New Internationalist

A Brief History Of Slavery

Issue 337

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Slavery / HISTORY

Toussaint L'Ouverture. Photo: Anti-slavery International. A brief history of Slavery

Slavery began with civilization. For hunter-gatherers slaves would have been an unaffordable luxury – there wouldn’t have been enough food to go round. With the growth of cultivation, those defeated in warfare could be taken as slaves.

Western slavery goes back 10,000 years to Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, where a male slave was worth an orchard of date palms. Female slaves were called on for sexual services, gaining freedom only when their masters died.

Early abolitionists arose in the form of two Jewish sects, the Essenes and the Therapeutae, who abhorred slave-owning and tried buying slaves in order to free them.

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The ancient Greeks preferred women and children as slaves for domestic work rather than rebellious men who were simply slaughtered. Any child born to slave women thus had a father who was free – a status that was also conferred upon them. With the growth of the Greek city states and the commercial production of cotton the demand for agricultural slaves grew, leading to an increase in warfare. In the fifth century BC, Athens had more slaves than free citizens.

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The Roman Empire sprawled across the entire Mediterranean region and slave trading was big business. Slaves were trained for all possible functions, with gladiators fighting to the death for public entertainment at the extreme end. The Roman emperors owned thousands of slaves to indulge their every whim. They acted as clerks, secretaries and even tax agents. Thousands were worked to death mining gold and silver for the Empire. Plantation slavery began in Rome in the second century BC. Sicily witnessed a series of slave revolts, culminating in the great uprising led by Spartacus. When it was finally crushed, 6,000 slaves were crucified all along the Appian way from Rome to Capua.

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Medieval Europe
In the early Middle Ages the Church condoned slavery – opposing it only when Christians were enslaved by ‘infidels’. Vikings raided Britain from 800 AD and sold their captives to markets in Istanbul and Islamic Spain. Religion was no barrier to the slave trade – Christians, Muslims and Jews all partook. The Black Death – a plague epidemic – made demand for domestic slaves soar in Italy. Slaves were often suspected of poisoning their masters and punishments were dire. One accused had her flesh torn off by hot pincers as she was drawn through the streets of Florence. In the 16th century Pope Paul III tried to stem Protestantism by threatening those who left the Catholic Church with enslavement.

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The transatlantic trade
The Portuguese inaugurated the Atlantic slave trade, soon to be joined by the Spanish. Christopher Columbus’ conquest of the Caribbean virtually wiped out the indigenous culture. Before long other colonial nations had poured into the Americas to plunder them. Slave labour produced sugar, cotton and tobacco. With the Indians dying out, African slaves were imported – 900,000 had landed by 1600. The African nations that supplied the slaves had a long history of slavery themselves. European colonists flocked to West Africa trading liquor, tobacco, arms and trinkets for live cargo.

Thus began the notorious Middle Passage where slaves would be loaded lying down in the holds of ships, often on their sides to preserve space. The British were the prime slavers, bringing goods from England to exchange for African slaves whom they then supplied to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World. This triangular trade built Britain’s fortune.

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Slaves to sugar
Sugar was the mainstay of slavery in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. In Brazil the Portuguese resisted installing even the most basic machinery to replace human labour; they worked their slaves to death within a span of a few years. Numerous African slaves escaped to the Brazilian interior, forming their own Republic of Palmares in a famous revolt which lasted 70 years. In 1696 when Palmares fell, all the leaders committed suicide rather than be enslaved again. Haiti, under French dominance, was importing 40,000 slaves a year when the fuse for a spectacular revolt was lit. Toussaint L’Ouverture took charge, forcing an abolitionist decree through the French Assembly and becoming the first black man to govern a European colony. Eventually under Napoleon’s despotic reign, Toussaint was toppled by one of his own supporters. But Haiti gained freedom rather than returning to slavery.

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Gutenberg bronze depicting abolitionists surrounded by slaves begging for their freedom.
Photo: Anti-Slavery International

Abolitionist moves
The 18th century saw the birth of abolitionist groups in the Western world. In 1804 the Danes made the slave trade illegal; Britain followed in 1807 and the Americans a year later. Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 a few years before the complete abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. But slave smuggling and slavery itself continued. The economic climate was changing – Britain’s industries, built on the profits of plantation slavery, now sought a labour force closer to home.

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The US
Slaves helped America win freedom from the British during the American War of Independence, without, however, gaining their own. The slogan, ‘All men are created equal’ had a hollow ring when even Thomas Jefferson who wrote it owned slaves. The invention of the cotton gin revolutionized the American South’s fortunes – in 1860 a cotton harvest worth $200 million was picked by slaves working under the lash. Slaves did every imaginable job that their masters saw fit, with skilled slaves being hired out for further profit. Fugitives escaped under cover of night travelling over wild terrain to the Northern states and Canada – their routes became known as the Underground Railroad. The Civil War in 1861 was the death knell of American slavery – over 38,000 black people died fighting in it. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery.

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Chinese child slave.
Photo: Anti-Slavery International

A global menace
Slavery continued, however, in other parts of the world following emancipation in North America. Indigenous slavery in sub-Saharan Africa, debt bondage and forced labour in European colonies and domestic slavery in Nigeria and the Indian sub-continent thrived. Nine million lost their lives to forced labour and genocide in the Belgian Congo. In China a system of child slavery known as Mui Tsai, where children were sold for domestic work, persisted until the second half of the 20th century. In Peru atrocities committed by a British-registered company against the indigenous Indians enslaved to tap rubber led to boycotts. It was estimated that every ton of latex produced by the Peruvian Amazon Company had cost seven lives.

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The long shadow
With the formation of the United Nations every member state was obliged to outlaw slavery – at least in principle. But past slavery throws a long shadow, as evidenced by various movements for reparations. In the US reparations for slavery have sparked heated debate. And recently Mary Robinson, the outgoing UN high commissioner for human rights, responded positively to suggestions of development aid for African countries from which slaves were taken by Europeans. In Aotearoa/New Zealand an independent tribunal recommended that the government compensate the descendants of Moriori people who were enslaved by the Maori over 150 years ago.

What’s in a name?
. Aristotle called slaves ‘human instruments’ signifying their use as tools.
. Fifth-century Anglo-Saxons called their slaves ‘Welshman’, after the people they captured.
. The word ‘slave’ is adapted from Slav, originating from the time when the Germans supplied the slave markets of Europe with captured Slavs.

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  1. #1 Nicolas Garcia 28 Sep 10

    Slavery Independent Study

    Nicolas Garcia
    c/o: Ms Gibbs
    Running Brushy Middle School
    2303 North Lakeline Blvd.
    Cedar Park, Tx. 78613

    To Whom It May Concern:

    Upon conducting research in the area of (Slavery), I came across your company’s name and wanted to contact you for possible information and/or materials that might be helpful in my area of study. I am focusing on (Slavery and its history).

    I am a student in the Leander ISD in Texas, and I am conducting research for an independent study in the QUEST (Quality Utilization and Enrichment of Student Talent) program; a program designed for advanced research. I have selected (Slavery) as my area of study, focusing on (How Slavery affected the human race). I will be making a multimedia 45-minute presentation in May as a result of my findings. Therefore, it would be greatly appreciated if you could send to me any informational materials, referrals, and/or suggestions that you might be able to share on this subject.

    Please use the address given, in care of my instructor, Ms Gibbs, for any materials you might send. You may also email me at my instructor’s school email address, and she will then forward your correspondence to me. [email protected]

    Thank you in advance for your considerations.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Nicolas Garcia
    September 28, 2010

  2. #2 Pastor L Titus 30 Sep 11

    The omission of the slavery of the indigenous SA people is a serious indictment on activist of the subject of slavery.

  3. #4 namrata ghosh 27 Jul 12

    the content was good..

  4. #5 Reshu Chandra 21 Oct 12


  5. #6 bob jones 07 Dec 12

    thank you sir

  6. #7 Chris 11 Feb 13

    @the author

    Could you please change the title of this article to ’A brief history of Western slavery’ since you give almost no mention of for instance Islamic slavery which lasted about a 1000 years longer. Perhaps that would be a better starting point than the Western side.

  7. #8 Angel 03 Dec 13

    Slaves were disrespected and stripped from there dignity. No person on earth should have been beaten just because they were a certain race,color,or shape. Whoever started this slavery idea should have been punished for there damage.

  8. #9 isaiah flowers 24 Dec 13

    First of all, it,s hard to describe the torture placed up on god children as a human. both physically and mentally trapped by no hope of being ever free of slavery.but god has never lied his word stands forever and ever amen.

  9. #10 Michele 15 Feb 14

    Why does this article seem to suggest that slavery may have had an ending? The estimates of modern-day slavery according to CNN Freedom Project and International Labour Organization were 21 million in 2012.

  10. #11 Paul Joseph 08 Mar 14

    It is just normal as if it was

  11. #12 Tim Heydon 12 Mar 14

    There is very little here about the slave trading of the Arabs in Africa , which long predated European slaving and which by some estimates exceeded it. The Arabs castrated their male slaves and most died from this procedure or on the long Journey to the slave markets in the Middle East.

    Slavers from the North African region terrorised the Mediterranean for centuries. They raided the coasts of North West Europe including the coasts of Southern England, Ireland and as far as Iceland.Giles Milton's book 'White Gold' tells the story of one of the 1,000,000 white slaves taken in this way, Thomas Pellow.

    The Turks made regular raids into Slav areas to capture slaves. Under the Devshirme system, they abducted children from their Christian parents , forcibly converted them to Islam and inducted them into servitude. Parents would deliberately mutilate their children to avoid them being snatched in this way.

  12. #13 Colin Broughton 12 Mar 14

    According to the historian Rodney Starke, slavery was abolished in Europe in pre- medieval times.( The Victory of Reason).

    It should be remembered that there was a fine line between serfdom, which required services to a lord, and outright ownership of slaves,

    Another point is that for practical purposes there was little difference between the status of a slave and a servant for long periods of history.

  13. #14 Jacklyn 02 Jun 14

    I think this is really interesting, but I have a question. In my history book it says that in the Middle Ages people who were enslaved weren't necessarily Native American. On your website it doesn't really tell about that. I think in order for people to more understand slavery and what it is, they should know who and what was enslaved. If they always think that it was Native Americans who were enslaved then they will not really further understand the real slavery history. It was a terrible time in the world and you also never really pointed out how bad the times were for those people. All in all you should have that people who were English, American, and Native American were enslaved in the beginning because they didn't judge you on your skin, they judged you on your money and amount of people in your family. Remember this is all in my history book so I don't know if it's all true but that's what my book says, and I think you need to write more about it.
    -That's what my history book said!

  14. #15 Alpha female 20 Aug 14

    I love this article.

  15. #17 Adam Bell 02 Feb 16

    I like

  16. #18 ameika 15 Mar 16

    well i have not really found what i needed but mesopatamia was quite an interesting place. the people there were smart and found ways to do what they needed to do.

  17. #19 camron 01 Apr 16


  18. #20 Matt 24 Jun 16

    Vikings weren't selling slaves in Istanbul in 800 because no such place existed. Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire, wasn't sacked and subsequently renamed until 1453.

  19. #21 Regai Tinonetsana 13 Nov 16

    This historical perspective is well articulated!

  20. #22 Paul Robie 08 Mar 17

    I'm surprised that you failed to mention in this short article that over 1 million white slaves were taken from European coastal cities by Muslim pirates. Also, over 7 million white Eastern Europeans were enslaved by the Barbary states of North Africa. Was this intentional and a way of trying to avoid Islamic condemnation and retribution?

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This article was originally published in issue 337

New Internationalist Magazine issue 337
Issue 337

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