What is Slavery? - Brenda E. Stevenson - E-Book

What is Slavery? E-Book

Brenda E. Stevenson

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What is Slavery?? It seems a simple enough question. Despite the long history of the institution and its widespread use around the globe, many people still largely associate slavery, outside of the biblical references in the Old Testament, to the enslavement of Africans in America, particularly the United States. Slavery proved to be essential to the creation of the young nation's agricultural and industrial economies and profoundly shaped its political and cultural landscapes, even until today. What is Slavery?? focuses on the experience of enslaved black people in the United States from its early colonial period to the dawn of that destructive war that was as much about slavery as anything else. The book begins with a survey of slavery across time and place, from the ancient world to the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade and then describes the commerce in black laborers that ushered in market globalization and brought more than 12 million Africans to the Americas, before finally examining slavery in law and practice. For those who are looking for a concise and comprehensive treatment of such topics as slave labor, culture, resistance, family and gender relations, the domestic slave trade, the regionalization of the institution in the expanding southern and southwestern frontiers, and escalating abolitionist and proslavery advocacies, this book will be essential reading.

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Table of Contents

Series page

Title page

Copyright page

Figures and Tables




Introduction: What is Slavery?


1: Slavery across Time and Place Before the Atlantic Slave Trade

Slavery in the Ancient World

Slavery in the Middle East and Asia

Slavery in Africa

Slavery in Europe and the Ottoman Empire

Slavery in Pre-Contact America

Further Reading


2: African Beginnings and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Trade Numbers: African Origins, American Destinations

British North American Slave Imports

Slave Trade Organization

Africans and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Middle Passage/Maafa

Further Reading


3: African People in the Colonial World of North America

Early Spanish, French, Dutch Settlements and Slavery in North America

British North American Colonization and the Evolution of African Slavery

Slave Legislation and Economy in British North America's Middle and Northern Colonies

Slave Labor in the Northern and Middle Colonies of the British Mainland

Colonial Southern Slave Culture, Labor, and Family

Slavery in the Age of the American Revolution and the Early Republic

Further Reading


4: Slavery and Anti-slavery in Antebellum America

Slave Population Growth and Relocation

Antebellum Slave Labor

Slave Family Life in the Antebellum South

Slave Punishment and Material Support

Antebellum Slave Resistance

Antebellum Slave Community Life

Antebellum Slave Frontiers


Further Reading





End User License Agreement

List of Tables

Table 3.1  Slave population in French/Spanish Louisiana

Table 3.2  Black population in Spanish Florida

Table 3.3  British North American colonies, slave population68

Table 3.4  Slave and free black state populations in the early Republic159

Table 4.1  US antebellum southern slave population, 1820–186017

Table 4.2  Percentage of households with slaves, percentage of slaves in population, 186018

Table 4.3  US cotton prices and production, 1790–1860

Table 4.4  Slave revolts in colonial North America and the United States, 1526–186098

List of Illustrations

1.1  Slaves working in a mine in ancient Greece, 440–430 bce


  Wikimedia Commons

1.2  A slave market, from “Al Maqamat” (The Meetings) by Al-Hariri (vellum), Al-Wasiti, Yahya ibn Mahmud (thirteenth century)


  Pictures From History/Bridgeman Images

1.3  Slaves being exported from central Africa to eastern Africa, c. 1866


  New York Public Library

2.1  Late eighteenth-century Africa


  Courtesy of the Mariner's Museum and Park

2.2  Artistic traditions were important cultural attributes of the Africans imported to the Americas. L–R (top): Kongo Fetish; Mende Sowo mask. L–R (bottom): Seated Igbo Princess; Yoruba belly mask.


  Cones Collection

2.3  The inspection and sale of a negro, c. 1854


  Cones Collection

3.1  “Slaves working in seventeenth-century Virginia,” by an unknown artist, 1670


:  Wikimedia Commons

3.2  A Virginia tobacco field


:  Wikimedia Commons

3.3  A South Carolina rice field


:  Wikimedia Commons

3.4  Virginia minstrels advertisement, 1843


:  Wikimedia Commons

4.1  George Carter's Oatlands Plantation, Loudoun County, Virginia, c. 1803


:  Cones Collection; Photo credit, Beverly and Carla Harris

4.2  Eli Whitney's cotton gin


:  Wikimedia Commons

4.3  Partial woven panel, US slave coverlet, cotton, indigo, red natural dye, c. 1840


:  Cones Collection

4.4  Abolition time line (The Americas and the Caribbean)149

4.5  “Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club”; the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks in Congress, 1856


:  American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA/Bridgeman Images



Table of Contents

Start Reading





























































































































































































































































Series page

What is History? series

John H. Arnold,

What is Medieval History?

Peter Burke,

What is Cultural History?




John C. Burnham,

What is Medical History?

Pamela Kyle Crossley,

What is Global History?

Pero Gaglo Dagbovie,

What is African American History?

Shane Ewen,

What is Urban History?

Christine Harzig and Dirk Hoerder, with Donna Gabaccia,

What is Migration History?

J. Donald Hughes,

What is Environmental History?




Andrew Leach,

What is Architectural History?

Stephen Morillo with Michael F. Pavkovic,

What is Military History?




Sonya O. Rose,

What is Gender History?

Brenda E. Stevenson,

What is Slavery?

Richard Whatmore,

What is Intellectual History?

Copyright page

Copyright © Brenda E. Stevenson 2015

The right of Brenda E. Stevenson to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2015 by Polity Press

Polity Press

65 Bridge Street

Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press

350 Main Street

Malden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-7150-5

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-7151-2(pb)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Stevenson, Brenda E.

    What is slavery? / Brenda E. Stevenson.

        pages cm. – (What is history)

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-7456-7150-5 (hardcover : alk. paper) – ISBN 0-7456-7150-0 (hardcover : alk. paper) – ISBN 978-0-7456-7151-2 (pbk. : alk. paper) – ISBN 0-7456-7151-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)    1.  Slavery–United States–History.    2.  Slavery–History.    I.  Title.

    E441.S88 2015



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Figures and Tables


1.1 Slaves working in a mine in ancient Greece, 440–430 bce 12

1.2 A slave market, from “Al Maqamat” (The Meetings) by Al-Hariri (vellum), Al-Wasiti, Yahya ibn Mahmud (thirteenth century) 14

1.3 Slaves being exported from central Africa to eastern Africa, c. 1866 16

2.1 Late eighteenth-century Africa 30

2.2 Kongo Fetish; Mende Sowo Mask; Seated Igbo princess; Yoruba belly mask 31

2.3 The inspection and sale of a negro, c. 1854 37

3.1 “Slaves working in seventeenth-century Virginia,” by an unknown artist, 1670 61

3.2 A Virginia tobacco field 88

3.3 A South Carolina rice field 88

3.4 Virginia minstrels advertisement, 1843 115

4.1 George Carter's Oatlands Plantation, Loudoun County, Virginia, c. 1803 125

4.2 Eli Whitney's cotton gin 130

4.3 Partial woven panel, US slave coverlet, cotton, indigo, red natural dye, c. 1840 148

4.4 Abolition time line (the Americas and the Caribbean) 163

4.5 “Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club”; the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks in Congress, 1856 180


3.1 Slave population in French/Spanish Louisiana 73

3.2 Black population in Spanish Florida 73

3.3 British North American colonies, slave population 73

3.4 Slave and free black state populations in the early Republic 106

4.1 US antebellum southern slave population, 1820–1860 130

4.2 Percentage of households with slaves, percentage of slaves in population, 1860 131

4.3 US cotton prices and production, 1790–1860 132

4.4 Slave revolts in colonial North America and the United States, 1526–1860 152


This book is drawn from my studies in slavery taken up since I was a young college student. I am thankful, therefore, to so many people who have instructed and guided me in this ever-fascinating topic, particularly John W. Blassingame, David Brion Davis, Robert F. Thompson, Sylvia Boone, D. Barry Gaspar, Joseph Miller, Leon Litwack, Darlene Clark Hine, V. P. Franklin, Deborah White, Nancy Cott, Edmund Morgan, Catherine Clinton, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Paul Gaston. Of course, the support of colleagues is always invaluable. I would like to thank especially Stephen Aron, Ellen DuBois, Ronald Mellor, Teo Ruiz, David Myers, Scott Waugh, and Sharla Fett. I am grateful to my external reviewers as well as Elliott Karstadt and Andrea Drugan at Polity Press for solid and essential advice regarding how to contain and organize such a huge topic in such a small book. Ellen Broidy assisted with editing the first draft of this work. Kaitlin Boyd served as an excellent research and editorial assistant, for which I am very thankful. Finally I am, as ever, thankful to God, my parents, James and Emma Stevenson and to my husband James Cones and our daughter Emma.

Introduction: What is Slavery?

What is slavery? It seems a simple enough question. Most people believe slavery was the condition that black people in the United States lived in before the end of the Civil War. In my college classes, for example, celluloid images of Gone with the Wind, Roots, Sankofa, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Quilombo, Amistad, Beloved, Burn!, Belle, and the 2014 Oscar winner for best film 12 Years a Slave mesh, mingle, and struggle for dominance as my students try to answer the question on the first day of lectures. What most of them do not know is that the institution of slavery is one of the most common in history and also one of the most diverse. Almost every civilization has had some form of slavery – whether it was in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, or Australia. As such, almost every ethnic/racial group alive today has been touched, at least ancestrally or geospatially, by the institution. Moreover, slavery still exists in most places. Indeed, an estimated 20–30 million people worldwide are still considered enslaved – either as chattel, debt peons, sex slaves, or as forced laborers. These enslaved workers come from, and are enslaved in, both poor and wealthy nations, although certainly the poor and politically dispossessed make up the majority of the enslaved in contemporary society. So, too, do women and children. Keep also in mind that the legacies of past slavery regimes remain among us. Many of those enslaved during the eras of American “discovery,” colonization, and early nationhood have descendants alive today who are located on the margins of their societies, particularly economically, socially, culturally, and even politically; some who can even be counted among the millions still designated as slaves.

Despite the long history of the institution and its widespread use around the globe, most people in the United States associate slavery with the enslavement of Africans in this nation for good reason. While the area that became the United States did not import many Africans through the transatlantic trade (only about 4–5 percent of those Africans who actually came to the “New World”), the United States became the largest slave society in the Atlantic world in the mid-nineteenth century. No other colony, state, or nation in the Americas held more than four million black slaves at one time, as did the United States in the early 1860s.

Most scholars agree that the first Africans arrived as laborers in British North America sometime between 1607 and 1618. They were late arrivals to the New World since the Spanish and Portuguese had been importing slaves to their Central and South American colonies and to the Caribbean since the early sixteenth century. Slowly, their numbers increased in the British mainland colonies – at first in single or at most double digits per year – and then, as the seventeenth century entered its third quarter, as a steadily increasing flow. By the middle of the eighteenth century, thousands were arriving annually. Elsewhere on the continent, the Spanish and the French in Florida and other places along the Gulf of Mexico already had established colonies that included black, and indigenous, slave labor. The Africans' presence, and their economic, political, social, cultural, legal, and psychological impacts on North America, were enormous.

This book chronicles this presence and its evolving influence through a detailed scrutiny of the lives of the slaves and the institution of chattel slavery that shaped them. The topics that garner special attention in What is Slavery? include: demography; legal structures; African cultural change, exchange, and resilience; material culture/material support; resistance and accommodation; marriage and family; labor and leisure; and abuse, punishment, and rewards. These topics are brought to light by weaving together descriptive narratives that are placed within a broader context of the developing slave presence in the Atlantic Chesapeake, Lowcountry, southern Piedmont, Lower South and Southwest, as well as in the middle and northern seaboard before the Revolution. In these diverse colonial locales that became the United States, gender, generation, race/ethnicity, class, and political consciousness or moral ideologies all shaped the perspective of the enslaved, the slaveholder and the majority of North American residents who were neither.

The objectives of this book are ambitious, particularly so given its mandated brevity. It provides its reader with a sweeping description, synthetic in nature, of one of the most significant experiences in American history. It is not meant to be a research monograph with groundbreaking new analysis, although some of it has drawn on my research and analysis that have not been published previously. Instead, What is Slavery? has largely drawn on the published work of generations of slavery scholars, including my own, that has collectively taught us much about this mammoth topic. What is Slavery? is a chronologically and topically driven narrative. Still, there are some fundamental experiences of the American slave, and characteristics of the institution of slavery, that are emphasized throughout these pages and form the book's underlying themes.

Slavery for Africans and their descendants in the United States, as throughout the Americas, was brutal. Slavery fundamentally meant a loss of control over the vital aspects of one's life and the lives of one's loved ones. It often meant physical and psychological abuse. For slave women, and to a lesser extent men and children, it meant sexual abuse. By today's standards, the average slave was not treated humanely, or even humanly, by their owners or governmental powers. This inhumanity shadowed every aspect of the slave's life – marital and parental relations, labor regimens and working conditions, material support, medical treatment, privacy/intimacy, intellectual/cultural expression, punishment, and representation in law.

Slavery was a brutal exercise of exploitation by the individual and state of the bondsman and bondswoman, and it was extremely profitable. Even though popular ideas about slavery in the United States today are framed by a belief of regional (southern) importance, slave-produced wealth shaped the economies, both directly and indirectly, of most of the original thirteen British colonies, as well as those of the Spanish and French territories that would become part of the United States in the nineteenth century.

Slavery's influence on the economic wellbeing of the new nation did not diminish over the decades before the Civil War. This wealth, which was concentrated in the hands of a small white elite, was of little benefit to the slave. Slaves received only the most menial and minimum material, medical, social, and psychological rewards for their labor. Indeed, America's free white society's regard for the slave hardly increased over time, despite the continued profitability derived from slave labor. Instead, there was an increase in popular, and even “scientific,” notions of “racial” inferiority that justified both slavery and the slaves' brutal treatment. Few did not experience this racial prejudice and it was this prejudice that so distinguished New World slavery when compared to forms of bondage in earlier periods of time and in other places. Thomas Jefferson's 1781 “suspicion only that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” became an accepted “truth.”1 Even President Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” carefully explained to voters publicly in 1858 that: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”2 It was, indeed, this stigma of racial inferiority that colored the slaves' lives, followed blacks out of slavery, and frames their “freedom” even today. “Racial ideologies undergirded the terror and coercion fundamental to keeping slaves at work,” historian Lisa Lindsay notes. “In every slave society, masters and overseers whipped, maimed, raped, humiliated, and deprived enslaved people – tortures they would have considered unthinkable for (most) fellow whites.”3

Regardless of their brutal economic exploitation and denunciation as racial inferiors, enslaved Africans and their descendants managed to survive their enslavement physically, psychologically, culturally, spiritually, and intellectually. This “survival,” to be certain, was not a perfect one. It was borne out of resistance as well as accommodation, acculturation and even, in some instances, assimilation. Even so, there were some who could not endure their harsh circumstances. “It's bad to belong to folks dat own you sol an' body,” admitted Delia Garlic, who was enslaved in antebellum Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana. “Dat can tie you up…, wid yo' face to de tree an' yo' arms fastened tight aroun' it'; who take a long curlin' whip an' cut de blood [with] ever' lick.”4 Historian Nell Painter's brilliant thesis of the “soul murder” of the slave opens up our imagination and intellect to the question of lingering generational trauma among these persons and their descendants.5 And there certainly were persons who did not survive at all. A significant minority of enslaved men and women committed suicide, suffered insanity, became demoralized and dehumanized, never recovered from physical abuse, badly treated or untreated illnesses, or were murdered by masters or agents of the “law,” with the state's blessing. Still, the records of natural increase, long-term marital relations, vibrant cultural expression, unrelenting and diverse challenges to white authority, and creative and courageous acts that led to self and sometimes group emancipation document the slaves' determination to assert their agency6 against tremendous odds in order to control important aspects of their private lives, working conditions, and human expression. Brutality, profitability, the evolution of a racist ideology on the one hand, and the slave's insistence on physical, psychological, and spiritual survival as manifest through family and community, resistance and cultural expression on the other, are the themes of this synthetic narrative.

The first chapter of What is Slavery? is meant to introduce the reader to the “history” of slavery. Certainly this work cannot describe, much less discuss, every example of slavery that we now know existed across time and place. Likewise, the remaining chapters take on no small feat in their attempt to describe the developing landscape of slavery in the United States and the lives of its ever-expanding bound laborers. What is Slavery? necessarily moves back and forth from the “macro” to the “micro,” or at least from the regional to the local. Readers are made aware of the broad design of US history, which is so shaped by this institution, and they may hear clearly the voices and stories across the generations of enslaved men, women, and children. The audience will be introduced to some of the scholarly sentiments about key elements of the slave's life and the structures that shaped it. Not only have these opinions evolved over time, but many are just being incorporated into the bulging historiography that is slavery studies. The most important intellectual debates related to slavery in the United States, and the Atlantic world more generally, have centered on: methodological approach (what sources to use; what voices to hear; what questions to ask and answer), as well as interpretations of the slave's relationship to Africa (cultural retention, extension, recovery, or loss); the slave's relationship to his/her owner (paternalistic or antagonistic and resistant, expressions of dependency or agency); the relationship of legal and religious structures to the quality of slave life (Catholic vs Protestant; French and Spanish colonial legal codes that were relatively comprehensive vs the piecemeal laws of states and locales in the United States; and the extension of slave legal codes from the British Caribbean to North American colonies); stereotyped slave personality type(s), including Sambo, Jack, Nat, Mammy, and Jezebel; slave social organization as opposed to disorganization (slave community vs disunity and allegiances to masters); the nature of the institution (paternalistic vs economically driven; benign vs brutal); the nature of the black family (nuclear vs extended and abroad); and the economic ramifications of slavery (profitable vs unprofitable); Clearly, there is much – undoubtedly too much – to try to squeeze into this short book. Nonetheless, What is Slavery? attempts to provide its reader with a sound synthesis of this essential experience in American history.



  Thomas Jefferson,

Notes on the state of Virginia

(Virginia: the author, 1787), Kindle Edition, location 2510.


  Quoted in Robert Morgan, “The ‘Great Emancipator’ and the Issue of Race: Abraham Lincoln's Program of Black Resettlement,”

The Journal of Historical Review

13(5) (Sept.–Oct. 1993): 6,




  Lisa A. Lindsay,

Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade

(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), 44.


  Delia Garlic,

When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection

, ed. Norman Yetman (New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2012), 43.


  Nell I. Painter,

Soul Murder and Slavery

(Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 1995).


  An often-cited source on the debate on slave agency is Walter Johnson, “On Agency,”

Journal of Social History

37(1) (Fall 2003):113–24,



1Slavery across Time and Place Before the Atlantic Slave Trade

“From the first written records in ancient Sumeria, the concept of slavery has been a way of classifying the most debased social class.”

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage1

Slavery has existed across time and place as one of the most enduring institutions and conditions found among peoples. Many of the examples of enslavement, bondage, unfree labor, debt peonage, concubinage, and so on that will be surveyed here, however, occurred in a society that one would not define as a slave society – that is, one in which the presence of slaves had a defining impact on one or more significant societal characteristics that influenced the lives of many, if not most, of its inhabitants. These affected societal traits typically protected the rights and privileges of slaveholders and others invested in the institution, not the slaves. As one will quickly conclude from perusing this chapter, the numerous forms of slavery found around the globe were, and still are, quite varied, not just between political boundaries, but within them as well. Slavery rarely has remained the same in any particular area. Its means of implementation, the characteristics of those who could be enslaved and those who could enslave, its influence on political, social, economic, and cultural structures and customs, the “rights” of the enslaved, the measure of state support, the ways in which the enslaved gained freedom and, indeed, what that “freedom” meant for the emancipated and their descendants produced an impressively diverse institution. Still, the reader will also quickly come to understand that some characteristics of slave status carry across time and place, or at least often repeat themselves. Noted slavery scholar David Brion Davis is absolutely correct in his association of slavery with social “debasement.” The hierarchies that slavery helped to created, and operated within, situated the “slave” at the bottom, with rare exception. This is a fundamental similarity hereby persisted across an array of power relationships labeled as slavery. Other similarities include the means whereby persons came to acquire this status, the kinds of labor they performed, and the impact of slave ownership on a master's status. The most singular characteristic of the slave in post-contact America was that he or she was “black”; therefore, a racialized basis for slavery was quite unique previous to the New World institution coming into its own. Before, persons were much more likely to be enslaved because they were impoverished, war captives, criminals, kidnap victims, or were of a specific religion than because they were “black” or African.

Slavery in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Palestine, Rome, and Asia had slaves. So too did early societies in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. There were slaves in Babylon as early as the eighteenth century bce and in Mesopotamian cities by 6800 bce. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1790 bce), for example, contains numerous guidelines related specifically to slavery. Slaves in Mesopotamia typically originated as war captives, criminals, and debtors, and they worked in agriculture, construction, and as domestics. Slave ownership there reached its peak in the first century bce.2 Documentation of slavery in Greece indicates that it existed at least from 1500 bce onward, but was particularly important during the Hellenistic period (332–330 bce) and especially in Athens, Delos, and Delphi. Fifth-century bce Athens had more enslaved residents than free people; and Greece employed tens of thousands of slaves in its silver mines during the same era. Slavery in the Roman Republic was fully institutionalized by 450 bce, and was incorporated into the Twelve Tables legal code (451–450 bce). Indeed, close to 700,000 prisoners of war were enslaved between 297 and 167 bce in the Roman Empire.3 Altogether, millions of slaves inhabited ancient Rome, claiming 15–25 percent or even 35 percent of its population.4

What did it mean to be a slave in the ancient Greco-Roman world? Slaves had to be away from their original “nation” and “cultures” – an “other” in the society where the “free” did not regard him or her as a “person,” and certainly not as an equal. A slave had no recognizable ties to nation, state, or lineage.5 Roman slaves, for example, arrived from across Rome's vast empire that included Germany, Italy, the Balkans, Britain, Syria, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Somalia, North Africa, Jewish territories, and even India.6 Slaves were chattel or property, and provided their masters with labor and status. It was understood, by slaves and their owners alike, however, that they still were human and, therefore, capable of emotion and even intelligence.7 Nonetheless, a slave belonged physically and, at least outwardly, emotionally to his/her owner who could choose to use, clothe, feed, punish, designate an occupation, or have sexual relations with him or her largely at will. The vast majority of Roman slaves had few privileges and their status was passed on to their descendants. As enslaved people, they could not own property, marry, or have a family over which they could claim control.8

The origins of this status – inherited, war spoil, purchased chattel, kidnap victim, debtor, and orphaned, abandoned, or sold child of an impoverished family – also led to enslavement in China, Egypt, and other places in both the ancient and early modern world. Enslaved persons in the Roman Empire were found in all realms of society and were essential, in many ways, to various sectors of the economies of the ancient world. The largest numbers were domestics or agricultural workers. Indeed, although wealthy slaveholders could have hundreds of domestic slaves, most had much smaller numbers. Slaves also worked as skilled artisans, gladiators, in mining, and in administrative positions. As in societies throughout the western ancient world, domestic and skilled slaves had higher status than agricultural workers.9 Slavery in the ancient Greco-Roman world meant, as it did in the Americas, that enslaved men, women, and children did not have control over their bodies. Physical and sexual control of a slave was a given right of owners and anyone the owner allowed access to his property. Owners also could choose to punish their slaves as they pleased, usually without state interference. Punishments could range from whipping and branding to imprisonment or even death.10

There was a consensus regarding the alienated social and political status of slaves, but there often was visible status diversity among the slave population that affected their labor and treatment. In the Greco-Roman world, certain prized slaves belonging to wealthy and powerful masters, therefore, had relatively significant power vis-à-vis other slaves, as well as some low-status free men and women.11 As such, some enslaved persons actually found themselves on the border between “slave” and “free,” due to their owners' great status. Others gained status, and some useful “freedoms,” if they acquired important skills or an impressive education. A few, no doubt, actually could inspire the envy of very low-status free people. Freedom, after all, could be replaced with slavery if a free man or woman found themselves in dire economic straits or on the wrong side of the law. Likewise, the enslaved could become free.

Still, once enslaved, the condition typically was one for life and, for many, could be passed on to future generations. Interruption of this flow of propertied status came when an owner freed his slave or the slave managed to earn enough money to buy his or her freedom – that is, if the master allowed him or her to do so – since the right to buy one's freedom usually was not guaranteed. Even after gaining freedom, the stain of slavery often followed a person into freedom, even obligating the former bondsperson to a previous master.12

In the Roman Republic, for example, formal manumission did render the former slave with a limited type of citizenship. Freed people could legally marry, make contracts, and own transferable property. Males had some limited voting capacity, but they could not hold public office, although their freeborn sons could. In ancient Greece, slaves could seek manumission either through religious or civil means. Freedom meant that former Greek slaves had control over their movements and the right to earn income, but they still were tied to former owners or owners' heirs. Practically, this meant that masters or their families could call on emancipated slaves to provide some type of service or compensation. Those who refused to do so could be punished and, in extreme cases, re-enslaved.13

Just as slavery was not an unusual institution in the ancient world, nor was resistance. Slaves fought their bondage in many ways, including armed rebellion, such as in the uprising led by Spartacus in Italy in 73–71 bce that involved thousands of slaves.14

Others committed suicide, escaped, murdered their masters, stole from them, burnt their crops, businesses and homes, and, of course, continuously designed passive forms of disobedience whenever they believed they might get away with doing so, for, as historian Keith Bradley notes of slavery in ancient Rome, a “game of psychological warfare […] always existed between master and slave.”15


  Slaves working in a mine in ancient Greece, 440–430



  Wikimedia Commons

Many ancient texts captured descriptions of slavery. Slaves and slavery, for example, are depicted in the Old as well as the New Testaments of the Bible. These persons typically inherited their status or were reduced to it as debtors, prisoners of war, criminals, or concubines. In the Old Testament, Jews, and other ethnic/racial groups, both held and were held as slaves. The Apostle Paul spoke of the plight of slaves and Peter instructed slaves to obey their masters in the New Testament. Of course, one of the most popularly referenced chronicles of slavery found in the Bible is in Exodus – the story of Jewish enslavement by Egyptians and their eventual release under the leadership of Moses. Jews, however, were hardly the only slaves found in ancient Egypt.

Given the longevity of the civilizations found in Egypt, it is not surprising that slavery presented itself somewhat differently in the Old Kingdom (c. 2700–2300 bce), Middle Kingdom (c. 2134–1785 bce), and New Kingdom (c. 1560–1070 bce), as well as under Roman control (30 bce–640 ce). The largest number of enslaved were found during the era of the New Kingdom. Regardless of the era, most were military captives. During the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, for example, there is evidence that at least 7,000 Nubians and 1,100 Libyan slaves were captured. Others during the ancient eras came from Syria, Canaan, Ethiopia, or, internally, were Egyptian criminals or debtors. Many labored in the agricultural lands, in mines, as soldiers, and in the domestic sphere.16 Toil in the copper and gold mines was deemed the most brutal, with many fatalities. Most slaveholders only had one or two slaves, but certainly wealthy persons had more. Slaves who worked in palaces for royalty were believed to be the most fortunate because of the relatively high level of material support and because of the opportunity to acquire favor and, therefore, privileges that other enslaved persons would not experience. Moreover, at least by the time of the New Kingdom, some particularly privileged slaves held property and could inherit. Likewise, there is evidence that some bondspersons could testify in court and were educated in Egyptian culture. Slavery in Egypt, as throughout the ancient world, was hereditary. The New Kingdom will of Amonkhau (c. 1100 bce), for example, stipulated that his second wife should receive “two male servants and two female servants and their children,” along with an additional nine slaves.17

Slavery in the Middle East and Asia

Beyond Egypt, slavery flourished in other parts of the Middle East and vast trading networks brought persons for sale from across the region and beyond. Even though the institution was in place before the spread of Islam, the Qur'an, as the Bible, speaks of, and to, the institution of slavery, both assuming its existence and offering some guidelines. Shari'a law, for example, prohibited Muslims from enslaving one another. They could, however, enslave non-Muslims and there was a lengthy history of slave-capturing raids on non-Muslim communities and pirated ships throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Balkans.18 Most of the enslaved worked as domestics or were used as military personnel. The Qur'an also allowed male adherents to have sexual relations with female slaves, even if both were married; and many women were forced into concubinage relationships. Once a concubine had a child by her master, however, she was to be freed upon his death and the child was to be free upon birth.19 Since a slave's status was determined by the status of his/her master, a hierarchy did exist among the enslaved. Many soldier slaves, for example, eventually were freed and then allowed some rights.


  A slave market, from “Al Maqamat” (The Meetings) by Al-Hariri (vellum), Al-Wasiti, Yahya ibn Mahmud (thirteenth century)


  Pictures From History/Bridgeman Images

Central Asia, an enormous area of the globe that extended from Mongolia to the Caucasus Mountains and from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan, was not exempt from the institution of slavery, with some bondsmen and women also shipped to the Middle East. Indeed, slaves were a common and important item of exchange along the Silk Road. Most of the male slaves, especially Turks, became soldiers, while the women, as typical, were concubines and domestics.20

In various parts of Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, India, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the enslavement of war captives, debtors, and criminals persisted beyond the ancient eras. For example, an Indian treatise, “Arthahastra,” written by an advisor to the Emperor Chandragupta around 300 bce, noted that persons could become enslaved by selling themselves to someone, through inheriting the status, as a punishment for a crime or because of their war-captive status. Masters employed their slaves in numerous occupations, including service as messengers, domestics, interpreters, concubines, eunuchs, craftsmen, warriors, and rural agricultural workers. Although slavery thrived in the urban arena, South Asian masters used large numbers of slaves for agricultural labor during the Vedic period of 600–321 bce. Chinese slaves helped to build the Great Wall and the tomb of Emperor Shih Huang Ti in the third century bce. In ancient Japan, until the ninth century ce, male slaves were known as “yakko.” During the Taika Reforms of 645 ce, specific rules regarding the “nuhi,” or slaves, were created. More extensive laws were established in 701 ce that distinguished “public slaves,” or “kunuhi,” from private slaves, or “shinuhi,” and provided for the improvement of status for the former. The ownership of large numbers of slaves in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, brought a master social prestige and economic might. International and domestic slave trades operated between 206 bce and the fourteenth century, providing slaves to China from as far away as Africa.21 As late as the sixteenth century in Sumatra and New Guinea, as well as in the Philippines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, significant slave-trading businesses operated.22

Slavery in Africa

Slavery, of course, existed in much of Africa beyond ancient Egypt and the continent's northern regions.23 Various forms of the institution flourished across Africa from early periods onward. Arabs controlled the coastal East African slave trade from about 200 bce. Young Ethiopian men used as warriors, and women and girls who were valued for their beauty and enslaved in harems, were especially important. By the twelfth century, even Chinese historians were writing about the enslavement of East Africans in the Middle East. Chou Ch'u-fei, for example, noted in 1178 that “there is an island in the sea on which there are many savages. Their bodies are black as lacquer and they have frizzled hair. They are enticed by food and then captured and sold as slaves to the Arabic countries, where they fetch a high price.”24

Enslaved western Africans also were traded throughout the Arab world. Trade routes that carried gold, ivory, salt, and slaves eventually connected peoples across the vast continental expanse. By the eighth century ce, for example, a thriving Muslim slave trade, much of it reliant on violent kidnapping and raiding, was moving bondspeople from sub-Saharan African north and east to the Persian Gulf and, in the tenth century ce, to Asia.25 Much of this trade operated out of the city of Zawila in the southern Libyan Desert, moving along the important slave routes through Timbuktu, Kano, Bornu, and Wadaj.26 This trade flourished for more than a millennium.27 Some were eventually sold in parts of medieval and early modern Europe. The majority were females and typically used as domestics and concubines. At some locales, Jewish traders preceded Islamic ones.28 The important West African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai also practiced some forms of bondage.29 By the mid-nineteenth century, Muslim traders traveled as far inland in Africa as the upper Congo and Lake Victoria to acquire human property. They shipped these men, women, and youths via Zanzibar, east to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Arabia.


  Slaves being exported from central Africa to eastern Africa, c. 1866


  New York Public Library

In the western central area of the continent, among the Kongo for example, slavery had been practiced since the fourteenth century.30 The same can be said about slavery in Hausaland, located in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, where military conquerors employed war captives in agriculture, construction, as concubines, eunuchs, and domestics, and traded them for valuable items such as horses.31

At the time that Europeans arrived in fifteenth-century sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, slave-trading and slavery existed in varied locations and was practiced by many ethnic groups. In Igboland in southeastern Nigeria, from where large numbers of enslaved persons were forced to reside in North America (particularly in Virginia and Maryland, for example) in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, persons could be enslaved for a number of criminal offenses including murder, incest, sorcery, and theft. Others derived their status from warfare with political or “foreign” enemies or because of debt.32

War captives held as slaves, or those recently enslaved who had not been incorporated into kin groups, typically were those who were sold, along with other valuable items such as gold, ivory, and cloth to the Europeans – the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, French, British, Swedish, and others – who traded along the Atlantic coast from Senegal through Angola and inland toward the central African region of Zaire/Congo from the fifteenth through the middle decades of the nineteenth centuries. European traders quickly came to understand that they could benefit from the existence of internal and external (moving north and east across the Sahara) slave-trading caravans and outposts. As historian John Thornton notes, African political and economic elites controlled much of slave property because enslaved persons produced substantial wealth and prestige for their masters and because they often were drawn from the ranks of captured military enemies in the hands of these elites. Slaves were especially important as “economic units” because they were transferable property, unlike land, which typically was held communally.33

Slavery in western and central sub-Saharan Africa, as in ancient European, Middle Eastern, and Asian societies, placed bondsmen, in particular, in a vast variety of occupational roles, including court administrators, soldiers, merchants, miners, craftsmen, agricultural workers and supervisors, musicians, and human carriers.34 Women and children, who were the majority of those enslaved in Africa, had predictable roles in the domestic sphere, but women could also be used as miners, water carriers, midwives, and healers. In Dahomey, females could even be enslaved, under certain circumstances, as soldiers, commanders, traders, and governmental advisors. Most enslaved children were domestic workers, providing household labor in the form of cleaning, helping to cook and garden, taking care of livestock, and serving as companions for free children. Women also provided domestic labor and cloth production, and were especially important as agricultural laborers and, to a lesser extent, as concubines and sex slaves.35

Control of an enslaved woman's productivity included, of course, control of her production of future slaves. Males within the households of these enslaved women sometimes married them. To do so meant that they did not have to pay bridewealth, since these women usually were not part of a recognized kin group that would have required this obligation. Once enslaved, women were married and part of a kinship group. They gradually became assimilated into the society in which they had been slaves. Their children born of this marriage were free. Relatedly, those who were enslaved as children often were treated similarly as members of the household, although the tasks they were assigned to perform typically were lowlier. A slave's status within the same household tended, however, to improve across the generations.36

Women were enslaved, but they could also be slaveholders. Both as the wives and concubines of powerful African and European men, as well as on their own, a small minority of females acquired slaves, most of whom were other women and children. Some enslaved women also held slave property in their own right, particularly if they were close to gaining their freedom and were given the right, by their masters, to do so.37 Some free African women, who gained substantial control in trading towns along the coast of western Africa from the Upper Guinea region to Luanda, held substantial numbers of slaves that they used in domestic, agricultural, and commercial sectors of local economies.38

Europeans who arrived in sub-Saharan Africa in the fifteenth century were from societies that not only had a history of an African slave presence due to Arab trading connections, but which also had a long history of “European” enslavement within and beyond their polities. Slavery existed, for example, at least in England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Hungary, Sweden, and Iceland. European slaves were not only taken and traded in Europe, but also in locales in the eastern Mediterranean, mostly through Spain and Italy. Norsemen, for example, raided and enslaved people from present-day Ireland, England, Scotland, and the continent, taking their captives to Greenland, but also overland to the Middle East and Central Asia.39 Some estimates suggest that, by 950 ce, slaves comprised 15–20 percent of the English population.40 Southern Europe, particularly Spain and Portugal, was the site of notorious slave raids, bringing Christian men and women as bonded persons into the Islamic world from the medieval period onward. The Barbary Coast, notably Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, was known for producing slaves taken by pirates – many from Europe (Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, England, Scotland, and Portugal) during the seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries, and some even originating from the United States in the first decades following the American Revolution.

Slavery in Europe and the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the sixteenth century, and that part of it which included Eastern Europe witnessed widespread enslavement of Christian men and young boys who were converted to Islam and used as slave warriors. Many became imperial administrators throughout the empire, which spread from North Africa through the Horn and also included southeastern Europe, the Caucus, and western Asia. The men, members of the kul, were not treated as typical slaves. They had significant power, lived well, and usually married well. While theoretically they were slaves of the sultan, it was rare that they were dehumanized, treated with disdain or disrespect, or found themselves powerless to control their labor, bodies, or families. Women and children were domestic slaves, but usually in the households of the elite. Many of these lived in harems that functioned as a separate gendered sphere of activity and spatial location. Enslaved women in harems, particularly those from Europe, like their kul brothers, sometimes had elite positions and were trained by elite women in the household in a manner that would allow them to comfortably marry, or serve as the concubines of important men.41