A BRIEF HISTORY OF SLAVERY
By Tim Lambert
Slavery is the ownership of one human being by another. It has existed throughout history and is by no means extinct today.
Slavery in the Ancient World
In the distant past people often slaughtered their enemies but sometimes they were taken prisoner and used as slaves. In the ancient world slavery was common. The great civilisations of the Middle East, the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Israelites all kept slaves. Slavery was also common in ancient India and China. The Celts who lived in Western Europe also kept slaves. The main source of slaves was prisoners of war. However slavery was usually hereditary. A slave's children were also slaves. Slavery was hereditary. Some people sold themselves or their children into slavery to avoid starvation.
As society became more advanced slavery became a huge business and buying and selling slaves became a thriving industry. (In the old Testament around 1800 BC Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and was taken to Egypt).
The Greeks and the Romans too kept huge numbers of slaves. Some slaves were household slaves who worked in their master's homes. Others worked on farms and some were skilled craftsmen. Slaves who lived in mines probably had the harshest and most unpleasant lives. (Their lives were often short too).
Under Roman law there were limits to how cruelly slaves could be treated but it must have been difficult to enforce that. Most slaves were probably reasonably treated just to keep them working efficiently. Some Roman slaves were freed when they were older and others managed to save up and buy their freedom.
Even so there were several slave rebellions. Slaves in Sicily rebelled in 133 BC but the most famous slave rebellion was led by Spartacus in 73 BC. However slave rebellions were eventually crushed and slavery went on.
Life in Rome
After the end of the Roman Empire in 476 AD slavery did not disappear from Europe. It continued for centuries (although the Church disapproved). The Vikings and other nations kept slaves and there were slave markets in towns like London, Dublin and Rome. In Saxon England slaves were called thralls. They did the hardest and dirtiest work. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 there were about 10,000 slaves in England.
Nevertheless slavery gradually declined and by the mid-12th century it had vanished from Western Europe.
Slavery in the Americas
Slavery existed in Central America before the Europeans arrived. The Mayans kept slaves who did all the hard work. The Aztecs too had slaves sometimes they were prisoners of war or criminals but sometimes people were forced to sell themselves or their children through extreme poverty. However slavery was not hereditary. A slaves children were free. Furthermore slaves could buy their freedom and many of them did so. Surprisingly slaves could even own possessions. However slaves who misbehaved or who ran away could be forced to wear a wooden collar around their neck.
However the Inca civilisation in South America did not keep slaves.
Read more about the Aztecs
In the 15th century the Portuguese began to explore the coast of Africa. They began to transport African slaves to Portugal and Spain. In the 16th century Europeans began to transport African slaves across the Atlantic. However slavery was nothing new in Africa. For centuries Africans had sold other Africans to the Arabs as slaves. However the trans-Atlantic slave trade grew until it was huge.
Slavery in the 18th Century
In the 18th century ships from Britain took manufactured goods to Africa. They took slaves from there to the West Indies and took sugar back to Britain. This was called the Triangular Trade. (Many other European countries were involved in the slave trade).
Some Africans were sold into slavery because they had committed a crime. However many slaves were captured in raids by other Africans. Europeans were not allowed to travel inland to find slaves. Instead Africans brought slaves to the coast. Any slaves who were not sold were either killed or used as slaves by other Africans.
A history of Africa
Slaves were crammed into ships where many died of disease. In the West Indies the slaves were forced to work on sugar plantations. They were treated with appalling cruelty, often being whipped. Some were whipped or worked to death. Furthermore some slave families were split up when they arrived in the West Indies. Many soon died of disease. Those who survived lived in simple huts with only a bed, a table and benches and a few cooking utensils.
In the 18th century some slaves were skilled workers. Others were drivers who used whips to 'drive' their fellow slaves to work harder. Some slaves worked in their owners houses. Sometimes they were mulattos (people with a white father and a black mother).
Meanwhile cities like Bristol and Liverpool grew rich because of slavery.
The Abolition of Slavery in the Western World
However in the 18th century public opinion began to turn against slavery. The first people to take action were the Quakers. In 1761 they decided to expel any members involved in the slave trade. In 1787 the Quakers formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and at the end of the 18th century many petitions were presented to parliament demanding the end of the slave trade.
However the first country to abolish the slave trade was Denmark in 1792. Britain followed in 1807. The USA abolished the slave trade in 1808. Other countries followed, Sweden in 1813, Holland in 1814, France in 1815 and Spain in 1820. Finally in 1833 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.
In 1619 slaves were transported to North America for the first time. In the 18th century black slaves became common both in the North American colonies.
When the constitution was written in 1787 many people hoped that slavery would die out of its own accord. In the northern states slavery was abolished by 1804. However Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave slavery a new importance in the southern states. In the northern states slavery was gradually abolished and the USA became divided into 'free states' and 'slave states'. The persistence of slavery was a major factor in causing the American Civil War of 1861-1865.
At first Abraham Lincoln was reluctant to abolish slavery in the south. However he eventually changed his mind. On 23 September 1862 he made the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves would be made free in any states still in rebellion on 1 January 1863. However this only applied to areas occupied by the unionist army after that date it did not apply to areas already under unionist control. However the proclamation was followed by the 13th amendment, which banned slavery. It was ratified by December 1865.
A history of the USA
Meanwhile slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829. Slavery ended in Cuba in 1886. The last country in South America to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888.
Yet slaves were still exported from Africa to the Middle East. The African slave trade finally ended when Europeans colonised Africa in the late 19th century.
Yet in the 20th century slavery persisted, often under other names. Unfortunately it continues to flourish today. In many parts of the world people are still forced to work or transported from one region or country to another to be slaves.
More about the dark side of history
A history of punishments