A Brief History of Slavery

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When we talk about slavery, we mostly mean the enslavement of Africans in America between approximately 1500 (arrival of first African slaves in North America) and 1865 (13th Amendment) – a period of approximately 365 years. However, slavery is one of mankind’s oldest institutions and America was a latecomer to it. Since our history is regrettably one of domination and subjugation it is probably safe to assume that slavery goes back into Neolithic times, when one group would raid the habitation of another group, kill most, and make the survivors slaves. The oldest written reference to slavery currently known, are Sumerian and Babylonian regulations concerning slaves contained in the Code of Hammurabi. These regulations go back to 3780 years.

Nearly all more highly structured societies of the ancient world practiced some form of slavery, sometimes more casual, sometimes more formal and institutionalized. Africans were not the only people who were made slaves, but it seems they were a preferred object of slavery. Arabs have always had a preference for black African slaves. The demand for such slaves stimulated the trans-Saharan slave trade, which existed and flourished centuries before any trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The ancient Egyptians had slaves, not all black. Around the time of Pharaoh Amenophis IV aka Ikhnaton they had an army contingent made up of Nubian slave soldiers. This turned out not to be a good idea, because the slave soldiers tended to defect in battle and to revolt in peace, ransacking civilians. The old Persian empire had slaves. Slavery was a wide-spread and elaborate institution in the Indian Mogul empires. The Indian “Code of Manu”, which goes back to the 2nd century BC, mentions several forms of slavery. After they conquered the Mogul empires, the Muslims continued the institution of slavery in India under Islamic law. The Greek city states all had slaves including the quasi-socialist Sparta, which indeed had more slaves per owner than any of the other Greek states. . The Carthaginians had slaves. The Christian Byzantine Empire had slaves.

And, of course, the Romans had slaves. The Romans, however, did not prefer black Africans as slaves but Germans, Greeks, and Syrians. While the Syrians were seen as destructive due to their lack of moral fortitude, the Greeks became the educators of the Roman youth and the bureaucrats of public and private administrations and as such wielded considerable power and influence. German slaves were appreciated because of their docility and reliability.

The rise of the Vikings approximately paralleled the rise of Islam, which, through its military conquest of other nations, not only became a major slave trader, but also endorsed slavery in its holy book, the Qur’an. The Vikings initially did not have many slaves. They were raiders and traders and sold their prisoners all over Europe and beyond, often in cooperation with Muslim slave traders.

The Qur’an does not explicitly recommend slavery, but it implicitly assumes that a believer will also be a slaveowner. This becomes clear through Qur’an statements like these:

The penalty for a broken oath is the feeding of ten needy men …; or the clothing of ten needy men; or the freeing of one slave”

Sura 5:89

Take in marriage those among you who are single and those of your male and female slaves who are honest.”

Sura 24:32

Blessed are the believers, who are humble in their prayers; who avoid profane talk, and who give alms to the destitute; who restrain their carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them).”

Sura 23:1

Clearly, these statements take slavery for granted.

Muslim slave traders brought the first black slaves to China around 813 AD. The Chinese called them Zangzi, because they came mostly from Zanzibar. Muslims remained prominent in the slave market even until 1816, when the second so-called Barbary War ended. The Bey of Tripoli and other local Muslim rulers made pirating a constant condition in the Mediterranean, taking many Europeans prisoners and selling them as slaves. It was President Jefferson who ended this mess by starting the US Marine Corps and defeating the pirate slavers.

Long before any black slaves ever showed up in North America, they were sold to the Caribbean Islands and to South America. Slavery was also known among North American Indians who were in constant tribal wars with each other and enslaved each other long before the Europeans appeared. The empires of the Inka and Azteks also had the institution of slavery. And, yes, in medieval Europe and China most small farmers were serfs (in German “Leibeigene” = chattel). Chattel serfdom was not abolished in Hessen until 1811 and in Russia it lasted until 1861. The institution of indentured servitude existed in Europe long before it was applied to Africans in America. It was initially a form of voluntary contract labor. You were slave laborer for a limited time and then you were free again. The term ‘indentured’ comes from that habit of writing the contract in duplicate side by side and then separating the two copies zick-zack with scissors. Approximately 300,000 Europeans immigrated to the American colonies as indentured servants in the 1600s.

Interestingly, prior to the African American slave trade boom mainly caused by the cotton production in North America and the invention of the cotton gin, rather friendly relationships existed between European and African kingdoms. In the historic records there is no trace of racial prejudice. An example is the love song a white nobleman composed to woo a black princess at the English court who became known as the “lady with meckle lippies”. The attitude of Europeans toward black Africans changed when the slave trade picked up in the 17th century and became big business for European slave traders. Now they began to treat black Africans more like cattle than like humans. And downhill from there.

Sources differ about the numbers. In my opinion, the most probable ones are these:

  • Approximately 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the Americas in slave ships.
  • Approximately 1.8 million Africans died on the ships during the passage.
  • Approximately 10.3 million Africans were shipped directly to South and Central America.
  • Approximately 400,000 Africans were shipped directly to North America.

The vast majority of African slaves were not sold directly to North America but into the sugar plantations of South and Central America. I could not find any reliable numbers on how many Africans were sold indirectly to North America via the Caribbean slave markets. Estimates range from 1 – 3 million total African slaves that arrived on the North American continent either directly or indirectly.

One wonders though, how the few Europeans were able to catch and carry off so many Africans. A slave ship at the time had hardly more than 200 crew. Approximately half of them were sailors and only a small number were trained soldiers. Their weaponry was not really superior to that of the Africans. They could not really venture too far away from the canons of their ships and into the African hinterland, that is unless – yes – unless they had the support of the local African chiefs or kings like those of the Kanem-Bornu empire in Chad, which for centuries controlled the trans-Saharan trade routes. African chiefs and potentates like those of Benin and Dahomey enriched themselves by hunting down their fellow Africans and selling them to the Arab and European slave traders.

Many leading Africans are quite aware of this. Here is what the Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Awoonor said:

I believe there is a great shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We too are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history.”

And Benin’s President Mathieu Kerekou apologized for his country’s role in “selling fellow Africans by the millions to white slave traders.”

We cry for forgiveness and reconciliation,” said Luc Gnacadja, Benin’s minister of environment and housing.

Cyrille Oguin, then Benin’s ambassador to the United States, acknowledged, “We share in the responsibility for this terrible human tragedy.”

Several television productions of the last decade have acknowledged these facts: Africans in America (PBS, 1998), Wonders of the African World (PBS, 1999), and The African Trade (History Channel International, 2000). The latter begins with the visit by a group of African Americans to the infamous slave castle and Door of No Return on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. “Appalled by the cruelties of the Europeans,” the narrator relates, “the visitors become curious as to how Africans fell into their hands.” Their African guide admits that “this history is difficult to tell and hard to believe”. He admits African complicity in kidnapping and selling millions of African people: “All the tribes were involved in the slave trade—no exemptions. We sold our own.” In the PBS Africans in America series companion book the author writes:

The white man did not introduce slavery to Africa … And by the fifteenth century, men with dark skin had become quite comfortable with the concept of man as property … Long before the arrival of Europeans on West Africa’s coast, the two continents shared a common acceptance of slavery as an unavoidable and necessary – perhaps even desirable – fact of existence. The commerce between the two continents, as tragic as it would become, developed upon familiar territory. Slavery was not a twisted European manipulation, although Europe capitalized on a mutual understanding and greedily expanded the slave trade into what would become a horrific enterprise… It was a thunder that had no sound. Tribe stalked tribe, and eventually more than 20 million Africans would be kidnapped in their own homeland.”


Today, Islam is the only world religion that still, if only implicitly, endorses traditional slavery as an institution. There are more modern forms of slavery. What the Nazis did to their war prisoners was slavery. What happens today in China to millions is slavery. And what happens with young Latinos at our Southern border today, is sex and labor slavery. One could also argue that the totalitarian society and state our own political elite is trying to push down our throats is either tax slavery or the government plantation, depending on your role in society. Serfdom is still around. It has just mutated into other forms. And freedom is still never free.

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