Slavery As An Ancient World Institution


Joseph E. Holloway Ph.D

The institution of slavery is as old as human civilization.  In recorded history, slavery appears as early as the fourth millennium B.C.E.  It has appeared almost universally throughout history within various ethnic groups and cultures and is not unique to any race or kind of economy.  In the Old World, race was never a factor in the enslavement process of an individual.

Among agriculturalists, where surplus production led to material and cultural advancement, slaves were valued primarily as the major work force in production.  These were considered commercial slave societies, and are exemplified by the Roman Empire.  Another type of slavery, concubinage, was sanctioned for personal and domestic service and was practiced traditionally throughout Africa and Asia, particularly in China.

Ancient writings about slavery were included in the Code of Hammurabi, written by the powerful king of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C.E., which detailed many slave laws and in the Code of the Hittites dating from 1800 to 1400 B.C.E., which conceded that a slave was a human being, although of an inferior order.  In Egypt in 1570 to 1085 B.C.E., the legal codes of Sumer had a cuneiform symbol for the word "slave", which suggests that the word was foreign in origin.

The ancient Egyptians enslaved whoever had the misfortune of losing to them in battle.  Ancient Egyptian society was so heavily dependent on slave labor that slave owners had absolute rights and power over them, in order to ensure a stable society.  While the ancient Israelites experienced slavery in Egypt during the second millennium B.C.E., the Hebrews at times also owned slaves.  The Old Testament, or the Torah, placed a limit of seven years on the period of servitude for a slave, which apparently was not always honored. In the Indus Valley, the first documented evidence of slavery coincides with the Aryan invasion of about 1500 B.C.E.

Ancient Indian literature suggests that slavery was sanctioned throughout India from the sixth century B.C.E. to the beginning of the Christian era.  In ancient Persia, slave breeding became a major source in the supply of slaves in addition to their acquisition through conquest.  Persian victories in the Aegean Islands of Chios, Lesbos and Tenedos resulted in the enslavement of their entire populations.

The poems of Homer supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 B.C.E.  Plato opposed enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, who regarded bondservants as essentially inferior human beings.  His pupil, Aristotle, considered slaves to be mere tools.  Debts, piracy and wars were the main sources of slaves for the Greeks.  At the Laurium silver mines at Attica between 10,000 to 30,000 slaves were used at a time.  They were bound in chains and forced to work in appalling underground conditions and were brutally flogged.              Artisan slaves in minor official positions, household slaves and public slaves who served the temples seem to have been treated with greater leniency in ancient Greece.  Laws protected them from excessive abuse, but they were still defined by law as "chattel" without rights.  Manumission might be achieved through self purchase, as a gift for outstanding service or at the bequest in a deceased owner's will.

In Roman times, the Carthaginian, Punic and Gaelic wars yielded an enormous number of slaves and produced a slave population eclipsing any in earlier history.  The ancient historian Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C.E., there were 150,000 slaves sold in a single market.  Galtia, Gaul (France), north Africa and Syria were the most productive regions in meeting the slavery needs of this vast worldwide system.

Owners had virtually unrestricted power over slaves except for customary laws that protected the rights of the individual.  However, harsh treatment, combined with numerical superiority led to many large-scale revolts, such as that fomented by the Thracian slave, Spartacus.  Spartacus escaped to Sicily in 73 B.C.E. and formed an army of 40,000.

From time to time, individual slaves rose to occupy high and important positions in government on their own merits.  Better treatment of slaves began during the rule of Claudius at the beginning of the Christian era, and slaves, generally speaking, fared better than poverty-stricken free Roman.  It is thought that the great numerical preponderance of its slave populations contributed in part to the fall of the Roman Empire.

In addition, for centuries black Africans were transported overland to Arabia, Persia and other Islamic countries.  African slaves were exported from Opone (southern Somalia) to Egypt in ancient times and soldiers from east Africa were also exported to Mesopotamia.  The slave trade on the east African coast and in Arabia was constant between 100 and 1498 C.E.  In the Periplus of the Erythreaen Sea it was noted that Bantus were taken to Mesopotamia to work on sugar cane plantations.  Africans were also sold into the Middle East by way of Yemen and the Persian Gulf.  Slaves were also carried from Africa to Malaysia and to the Indonesian Islands, arriving as far away as the Polynesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean.  The slave trade between Africa, China and the Middle East was the largest of its kind until the coming of the transatlantic slave trade.


When the transatlantic slave trade began, the institution of slavery existed throughout the world, and long before then, Africans were trading and selling other Africans locally.  In Africa, domestic slavery was quite popular.  African domestic slavery, however, was much different from New World slavery, which was rooted in profit making and not just in the free labor provided by slaves.  While New World slavery had its roots in the Old World and in Africa, it evolved into something totally different than any kind of slavery that had ever existed before.

Under the African form of slavery, a slave had almost equal rights with free people living in the same community, and if a slave proved superior in ability, the slave could rise to a high position of leadership and power.  A slave could marry and have children and slave offspring were born free.  By custom and law, masters had to provide food, clothing and a certain amount of personal freedom of movement to their slaves.

For centuries prior to the transatlantic slave trade, Africa's internal or domestic slavery was as well developed as any system of slavery in the Old World.  African slavery in Muslim areas of Africa grew as an institution along with the rise of Islam.  As Islam moved into Africa south of the Sahara, Arab Muslims developed a preference for buying black women for their harems and African males for military service.  African slaves in the Arab world were not used for production, but rather as servants and concubines, and the possession of slaves was a status symbol among the wealthy.


Toward the end of the Roman Empire, from about 500 C.E. to the Middle Ages, and with the decline of centralized authority, the use of slaves in agriculture gradually evolved in colonies and among tenant farmers on large estates.  The status of the individual, however, was still different than what would later be seen in North America, because the tenant farmer or serf was perpetually in debt to the landowner, bound to the land and had to provide labor in order to pay off his debts.  The coming of Christianity did not interrupt the serfdom of the Middle Ages, or any other slave system, because neither the Old and New Testaments nor the Koran specifically prohibited slavery.

In Russia, then called Prussia, serfdom prevailed long after the end of that system in Europe, and under Peter the Great, serfdom regressed to a true condition of slavery.  In fact, during the Middle Ages there were more European slaves in existence than African slaves.  The root of the word "slavery" actually comes from the word "Slav", a European ethnic group, as in Yugoslavia.

Sometime in the Middle Ages, Europe gradually saw slight changes in the status of the individual slave.  By that time, serfdom had developed into a manorial system where serfs were bound to a lord by a complex system of interdependent relationships.  The serfs provided free labor, pledged loyalty, fought in the lord's militia, and in return received protection from the lord of the manor and the use of a piece of land to farm for their own subsistence.  In this system of feudalism, the lord owned only the labor of the serf who was tied to his land and could not leave, but the serf owned his own personage.  Therefore, while serfdom was similar to slavery, the two institutions were technically not the same.

The European slave market expanded further in the Middle Ages with the clash of Muslim and Christian civilizations.  During the Crusades, Christians enslaved Muslims and Muslims enslaved Christians, and sometimes Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean enslaved other Muslims.  As war followed war, sometimes entire populations were enslaved.

Then, the European discovery of the New World by Columbus opened the gates to the development of "world powers" and prompted colony-seeking countries and private individuals to search for wealth.  The fertile land of the New World attracted farmers, especially from England, France, Portugal and Spain.  The new immigrants needed cheap labor to mine precious metals, both silver and gold, and to work on plantations, situations that contributed to the beginnings of the plantation system.

With the collapse of feudalism, along with the rise of capitalist development and the use of gold as a medium of exchange in Europe, many serfs were forced off their farmlands and into the cities.  The development of mercantile capitalism and the rise of private entrepreneurship was further fueled by the discovery of the abundance of precious metals in the New World, which in turn furthered the need to exploit free labor to produce food.

Slavery in Spain and Portugal had existed through the Middle Ages, but the discovery of the New World in 1492 when "Columbus sailed the ocean blue", created an unprecedented demand for human labor in the New World.  The demand was temporarily satisfied by the virtual enslavement of entire indigenous populations from Peru to Central America to Mexico.  However, the forced labor systems of encomienda and repartimiento instituted by the Hispanic colonists proved neither practical nor satisfactory.  The Indians, because of their culture, traditions and unsuitable physiques, did not make good slaves, and since they were indigenous to the area, escape and revolts were relatively easy and many.  More than any other factor that made the Indians unsuitable for slavery, though, were the European diseases that decimated entire populations within as little as 10 years of the initial contact between the two cultures.

The indigenous Americans who lived in and near the English colonies had seemed natural subjects for enslavement, as had the Indians in Spanish America.  Indian enslavement was not as satisfactory as the enslavement of Africans, however, because the Indians were less accustomed to the settled agriculture at which their labor was expected.  Although some indigenous Indians practiced slavery, including the Aztecs, the Cherokee, the Chinook, the Mayans, the Natchez and the Nootka, their variety of slavery was unlike the chattel slavery of the colonies or the domestic slavery of the Africans.

Nevertheless, Indian servitude was not desirable first because they were in their own homeland where they were organized into nations and therefore in a position to rise and rebel against captivity, and secondly because by the time the colonists were sufficiently numerous and organized enough to enforce slavery on Native Americans, African indentured servitude was already slowly transforming into plantation slavery.

Prior to 1492, Africans and Europeans were equal in the development of their civilizations.  No African kingdom prior to that time was ever conquered by a European nation.  The only advantages Europeans had over Africans were in the areas of shipbuilding technology and navigation, which allowed them to move from one continent to another.  The Roman Empire had fallen about 500 C.E. and the Age of Discovery did not begin until 1492; the interim period was Europe's self-proclaimed Dark Ages, and it was during the European Dark Ages that Africa was in its glory years.  If the Greeks and the Romans are separated from Western civilization and instead recognized as Mediterranean cultures, the progress of Western culture can be said to have been negligible until 1492.  In addition, recent studies by Martin Bernal suggest that it was African contributions that actually laid the foundations for both the Greek and Roman civilizations.

Medieval Europe was culturally backward.  The invention and use of the compass, gunpowder, iron smelting, numerals and ship building techniques all originated in and were borrowed from other cultures.  It was not until the 15th through the 20th centuries that there was a marked rise in Western civilization.  In short, Europe started late in history, but finished fast.  All this progress was completed in a very short time span, when put into the perspective of the whole of human history, which according to Leakey encompassed almost 2 million years.  In the end, however, all of these innovations were used to subdue the darker-skinned peoples of the world.

Thus, the origins of New World slavery can be tied directly to a booming economic explosion in Europe.  The essential elements of this commercial revolution were generated from the wealth the New World in the form of gold, silver and year-round crops from the tropics, as feudalism broke down and capitalism rose up.  Europeans experimented with several crops and found that because of the climatic factors, crops could be produced year round, causing the problem to be an abundant supply of land and a labor force not large enough to operate that land at a profit.

The foundations for the industrial revolution, which first took place in Europe, were laid during this economic boom.  The desire for free labor, along with the decline of feudalistic European slavery for religious reasons, led to the transatlantic slave trade in which millions of AfricansC80 to 100 million in totalCwere captured or traded and transported to the New World.

Portuguese ships exploring and raiding the coasts of Africa were the first to find a promising labor force and thus began the importation of black Africans to the New World as slaves.  Then England, France, Portugal, Spain and the Dutch put blacks to work on the great colonial sugar plantations.  Because slavery had been common for centuries in Africa, where slaves were usually war captives taken in raids or through war, Africans did not have any prohibitions or reservations about selling or trading slaves to the Europeans.

When Portuguese slave ships first appeared along the African coast in 1444 C.E., the African chiefs met with them at the shore to barter the wealth of their fellow human beings for merchandise such as ammunition, cloth, liquor, metal, trinkets and weapons.  The power of the chiefs was enhanced when they sold their people for European goods of no real practical value, such as glass beads or iron bars.  They also traded slaves for inferior European cloth, which ultimately decimated the traditional African textile industry.  The slavers, however, bought only the finest physical specimens among the slaves, partly because they would be worth more at their destinations and partly because only the youngest and healthiest had a good chance of crossing the middle passage on the Atlantic Ocean alive.

In North America the first Africans arrived as indentured servants and not as slaves as was commonly believed, although the strong demand for free labor soon transformed a system of servitude into a permanent form of slavery.  The demands for enslaved Africans, who were used to cultivate cotton, rice, sugar cane and tobacco, stimulated a systematic traffic pattern across the Atlantic Ocean that was called the Triangular Trade.  Ships leaving England with trading goods touched first at the west coast of Africa anywhere from Senegal to Angola.  The Europeans then traded their inexpensive merchandise for black Africans.

It was through this unbalanced trade that Europe grew and developed beyond an underdeveloped Africa, which neglected its own internal industries for the sake of capturing and selling fellow Africans to the New World.  After the notorious second leg of the triangle known as the "Middle Passage" which went across the Atlantic from Africa, the next stops were in the West Indies, where African slaves were in demand on plantations, and in the English colonies.  Slaves were exchanged for such agricultural products as sugar, and then came the return voyage to England with a valuable cargo, which completed the trade triangle.

As this trade developed, New England ports became a regular stop before the homeward crossing to England.  There, sugar and molasses obtained at earlier stops were in demand because they were needed for the manufacture of rum.  The triangular trade balanced precariously on the backs of the African slaves, who were also a source of wealth to the African nobility.  These African chiefs sold their brothers and sisters for worthless goods and commodities, which were consumed only by the elite and did not circulate into the economy.

After 300 years of slave trading activities, Africa as a continent was underdeveloped, whereas Europe's new-found wealth fueled the Industrial Revolution that benefited even its future generations.  The slave trade stimulated growth and development for those who participated in it.  It created wealth for the shipping business, for the plantation owners in the South and for the merchants and shipbuilders in the North.  A trade so greatly profitable to so many was bound to grow.


The transatlantic slave trade, or what many acknowledge as "the African holocaust", was the largest forced migration in human history.  W.E.B. DuBois estimates that the total volume encompassed more than 100 million people over the four centuries that the transatlantic slave trade took place.  Of that 100 million, just 20 million Africans arrived alive in the New World; roughly 60 to 80 million were lost along the way.  The total volume of the slave trade may never really be known because the numbers may even exceed DuBois' estimate.

For every African who arrived in the New World alive, three perished.  Yet, any tally of this mass exportation of human beings must include not only the Africans who arrived alive, but also those who died in the slave raids, wars or other circumstances caused by the seeking of slaves for transportation to the New World.  Some died in inter-ethnic warfare instigated by Europeans in Africa, and others died inside the west African stockades, or holding places, called "factories".  Still others died enroute to the New World from sickness brought on by the filthy conditions on the slave ships, where men and women were forced to lay in their own excrement for days.

This trade in human beings established a permanent link between Africa, Europe and the Americas.  Most enslaved Africans were taken from the region between modern Senegal and Angola; roughly 60 percent were from those areas of west Africa.  The other 40 percent were from central Africa.  Between 1530 and 1600, an average of 13,000 enslaved Africans a year were exported to the Americas.  By the 17th century the number had risen to 27,500 a year, by the 18th century to 70,000 a year and by the 1830s the number of slaves going to Brazil and Central America alone was as high as 135,000 a year.  So vast was this trafficking in African lives that by the 1850s, one third of all Africans lived outside the African continent.

With these types of numbers involved, it is easy to understand how the slave trade had a profound impact on the African continent.  Walter Rodney believes that the slave trade's disastrous impact on Africa was to retard its development at an important moment in its history.  The accumulated wealth of Europe helped to fuel its own Industrial Revolution, but at Africa's expense, and Africa paid a high price for her participation in this one-way trade.  The wealth gained through the slave trade was used to develop and build the infrastructures of Europe, as well as throughout all of the Americas, but it was a wealth built upon a commercial system that forced workers from one society, transported them to another society and used them to provide labor without compensation for 400 years.

The rise of the transatlantic slave trade was brought on by several factors.  The collapse of the Sudanic empires of ancient Ghana, Mali and Songhai contributed directly to the trade.  As successor states fought to fill the power vacuum, war raged throughout the region.  From the 10th through the 15th centuries there had been no stronger civilization in the world, but with the collapse of the Sudanic empires, the world was never the same.

The world was changed again with the European discovery of the New World in 1492, which created an unprecedented demand for human labor.  The demand was temporarily satisfied by the virtual enslavement of entire indigenous Native American populations from Peru to Central America and into Mexico.  The forced labor systems of encomienda and repartimiento instituted by the Hispanic colonists proved neither practical nor satisfactory to the slaveholders, however, and the horrific result to the natives was that European diseases decimated entire populations of them.  The Indian population of Mexico dropped from 20 million in 1519 to just one million by 1608.  The chosen solution to this labor shortage was the importation of African slaves to meet demands for free labor.

The impact of the slave trade was to devastate the African continent, causing temporary depopulation and creating disruptions to societies throughout the region.  Slave raids and wars generated and intensified a great deal of bloodshed, destruction and the general misery that ensued.  Entire villages were sometimes burned, the wars were demoralizing and there was an atmosphere of insecurity and fear throughout Africa.  Millions were lost as a direct result of these activities.  The stage was set and the seeds sown through the tyranny of the transatlantic slave trade for much chaos, death, self-destruction and the underdevelopment of much of the African continent.