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Slave trade between Africa and the Americas was a lucrative business

Escape From Slavery—Then and Now

Escape From Slavery—Then and Now

Blessing * arrived in Europe with the promise of getting work as a hairdresser. But after ten days of constant beatings, as well as threats of violence against her family back home, she was forced to work as a prostitute.

Depiction of captured slaves in ancient Egypt

Blessing was expected to earn 200 to 300 euros a night to pay off a debt that her madam had set at over 40,000 euros. * “I often thought about escaping,” Blessing explains, “but I was afraid of what they would do to my family. I was trapped.” Her story is typical of some four million people enslaved in the international sex industry.

Nearly 4,000 years ago, a teenager named Joseph was sold by his brothers. He ended up in servitude in a prominent Egyptian home. Unlike Blessing, Joseph was not maltreated by his owner at first. But when he rejected the advances of his master’s wife, he found himself unjustly accused of attempted rape. He was thrown into jail and put in irons.Genesis 39:1-20; Psalm 105:17, 18.

Joseph was a slave of antiquity; Blessing is a slave of the 21st century. But both were victims of the age-old practice of human trafficking, a trade that treats people as commodities and cares for nothing but economic gain.


Warfare proved to be the easiest way for nations to acquire slaves. Egyptian King Thutmose III is said to have brought back 90,000 prisoners after one military campaign in Canaan. The Egyptians put them to work as slaves in mining, building temples, and cutting canals.

Under the Roman Empire, wars also provided slaves in abundance, and the demand for slaves sometimes led to war. It is estimated that by the first century, slaves constituted nearly half the population of Rome. Many Egyptian and Roman slaves were harshly exploited. The life expectancy of slaves in Roman mines, for example, was only about 30 years.

As time went on, slavery did not get kinder. From the 16th century to the 19th century, the slave trade between Africa and the Americas was one of the most lucrative businesses on earth. ‘It is estimated that between 25 million and 30 million men, women, and children were abducted and sold,’ says a UNESCO report. Hundreds of thousands are said to have died during the Atlantic crossing. Olaudah Equiano, a slave who survived, reported: “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

Sadly, slavery is not just a tragedy of history. Some 21 million men, women, and children still work as slaves, under bondage and with little or no pay, according to the International Labour Organization. Modern-day slaves work in mines, sweat shops, brick factories, brothels, and private homes. Although illegal, this kind of slavery is apparently on the increase.

Millions still labor in bondage


Brutal treatment has led many slaves to fight for freedom. In the first century B.C.E., the gladiator Spartacus and some 100,000 slaves staged an unsuccessful rebellion against Rome. In the 18th century, slaves on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola rose up against their masters. The appalling treatment the slaves had suffered on the sugar plantations sparked a 13-year-long civil war that finally led to the formation of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804.

The Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, however, must surely count as the most successful escape from slavery in all history. Possibly three million people—an entire nation—were liberated from slavery in Egypt. They certainly deserved their freedom. The Bible describes their life in Egypt as being under “harsh conditions in every form of slavery.” (Exodus 1:11-14) One Pharaoh even launched a campaign of infanticide to control the growing Israelite population.Exodus 1:8-22.

The Israelites’ release from their unjust treatment in Egypt was unique because God himself intervened. “I well know the pains they suffer,” God told Moses. “I will go down to rescue them.” (Exodus 3:7, 8) To this day, Jews everywhere celebrate the Passover each year to commemorate that event.Exodus 12:14.


“With Jehovah our God there is no injustice,” says the Bible, and it assures us that he has not changed. (2 Chronicles 19:7; Malachi 3:6) God sent Jesus to “proclaim liberty to the captives . . . , to send the crushed ones away free.” (Luke 4:18) Did this mean freedom for every literal slave? Apparently not. Jesus was sent to liberate people from bondage to sin and death. He later declared: “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Even today, the truth that Jesus taught liberates people in many ways.—See the box “ Escape From a Different Kind of Slavery.”

Actually, God did help Joseph and Blessing to escape from slavery in different ways. You can find Joseph’s extraordinary account in chapters 39 to 41 of the Bible book of Genesis. Blessing’s quest for freedom was no less remarkable.

After being expelled from one European country, Blessing went to Spain. There she met Jehovah’s Witnesses and began to study the Bible with them. Determined to straighten out her life, she got a regular job and convinced her former madam to lower the monthly debt payments. One day, Blessing got a phone call from the madam. She wanted to pardon Blessing’s debt and to ask for her forgiveness. What had happened? She too had started to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses! “The truth sets you free in amazing ways,” says Blessing.

Jehovah God felt grieved by the harsh treatment of Israelite slaves in Egypt; he must feel the same way about similar injustice today. True, to end all forms of slavery will require a huge change in human society. But God promises to bring about just such a change. “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.”2 Peter 3:13

^ par. 2 Name has been changed.

^ par. 3 At the time, the value of the euro was approximately the same as the U.S. dollar.