is plenty of archaeological evidence of slave markets, the largest being in Dublin. Bristol also had a thriving Viking slave market years before becoming infamous with its links with the Transatlantic Slave trade. Viking slaves were mostly made up of captives or spoils of war or were simply kidnapped in raids. Slaves had absolutely no rights under the Vikings and were treated as little more (or less) than cattle and murdered at random for fun or part of rituals. Many slaves were beheaded and female slaves were frequently raped as pregnant slaves fetched higher prices at markets as a ‘2 for 1’ deal.

After the conquest of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066, the Doomsday book was commissioned to survey the land for tax reasons. What also became apparent in this manuscript is that approximately 10% of the British population were classed as slaves. In 1102 the church condemned slavery, but it held no legislative power to act. Slave market still thrived but culturally the practice of slavery began to change with early abolitionists such as Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester who preached regularly to the crowds at Bristol to end the practice. By the 1200’s slavery by its old definition had completely died out in the British Isles.

With the decline of ‘traditional’ slavery, we see the emergence of Serfdom in the British Isles and in feudal Europe. Serfs were different to the previous definition of slaves as they were not classed a property and were entitled to protection and justice. However, they did not have free movement and had a debt-bondage to their Lord and legally tied to the land. They were forbidden to move without consent and in return for shelter they were required to pay tribute in the form of cash or labour. If they grew their own corn, they were legally obliged to pay the Lord to use the mill he owned to grind it. Serfdom continued for a few centuries until the ‘Black Death’ in the 14th Century.  The ‘black death’ is the main catalyst for the decline of serfdom. With a reduced population and a high demand for workers, serfs found themselves in a position where they could negotiate for their freedom as well as their wages. The black death also transformed feudal lords into landlords with the end of feudal dues however, we still see serfdom survive in some places such as Eastern Europe and Russia until the 19th century.

Indentured servitude was another form of slavery that emerged much later during the colonial era. This was a form of contract whereby a person would enter a fixed term of servitude for a certain number of years. Prisoners could escape capital punishment and agree to become an indentured servant for a period of 7 years or more in the colonies or a person could enter this willingly in exchange for passage to the America’s. Usually it was the poorest of society who entered this form of debt-bondage. For the duration of their servitude they were bonded to their ‘master’. Their freedoms were restricted, they were forbidden to marry without consent, did not have freedom of movement and did not receive the level of justice in courts that a non-indentured person would receive. If a female indentured servant became pregnant during the contract, 9 months plus was added on at the end as she would not have been able to fulfil all that was required of her labour-wise.

This type of servitude (or ‘slavery’) carried on alongside the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 17th, 18th and partly into the 19th centuries. With the decline of the workforce on indentured slaves, a new labour force had to be found which brings us to the most infamous of trades in Africa.
Slavery in Africa had been around for thousands of years and many rulers in Africa were keen to trade with Europeans for goods and materials not locally available such as tin and other metals. The Portuguese were the first ‘Western’ slavers in Africa and with Papal support captured the African port of Ceuta in 1415. Slave trading of native Africans was relatively small scale during the 15th century as the Portuguese and Spanish were enslaving the native populace in central and southern America. It was after these natives started to die out in large numbers of European diseases that they started to look for other sources of manual labour. Large scale sugar production started around the area of Brazil and it was this enterprise which could be argued to have kick started the Transatlantic Slave Trade. There were plenty of voices however who were against enslavement such Bartolomé de las Casas in the 1500’s.
Between the period of early 1400’s to the mid-17th Century, it was the Spanish and Portuguese who pioneered and dominated this slave trade. The British did not yet have any established and fully-fledged colonies until the mid to late 17th century and so looked for easier markets whilst Spain guarded the trade. Between 1570 to 1640, Britain only made 3 slave trading voyages (discounting any smuggling and privateering). Peace between Spain and Britain marked the beginning of Britain’s entry into full scale slave trading with the flourishing of British colonies in the Caribbean and Americas. However, most of the early slaves were not of African descent but European. 75% of 17th century emigrants were indentured servants.
As tobacco and sugar became products of mass consumption, the Royal African Company was founded in 1672 and had a monopoly on the trade which only ended in 1698. As this monopoly ended, the transatlantic slave trade began to be dominated by British merchants. Bristol was a major port for commerce for the trade (shipping goods to Africa in exchange for slaves and importing goods from the Americas) between 1720 – 1740 before Liverpool took over as the dominant port until abolition in the early 19th century. In total. 3.4 million Africans were taken from their homeland and shipped across the Atlantic. To read more on the British movement for Abolition click here

Other slave trades were also ongoing included the Barbary pirate raids on various European countries (including Britain). Ordinary people were taken forcibly from sea ports and villages and taken to northern Africa. It is estimated up to 1.2 million Europeans were enslaved between 1500 to 1900 and lost in the Ottoman empire. The trade declined after the United States, Great Britain and other European nations fought a war against the pirates in the early 19th century. It finally ended after France conquered and colonised the North African region.

Slavery soon disappeared from western nations throughout the 19th century and wasn’t fully outlawed globally until the 20th century with the UN resolution although a few further countries still kept the practice even up to the 1980’s. Sadly, slavery has evolved and disappeared into the shadows and people smuggling is still very much a lucrative trade well into the 21st Century with the majority of victims women involved in sex trafficking. It is estimated that there are currently 40million victims of slavery today.

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