The idea of slavery—the complete ownership or control of another human being for the purposes of exploitation—may have begun in the Garden of Eden with a lying serpent. More explicitly, it is surmised that the ancient Palestinian city of Jericho was given over to slavery. One of humanity’s oldest legal codes, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, acknowledges the fact of slavery. The Bible Pentateuch similarly takes the idea for granted and the Prince-liberator, Moses, gives advice on the practice of some forms of slavery. Joseph, the son of Jewish patriarch, Jacob, was sold into Egypt as a slave although Egyptians did not use slaves to a great extent, not even to build the pyramids. Greek “civilisation” on the other hand was characterised by slavery. The philosopher Aristotle argued that slaves were racially different, that they were only parthuman, and thereby deserved servitude having been allotted by nature to it.
Some one-and-a-half millennia later, African slavery became a part of the European economic system. In the late medieval era, Aristotelian thinking helped to legitimate black plantations and domestic slavery. That is, Africans were placed outside European definitions of “human being.” If Africans were seen as not quite human and closer to apes, slavery may be entirely justifiable— indeed, it may even be good for them.
Fifteenth-century European explorers in the Americas approached their mission with the same hierarchical understanding of humanity that placed Europeans on top and natives—Africans, Indians and all darker skinned peoples—on the bottom. De Azuzura’s 1453 Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea described slaves kidnapped for the purpose of slavery as being rescued from “perdition” given that—to his eyes—“they lived like beasts.” The great 18th century rationalist, David Hume, considered Africans to be “naturally inferior to the white” race—“not beasts, but neither quite men.” As he saw it, “were slaves to be released and hoisted out of their rank, they would quickly drop back again to where they belonged.” Hume believed this was because “they simply lack the innate abilities of the whites.” Added to this philosophising at the time was the pseudoscience phrenology, the advancing sciences of biology and medicine, the disciplines of history and anthropology and just plain bad theology. Phrenology said slaves could be predicted by the shapes of their heads—they were different to the rest of humanity. Biology, physiology and medical science said the African slave was poorly constituted and unsuited for intellectual tasks and social mastery. History, anthropology and theology all argued for a hierarchically arranged order. Historians and anthropologists said it evolved that way; theologians said it was created and divinely ordained to be so.
But not everyone thought that. A heroic stream of conscientious objectors to slavery had long existed. For example, no sooner had the first Black slaves appeared in the British American colonies in 1619 (first owned, ironically, by a freed African indentured labourer) than Protestant sects were there to protest the idea of human hierarchy and the economic exploitation and brutal treatment of them. By 1671, George Fox, founder of the Quakers, had raised his voice. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, similarly protested it in the 1740s, later summarising in his General Rules (of 1774) that his followers were prohibited from “buying or selling the bodies or souls of men, women, and children, with an intention to enslave them.”
By 1804, slavery was abolished above the Mason-Dixon line separating Northern from the Southern states in the USA. In 1807, the British parliament had abolished it too. When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, the original population of 20 slaves in Virginia in 1619 had mushroomed to an estimated 4 million African slaves and their descendants. Protestants overwhelmingly supported abolition. The first organised Seventh-day Adventists, for example, were strongly abolitionist.
On the other hand, Roman Catholics overwhelmingly supported slavery and it was not until 1888 that they unambiguously declared their church to be “wholly opposed to that which was originally ordained by God” (as Pope Leo XVIII put it).
Nevertheless, American slavery was officially abolished at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865—as evidenced by the 13th amendment of the US Constitution.
It had taken a massive blood-letting and came some 50 years after the British example, but it was achieved.
The British example of abolition has thus progressed around the world with the last government to formally abolish slavery being Mauritania in 1980.
The abolition of slavery is one thing; but the abolition of treating people like slaves is far from accomplished.
Slaves had no rights and were considered property at the disposal of their masters. They could not make decisions about themselves, had no privacy and no claims of appeal to law. Their entire life from birth to death was prescribed by laws made in their regard, and their condition and fate lay at the whip and whim of their masters. From the time of ancient Moses, slave masters have had rights of access to the wives and children of their slaves and have understood what the Exodus liberator wrote when he said a master should be mindful when punishing a slave “for the slave is his money” (Exodus 21).
At the beginning of the 21st century, we may well celebrate with the British 200 years since the official ending of slavery in their lands, but we must think more deeply about how to liberate all our fellow humans from the universal slavish conditions and treatment doled out daily to those whose misfortune is to be caught in a cycle of poverty or netted as bystanders in a war of terror.
Slavery was once thought to be a natural phenomenon in the divine order.
The abolition of slavery is proof of human will in history and of the success of our God-given determination to remake our world according our evolving application of ethical standards of right and wrong. Fatalism, passivity, resignation to evil in the world would never have overcome slavery. We must bear that in mind as we make our own history.