Being a slave means that you are the property of someone else and that you cannot make decisions about your own life. The institution was recognized by most societies probably since the advent of towns and cities where cheap labor was easily attained through war captives. Archaeologists have not found much artefactual evidence for slaves but there is a lot of written evidence for what has been called the “evil of civilization”.
The earliest evidence comes from an ancient Mesopotamian 25th century B.C.E. king who claimed to have “cancelled obligations for those indentured families, citizens of Lagash living as debtors…” Laws concerning slaves take up a full 30% of Babylonian King Hammurabi’s Code (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) and the ancient Greek philosophers wrote lots about slaves for 400 years (Hesiod ca. 750 B.C.E. to Aristotle, ca. 330 B.C.E.). This evidence leads to the conclusion that slavery has been a vital part of most societies for a very long time.
Societies had different levels of servitude calling them serfs, slaves, servants, house boys, maids, indentured servants, bonded slaves, etc. Some were released after a certain amount of time and some could purchase their freedom; others remained enslaved forever and, in the worst cases, the children of slaves were automatically enslaved. Few societies showed guilt for enslaving others although there is some indication that they needed to justify it. For example, in an attempt to defend the practice, Aristotle wrote “some men are by nature free, and others, slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right” (Politics).
The most outstanding example of Greek enslavement comes from the Spartans who enslaved an entire local population. They were called “helots” and were owned by the Spartan state but were to serve all Spartans. Records (written by Athenians who disapproved or were perhaps jealous) say that the Spartans whipped the helots annually to remind them of their status. Athenians kept slaves also but most were domestic servants because no free Athenian would do household chores. The Romans accepted slavery as a necessity because they believed that freedom was only possible if others were slaves. Slaves performed all kinds of work from accompanying their master (a wealthy man might walk about town with as many as 15 slaves attending him), teaching the master’s children, fighting as a gladiator or working in the mines. During the Roman Empire period, one in three in the Italian peninsula were enslaved (M. Cartwright, 2013).
American Indians enslaved war captives long before the Spanish brought Africans to the Western Hemisphere. Aztecs enslaved criminals and debtors who could be bought and sold in slave markets (Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de nueva España). North American Indians often raided other tribes to steal women. Sacajawea was a Shoshone Indian captured by a Hidatsa war party who sold her to a French-Canadian fur trader. He called her a “wife” but she was clearly still a slave (pbs.org).
Our word “slave” comes from the European Middle Ages Latin word “sclavus” meaning “personal servant”. In the Middle Ages, German raiders captured many eastern European people and sold them in the markets of Venice. Merchants recorded them as “sclavus” and there were so many that eventually all eastern European people were referred to as sclavs leading to their present name, Slavs (A History of Slavery). But generally, there were no racial or religious distinctions associated with slavery and many local people were enslaved such as the serfs on feudal estates during the Medieval period in Europe, and the eunuchs of China. In Africa, Ghana and Zawila were centers that developed specifically as trading centers where captured Africans were sold to Arabs as early as the 4th century C.E. Muhammad did not disapprove of the prac-tice except that enslaving other Muslims was unacceptable so many European Christians from the Balkans were enslaved by Muslims. In fact, there were more European slaves held in Islamic regions than there were Africans taken to the Americas (USI, Europe Before Transatlantic Slavery). The Transatlantic slavery, of course, was different in that in concentrated on one group.
In spite of their unhappy condition, there were few slave rebellions, and only the Haitian rebellion was really successful. In 1804, 500,000 slaves and former slaves organized to defeat their European owners and established the Independent Republic of Haiti. In 1806, the British Parliament abolished slave trade in the empire and other western governments slowly followed (the U.S. in 1865, Mauritania in 1981). Slavery is now illegal everywhere in the world but it is still practiced illegally as human trafficking, child soldiers and forced marriages. There are still probably more than 2.5 million people living as slaves (antislavery.org).