From Sumerian Gods to Modern Day: The Long History of Slavery and Lost Children
The recent film Sound of Freedom is a fictionalized account of the true story of Tim Ballard, a former US Department of Homeland Security agent who founded the nonprofit organization Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). O.U.R. works with law enforcement to rescue children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.
The film has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the horrors of child sex trafficking. It has also been credited with raising awareness of the modern child slavery problem and the work of O.U.R.
Child slavery is almost certainly the most loathsome area of a loathsome business. It is indeed hard to believe that it is possible for such atrocities to occur in the modern world. But occur they do, and, it seems, have been a lamentable part of humanity for as long as we know of.
The Beginnings of the World 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. There are, and have been, many forms of slavery.
- Black Caesar: The African Chief Who Was Captured by Slavers and Became a Pirate
- Tiny West African Island Shows Evidence of the Invention of Plantation Slavery
Relief showing Ancient Egyptian slave market, with Nubian slaves waiting to be sold. Archaeological Museum, Bologna. (Mike Knell/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Slavery in the Ancient World
We can first find records of slavery dating back to The Code of Hammurabi in Babylon in the 18th century BC, where there is mention of the regulation of slavery, though it can be traced to almost every ancient civilization. And in ancient Mesopotamia, slavery was a hereditary trait. If a child’s parents were slaves, then they too would become slaves.
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 whole barracks. Or it could mean 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—but answered to 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.
Serfdom was a form of slavery. Two serfs and four oxen operating one medieval agricultural plow, in the 14th-century illuminated manuscript, the Luttrell Psalter. (Public domain)
Slavery as International Trade
The Arab-run slave trade flourished as early as the 8th century, and was active along Arabia, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean. In fact, slaves proved to be a profitable business even in the early Middle Ages and were sold by Jewish merchants (as early of the 5th century AD) 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 people of the British Isles and Ireland in the West.
Slave trade negotiations in during the Viking Age. (Public Domain)
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 Mongolian leader. Many of their slaves came from Russian provinces.
A metaphorical representation of Europe being (economically) sustained by Africa and America. By William Blake. (Public domain)
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 (at the time of writing) 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?
- Wreck of Maya Slave Ship Found in Gulf of Mexico
- Rare ‘Slave Bible’ Was a Powerful Mind Control Device and Spreader of Fake News
History of Child Slavery
Child slavery has existed throughout human history, in cultures all over the world. In ancient times, children were often enslaved as punishment for their parents' crimes, or as prisoners of war. They were also sold into slavery by their families, who may have been desperate for money or food.
During the Middle Ages, child slavery was common in Europe and the Arab world. Children were used as domestic servants, soldiers, and prostitutes. They were also forced to work in mines and other dangerous industries.
Women and child slavery evident in ancient times. Slaves in an auction in ancient Rome (1884). (Public domain)
In the 16th and 17th centuries, European colonialism led to a dramatic increase in child slavery. Children from Africa and Asia were transported to the Americas to work on plantations and in mines. They were also forced to work as domestic servants and sex slaves.
Child slavery was finally abolished in most countries in the 19th century. However, it continues to exist today, in both developed and developing countries.
Combatting Child Slavery Today
Child slavery is a horrific crime that affects millions of children around the world. The film Sound of Freedom is an important reminder of the continuing problem and the need to take action to end it.
According to the International Labour Organization estimates of Modern Slavery:
- 49.6 million people were living in modern slavery in 2021, of which 27.6 million were in forced labor and 22 million in forced marriage.
- Of the 27.6 million people in forced labor, 17.3 million are exploited in the private sector; 6.3 million in forced commercial sexual exploitation, and 3.9 million in forced labor imposed by state.
- Women and girls account for 4.9 million of those in forced commercial sexual exploitation, and for 6 million of those in forced labor in other economic sectors.
- 12% of all those in forced labor are children. More than half of these children are in commercial sexual exploitation.
Children are particularly vulnerable to slavery because they are often easy to control and exploit. They may be trafficked by family members or friends, or they may be forced into slavery by debt bondage or other forms of coercion.
Child slavery is a global problem, but it is most prevalent in developing countries. The majority of child slaves are found in Asia and the Pacific, followed by Africa and Latin America.
In addition to supporting organizations like O.U.R., there are other things you can do to help fight child slavery:
- Educate yourself about the problem and how to spot it.
- Talk to your children about child slavery and how to stay safe.
- Support businesses and organizations that are committed to fighting child slavery.
- Donate to organizations that are working to rescue and rehabilitate child slavery victims.
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.
Top image: From ancient to modern times the abominable violation of human rights has occurred. Referred today as human trafficking, it is nonetheless, a form of slavery, of human exploitation for personal or commercial gain. Source: Rick/Adobe Stock
Editor’s note: This article was updated by Ancient Origins Editors on 20-9-2023 to include sections about child slavery and the film the Sound of Freedom.
By E.C. Rammel