• Arwa Hanin Elrayess

The Rise and Fall of Slavery Throughout History: A Simplified Overview of Slavery's Past

There is no doubt that the human brain is extraordinary.

Throughout the centuries, we have been able to bring life to creations that were deemed impossible, liberate mentalities that were once forbidden, and turn the most common of resources into revolutionary gadgets.

We have a gift that positively sets us apart from the rest of Earth’s creatures, but this gift has also proven to be man’s greatest threat.

History has shown that our brains, when void of humanity and filled with arrogance, can generate- and justify- the most abhorrent of habits. An unassailable example of which being slavery.

Blamed for being the catalyst of modern-day racism, slavery not only led to the death and torture of millions in the past, but continues to abuse those in the present, as shown by the murder of George Floyd, and countless innocent civilians before him.

And although the remnants of this issue hold such a tight grip on modern society, our general knowledge of it is largely confined to the transatlantic slave trade, even though its history runs thousands of years before that.

Most historians agree that slavery emerged as soon as humans abandoned their ‘hunting-gathering’ lifestyles and settled into civilizations.

The earliest record of slavery can be traced back to Mesopotamia (mankind’s first civilizations), which claims it was a common institution since, at least, 1860 BCE.

Not much is known of the conditions or treatment of slaves during this period. However, a few centuries down the line, at around 1600 BCE, the ancient Greeks began to record many aspects of their slave establishments, allowing us to have a clearer image of how it functioned.

Unfortunately, slaves were commonplace throughout the entirety of the Greek Empire. However, their treatment differed from what we usually associate slavery with today.

Depending on the work they were assigned to, Greek slaves experienced different standards of living. Household servants, for example, were considered part of the family and were allowed to participate in most religious rituals, whereas slaves who worked in the mines usually died a few months into the job.

Surprisingly, Greek slaves could also be employed as police officers, merchants, clerks, and much more, sometimes making enough money from these extra jobs to ultimately buy their own freedom.

This relatively flexible treatment likely stemmed from the fact that, in Greek times, no person, regardless of wealth, social status, or power, was completely safe from becoming a slave.

Greek cities were often at war with one another, and if your city were raided, there was a good chance you, and your loved ones, would be enslaved.

So, raising the standards of slave treatment acted as a safety net to all.

Additionally, the possibility of becoming a slave during ancient Greece was one that created great anxiety.

Supposedly, the Greek Gods removed ‘half the good of a man’ the day he becomes a slave. Therefore, the fear of being degraded in the afterlife sparked a slight reform in the establishment of slavery towards the 3rd century BCE, when some Greek emperors refused the practice, and emancipated many previously enslaved cities.

During the same period, ancient Egypt had also established slavery. Similar to the Greek’s, their treatment of slaves varied depending on the slaves’ jobs, but in general, the life of a slave was filled with unimaginable trauma and hardship.

The oppression endured by the population, at that time, was so brutal that it is believed God sent the prophet Moses, at around 1290 BCE, to liberate an entire population from the grasp of Pharaoh- acting as the first recorded instance of large-scale slave freeing.

Nonetheless, slavery persisted throughout ancient Egypt and even into our modern-day, only being completely eliminated in 1904.

Following the trend of ancient civilizations, the Romans’ use of slaves was very much driven by their need to develop their empire.

The slaves they captured were usually prisoners of war, and unless being worked in the mines, fields, or colosseums, often lived relatively decent lives.

Similar to the Greek’s, Roman slaves were not stripped of all human rights. Although they were considered mere ‘property’, slaves could be employed in industries they were skilled at, save money from this extra work, and subsequently buy their own freedom.

In the early 3rd century BC, the philosophy of stoicism began to gain momentum. The stoics were firm believers of natural law, agreeing that ‘no man is a slave by nature’, and that every human is worthy of respect.

Their advanced views on humanity spread to all corners of the Roman empire, and after several slave revolts, Roman emperors began to grant more rights and legal protection to slaves.

Emperor Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in court, whilst a master who kills his slave could be tried for homicide.

Yet, similar to the Greek’s, the fall of slavery only occurred alongside the fall of the Roman Empire.

Slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia sketched the outline of the international slave trade. Usually obtained as captives, abandoned at birth, or sold by their families, the massive slave supply at that time made for a tragically profitable business.

Nonetheless, due to the eruption of Islam, around 610 BCE, the foundation of slavery underwent substantial reform. The Muslim Prophet Mohammed did not aim to abolish slavery, as it had already rooted itself into society; instead, he set out to refine the morals of his population, and tighten the criteria of slave-owning, in order to reduce the overall practice.

During his time, the occurrence of raids and wars depleted, cutting off some of the main sources of slaves. Additionally, slave owners were encouraged by Islam to free their slaves as a way of expiating sins, so, the institution began to diminish.

Nonetheless, centuries after the arrival of Islam, in the 8th and 9th century CE, the Arab slave trade picked up pace once more.

Since African’s were considered the most profitable source of labor, the outskirts of Africa became the Arab trade’s main source of slaves, And as the Arab empire developed economically, the demand for slaves skyrocketed.

Europeans, who had also adopted the practice of slavery, began to catch wind of the trading possibilities.

Their desire to create an alternative trade network than that controlled by the Arabs, and the urge to develop and utilize the resources of the ‘New World’ (modern-day America), spawned the transatlantic trade route.

In the early 1500s, Portuguese traders introduced the capturing and subsequent selling of African slaves. However, their fear of African diseases and the regions’ counterattacks made it clear that the only way their trade would survive was through the aid of Africans themselves.

The further developed European powers would exchange raw materials for slaves who were usually criminals or prisoners of war. However, as the demand from the Europeans grew, whole African villages would be raided by fellow Africans, and their inhabitants would be enslaved and sold.

Slaves were no longer a consequence of a raid; they were the motivation behind it.

The type of work needed in the Americas was usually that of labor, and so, African men were the main targets, whilst African women and children were left behind. Consequently, the development of the African continent deteriorated, and the population is thought to have stagnated or even decreased.

Millions of Africans were traded across all regions of the World, especially the Americas. Brazil and the Caribbean each received 40% of slaves, whilst modern-day U.S.A received 5%.

Due to the brutal conditions faced by slaves in Brazil, life expectancy averaged at a distressing 23 years old.

In America, however, although the treatment of slaves remained inhumane, they were able to live for much longer, even forming families and giving birth to children who would then become slaves themselves.

This may possibly be one of the reasons why slavery in America was a larger, and more lengthy, issue than elsewhere in the region. The persistence of this cruel mentality throughout the decades ignited the American civil war and the modern-day division of American society.

Hopefully, the current protests in the U.S. will act as a cautionary light that racism is not, and never will be an acceptable practice. It was a by-product of a system that removed humanity from humankind, and hopefully, will now collapse due to people’s intolerance of the intolerable.

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