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Modern slavery
Modern slavery

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1.1 Slavery – a historical perspective

Slavery existed for millennia until it was abolished in the nineteenth century. It was particularly common in ancient times, when it was a generally accepted practice, both socially and legally. For Aristotle, slavery was natural: ‘That one should command and another obey is both necessary and expedient. Indeed some things are so divided right from birth, some to rule, some to be ruled’ (1981, p. 67).

The earliest forms of slavery can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia in the sixty-ninth century BC. Slavery was closely connected to building empires in the ancient world. It was a common feature among ancient societies and superpowers such as Babylon, Egypt and the Roman Empire, which made intensive use of slaves in achieving political and economic expansion. Captives were often taken from conquered nations as booty in wars, and subsequently deprived of their freedom and forced into labour. For example, ‘The city of Rome contained a slave population of nearly 40% in the 1st century CE’ (Weissbrodt, 2007). The slave in the Roman Empire had no legal status as a person. They were treated as chattels and had no individual rights. The masters exercised full control and ownership over their slaves. This included the right to seek a legal remedy if another person injured or killed their slave(s).

Box 1 The status of slaves in Roman law

A slave’s status combined subjection with disability. As regards subjection, he or she was subject to the slave owner’s orders. A slave could be sold, given as a gift, left by the owner’s last will, surrendered for a wrong committed by the slave, mortgaged or pledged for the owner’s debts. Slaves did not control their own way of life. They were items of property, things (res) in the legal sense. Unlike a free person, they had no rights enforceable by law. But they were nevertheless persons (…). Roman law, then, made an effort to deal with the paradox that, legally speaking, these items of property were human beings who, like free people, took part in ordinary life. They had families and friends. They could be doctors, actors, teachers, bookkeepers, bankers, agents, farmers, actuaries, philosophers. But they did not have the legal standing of free people: the capacity to have rights in law, to own property, to make contracts, marriages and wills, to sue and be sued in the civil courts.

(Allain, 2012, p. 13)

Slavery continued in the Middle Ages. In Europe, a system of serfdom became a particularly common form of slavery. Serfdom describes a relationship where one person is forced to live and work on land belonging to another person. The reward for labour is optional, but the person subjected to serfdom is unable to change their status. Furthermore, the status of a serf was hereditary in nature, which often affected entire families.

In the late fourteenth century, following the Black Death, Europe began to engage in the transatlantic slave trade. The slave trade operated within the ‘triangle’ – traders’ ships were leaving Europe for West Africa, where African slaves were bought in exchange for goods from Europe. From West Africa, the ships sailed with the slaves for the ‘New World’ of the Americas and the Caribbean. The journey was referred to as the ‘Middle Passage’ and lasted for 6–8 weeks.

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Figure 1 The trade triangle (Europe–Africa–America)

Conditions on-board slave ships were deplorable, with many slaves dying due to malnutrition, exhaustion, cruelty or violence. Upon arrival in the New World, the slaves who survived the journey were sold to carry out work, particularly on plantations in European colonies. In exchange for slaves, the European traders received locally produced goods such as coffee, sugar, tobacco or cotton. The transatlantic slave trade was particularly common among European countries that had colonies in the Caribbean and in South America, such as Britain or Spain. Enslavement in the New World continued until the nineteenth century and the emergence of the abolition movement.

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Figure 2 Slave trading company sign (Price, Birch and Co), Alexandria, Virginia 1863

However, slavery in the early modern period was not confined only to the transatlantic trade. Some Europeans were also captured and turned into slaves by pirates from the Barbary Coast, who carried out attacks on European ships. Barbary pirates (or Barbary corsairs) originated primarily from North African countries and operated from the ports in Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli (also referred to as the Barbary Coast), and across the Mediterranean, going as far as North and South America. Barbary pirates carried out raids on European ports and coastal towns, where they captured white Christians, who were later sold into slavery across the Ottoman Empire and in North African countries. It is estimated that 1–1.25 million Europeans were captured and sold into slavery by the Barbary pirates between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (Davis, 2004, pp. 8–23).

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Figure 3 Captain Croker witnessing Christian slaves in chains