Slavery has been a problem in our world since the dawn of civilization. The need for cheap and reliable labor began around 3000 BC to coincide with the shift from hunter-gather and primitive farming cultures to larger, less mobile groupings of cities and towns. War between these cities and towns were frequent and often quite brutal and survivors provided an excellent source of labor for the victors.
As time went on, laws were enacted and enforced in which those accused of crimes could be sentenced to slavery, and as systems of barter and trade were developed those in need could easily sell their children or other people’s children into slavery for profit.
The earliest record we have of slavery comes from the The Code of Hammurabi, a legal document dating back to around 1750 BC discovered in 1901 in what is now Iran. This document describes in detail many aspects of Babylonian life, including descriptions of three social classes, one of which being slaves. Based on the Code, Babylonian slaves were allowed to own property, but there were harsh penalties for harboring escaped slaves as well as for buying and selling slaves unfairly.
While the Code of Hammurabi outlined in detail the laws surrounding slavery in Babylon during the 18th century BC, we know much more about the role of slaves in society from histories of ancient Greece, particularly those from Athens and Sparta. Both cities depended almost entirely on slave labor. In stark contrast to Athens however Spartan slaves were allowed to live on their own land while serving Spartan masters and had certain rights that Athenian slaves were denied. In Athens, slaves had almost no conventional rights and the degrees to which they were badly treated depended greatly on their occupations. Those working in Athenian mines, for example, were often literally worked to death by their masters. The vast majority of Athenian slaves were domestic servants, who were called upon to serve as concubines, look after children, or be stewards of a household.
Slavery in Rome During the 2nd Century BC
A similar situation existed in Rome during the second century BC, where the harshness of slave life depended greatly on the economic and/or political status of the person or persons served. Slaves who worked for the emperor as secretarial staff were afforded many privileges, while those who worked for mines or in fields suffered the harshest of treatments and often died as the result. Modern cinema has consistently romanticized the role of the gladiator in Roman society, but fierce and terrifying combat along with harsh treatment usually led to the most gruesome and bloody of fates.
The life of the Roman slaves was horrid enough to lead slaves themselves to revolt against their masters. Perhaps the most famous of these uprisings where led by Spartacus, a Gladiator who led a massive series of uprisings against Roman authorities and was eventually defeated by Roman Legions.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, slavery continued in force throughout the Mediterranean. With few exceptions, however, the kind of slavery once typified by the Roman empire did not appear again until it was adopted on tobacco and cotton plantations in colonial America.
Nevertheless the geographical and economic environment of the Mediterranean proved to be immense factors in the spread of the slave trade throughout the region. It spread South of the Mediterranean to the coast of Africa, where Arabian Dynasties utilized slavery and it later spread beyond their borders from Spain to Russia.
In Arabia, Slavery became an accepted part of life, particularly in the 7th and 8th centuries during the time of Muhammad. He and many of his companions both owned and captured slaves of their own. It was common practice to do so until the end of the 19th century when a shift in Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an occurred and its practice was seen as against Islamic teachings. Both the Qur’an and the hadith (the collected sayings of Muhammad) state that only children of slaves or non-Muslim prisoners of war are able to become slaves, and the freeing of slaves is considered to be one of the many things one can do to cover a multitude of sins. Still too, in Islamic law Muslim slaves are considered superior to free non-Muslims.
While slaves played a crucial role in the formation of Islamic culture, they were not always treated in accordance with Islamic law. As in the case of Rome, mistreatment of slaves led to uprisings and social unrest. By the end of the 19th century the Arab slave trade in West Asia, North Africa and East Africa (where it had been most active) had greatly diminished, and (at least in theory) after the First World War in the early 20th Century slavery had been outlawed in most, if not all, Muslim lands. However in spite of this, there are currently still many document cases of slavery in many African republics such as Chad and Sudan.
The Portuguese and The African Slave Trade
In the early 15th century, the arrival of Portuguese ships from Europe in sub-Saharan Africa opened up yet another channel of slave trade. Due to both the ideal location and the geography of the Cape Verde Islands, Portuguese settlers were able to monopolize the slave trade in the region, and it became such a profitable industry that the region soon became known as the Slave Coast. Portuguese and Spanish Christians alike justified their activities through the belief that they were removing indigenous Africans from their “heathenish” ways and giving them an opportunity to embrace Christianity.
This mindset plus the growth of agriculture (the production of sugar, cotton and tobacco) in Caribbean America caused the African slave trade to flourish. Soon too other nations with vested interests in cheap labor began to trade from Cape Verde, and by the beginning of the 18th century the British had taken over as leaders of the global slave trade.
Slavery in Europe and The Americas
During the 15th and 16th centuries, all of Europe was in the midst of a drastic economic revolution. The Newly developing economic institutions of Europe did not allow for the same degree of utilization of the slave trade as it did elsewhere in the world. Yet as Europeans competed with other countries for domination of trade and other markets, there became an ever-increasing need for slaves elsewhere in the world. New trade routes and new lands provided new opportunities for the use of slaves. In particular, the use of slaves in the Americas proved to be a valuable asset. In 1511, a boat load of 50 slaves from Africa became the first to arrive on the shores of the New World, off the coast of the West Indies. Between 1600 and 1700, some 2,750,000 slaves were brought to Latin America.
The first blacks to set foot in North America were indentured servants who were freed once they completed their terms of service. Slavery, however, was introduced to these new colonies in large part because of the efforts of the Dutch West India Company, In 1624 this company imported workers from Angola and Brazil to work on farms in the Hudson Valley in Virginia. The use of slaves in American colonies grew substantially from there as it was introduced in Connecticut and later in Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and beyond.
The Abolitionist Movement, William Wilberforce & The American Civil War
The movement to abolish slavery has it beginnings in the 18th century enlightenment, when rationalist thinkers in western Europe and later in the Americas began to criticize slavery for its violations of human rights. There was also a shift at this time among the Quakers and evangelical Christians from the belief that owning slaves freed them from their heathen backgrounds and was thus justified as a means of evangelism to one that saw it as going against the Christian teachings of human dignity.
In 1780, many colonies, including the West Indies, South America, Pennsylvania passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which while not directly freeing any slaves, stated that any children born to slaves after 1780 would be made indentured servants until the age of 28 when they became free. The act also prohibited all importation of slaves.
Soon afterwards Britain and later the United States banned the importation of any slaves from Africa to any of its colonies, and in 1827 the British West Indies abolished slavery completely, followed fifteen years later by the French in 1842.
In Britain, a politician by the name of William Wilberforce led a massive social and political campaign to abolish the slave trade. An evangelical Christian, Wilberforce became convinced that religion, morality and education were of key importance in any governing body. He led campaigns which led to the creation of organizations such as the Church Mission Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. More importantly, he vehemently supported the abolitionist movement, which eventually led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which put an end to the slave trade in most of the British Empire.
In the United States, slavery had become an immensely powerful and integral part of both the political and economic environment. The abolitionist movement, fueled by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, quickly became a major factor in secession of the Southern states from the Union and later the Civil War. Led by Jefferson Davis, these eleven Southern Slave States formed the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy. Both the Northern and Southern States raised their own armies and war ensued. In September of 1862, Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation which effectively ended slavery in many states, and on April 9, 1865, the war was ended when confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Armies at the Appotamax Court House in Virginia.
In spite of the movements throughout history to abolish slavery, and in spite of current international laws aimed at preventing slavery, the unfortunate fact is that it still exists today. In many instances slavery and its abuse of human rights has taken on different forms, from child and adult slavery to the sex trade to forced labor. Latest Estimates show that there are some 27 million victims of slavery worldwide. This number is more than twice the total number of slaves brought to the United States during the 400 year history of the American slave trade.
Contemporary slave trade is not limited to Africans. On almost every continent in the world, women and children, both black and white, are enslaved. Yet in spite of these staggering facts, victims of this horrible injustice are more invisible in the eyes of the world than any of the 10 to 12 million Africans taken from their homelands and sent to the New World during the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
Whatever our religious beliefs, the place we must all come to agreement on is that slavery in any form violates basic human rights and must be stopped. In a 2005 article put out by the United Nations entitled Slavery in the Twenty-First Century, (http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2005/issue3/0305p28.html) Author Howard Dodson writes the following:
…persons in who world become twenty-first century abolitionists are obliged to call upon governments, religious bodies and citizens to launch investigations and convene hearings on the status of slavery and slave trafficking. The existence of millions of enslaved persons around the world challenges us to create a global abolitionist movement.
Biblical Implications of Slavery
John Jefferson Davis, the aforementioned president of the Confederate States of America, stated the following in a speech to the United States Senate on February 14 1850:
Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.
This quote reflected the beliefs of many 19th century Americans. Surprisingly, the Bible does not directly condone slavery. Passages such as Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1 give explicit instructions on the treatment of slaves, but do not condemn or outlaw its practice. Nor does Jesus, who condemns many other social practices of the day, take the opportunity to speak out against it during His ministry.
Yet in spite of this the Bible must be taken in its historical context. The type of slavery referred to in the Text is not the type of slavery that was seen and continues to be seen in our history. For one, slavery in the Bible was not based on race, but rather based on social status, as those who were too poor to pay off debts and/or care for their families often sold themselves into slavery as a means of alleviating their struggles.
In addition, the practice of “man-stealing” is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments. Exodus 21:16, for example, states that “whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.” Likewise 1 Timothy 1:8-10 states that slave traders are among the “godless and sinful” and in the same category as murderers and fornicators.
Perhaps most important to note is that the according to Scripture man is created In the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and thus has been endowed by Him with the dignity and honor afforded to one who is made in the image of his Creator. Created thus, there is no difference in the eyes of God between black or white, rich or poor, American or Chinese (Acts 10:34 states that “God shows no partiality” while Galatians 3:28 states “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”) If the Bible sees humans as being endowed with this kind of unity and dignity, then so must we.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you think that slaves who have used violence to free themselves from tyranny throughout history are justified in doing so? Why or why not?
Why do you think modern day slavery is not as visible in our world (in the media, etc.) as it had been during the American slave trade?
There are a lot of atrocities that have been committed throughout history in the name of religion or religious ideals. Many slave-owners felt that they were justified because of their biased interpretation of Scripture. Aside from slavery, can you think of any other atrocities committed or unfair laws enacted in the name of religious ideals?
If the history of slavery tells us anything it is that often it takes people with strong abilities to lead and even stronger convictions to change the status quo. In our society, we need similar men and women to stand against slavery in all its forms and to fight against those who would exploit others for their own gain.
In countries where cheap slave labor becomes a staple of society, alternative forms of economic growth and political empowerment must be sought out in order to maintain stable economies while respecting citizens’ rights.
Slavery came about as the result of the need for laborers at the dawn of civilization. Contemporary slavery appears in modern forms, from sex slavery to human trafficking, across our globe, and we have an obligation (Biblical or otherwise) to fight against it wherever it may occur.
“American Civil War.” (March 2010). Wikipedia Encyclopedia. Online.
Bergman, Peter M. (1969). The Chronological History of the Negro in America.
Harper & Row Publishers, New York.
“Code of Hammurabi.” (March 2010). Wikipedia Encyclopedia. Online.
Davis, David Brion (1984). Slavery and Human Progress Oxford University Press.