The history of slavery

When did the history of slavery start? What is the history of slavery?

Ancient clay tablet with the law on slavery in 3,200 B.C.

Slavery was recorded during the first writings of human history and existed even before written history. In fact, the very first written documents in all of human history, the cuneiform clay tablets written by the Ancient Sumerians were tablets written about what to do with slaves.

“If a man’s female slave or male slave flees within the city, and it is confirmed that the slave dwelt in a man’s house for one month, he (the one who harbored the slave) shall give slave for slave.”

If you asked the average person on the street when slavery started, they would probably tell you slavery started with the African slaves that were transported to America. But they would be wrong. Slavery is a very old institution. Slavery has existed since the beginning of recorded history and even before then.

Ancient Slavery

In Mesopotamia, one of the first civilizations of humanity, the Babylon King, Hammurabi, wrote the Hammurabi code in 1792-1750 BC. In the code, the king of Babylon mentions many laws dealing with slavery. You can read the entire code of Hammurabi here.

If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.

If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

If any one find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.

If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to the palace; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.

If he hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.

If the slave that he caught run away from him, then shall he swear to the owners of the slave, and he is free of all blame.

During the times of Hammurabi, if you failed to pay your debts, then you could sell your wife and children as slaves to pay the debt.

If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.

The slaves were also often taken from conquered tribes and prisoners of war.

In Ancient China, during the Shang dynasty in 1766 b.c., when the King died, all of his servants would also kill themselves and be buried with their king in order to serve their master in the afterlife 1.

Slavery in Ancient Persia

The Persian Empires existed roughly from 500 BC to 651 AD and were built off the backs of conquered peoples. Slavery became more common than earlier times.

The prominence of slavery had to do with the expansion of imperial states, which often enslaved conquered foes. 2

There was such economic pressure between the rich and the poor that some individuals had to sell themselves into slavery in order to survive. There were two main ways to become a slave in the Persian Empire. The first way was to become a prisoner of war, as their was constant warfare amongst the nearly 70 ethnicities in Persia, there was always a rebellious group that provided a fresh crop of slaves. Secondly, you could become a slave through debt.

In the cities, merchants, artisans, and craftsmen borrowed funds to purchase goods or open shops, many small-scale farmers tried to compete with the large-scale farmers by taking out loans to ramp up production of food items. Failure to repay those debts…forced the borrowers to sell their children, their spouses, or themselves into slavery. 3

Most slaves worked for the elite of the cities as domestic servants. When the state owned the slaves, they had them work on the many state run projects, like the monuments, irrigation systems, and city walls. Not all slaves were farm workers or manual laborers, some were connected to the powerful and helped to run the large temple institutions in Persia.

Slavery in Rome:

When Caesar was waging his war on the Gauls, he conquered a city and sold the entire lot of 50,000 to slave traders. Slave traders would follow the Roman army knowing that once conquered, the Romans would sell the conquered people to them. 4

As in Mesopotamia, if you failed to pay your debts in Rome, you could sell yourself to absolve your debts. This contract was called Nexum 5.

Slavery amongst Native Americans

Before the Europeans instituted slavery in North America:

Some Native Americans had enslaved each other long before Europeans arrived 6

In Utah, a very prominent Native American named Wakara was a slave trader and when he died, he was buried with his slaves 7. Wakara

“raided and traded in the camps of Paiutes and Goshutes for slaves, especially children and young women. They traded these people and possessions on the Old Spanish Trail with business folk from New Mexico for horses, guns, and other supplies.” 8

During a trip by Spanish explorers exploring North America in 1527, Spanish Conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca, started from Florida and made his way west across the territory through modern day Texas where he and his men of 600 were enslaved by the local Native Americans of the Gulf Coast 9. After their journey in 1539, there were only 4 survivors of the 600 that started the journey.

The African, Arab and Muslim slave trade

The Africans had been enslaving each other since the dawn of antiquity.

Slaves were a major form of personal wealth in sub Saharan Africa. Since there was little if any private ownership of land, it was impossible for individuals to be come wealthy through the accumulation of land holdings. On the basis of their slaves’ labor, however, individuals were able to build wealth through increased agricultural production. Both slave holding and slave trading were prominent features of sub-Saharan Africa. 10

The Muslim and Arabs would come down from Northwest Africa with camel caravans to purchase slaves. The Muslims created many trading networks with the African Kings who saw a way to establish their kingdoms through trade, especially the trading of slaves from conquered tribes. The Swahili would trade gold, slaves, and ivory for the trade products from Mesopotamia. Also, the Kilwans would also trade gold and slaves for textiles.The Muslim merchants would come down to Mali and other trade areas in Africa and exchange pottery, glass, and other textiles for African slaves, gold, and ivory. This was a huge trade route where one caravan had over 25,000 camels11. They would take the slaves to cultivate sugarcane crops in Mesopotamia, as well as desalinate land to make the land ready for crops.

African slavery was a prominent feature of Muslim society. Between 750 AD to 1500 AD, the number of African slaves transported to foreign lands may have exceeded 10 million. The high demand led to the creation of networks within Africa that supplied slaves and served as a foundation for the Atlantic slave trade. The slaves worked on sugarcane plantations or cleared land of salt deposits to prepare it for cultivation in Mesopotamia 12.


Coming soon: the history of slavery in Greece, Sparta, other ancient cultures, the Muslim slave trade, the Catholic Church’s endorsement of enslaving pagans and Muslims in the late 1400s through papal bulls, the Portuguese slave trade, the British slave trade, the history of slavery in America, and the modern day slavery of debt servitude along with the continuing modern day sex slave trade.

If you liked this post, please read my article on ancient capitalism.


Primary documents on slavery:

- The story of the slave, Gimillu, in ancient Mesopotamia. Gimillu served the temple community of Eanna in Uruk. He held high positions in the temple community.




  1. Traditions & Encounters page 56
  2. Traditions and Encounters – page 139
  3. Traditions and Encounters – page 141
  4. Ancient Rome: From the early republic to the assassination of Caesar
  5. A Dictionary of Ancient History. Basil Blackwell Ltd. Cambridge, Mass: 1994. pp. 392, 436
  6. Lies My Teacher Told Me page 103
  7. Utetribe
  8. Utah the Right Place page 112
  9. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca
  10. Traditions and Encounters – page 384
  11. Traditions and encounters – page 371
  12. Traditions and encounters – page 385