The Long Fight Against Slavery

“This is what it means to be a slave: to be abused and bear it, compelled by violence to suffer wrong.”​—Euripides, a Greek playwright of the fifth century B.C.E.

SLAVERY has a long and often ugly history. From the time of the earliest civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, powerful nations have enslaved their weaker neighbors. Thus one of the saddest tales of human injustice began to be written.

During the second millennium B.C.E., Egypt enslaved a whole nation of possibly several million people. (Exodus 1:13, 14; 12:37) When Greece ruled the Mediterranean, many Greek families had at least one slave​—just as a typical family in some lands today might own a car. Greek philosopher Aristotle justified this practice by claiming that humanity is divided into two classes, that of the masters and that of the slaves, with the former having a natural right to command, whereas the latter were simply born to obey.

The Romans promoted slavery even more than did the Greeks. In the days of the apostle Paul, perhaps half the population of the city of Rome​—evidently hundreds of thousands of people—​were slaves. And the Roman Empire seems to have had to acquire half a million slaves each year to build monuments, work the mines, till the fields, and staff the huge villas of the wealthy. * Those captured in war were commonly used as slaves, so Rome’s insatiable  need for more slaves must have been a powerful incentive for the empire to continue waging war.

Although slavery abated somewhat after the fall of the Roman Empire, the practice continued. According to the Domesday Book (1086 C.E.), slaves constituted 10 percent of the labor force of medieval England. And slaves were still acquired through conquest. The English word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” since the Slavic peoples constituted a large part of the slave population in Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Since the time of Christ, however, no continent has suffered the ravages of the slave trade as much as Africa. Even before Jesus’ time, the ancient Egyptians traded in Ethiopian slaves. Over the course of some 1,250 years, an estimated 18 million Africans were taken to Europe and the Middle East to meet the demand for slaves in those places. With the colonization of the Americas starting in the 16th century, a new slave market opened up, and slave trafficking across the Atlantic soon became one of the most lucrative businesses on earth. Historians calculate that  between 1650 and 1850, upwards of 12 million slaves were taken from Africa. * Many were sold in slave markets.

Struggles Against Slavery

Over the centuries, both individuals and nations have fought to free themselves from bondage. In the first century before Christ, Spartacus led an army of 70,000 Roman slaves in a futile fight for freedom. The revolution of Haitian slaves, some two centuries ago, was more successful, resulting in the establishment of an independent government in 1804.

Of course, slavery persisted far longer in the United States. There were slaves who struggled rigorously to free themselves and their loved ones. And there were free people who fought sincerely against slavery by advocating its abolition or by aiding runaway slaves. Still, it was not until late in the 19th century that the practice was finally outlawed throughout that country. What, though, about today?

Have the Struggles Been in Vain?

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,” states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That objective, enthusiastically proclaimed in 1948, is certainly a noble one. Many sincere people have dedicated their time, energy, and resources to achieving that goal. Success, however, does not come easily.

As the preceding article shows, millions of people still toil for nothing in appalling conditions, and many of them have been bought or sold against their will. Notwithstanding well-intentioned efforts to abolish slavery​—and the signing of international conventions to outlaw it—​real freedom for all remains an elusive goal. The global economy has made the undercover slave trade more lucrative. If anything, it seems, slavery is tightening its grip on parts of humanity. Is the situation hopeless? Let us see.


^ par. 5 One ancient source suggests that some very wealthy Romans may have owned as many as 20,000 slaves.

^ par. 7 Some unscrupulous preachers claimed that God was backing this brutal traffic in human lives. As a result, many people still have the false impression that the Bible justifies such cruelty, which it does not. Please see the article “The Bible’s Viewpoint: Did God Condone the Slave Trade?” in the September 8, 2001, issue of Awake!

[Pictures on page 4, 5]

Those brought from Africa in slave ships (above) were once commonly sold in American slave markets

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