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Slavery is the system by which certain persons are kept as the property of others - a system of great antiquity and wide prevalence. Slavery originated during the age of savagery and continued into ancient civilizations. As Nieboer has said, ‘the taming of animals naturally leads to taming of men.’ it is supposed that the nomadic herdsman who domesticated animals also began to domesticate, to enslave, men. Slavery was there in Babylon and elsewhere in Mesopotamia; it was widely prevalent in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, centuries before the coming of Christ. Slaves were mainly prisoners of war, but destitutes, debtors and convicted criminals were also sometimes drafted into slavery and commandeered for specific assignments. The history of ancient civilizations in various countries is divided into dynasties, periods and kingdoms. We need not go into details of these; for our limited purpose we shall only attempt a general survey of the state of slavery in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome etc. till the advent of Islam when slavery became inalienable with religion and culture and was accorded a permanent place in society.

In ancient Egypt, as elsewhere, slaves supplied the labour force and were used in any capacity and for any type of work. An almost fabulous number of slaves were employed for the building the Pyramids of Egypt dating from 3000 B.C. to 2300 B.C. ‘According to Herodotus, the Great Pyramid (of Cheops) took 100,000 men for ten years to make a causeway 3000 feet long in order to facilitate the transport of stone from the quarries, and the same number of men for twenty years more to complete the pyramid itself.’ Modern research considers these figures to be exaggerated as Herodotus inquired from people during his journeys and depended on hearsay. What is important in this regard is that the nine pyramids existing at present, are supposed to have been built by respective kings as tombs and memorials of themselves by a very substantial labour force. Slaves in Egypt were also employed on various other jobs.

Among the Greeks also slavery was a rooted institution. In two city states or poleis (singular polis means a city plus its environment) of Athens and Sparta slavery prevailed as also in other lesser known city states. Ancient Greek society was divided into three classes. The free-borncomprised the citizens. They enjoyed all kinds of privileges and took part in politics. The second class of perioeci consisted of foreigners. They possessed no political rights, but they were better off as compared to slaves because sometimes they handled economic affairs and enrolled in the infantry. The third category of helots comprised of slaves. In Greece the bulk of the peasants did not own their own land and had to supply a considerable portion of their crop to the landlords. They fell into debt and ultimately had no security to offer but their own persons. They were then sold into slavery. It is said about Athens that at one point of time there were 460,000 slaves and 2,100 citizens. Consequently, each master had a number of male and female slaves. The men worked in mines and on cultivation while women slaves worked as maids in homes. They were required to do all those works which provided leisure to the masters. Earlier among the Hebrews and later among the Greeks the slaves were treated with mildness, but not in every city state. At Athens the slaves were treated with mildness while in Sparta they are said to have been accorded very harsh treatment. By themselves the slaves were helpless, but the Constitution of Draco (621 B.C.) and laws of Solon ameliorated their condition.1 They were the property of the state; they possessed certain elementary rights, and could not be put to death save by the authority of the state. However, the larger number of slaves in Greece left the privileged classes enough time to give to politics and development of political philosophy for which ancient Greece has become famous.

In Rome also slavery was extensively prevalent. There the great landed estates were accumulated in a few hands and the cultivation of these lands was done mostly by swarms of slaves leaving war as the chief occupation of honour for the elitist citizens. Roman slaves were either captives or debtors who were unable to repay. There were purchased slaves also. In Rome the slaves had no rights at all; they could be put to death for the smallest misdemeanor. The slaves were so numerous that, in the time of Augustus, a single person is said to have left at his death over 4000 slaves. Besides cultivation the slaves were engaged in all the various professions, handicrafts and occupations. Supervision of the large number of slaves employed on cultivation was not easy. Consequently, they were chained with iron shackles. The iron rings on their wrists and ankles were not removed even when they went to sleep.

Hosts of slaves were employed in the sport of gladiatorial exhibitions. Gladiators were combatants who were obliged to fight wild animals or each other, often to the death, for the entertainment of the spectators. Some slaves were trained as regular gladiators. In the public exhibition, if a vanquished gladiator was not killed in the combat, his fate was decided by the spectators. If they wished his death for showing weakness or disinterestedness in the fighting, they held up their thumbs; the opposite motion was to save him. It was a cruel enjoyment at the cost of the helpless slaves.

There were sometimes slave revolts also. A revolt in Italy led by the gladiator Spartacus in 73 B.C. could be put down with considerable difficulty. Slaves, however, were sometimes set at liberty, and these freed-men were a well-known class at Rome. In the days of the Roman empire some great changes took place in the condition of the slaves. Augustus Ceasar (63 B.C-14 C.E) granted the slaves a legal status and Antoninus Pius (86-161 C.E) took away from the masters the power of life and death. Emperor Constantine (C.E. 274-337) made it a rule that in case of the division of property of a master, the distribution of his slaves be so arranged that father and son, husband and wife and brothers and sisters should not be separated.

Galley slaves were also common in ancient Greece, Rome and especially France. They propelled ships or warships with oars. Small galleys carried as many as twenty oars on each side, each of them worked by one or more men; the large ones had 200 to 300 rowers on each side. In this work convicts or slaves were forced to labour. The slaves were sometimes chained to the deck and lashed with whip if found slack in work. The cruelties sometimes perpetrated by their masters have become proverbial in the annals of ancient European maritime activity.

As in most parts of the ancient world, slavery seems to have been a recognised institution of ancient Indian society also from the earliest times. In the Rigveda there are many references about slaves. Slaves were given as presents to relatives. Rulers gave female slaves as gifts. All these slaves served as domestic servants in the palaces of rulers as well as in the establishments of aristocrats and priests. Probably all those persons who could not repay their debts were reduced to slavery.

In ancient Indian society slaves were treated with consideration. Their condition was far better as compared to that of the slaves in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The Buddha enjoined on his lay followers to assign only as much work to their slaves as they could easily do. He also said that the master should attend to the needs of his slaves when the latter was ill. During the Maurya period (C. 300 B.C. to 100 B.C.), Kautilya laid down rules about how slaves should be treated by their masters. The master was not to punish a slave without reason. If a master ill-treated his slaves the state was to punish him. Emperor Ashoka says in his Rock Edict IX that all people should treat their slaves with sympathy and consideration. In ancient India slaves were so mildly treated that foreign visitors like Megasthenes, who were acquainted with their fate in other countries, failed to notice the existence of slavery in this country. He wrote, ‘All Indians are free. None of them is a slave  They do not reduce even foreigners to slavery. There is thus no question of their reducing their own countrymen to slavery.’2 Megasthenes of course could not speak for the whole of India and for the entire ancient period. Slavery did exist in India, but it was tempered with humanism. There are philosophical and religious works in ancient India from the Rigveda onwards which do write about slaves. But none of them suggests that they were cruelly treated. In India slaves were not treated as commodities for earning profit through sale. Indian economy was not based on slavery. The number of slaves in ancient India was less than that in western countries and, aberrations apart, they were treated with kindness and as human beings.

An altogether new dimension - religious sanction - was added to the institution of slavery with the rise of Christianity to power in the Roman Empire. Hitherto, slavery had been a creation of the crude in human nature - the urge to dominate over others, to make use of others for private comfort and profit. Now it was ordained that the God of the Christians had bestowed the whole earth and all its wealth on the believers, that the infidels had no natural or human rights, and that the believers could do to the infidels whatever they chose - kill them, plunder them, reduce them to the status of slaves or non-citizens. In short, slavery became a divinely ordained institution.

Jesus Christ had seen nothing objectionable in slavery. St. Paul thought that a slave who became Christian was better than an infidel freeman. The Church Fathers and the Popes sanctioned slavery on scriptural grounds, so that slavery and slave trade continued in Europe and other Christianised countries for more than fifteen centuries after the passing away of Roman Paganism. Christian monasteries in medieval Europe are known to have employed slaves on some scale for keeping their farms and gardens flourishing. Christian nations became major partners of the Muslim slave traders when slave trade reached its peak in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Many churches continued to come out openly in support of slavery right up to the Civil War (186165 C.E) in the USA.

Even so, it goes to the credit of Islam to create slave trade on a large scale, and run it for profit like any other business. Prophet Muhammad had accepted the prevailing Arab practice of making slaves and also set a precedent when he sold in Egypt some Jewish women and children of Medina in exchange for horses and arms. The Quran expressly permitted the Muslims to acquire slaves through conquest. Since every Muslim Arab was a partner in the revenues derived from war booty including slaves, coveting the goods and wives of the unbelievers by the Muslims was avowed, though not encouraged, by the Prophet. War was prescribed on religious grounds, and became an integral part of Islam. ‘War is ordained for you, even if it be irksome to you. Perchance ye may dislike that which is good for you and love that which is evil for you, but God knoweth, and ye know not.’

The Prophet himself had made slaves in war and peace. Women and captives were sold as slaves in Najd. The Islamised Arabs started taking pride in keeping male and female slaves. The second Caliph, Umar, ordered that residents of Arabia were not to be enslaved since they had all become Muslims. This resulted in obtaining slaves from neighbouring countries. Prior to the Crusades, Muslims had kept black slaves imported from Africa. After that they began to obtain white slaves from Europe, not only through war but also by purchase -Rome and Mecca being the chief centres of this trade. The Muslims of the Barbary States (Morocco, Fez, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli in North Africa), also obtained white slaves by piracy in the Mediterranean.

The concept of Jihad against unbelievers, the share of every Muslim in the loot from war including slaves, and the profit obtained through the sale of slaves added new zest in Islam for practising and profiting from slavery. Slaves in Egypt, Greece and Rome used to be conscripted for constructing roads, working in mines, and on agricultural farms. They were treated cruelly, but there was no religious prejudice against them. In Islam, on the other hand, it was enjoined on the faithful to enslave non-Muslims for no other reason than that of their being non-Muslims. The outcome in due course was a large-scale slave trade and big slave markets all over the Islamic world. Muslim capitals such as Medina, Damascus, Kufa, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Bukhara, Ghazni, Delhi and some other Muslim metropolises in India became crowded with slaves for sale as well as with slave traders out to maximise profits.

Alexander Gardner who later became the Colonel of Artillery in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had travelled extensively in Central Asia from 1819 to 1823 C.E. He saw a lot of slave-catching in Kafiristan, a province of Afghanistan, which was largely inhabited by infields at that time. He found that the area had been reduced to ‘the lowest state of poverty and wretchedness’ as a result of raids by the Muslim king of Kunduz for securing slaves and supplying them to the slave markets in Balkh and Bukhara. He writes:

‘All this misery was caused by the oppression of the Kunduz chief, who not content with plundering his wretched subjects, made an annual raid into the country south of Oxus, and by chappaos (night attacks) carried off all the inhabitants on whom his troops could lay their hands. These, after the best had been selected by the chief and his courtiers, were publicly sold in the bazaars of Turkestan. The principal providers of this species of merchandise were the Khan of Khiva, the king of Bokhara (the great hero of the Mohammedan faith), and the robber beg of Kunduz.

‘In the regular slave markets, or in transactions between dealers, it is the custom to pay for slaves in money; the usual medium being either Bokharan gold tillahs (in value about 5 or 51/2 Company rupees each), or in gold bars or gold grain. In Yarkand, or on the Chinese frontier, the medium is the silver khurup with the Chinese stamp, the value of which varies from 150 to 200 rupees each. The price of a male slave varies according to circumstances from 5 to 500 rupees. The price of the females also necessarily varies much, 2 tillahs to 10,000 rupees. Even the double the latter sum has been known to have been given.

‘However, a vast deal of business is also done by barter, of which we had proof at the holy shrine of Pir-i-Nimcha, where we exchanged two slaves for a few lambs’ skins! Sanctity and slave dealing may be considered somewhat akin in the Turkestan region, and the more holy the person the more extensive are generally his transactions in flesh and blood.’3

Alexander Gardner subsequently found a Muslim fruit merchant at Multan ‘who was proved by his own ledger to have exchanged a female slave girl for three ponies and seven long-haired, red-eyed cats, all of which he disposed of, no doubt to advantage, to the English gentlemen at this station.’4 Small wonder that the Islamic system of slavery was revolting to the Hindu psyche because it was alien to Hindu Dharma and ideologically abhorrent to it.


  1. Stewart C. Easton, The Heritage of the Past, New York, 1957, 73. 

  2. Indica of Megasthenes, cited in Om Prakash, Religion and society in Ancient India, Delhi, 1985, 140. 

  3. Memoirs of Alexander Gardner, edited by Major Hugh Pearce, first published in 1898, reprint published from Patiala in 1970, 103-04. Emphasis added. See also 32, 35-36, 92, 121-122, 124 and 148. 

  4. Ibid., 104n.