The Beginnings of Slavery


Slavery is very old. It probably began when soldiers started capturing their enemies in war. Instead of killing them they made them slaves. Slavery was at its first peak in ancient Egypt, Greece and in the Roman Empire.

Egyptian society depended on slavery. In most cases slavers were prisoners of war, criminals and other people who could not pay their debts. The Egyptians bought slaves from neighbouring countries. They shaved their heads so that they could identify them easily .

Slavery in Greece was not as harsh as it was in Egypt. Greek society had different kinds of slaves. Some household slaves and other public workers were able to save the little money that they got and buy themselves freedom. Then they could become full citizens.

Slaves owned by the state were not treated well. They did hard work on farms and roads and were often chained to each other and whipped.

After the Romans had conquered many countries in Europe they took thousands of prisoners as slaves. As in Greece they were divided into private and public slaves. Until about 100 A.D. Roman masters held the power of life and death over their slaves. Some were trained to be gladiatorswho then fought against other gladiators and wild beasts.

By about 150 A.D. laws began to change and the Romans started treating their slaves in a more humane way. Under Constantine I, the first Christian emperor, new laws were passed .



Slavery in the Middle Ages


A new form of slavery called serfdom developed in the Middle Ages. It was like the slavery system of ancient times, however, masters did not own their serfs.

In most cases, serfs worked on the land of their lords. In exchange , they were given protection. Because they were very loyal and fought for their lords in times of war they often got a bit of land from them.

But from about 1400 onwards slavery started to play a bigger role in Europe. At that time Europeans started to get interested in new routes to unexplored lands.


African Slave Trade

In the middle of the 15th century Portuguese navigators started exploring the coast of Africa on their search to find a sea route to India. They brought back thousands of slaves every year and sold them on the slave market. By the end of the century they also sold slaves to Spain.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus founded the first settlement in the New World on an island in the Caribbean Sea. A few years later African slaves were brought from Europe, later on they were imported directly from Africa.

Slave trade to the English colonies in America started in the early 17th century. At first the slaves were free after serving for their masters for 21 years. Later on, Virginia and Maryland passed laws that made Negroes slaves for the rest of their lives. The new law also stated that children who were born to slaves automatically became the property of the white master.

By the beginning of the 18th century slave trade was a big business. The British started what was called Triangular Trade. Factory goods were brought to Africa, slaves were taken to the West Indies, where they were sold to American plantation farmers , and sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco were brought back to Europe.



Slavery in The United States

Although some Americans were against slavery, many of America's famous statesmen of that time - like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. In the northern states slave trade was soon abolished but it continued in the south.

The southern states needed slaves because their economy depended on them. Farmers planted tobacco, cotton, sugar cane and other crops and they made a lot of money with workers who didn't cost them anything.

Most slaves worked on fields and were called field hands. They were the ones who were cruelly treated and lived the hardest lives . Others worked as cooks and maids. Those who were skilled worked as carpenters or masons.

As cotton plantations grew and spread to the west so did slavery. By 1848 slaves could be found as far west as Texas.

As time went on more and more Northerners were against slavery. The Southerners thought that the only way to keep their right to own slaves was to break away from the United States. As more and more southern states seceded from the Union the Civil War started.



The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a system of escape for American slaves in the 19th century. But it was not a railroad and it wasn't underground either. It got its name because people who were against slavery secretly helped slaves escape to the Northern states or Canada.

The slaves travelled at night. Both black and white people helped them, they gave them clothes and a place to sleep during the daytime. Secret railroad words were used as codes to help the slaves. Stopping places were called "stations" , different routes were "lines" , the people who helped the slaves were " conductors".

Most of the routes ran through the northern states. Once the slaves were in Canada they were free and could not be sent back again, but some of them didn't make it to the north. They got caught and were returned to the plantations in the south.

A few people became famous for helping many Negroes. Levi Coffin was a Quaker who turned his house into a place where slaves could stay. More than 3,000 slaves passed through. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and helped other slaves escape.

On January 1, 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that slaves in the Confederate States of America were free. Two years later the Civil War ended with the North’s victory.


Slavery in Recent Times

In the 1900s other nations took steps to end slavery. After the Second World War, in which millions of people ended up in concentration and labour camps in Germany and the Soviet Union, the United Nations declared that all people had the right to life and liberty.

Today, although slavery doesn't offically exist, millions of people of all races and religions are forced to work for others. They are deprived of all human rights.



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  •   abolish= end
  •  although=while
  •  ancient= old
  •  beast= a wild and dangerous animal
  •  break away from=to be free from or move away from
  •  business=making money through buying and selling products
  •  capture=to catch a person and keep them as prisoner
  •  Caribbean Sea= a sea with many islands between Central America and South America
  •  carpenter= a person who makes and repairs things made out of wood
  •  century= a time of a hundred years
  •  chain=to hold a person to an object by using metal rings that are joined together in one line
  •  citizen= a person who lives in a country and has rights there
  •  Civil War= a war in which groups from the same country fight against each other
  •  concentration camp= prison where political prisoners and other people are kept during a war
  •  conductor= someone who collects money from passengers on a train
  •  Confederate States of America= the southern states of the USA which broke away from the north and became a separate country for four years
  •  conquer= to take control of a country by fighting
  •  continue= to go on
  •  cotton=plant with white hairs on its seeds, used for making cloth
  •  crop = a plant like wheat or rice that is grown and used as food
  •  cruel= bad
  •  debt= the sum of money that you have borrowed from someone and that you have to give back
  •  declare= to say officially
  •  depend on= need very much
  •  deprive= to take something away from someone
  •  develop= grow slowly
  •  economy=the buying and selling of products
  •  emperor= king of a great country
  •  escape= to get away from someone or something that is dangerous
  •  explore= to find out about a place that nobody has ever been to before
  •  field hand= worker on the field
  •  force= have to
  •  found=to start something new
  •  freedom= liberty , being free
  •  gladiator= a soldier who fought against other men and wild animals in a Roman stadium
  •  goods= things that are produced so that they can be sold
  •  harsh= difficult conditions to live in
  •  household= everything that belongs to the house
  •  however=but
  •  human rights=one of the basic rights that everyone should have , like the right to vote or the right to say what you want
  •  humane=to treat people or animals in a way that is not cruel
  •  identify= to tell who you are
  •  in exchange=to give something and get something in return
  •  instead of=in something’s place
  •  labour camp= place where people had to work and got no money for it
  •  law=the rules in a country
  •  liberty= freedom
  •  lord= a very powerful man who lived in the Middle Ages and owned a lot of land
  •  loyal= here: to always help and fight for your master
  •  maid= young woman who helps in the house . She washes dishes, cooks and cleans up rooms
  •  make it=get to, reach
  •  mason= a person who cuts stone into pieces
  •  master= a person who has control over someone else
  •  navigator= a person who sails on a ship and explores other countries
  •  officially=formally
  •  onwards= from a certain time after that
  •  own= have
  •  pass= here: to make
  •  peak= to reach the highest point
  •  plant= to put plants or seeds into the ground so that they can grow
  •  plantation= a large area of land where crops like tea, sugar or cotton are grown
  •  pots and pans=metal containers used for cooking
  •  prisoner= someone who is kept in a place against his own will
  •  proclaim= to say officially
  •  property= something that belongs to you
  •  protection=guard, defend
  •  public=here: people who worked for the government
  •  Quaker= member of a religious group that was founded in America . They don’t have priests and are against violence
  •  route= path or road from one place to another
  •  search= look for—here : trip
  •  secede= to break away from
  •  secretly= without anybody knowing
  •  serf= a person who does not have his own land . Serfs had to work for masters or lords
  •  serfdom= the system of having serfs
  •  serve= to do work for someone
  •  settlement= a new town in a place where not many people have lived before
  •  shave= to cut off hair very close to the skin
  •  skilled= if you can do something very well; talented
  •  society =people in general
  •  soldier= a member of the army of a country who fights in a war
  •  Soviet Union= communist country that existed between 1917 and 1991
  •  spread=expand, move to
  •  state= say
  •  statesman= a political leader of a country who is said to be very wise
  •  sugar cane= sugar that grows in the form of a long plant in tropical regions
  •  take steps= here: to do something
  •  tobacco= a plant that produces leaves that you use in cigarettes
  •  trade= the buying and selling of things
  •  treat=behave towards someone
  •  triangular trade= trade that involved three continents
  •  underground= below the surface of the earth
  •  unexplored= something that has not been seen or found yet
  •  victory= a win
  •  whip= to hit someone with a long piece of leather or rope