SLAVERY is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people; allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property.
A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement, and works without remuneration.
Many scholars now use the term chattel slavery to refer to this specific sense of legalised, de jure slavery.
In a broader sense, however, the word slavery may also refer to any situation in which an individual is de facto forced to work against his/her own will.
Scholars also use the more generic terms such as unfree labour or forced labour to refer to such situations.
However, and especially under slavery in broader senses of the word, slaves may have some rights and protections according to laws or customs.
Slavery began to exist before written history in many cultures. A person could become enslaved from the time of birth, capture or purchase.
Historically, slavery has been legalised institutionally in most societies at some point, but is now outlawed in all recognised countries.
The last country to officially abolish slavery was Mauritania in 2007. Nevertheless, there are an estimated
40,3 million people worldwide subject to some form of modern slavery.
The most common form of modern slave trade is commonly referred to as human trafficking.
In other areas, slavery (or unfree labour) continues through practices such as debt bondage (the most widespread form of slavery today), serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, certain adoptions in which children are forced to work as slaves, child soldiers and forced marriage.
Now, in this instalment, we intend to demonstrate how Abrahamic religions hatched and nourished slavery and slave mentalities that continue to haunt, affect and infect Africans to date.
The Abrahamic religions, also referred to collectively as Abrahamism, are a group of Semitic-originated religious communities of faith that claim descent from the Judaism of the ancient Israelites and the worship of the God of Abraham.
The Abrahamic religions are monotheistic, with the term deriving from the patriarch Abraham (a major biblical figure from the Old Testament, which is recognised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and others).
Abrahamic religion spread globally through Christianity being adopted by the Roman Empire in the 4th Century and Islam by the Islamic Empires from the 7th Century.
Today, the Abrahamic religions are one of the major divisions in comparative religion (along with Indian, Iranian and East Asian religions).
The major Abrahamic religions in chronological order of founding are Judaism (the base of the other two religions) in the 7th Century BCE, Christianity in the 1st Century CE, and Islam in the 7th Century CE.
Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the Abrahamic religions with the greatest numbers of adherents, but before we analyse each of these in respect of how they hatched and nourished slavery, we begin with a general description of what slavery is and how it began.
The Bible contains several references to slavery, which was a common practice in antiquity.
The Bible stipulates the treatment of slaves, especially in the Old Testament.
There are also references to slavery in the New Testament.
Male Israelite slaves were to be offered release after six to seven years of service.
If a slave had a wife when he became enslaved, the wife and children would go with him.
However, if the master has given him a wife, the wife and any children remain the property of the master indefinitely.
In that case, the slave could choose his family over his freedom and remain a slave for the rest of his life.
Female Israelite slaves remained enslaved for their entire lives except in cases where the masters took them as wives.
If a master lost interest in his wife, she was released.
Many of the patriarchs portrayed in the Bible were owners of slaves from the upper echelons of society and enslaved those in debt to them, bought their fellow citizen’s daughters as concubines, and perpetually enslaved foreign men to work in their fields.
Masters were always men, and it is not evident that women were able to own slaves until the Elephantine papyri in the 400s BC.
Also, there is little historic evidence that people from all levels of society were able to own slaves.
During certain reigns, especially those of Solomon and David, state-wide slavery may have been instituted for large building projects or work that was deemed intolerable for free men to do.
Other than these instances, it is unclear whether or not state instituted slavery was an accepted practice.
It was necessary for those who owned slaves, especially in large numbers, to be wealthy because the masters had to pay taxes for Jewish and non-Jewish slaves because they were considered part of the family unit.
The slaves were seen as an important part of the family’s reputation, especially in Hellenistic and Roman times where the slave companions for a woman were seen as a manifestation and protection of a woman’s honour.
As time progressed, domestic slavery became more prominent and domestic slaves, usually working as assistants to the wife of the patriarch, allowed larger houses to run more smoothly and efficiently.
The history of slavery spans many cultures, nationalities and religions from ancient times to the present day.
However the social, economic and legal positions of slaves were vastly different in different systems of slavery in different times and places.
Slavery appears in the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi (circa 1860 BC), which refers to it as an established institution.
Slavery was known in the very first civilisations such as Sumer,in Mesopotamia, which dates back as far as 3500 BC.
Today we think of slavery as condemning humans to lifetime bondage, working without wages and maltreated.
However, slavery seems to have been a common phenomenon in many ancient civilisations such as Babylon, Egypt and China.
Most slaves were war prisoners, kidnapped or obliged to pay for debts.
They were the property of the master, with little or no rights or status. Many of them were treated cruelly, even though most ancient civilisations had some laws to regulate slavery, such as the Mesopotamia Code of Hammurabi.
This kind of slavery also existed during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad.
Most of the slaves, at that time, were
prisoners of wars.
They could be killed, raped and sold at any moment.
The three Abrahamic religions dealt with the slavery institutions in different ways; they didn’t abolish them, but each one of them regulated theirs in a way that went with the norms of their society.
Information about slaves in early societies relates mainly to their legal status, which is essentially that of an object — part of the owner’s valuable property.
The Code of Hammurabi, in the 18th Century BC, gives chilling details of the different rewards and penalties for surgeons operating on free men or slaves.
But it also reveals that the system was not one of unmitigated brutality.
Surprisingly, Babylonian slaves were allowed to own property.
But the first civilisation in which we know a great deal about the role of slaves is that of ancient Greece.
Both the leading states of Greece — Sparta and Athens — depended entirely upon forced labour, though the system in Sparta was more properly described as serfdom rather than slavery.
The distinction was that the helots of Sparta were a conquered people, living on their own hereditary land but forced to work it for their Spartan masters.
Their existence was a traditional rural one to which certain rights remain attached.
The slaves of Athens, by contrast, had no conventional rights. But their condition varied greatly according to the work they did.
The most unfortunate Athenian slaves were the miners, often driven to the point of death by their owners (the mines were state-owned but leased to private managers).
By contrast, other categories of slaves — particularly those owned directly by the state, such as the 300 Scythian archers who provide the police force of Athens — could acquire a certain prestige.
The majority of Athenian slaves were domestic servants.
Their fortune depended entirely on the relationship they developed with their owners.
Often it was close, with female slaves looking after the children or acting as concubines, or a male slave running the household as a steward.
No free Athenian worked in a domestic capacity, for it was considered shameful to be another man’s servant.
This inhibition applied equally to a subsidiary position in any form of business.
As a result, male slaves in Athens did all work of a secretarial or managerial nature, for in these contexts they were unmistakably somebody else’s personal assistant.
Such jobs included positions of influence in fields such as banking and commerce.
The same loophole, offered by the self-esteem of free citizens, provided even greater opportunities to slaves in imperial Rome.
The most privileged slaves were the secretarial staff of the emperor.
But these were the exception. In the two centuries before the beginning of the empire (the last two centuries BC), slaves were employed by Romans more widely than ever before and with greater brutality.
In the mines, they were whipped into continuing effort by overseers; in the fields they work in chain gangs; in the public arenas they were forced to engage in terrifying combat as gladiators.
There were several slave uprisings in these two centuries, the most famous of them led by Spartacus.
In the period after the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, slavery continued in the countries around the Mediterranean.
But the slaves were employed almost exclusively in households, offices and armies.
The gang slavery characteristic of large Roman estates did not reappear until the tobacco and cotton plantations of colonial America (one notable exception was the salt mines of the Sahara).
Nevertheless, the slave trade thrived and the Mediterranean was a natural focal point. More than anywhere else, the Mediterranean provided the geographical and economic environment that encouraged a slave trade.
To the north and south stretched vast areas populated by relatively unsophisticated tribes.
Border warfare resulted in tribal captives being enslaved. In addition to this, market forces encouraged the tribes to seize prisoners of their own to service a developing slave trade.
During the eastward expansion of the Germans in the 10th Century, so many Slavs were captured that their racial name became the generic term for a ‘slave’.
At the same period, the delivery of slaves to the Black Sea region was an important part of the early economy of Russia. South of the Mediterranean, the dynasties of Arabs along the coast stimulate an African slave trade.
The town of Zawila developed in the Sahara in about 700, specifically as a trading station for slaves.
Captured in the region around Lake Chad, they were sold to Arab households in a Muslim world which, by the 8th Century, stretched from Spain to Persia.
Slavery was an accepted part of life in Arabia during the time of Muhammad, in the 7th Century, and the Qur’an offers no arguments against the practice.
It merely states, particularly in relation to female slaves, that they must be well treated.
In general that has been the case, compared to the barbaric treatment of slaves in some Christian communities.
The Christian Gospels made no specific mention of slavery, though slaves were expected to benefit from the general bias in favour of the poor and the oppressed.
During the early Middle Ages, the missionaries and bishops of the Roman Catholic church argued against the ownership of slaves in the emerging dynasties of northern Europe. At first they made little headway.
But gradually, slavery disappeared in western European countries — largely replaced by the serfdom of the feudal manor.
But a new and disastrous chapter in the story of slavery begun with the arrival of the Portuguese in west Africa in the 15th Century.