Slavery appears to be as old as human civilization, and may be older - archaeologists have discovered prehistoric burial plots, dating as far back as the 9th millennium BCE, that suggest an owner-slave relationship. Although conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise, the practice of slavery continues to this day.
ca. 2100 BCE
Surviving fragments of the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu suggest that slavery was a common practice in the ancient Fertile Crescent. Regulations mandated by the Code include:
- A reward for vigilantes who capture fugitive slaves ;
- A policy mandating that in marriages involving a slave and a free person, the slave may go free but must hand over his or her firstborn child to the previous owner as compensation ;
- A nominal fine for a rapist whose victim is a slave (cases of rape in which the survivor is a free person mandate the death penalty).
The unmistakable message of the Ur-Nammu Code, like that of subsequent codes, is that the life of a slave is worth far less to the government than the life of a free person.
The Edicts of Ashoka
prohibit slave trading and mandate kind treatment of dasas
(slaves), but do not actually ban slavery.
During the Third Servile War
, Spartacus leads a massive slave revolt against the Roman Empire. His army is soundly defeated, and the survivors are crucified.
Hundreds of thousands of African slaves assemble in Basra and revolt against their former owners in the Zanj Rebellion
1542The Spanish government makes a halfhearted attempt to end slavery in its American colonies, but does not enforce the decision; by 1545, the old policy is resumed.
A half-million Haitian slaves successfully revolt against the French colonial government, establishing the independent nation of Haiti
A group of 86 African-American slaves and free persons establish new colonial settlements in northwestern Africa, creating the nation now called Liberia
Although Britain did not allow chattel slavery in its homeland, it permitted it in the colonies. The sentiment of the English poet William Cowper (writing here in his 1785 work "The Task") summed up the sentiments of many British citizens:
...Then what is man? And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush
And hang his head, to think himself a man?
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.
We have no slaves at home — then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o'er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.
That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein
Of all your empire; that where Britain's power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.
Britain formally abolished slavery throughout its colonies in August 1834, though this policy took several years to implement - and working conditions tantamount to slavery persisted, both in Britain itself and throughout the colonies, for more than a century to come.
The end of the American Civil War
finally brings with it the end of chattel slavery in the United States, following passage of the Thirteenth Amendment
, but the enduring "state's rights" movement
allowed former Confederate states to impose second-class citizenship status on African Americans for more than a century to come.
The horrific forced-labor camps that came with the Holocaust
left an indelible impression on the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
, who wrote in part:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
The last country to officially abolish slavery was Mauritania in 1981, but slavery continues in many parts of the world - sometimes illegally, and sometimes with official government sanction (and, more often than not, a policy directive to the effect that what is being done is not classified by the government as slavery). The work of the global abolitionist movement continues.