“We owe respect to the living; to the dead we owe only truth – Voltaire.”
Slavery arose as an accompaniment to the emergence of human civilization. In the primitive society of the hunter-gatherer, there was no need for slaves, as people were more or less self-sufficient. There was nothing to be gained by, nor was there a requirement for, owning another human being.
Once people started to live in larger communities and settlements, the situation changed. There was a growing need for cheap labour. Inter-tribal conflict at a local level and larger-scale warfare followed by territorial conquests involving competing empires or dynasties, became frequent, and it became common practice to make slaves of defeated inhabitants of conquered lands. These conquests helped to expand the work force. If they were deemed unfit for this purpose, prisoners would be killed.
This became the most common practice in the majority of ancient civilizations. Others methods of acquiring slaves included piracy at sea, where the victims could be offered for sale at trading ports; other options included the imposition of a sentence of slavery on a convicted criminal, or the the loss of liberty associated with inability to repay a serious debt.
Already within the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi of c.1800, BCE, a distinction was made between ‘free’ men and slaves, and temporary ‘debt bondage’ was a recognized phenomenon. There are references to slavery throughout the biblical Old and New Testaments, indicating that slavery was an accepted part of everyday life at the time. There are also major inconsistencies. Thus, although obedience was expected of the slave, and kindness on the part of the master, as reflected in Deuteronomy, 23, 15/16: ‘Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners, shall not be given back to them. They shall remain with you in your midst. You shall not oppress them.’ But then in an earlier Chapter, 20, 10/20, instructions are given in the case of capture of a city from any of the enemy peoples, such as the Hittites, Amonites, etc., where the victors are advised to:’utterly destroy them,’ and ‘save alive nothing that breathes.’
Overall, the basic tenets of biblical guidance emphasised that persons captured as slaves in war, pass into the ownership of their captors and remain so. This was the view that was endorsed by the Christian Catholic Church right through to the 19th Century CE.
Slavery was also an accepted part of life at the time of Muhhamad in the 7th Century, CE, and the subsequent Muslim tradition that followed was to encourage continuation of the way of life of the Prophet, who was himself a slave trader who captured slaves in battle. However, the Qu’ran makes a point in respect of female slaves, that they should be well-treated.
In Buddhism, slaves known as Dasa, could be bought, sold or mortgaged, like any other property. Nevertheless, Buddhism castigates the buying and selling of human beings as a wrong means of earning a livelihood. However in reality, slavery continued to be widespread in Buddhist countries for centuries, until it was abolished by colonial powers during the course of abolitionist policies established in the 19th century.
In Greece, the majority of slaves were the equivalent of domestic servants, and in some instances, their status was more that of a serf than that of a slave. The mediaeval view of the serf was that it represented a type of bondage between the ‘lord of the manor’ and his lowly servant, which carried certain safeguards, protections and even privileges. On the other hand, for example, slaves could be employed as miners, many of whom were driven to death by the brutality of treatment from their owners.
In imperial Rome, there was a wide variation in the way slaves were treated. Some were forced to engage in combat as gladiators, whilst others reached privileged status by becoming administrative staff serving the Emperor.
The Muslim practice of employing slaves in the army had the unusual outcome in the case of the slave leaders of the Mamluks in Egypt, who deposed their local Sultan and seized power in the 13th Century CE, to form a dynasty that lasted for several hundred years.
In Europe, a major development in the evolution of slavery came about in the 15th Century, when the Portugese opened up West Africa to the Atlantic. In this way, a direct link was created between the coast of Guinea and the sugar cane, cotton and tobacco plantations of America and Brazil. Slaves had already been traded in Africa via the salt mines of the Sahara, but now captured Africans began to be shipped in large numbers across the Atlantic.
In 1452, a papal Bull was issued by Pope Nicholas V, called Dum Diversas, which granted the King of Portugal, Alfonso V, the right to reduce any “saracens, pagans and non-believers to hereditary slavery.” The Portugese and also the Dutch were very active also in importing slaves from their respective Far Eastern possessions to Europe and South Africa.
Other mediaeval European slave traders included the Vikings who called their slaves ‘thralls,’ and the Spaniards who participated in shipping slaves to the New World. However, Spain was one of the first European countries to abolish slavery when, in 1542, the Spanish crown issued an edict declaring that slavery was unjust and was therefore outlawed.
Ships emanating from ports in Britain developed a close working relationship with Portugese West Africa, participating in what was to become known as ‘the triangular trade.’ Commercial goods were delivered to and exchanged from West Africa, whilst the same ships were used to transport masses of slaves under most apalling conditions to the West Indies and Brazil. Many thousands would perish before reaching their destination.
In central Asia, the spread of the great Mongol and Timurid empires, was to bring in its wake, large numbers of captives who were taken into slavery, in addition to the mass killing of so many of the inhabitants of the conquered territories.
However in the midst of this evil trade and widespread carnage, as the 17th Century drew to a close, there arose in both England and the United States, two minority Christian groups, from the Mennonite and Quaker sects, who came together in generating a powerful anti-slavery lobby.
Members of these groups found that they shared a common view in their Christian faith, which was incompatible with the injustices of slavery. Despite their small numbers, these activists were able to muster significant influence and moral authority to challenge the indifference that was being shown by both Church and State to the awful plight of slaves, first in Britain and then in America.
In 1860, the Republicans gained control by winning the Presidential campaign with the election of Abraham Lincoln. A year later, civil war broke out between the confederate states in the South, who wanted to maintain slavery, and the Northern states – the Union. In 1863, President Lincoln issued an Executive Order – the Emancipation Proclamation, that overnight changed the legal status of millions of slaves within the Confederacy and liberated all designated slaves.
Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865. Unfortunately, by 1900, nearly all the political power of black people that had been achieved during the Lincoln Reconstruction period following the end of the civil war, was lost, as was the right to vote. Furthermore, black people were subject to racial segregation in the North of the United States until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of the following year.
Other key events in the 20th Century, that helped to write the final chapter in the history of human slavery gained momentum after the end of WW1, when in 1926, the League of Nations issued a global ban on slavery. This initiative was further extended in 1966 by publication of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – a Treaty that has been subsequently ratified in late 2003 by 104 nations.
Despite these impressive achievements, illegal forced labour and human trafficking continue to be significant problems in the 21st Century. Sadly, they involve considerable numbers of women and children.