Magazine article New Internationalist

A Brief History of Slavery

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Brief History of Slavery

Article excerpt


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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. …

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