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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas
The Code of Hammurabi
The Code of the Nesilim
The Bible

Captive Passage
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Introduction of SlaveryThe Origins of Race-based Slavery

Introduction of Slavery

Slave DefinitionSlavery dates back to beyond recorded history when mankind went from hunting and gathering to farming for subsistence. From the earliest periods of recorded history, slavery has been found in the world's most "advanced" regions. It was known in Shang-dynasty China (c. 1500-c. 1066 BC) and ancient Egypt and is recorded in the Babylonian code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC), the Code of the Nesilim (Hittites)(1650 - 1500 B.C.) and in the Bible (Genesis 9:25-27). The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th c. millennium BC. The Sumerian symbol for slave, in cuneiform writing, suggests "foreign," indicating that the slave is somehow different from the master.

The first true slave society in history emerged in ancient Greece between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. In slave markets of Athens, Rhodes, Corinth, and Delos, a thousand slaves might change hands in an afternoon. After a major battle, as many as 20,000 captives might go on the block. Aesop, the legendary teller of fables, is alleged to have been a freed Greek slave of the 6th century BC. Rome became even more dependent upon the use of slavery when a form of agricultural slavery called estate slavery was introduced on a wide scale. This led to an expansion in domestic slaves, and the servile class grew to great numbers.

The form and nature of slavery varied greatly in ancient society. The earliest slaves were probably war captives, although debt slaves also existed in ancient Egypt. The Hammarubi, king of Babylonia in the 18th century BC, detailed many laws pertaining to slaves. Slaves were allowed to own property, enter into business, and marry free women; manumission (formal release by the owner) was permitted through either self-purchase or adoption. Nevertheless, even by this humanitarian code, the slave was still considered merchandise. The code of the Hittites, in effect in western Asia from 1800 to 1400 BC, was more humane - it conceded that a slave was a human being, although of an inferior order. The ancient Israelites experienced slavery in Egypt during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, while in the Indus Valley the first documented evidence of slavery coincides with the Aryan invasion of about 1500 BC. Ancient Indian literature indicates that slavery was sanctioned throughout India from the 6th century BC to the beginning of the Christian era.

In ancient Persia slave breeding became a major source of supply in addition to slave acquisition through conquest. Persian victories in the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Tenedos resulted in the enslavement of entire populations.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, slavery persisted in Arab lands and in central Europe, where many Slavs were captured and taken as slaves to Germany (hence the derivation of the word). Historically, slave-owning societies included the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean khanate, the Inca Empire (Peru), the Sokoto caliphate, and the Hausa (Nigeria). Central Asians such as the Mongols, Kazakhs, and various Turkic groups also kept slaves, as did some American Indian people (such as the Comanche and the Creek).

The first people to be enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese in the West Indies and Latin America were the Native Americans, but, because the majority of these slaves either revolted, escaped, or died, other forms of force labor were needed. The resistance of the indigenous peoples to slavery only increased the demand for Africans to replace them. African slavery gradually became dominant.

When Europeans began to colonize the New World at the end of the 15th century, they were well aware of the institution of slavery. As early as 1300, Europeans were using black and Russian slaves to raise sugar on Italian plantations. In Spain and Portugal, where the reconquest of the peninsula from the Moors in the 15th century created an acute shortage of labor, captured Muslims were enslaved. Slaves soon followed them from Africa.

Slavery became of major economic importance after the 16th century with the European conquest of South and Central America. Finding the indigenous inhabitants unwilling or unable to cooperate in the labor force, the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors used the ever-increasing numbers of slaves transported from Africa. English colonies in the Caribbean and North America followed suit in the 17th century, importing vast numbers of slaves to work in the tobacco, cotton, and rice industries among others.

New notions of human rights and freedom which sprang out of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century along with the Revolutionary fervor sweeping across the Americas and Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to questions about the institution of slavery. The prohibition of foreign slave trade in the United States, promised in the Constitution, was ratified in 1789, but not realized until 1808. Great Britain passed antislave- trade laws in 1807 and 1811. With independence came new principles for South American nations to include absolute prohibition of slavery (Argentina in 1813, Colombia in 1821, and Mexico in 1829).

However, as long as there remained a market for slaves, the trade continued. The slave trade did not come to a total end for the United States until 1865 with the 13th amendment to the constitution (1865). (The Emancipation Proclamation, enacted in 1863, freed only the slaves in Confederate-held territories.)

The United Nation's General Assembly adopted the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, containing a provision prohibiting slavery or trading in slaves. A 1966 report prepared for the United Nations charged that slavery still existed in parts of Africa and Asia. Some Berber peoples continued to own slaves until at least 1975. Slavery was officially abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1963 and in Mauritania in 1980. In December of 1988, it was reported that slaves were being sold in Sudan for £30. China launched a campaign against the abduction and sale of women and children in 1989. In Shaanix province 2,000 cases were uncovered in 1989 and in 1990, 7,000 cases in Sichuan. It is reported that teenagers from Mozambique had been sold into slavery in South Africa in 1990.

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1 Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary


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The Code of Hammurabi