From Sumerian Gods to Modern Day: The History of Slavery
The obligation of slavery is as old as the invention of agriculture. As humans engineered ways to harvest crops and learned how to domesticate and control animals, they began to settle in communities. Some of these communities grew, birthing towns, some of which became large cities. People gathered together and, due to their newfound stability, were able to amass food, acquire possessions and supplies, and establish trade. All of these factors made life easier and more comfortable. Yet, with this comfort comes power and greed, and people begin wanting more of both. A hierarchy is formed and leaders are chosen by the group. Laws are established and enforced, and people begin to follow their chosen leaders—even so far as to pay them tributes. Borrowing and debt are thus introduced into societies that once only knew day-to-day survival. A bad harvest may cause one man to borrow food from a neighbor in order to feed his family through the year, hoping that the following harvest will not only reap enough to feed his own family but good enough for him to pay back his acquired debt. As time progresses, varying occupations emerge, as do arts and written languages. Commerce is introduced between towns and cities. All this occurs while governments grow in power and privilege—and focus. Land becomes a commodity, and one that people are willing to fight for. All of these factors have then created the means for slavery to develop.
Slavery can be defined as one person bound to another person or household through servitude. Chattel slavery is the term used regarding slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and is often the definition we use for slavery in general. For many of us, we hear the word ‘slave’ and our minds immediately evoke the more recent Atlantic slave trade when Africans were sold to the New World beginning in the early seventeenth century. We specially recall those sold to the colonies of the North. Yet, we must remember that slavery did not begin—or end—here, and that not all slaves over the course of humanity fit this definition.
Slavery in the Ancient World
We can first find records of slavery dating back to The Code of Hammurabi in Babylon in the 18 th century BCE, though it can be traced to almost every ancient civilization. Records from the Mycenaean period (Bronze Age) in Greece attest to how integral slavery was at the time. In fact, it is estimated that the majority of Athenian citizens owned at least one slave.
In the ancient world, many of these slaves were acquired as spoils of war. For many of the foreign defeated, a life could be spent—and ended—in sexual servitude to an individual, temple or even worse, a barracks, or to hard manual labor, such as working in mines, toiling in construction, or fighting to the death in arenas for the free public’s entertainment. These slaves could be traded and sold, typically had no rights and no future, and were, by definition, chattel slaves.
But some slaves have, as history has shown us, been allowed some menial rights. Babylonian slaves, for example, were allowed to own property. Ancient Egyptian citizens could inherit a form of slavery that was closely related to purpose and profession—a serfdom, so to speak, where the slave was born into a household that lived on and went with the land or property. One did not choose his profession so much as he was born into it, such as a carpenter, for the lord of the land. The level of servitude in such instances varied, and this life allowed more freedoms than other forms of slavery (though a man, woman, or child could still be traded or sold). In Sparta, a state of Greece known for its skilled warriors, most slaves were neighboring peoples conquered by the army. In one sense, these slaves continued life as normal; individuals lived in their own homes on their own land and continued many daily operations as they normally would—under Spartan masters.
Other slaves also retained some rights and privileges. For example, slaves who served in domestic positions and offices in Greece were often able to attain some status and favor, even though they were not free men. The owners could show favor on these servants, who were in positions to gain the trust and confidence of their masters.
Other forms of slavery included punishment for an unlawful act and selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt, usually against the person’s will. It can also be said that European serfdom, remnants of which can be found today, was a form of slavery.
Slavery as International Trade
The Arab-run slave trade flourished as early as the 8 th century, and was active along Arabia, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean. In fact, slaves proved to be a profitable business in the early middle ages and were sold by Jewish merchants (as early of the 5 th century CE) and Muslim merchants, as well as Viking raiders. In fact, the term ‘slave’ originates from the word sklabos, or Slav , of which the Islamic world was known as a great importer . Slavs were commonly traded in Central Europe and the East, while the Vikings traded the English, the Irish, and the Scottish in the West.
Mediterranean and Atlantic merchants also dealt in the slave trade, some almost exclusively. The Venetian and Genoese were leaders of the trade in the late middle ages, and were in league with a Mongolean leader. Many of their slaves came from Russian provinces.
In 1441, the Portuguese opened the African slave market when they began selling slaves they brought to Portugal. The Spanish, the Dutch, the British and the Irish all attributed wealth to their economies through the slave trade. While the Portuguese and the Spanish are attributed with the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade, the British became a main exporter of Africans after 1600.
In 1792, Denmark-Norway became the first European country to ban slavery, though it had been abolished in Iceland since 1117.
Slavery in the Present Tense
Chattel slavery is alive and well today. The Germans used slave labor during the Holocaust, and though slavery is illegal everywhere, we have simply changed the name and driven it underground. Now we call it human trafficking. We have all seen the specials and heard the news reports. The poor and oppressed continue to be tricked and coerced—both physically and psychologically—into the trade as prostitutes, slave laborers, even child soldiers; but, surprisingly, it is not uncommon for poor families in rural communities to sell their children into slavery as a means of paying off debt.
On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making slavery and its servitude illegal in all forms. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 20-27 million people are currently living in ‘forced labor’. This does not only involve human trafficking, but the exploitation of workers who have no bargaining power and are often denied adequate living conditions—even salaries—and are often under the threat of death. What value has been placed on their lives?
While this is a very brief discussion on the highlights—or should I say the low moments—of slavery, please keep the discussion going. Let me end with this statement: slavery is not always so cut and dry. All citizens are enslaved to their governments. Yes, it has even happened to you. You are expected to respect your government, to fight for it, if need be, and to dutifully pay taxes to it. You follow its laws. And while it tells you that it is your government—formed and fashioned for you, to protect you and represent you—you must ask yourself if that is really true. How often do you agree with what your government says and does? Most of you—if not all of you—reading this article work at a job. You work there—again, most likely—for a wage, not because you enjoy it. This wage allows you the commodities of living: shelter, food, utilities, even perhaps a few luxuries. You must pay for these ‘things’ in order to exist. You must also pay taxes on them, sometimes numerous times over. This drives up the cost. So you work more. What price are you paying? What price are we really paying?
By E.C. Rammel