The History of Slavery
Enlarged March 26, 2024 (first published September 22, 2020)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Slavery has been practiced since the fall of man. It is not a product of “racism”; it is not an issue of skin color; it is a product of man’s sinful heart. The Lord Jesus Christ described man’s condition with perfect accuracy and uncovered the fundamental issue of slavery:

And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:20-23).

When men believed the devil’s lie and chose sin over God, they became slaves, slaves not only to sin but slaves physically. History is filled with the sad accounts of men being enslaved by their fellow men and treated as mere cattle, from the slaves under the brutal whips of ancient pharaoh to the serfs of 17th century Europe to the dirt poor classes of modern Asia and Africa.

Slavery has been practiced by the white man, the black man, the red man, the yellow man, and every other kind of man.

Slavery was practiced by the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the ancient Brits, the Danes, the Romans, the African kingdoms, the South American kingdoms, the Chinese, Indians, Mongols, Mughuls, Burmese, Native Americans, the Muslim kingdoms, Spanish, British, and Americans. It is still practiced in some places.

BABYLONIAN king Hammurabi (ruled c. 1792-1750 BC), and other Mesopotamian kings, enslaved multitudes. “The foundations of this society rested upon tens of thousands of workers, those of menial status sustained by the distribution of a bare living ration of raw staples...” (Foster and Foster, Civilizations in Ancient Iraq, p. 67). “At the basis of it lay the slave population, the necessary condition of all economic activity in antiquity. Slaves were employed upon the farms, by the manufacturers and in the temples. The sources of the supply were various. War furnished many; others had fallen from the position of free laborers; still others were purchased from abroad, or were children of native bondsmen” (George Goodspeed, A History of the Babylonians and Assyrians, 1902, Kindle Locations 876-879).

Ancient EGYPT practiced slavery on a massive scale. Egypt infamously enslaved the entire nation of Israel. The Midianites knew there was a ready market in Egypt for slaves such as Joseph (Ge. 37:28). This type of thing happened continually in ancient times. “Travellers were easily and often illegally captured in foreign lands where nobody knew them, and sold into slavery; and there was often no one they could appeal to for help” (“Slavery,” Women were purchased for the harems of the Pharaoh and other nobility. Pharaoh Amenhotep III ordered 40 “very beautiful concubines without blemish” from Syria. Multitudes became slaves as prisoners of war. Ancient Egyptian monuments describe large numbers of slaves taken in battle. For example, Ramses III wrote, “I laid low the Meshwesh, the Libyans, the Esbet, the Keykesh, the Shai, the Hes and the Beken. ... I carried away those whom my sword spared, as numerous captives, pinioned like birds before my horses, their wives and their children by the ten thousand, their cattle in number like hundred thousands” (James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part IV). Thutmose III returned from a campaign in Canaan with almost 90,000 prisoners. Many slaves were sent to work in the gold and copper mines of Nubia and Sinai, where they were worked to death under harsh conditions in the terrible heat. Other slaves worked on “the estates of the pharaohs, the nobility and the priests.” “Pharaoh Seti I announced on the Wadi Halfa stela how he had endowed Min-Amen’s temple at Buhen, so that his storehouse was filled with male and female slaves from the captivity of his majesty, L.P.H. Ramses III is said to have given 113,000 to the temples during the course of his reign” (“Slavery,” “If a [slave] stole so much as an animal hide he could be whipped with 100 lashes and stabbed five times in the back, and then be sent back to work” (“Spear injuries show worker life in ancient Egypt,” USA Today, Oct. 13, 2015). The wealthy included their slaves in lists of valuable assets. The children of slaves belonged to their masters, and slave families were passed from generation to generation by inheritance.

A large portion of ancient CHINESE society consisted of slaves. Qin Shi Huang, emperor of the Chin Dynasty, castrated captives “to mark them and make them slaves” (“The 25 most ruthless leaders of all time,” Business Insider, Feb. 4, 2016). The Great Wall was built largely by slaves and there was no concern for the cost in human lives. It is said that “every stone cost a human life” (A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations).

The Phoenician city-state of CARTHAGE gained control over tribes and cities along the African coast and far inland, enslaving the populations.

Slaves formed a large portion of the ancient GREEK population. Many were chattel slaves who were called by Aristotle “an animate or ensouled piece of property.” Slaves were obtained by warfare, kidnapping, and piracy. They were bought and sold like other pieces of property. The price of the slave depended on his or her education, skill, appearance, and health. “The majority of well-to-do Athenians probably owned two or three slaves, whereas the wealthy possessed between ten and twenty. ... Nikias, one of the richest men in Athens in the late fifth century BC, owned 1,000 slaves, whom he leased out to fellow citizens at the rate of one obol per slave per day” (Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, p. 70). Slaves had no practical legal rights. They were often starved, beaten, abused, even killed, depending on the whim of the master. “A runaway slave was branded with a hot iron upon capture.”

SPARTANS enslaved an entire large tribe of people, the Helots. They were the property of the state and were assigned to Spartan citizens. There were possibly seven helot slaves for each Spartan. They were forced to do the agricultural and household work and any manual labor, freeing the Spartans to devote themselves to military training. Helot farmers gave half their produce to the Spartans. They had “an altogether cruel and bitter condition.” The poet Tyrtaios described the Helots as “asses worn down with great burdens.” They were forced to wear a dogskin cap and were beaten each year so they would not forget they were slaves. They were degraded in many ways, such as being forced to get drunk and dance and sing to entertain the Spartans.

PHILIP OF MACEDON (382-336 BC) razed at least 35 Greek cities to the ground, enslaved women and children by the tens of thousands, killed prisoners taken from defeated armies.

ALEXANDER THE GREAT enslaved hundreds of thousands. He destroyed the great city of Thebes, killing 6,000 of its citizens, selling 30,000 as slaves. When he destroyed Tyre in 332 BC, he sold 30,000 men, women, and children into slavery. He did the same to many others.

In the
ROMAN EMPIRE, as many as 35% of the population were slaves, and their condition was often terrible. The city of Rome had a population of one to two million, half of whom were slaves (Henry Burton, The Biblical World, Vol. 3, 1894). When Rome conquered a territory, tens of thousands of the people were sold as slaves. After Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel’s temple in AD 70, more than a million Jews were killed or sold as slaves. Slaves were considered property and had no legal rights under Roman law. They were called res (a thing, an object) and res mortales (a mortal thing). On the farm, slaves were called instrumentum vocalis (a talking tool). Farm slaves were branded on the forehead, chained together in teams of ten, and guarded by a foreman with a whip. Slaves could not own property or legally marry. They could be punished as the owner pleased, tortured, raped, castrated, prostituted, even executed. Runaways were treated as thieves (having stolen themselves from their masters) and suffered terrible tortures as warnings to others. When the slave revolt under Spartacus was defeated in 71 BC, 6,000 of them were crucified along the Appian Way to Rome and their bodies left to rot on the crosses for months. Children born of slaves were the property of their owners. Many slaves were worked to death under cruel conditions. Consider the Egyptian mines. “Egypt’s gold and quicksilver mines were worked by slaves, criminals and prisoners of war, including women, elderly men and children. Young men hacked the quartz loose. Older men broke the quartz into fragments. Children dragged the quartz to the grinders, powered by women who like others worked without rest, walking in circles and pushing levers that rotated a shaft. According to the Greek writer Agatharchides, in the mid-100s BCE, relief came only with death, which these miners welcomed” (“Privilege, Poverty and Failed Revolutions,” Macrohistory and World Timeline, This description refers to the time of the Greek Empire, but nothing of significance changed under the Romans.

ISLAM was a slaving people since Mohammed, who took one-fifth of the slaves for himself. Muslims turned slavery into a major industry for over a thousand years. It was a “Muslim gold rush.” “Slave taking rapidly burgeoned into a major industry” (Robert Davis, Christian Slaves, p. 140). Between 698-709, Muslims defeated the black Berber tribes of northwestern Africa, selling 60,000 into slavery. “Islamic Spain became the hub of a vast new slave-trade. Hundreds of thousands of European slaves, both from Christian territories and from the lands of the pagan Slavs, were imported into the Caliphate, there to be used as concubines (if female) or to be castrated (if male) and made into harem guards or the personal body-guards of the Caliph” (Emmet Scott, Muhammad and Charlemagne Revisited). Between 712 and 1193, Muslim armies raided India in subsequent waves of attacks. They demolished temples, robbed, murdered, raped, and enslaved millions. For example, in 1001 AD Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni took 500,000 slaves from Jayapala, including thousands of children. In the days of Mughal ruler Babur (r. 1526-1531), slave markets were set up at Kabul and Qandahar “where caravans came from India carrying slaves (barda) and other commodities to sell at great profits” (M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad, p. 216). Mughal governor Said Khan Chaghtai “possessed 1,200 eunuch slaves.” Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) had a harem of 5,000 concubines. The magnificent Mughal buildings were constructed largely through slave labor. “[I]t is the great multitude of enslaved Indians who supplied unconditional labor, with Muslim masters on watch with whips in their hands. ... Sultan Alauddin accumulated 70,000 slaves, who worked continuously in building. ... Sultan Firoz Tughlaq assembled 180,000 slaves for his services” (M.A. Khan. Islamic Jihad, pp. 229, 230). The Ottomans were major slavers. An estimated one-fifth of the population consisted of slaves. Most towns and cities had a slave marketplace called an Esir. It is estimated that over 28 million Africans were enslaved in the Muslim world in the past 14 centuries” (“A Focus on the African Slaves in the Arab World,” African Echo, Sep. 18, 2015). Another four million white Europeans were enslaved (Robert Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters). The Ottomans also traded in slaves in the region of the Black Sea. An estimated three million Europeans from this region were enslaved between the 14th to the 17th centuries (Alan Fisher, “Muscovy and the Black Sea Slave Trade,” Canadian American Slavic Studies, 1972, Vol. 6, pp. 575–594). The Ottomans also purchased white slaves from the Vikings. They lived in North Europe in the region of modern Sweden and Denmark and conducted pirate raids between the eighth to the eleventh centuries. They are called Norse and Scandinavians. They raided throughout the British Isles, western and northern Europe. They traveled east as far as the Volga River in Russia where they sold white European slaves to the Muslims, particularly white women for the harems (M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad, pp. 322, 323). Beginning in the 8th century, Muslims took over the ancient African slave trade that had existed since the Egyptian pharaohs. “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). ... Four million slaves were exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean” (Elikia M’bokolo, “A Hundred and Fifty Years after France Abolished Slavery,” Le Monde diplomatique, April 1998). Beginning in the eighth century, Arab traders on the Swahili Coast in east Africa bought Zanj (Bantu) captives from the interior of Africa (present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique) and sold them to Muslims in Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India, and elsewhere. Eventually tens of thousands of slaves were captured and sold every year. “A 10th-century caliph of Baghdad had 11,000 slaves at his palace” (“Human Cargo,” New York Times, Mar. 4, 2001). Slaving continued on the East Coast of Africa until the 19th century. Under Omani Arabs in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through Zanzibar each year (“Swahili Coast,” National Geographic, Oct. 17, 2002). Northern Africa became the base for the Muslim Barbary pirates. They operated throughout the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic from their bases in Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. These states were a part of the Ottoman Empire, and the sultans in Constantinople received a portion of the slaves and stolen wealth. They were “the recognized overlords of the Mohammedan world” (Brian Kilmeade, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, p. 36). From the 16th to the 19th century, they captured an estimated 1 to 1.25 million white Europeans (Robert Davis, Christian Slaves). This doesn’t include those captured by Morocco and other raiders. It was called “Christian stealing.” Slavery is still practiced widely in Sudan and Mauritania. In the latter, slavery has existed since the Arabs conquered it in the 12th century. Though abolished in 1981, the anti-slavery law is not enforced. Estimates of slaves in Mauritania today “range from 100,000 to more than a half-million.” Slaves “are used for labor, sex and breeding. The property of their masters, they are passed down through generations, given as wedding gifts or exchanged for camels, trucks, guns or money. ... According to a Human Rights Watch/Africa report, routine punishments for slaves in Mauritania--for the slightest fault--include beatings, denial of food and prolonged exposure to the sun, with hands and feet tied together. More serious infringement of the master’s rule (in American slave-owning parlance, ‘getting uppity’) can lead to prolonged tortures known as ‘the camel treatment,’ in which the slave’s body is slowly torn apart; the ‘insect treatment,’ in which tiny desert insects are inserted and sealed into the ear canal until the slave is driven mad; and ‘burning coals,’ a torture not fit to describe in a family newspaper” (“Arabs Have Black Slaves Today,” Israel National News, Mar. 29, 2013).

ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE of the 15th to the 19th centuries was a continuation of this ancient, global practice. In the 1440s, the Portuguese began trading in gold and slaves from the western coast of Africa. The first 200 slaves were brought to Portugal in 1444. This was the beginning of the wretched slave trade which corrupted western nations for four hundred years.

WOMEN were basically slaves in most nations and under most religions. Of Hindu women in India in former times, the Flemish painter Frans Solvyns said, “While their husband lives they are slaves, when he dies they must be ready to resign in the most cruel manner a life of which they never tasted the enjoyments [referring to the practice of wife burning called sati]” (Robert Hardgrave, Jr., The Representation of Sati: Four Eighteenth Century Etchings by Baltazard Solvyns).

Slavery is a fact of man’s wretched history, and it is a reflection of man’s fallen condition.

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