Slavery appeared alongside the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago, when humanity went from hunting and gathering to a sedentary and more hierarchical society. With the appearance of agriculture and animal husbandry came the first abundance, and along with it the material advantage of owning another person.
This phenomenon has afflicted almost all of mankind. The rivalry generated between these newly formed classes of people, master and servant, had strong effects felt even to this day. From the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to European colonial powers and the Atlantic slave trade, not to mention modern slavery around the world, slavery has changed human society significantly. Below are less famous cases you may not have heard of, yet were no less influential.
Like writing, slavery officially starts with the Sumerians. Living on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq, the Sumerians centered their civilization on a dozen city-states which were all under the protection of local deities. The Sumerians were a fairly peaceful people, but they sometimes warred with each other for economic reasons. The winner would then enslave the locals, mostly as concubines or domestic workers, under the pretext that their gods had allowed them to conquer an inferior people.
Later, with the arrival of the Babylonians in the region, strict laws were put in place regarding slavery. The Code of Hammurabi, dating back to the 18th century BC, discusses how to own slaves, what was allowed and what wasn’t, and what the penalties were for both masters and slaves who broke the law.
In Babylon, slaves had some rights that spared them from “unwarranted abuse,” and allowed them to own private property and even businesses. Free men could offer themselves or their children into bondage, but could later buy their freedom back if they had the means to do so. Mothers couldn’t be separated from their children, and children born into servitude remained on the same estate as their parents. Most slaves in Babylon and Sumer were native to the region, spoke the same language and believed in the same gods. Only a minority was brought from distant lands by trade or conquest.
9. The Viking Slave Trade
The Vikings, native to Scandinavia and what is now Denmark, sailed all around the European continent, navigating upstream rivers and pillaging villages and monasteries along the way. Their main purpose was to seize whatever valuables they could find and capture as many locals as they could in order to sell them into slavery.
Ireland was one place where massive numbers of people were captured by the Vikings, mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries, and spread across the continent in both Norse settlements and other slave-states. Many enslaved Irish were sent to England and Scandinavia, but some reached as far as the Islamic Caliphates, and recent DNA evidence reveals that many more found their way to Iceland.
The Rus state, founded by Swedish Norsemen in the mid-9th century in what is now Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia, had its economic foundation based on the slave trade. These Vikings conquered and enslaved the local Slavs and sold most of them to the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Constantine VII recounted one such trading expedition from Novgorod to Constantinople where slaves, tied together in chains, formed a column six miles long.
The Arab geographer Ibn Fadlan describes the practice of female slave sacrifice on the Isle of Man in England, when a young slave girl was killed and her remains, mixed with the ashes of animals, were put on top her master’s burial mound. Another of his descriptions depicts the famous burning boat burial, where a slave girl is killed and placed alongside her master in order to accompany him on his journey to Valhalla.
8. Ancient China
Slavery in Ancient China dates back all the way to the Xia Dynasty around 2100 BC. Slavery started in China as the need for cheap labor arrived with the appearance of agriculture. People in dire situations offered themselves into service, and warring between tribes also offered a steady influx of slaves.
During the first three dynasties of China, slaves had absolutely no rights and were often worked to exhaustion. When their master died, they would be sacrificed and buried alongside him in order to serve him in the afterlife. This practice was abandoned with the arrival of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, when the Emperor and other slave owners were buried with terracotta servants instead of real ones.
The following centuries in China’s history are marked by various changes to slavery. Emperor Wang Mang abolished the slave trade in 9 AD. Despite this edict, the now illegal slave trade was still common. Slave markets were similar to any other market, and the slaves were kept in pens with cattle and other livestock. In order to make them more desirable, slave traders often dressed their slaves in silk and flashy clothes.
With the 7th century came Arab merchants, who brought with them black slaves from East Africa. By the 9th century, Muslim traders had already established a sizable community in Guangzhou, and black slaves were a common site even among the Chinese nobility. China officially abolished slavery in 1906, but some people remained slaves in remote mountain areas as late as the 1950s.
7. The Mayans and Aztecs
These two civilizations, together with many others which emerged out of the jungles of Central and South America, are a good example of how slavery is a direct consequence of human civilization as we know it. Since the region was cut off from the rest of the world, slavery emerged in isolated circumstances alongside advancements in agriculture.
The Aztecs had irrigation canals well before any Europeans did, and used cocoa beans and cotton as money. Slaves within the empire lived in relatively comfortable conditions, with the exception of criminals and prisoners of war. They were most likely sacrificed atop towering Aztec pyramids. According to archeological evidence, roughly 84,000 prisoners were once killed over four days. Most slaves, however, were simple Aztec citizens who sold themselves or their children into servitude due to economic adversity. They could buy back their freedom later for the same price. They could own property, start businesses and marry, and their children would be born free.
The Maya also made use of slaves. Most were prisoners of war and were often sacrificed. The Maya also sacrificed orphan children, but those born to slave parents were free. Prisoners and criminals who weren’t killed in the name of the gods were put to hard labor by working the land and building the pyramids.
The Incas, on the other hand, didn’t use any material currency. Gold and silver were regarded as raw materials, used to make beautiful accessories and religious artefacts. They would pay their debts with work, not personal possessions. There was no actual slavery as we know it within the Inca Empire, but citizens had to offer their time and energy to their rulers in a sort of serfdom. This mentality was so deeply engrained in their cultural consciousness that when Europeans arrived, they were shocked to find that the Incans would gladly work for up to two weeks rather than simply give them a bushel of potatoes.
6. The Barbary Corsairs
The coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where we now find Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, was known as the Barbary Coast by the Europeans of the 17th century. From the early 1600s through the 19th century, roughly 1.25 million Europeans were captured and sold on this coast by the Barbary Corsairs.
Their activity increased dramatically with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which severely weakened Christian control of the Mediterranean. Muslim pirates would attack ships as well as raid coastal villages in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and even Iceland. The attacks were so frequent and widespread that many coastal settlements were completely abandoned up until the 19th century.
Life as a captive on the Barbary Coast was grim. Many would die on the voyage to North Africa due to disease, starvation and dehydration. Men were put to hard labor by working in quarries or construction, and some ended up as oar men on galleys where they would be chained to their seats indefinitely. The women were used for housework or as sex slaves.
The era of the Barbary Corsairs faded within the first years of the 19th century when the French, Spanish and Americans started fighting back. With the invasion of Algiers and Tunis by the French in 1830 and 1881, and with Tripoli falling to the Italians in 1911, the era of European enslavement was over.
Slavery in Japan, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543, was widespread. A rough estimate shows that about 10% of the entire population enslaved, with most of them being owned by the state. Crimes were punished either through ritual suicide or by life in bondage. Treatment of slaves and criminals was severe.
What’s little known is the slave trade that took place in Japan after the arrival of European colonialists. The first ever Japanese to set foot on European and South American soil were slaves. Most of them were prisoners from the many internal conflicts their country was going through. Some sold themselves and their families to escape bitter poverty, while others were traded by their own feudal lords in exchange for gunpowder and other European goods.
This slave trade escalated to such a scale that in 1571 King Sebastian of Portugal issued a decree prohibiting it in regards to Japanese prisoners. With the rise to power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan, a letter was sent by him to Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho in 1587, expressing his disgust in the practice and asking for it to stop in exchange for compensation. Neither the King’s nor the Emperor’s requests were answered, and this lead to the expulsion of all foreigners from Japan and the strict isolation of the country for 250 years.
4. The Romani
The 500 year enslavement of the Romani (better known as Gypsy) population is a phenomenon almost unknown to the public. Their arrival to the continent, mainly in modern Wallachia, Moldova and Transylvania, dates back to the early 13th century, after a 200 year long migration from present day India and Pakistan. The exact nature on how the Romani became slaves within these principalities alone is a matter of debate.
The first written record which mentions Romani slaves dates back to 1385. In Moldova and Transylvania, serfdom appears later in written record, in the 15th century. All rulers had slaves, from Mircea the Elder and Vlad Dracul in Wallahia, to Stephen the Great in Moldova. The church had by far the most slaves, since it was customary to receive frequent donations from rulers.
The Romani were categorized in two classes. Some were sedentary and worked their masters’ lands, while others were nomadic and could travel anywhere. These were further classified into smaller groups depending on their craft, which ranged from ore miners to bear trainers. These nomadic Romani had to pay a special state tax. Both classes weren’t considered legal persons.
Life as a slave in what is now present day Romania was harsh, and those subjugated had absolutely no rights. Their masters could trade them at will, breaking up families in the process, and physical abuse was common. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as people started to move into larger cities, Romani became property to wealthier citizens, doing regular housework and other physical labor. Only in 1856 did Barbu Stirbei pass a bill emancipating the Romani in the Romanian Principalities.
With the freeing of some African-American slaves in the United States, mainly Northern Civil War veterans, the problem of “the God-given order of things” emerged among the white population. In a time when a dark skin signified a mark of servitude, freed black men, despite their lack of rights, were seen as an outright affront to old beliefs.
In 1812, this led to the creation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) by some white Americans to solve the problem of the growing number of free slaves in the country by moving them elsewhere. Most of the free African-American community wasn’t in favor of this, claiming an equal right in living within the country they help build. Nevertheless, in 1818 the ACS sent two representatives to West Africa in a vain attempt to find and purchase land. In 1820, 88 free black colonists and three society members sailed for Sierra Leone only to die of malaria and typhus. Another attempt came in 1821 when an U.S. naval officer, Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton, coerced local leaders into selling a 36 by three mile strip of land in exchange for firearms and other goods.
On July 26, 1847, Liberia became the second black republic, after Haiti. Its capital, Monrovia, was named after United States President James Monroe, who supported the colony. The new republic engaged in several conflicts with natives of the region who still practiced slavery. For the next 133 years the country was ruled by one party, a reign that ended in 1980. The indigenous population living in Liberia was denied citizenship until 1904 and wasn’t allowed to vote until well into the 20th century, even though they made up over 95% of the entire population. There were also many cases of forced labor and lack of property rights.
2. The Kolyma Gulag
During the Great Purge of 1937-38, countless Ukrainians, along with suspected spies, murderers, thieves, political dissenters and anyone who had generally annoyed Stalin, were sent to the infamous gulags hidden within the Siberian Tundra. Among those camps, none was more hellish than the Kolyma Gulag in the far Northeast of the country.
With barbaric conditions and temperatures reaching -60 degrees Celsius during winter, the Kolyma Gulag had a mortality rate of over 35%. This was no problem for Stalin, since he had a constant influx of new prisoners sent there regularly. The region held the richest gold deposits in Russia, and the prisoners were put to work mining it. The combination of severe malnutrition, unrelenting bitter cold and hard labor spelled certain death.
Until Stalin’s death in 1953, prisoners at Kolyma mined half of all the gold in the world and build a 1900 kilometer road between Magadan and Yakutsk, which became known as “The Road of Bones” due to the countless dead buried underneath it. It’s estimated that roughly three million people died at Kolyma.
1. Modern-day Slavery
People tend to think that, with the exception of some isolated cases in extremely poor countries, slavery is a thing of the past. This is not the case — in fact, today there are more slaves than at any other time in history, some 27 million, a quarter of which are children.
While it’s true that impoverished countries have the most slaves per capita, like Mauritania with about 4% of the entire population or Haiti with 2.1%, the United States has around 60,000. These people are not like the cotton field slaves of old, but are coerced into some form of labor or sex trafficking.
Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe also battle with sex traffickers, while India has some 14 million people who can be considered slaves due to their cast and hereditary systems. Some children are born with debts left behind by their parents that they have to pay, and can only do so by forced labor. There are slaves in one form or another in every country around the world, but the practice has become less noticeable as it’s mostly moved underground in the face of widespread illegality.