Contributed by Hannah Barker. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

The purpose of this question is to encourage students to think about slavery from the perspective of strategy. Enslavers became enslavers in order to pursue certain strategies (to gain wealth, to increase prestige, to claim political power, etc.), and enslaved people pursued strategies of their own to change their status and escape the suffering bound up with it. The idea of slaving as a strategy comes from Joseph Miller. His work is sufficiently technical that I would not assign it to students, but it is worth teaching his emphasis on historical context and attention to the specific circumstances that affected the choices of individual enslavers and individual enslaved people.

Documents 1-4 illustrate various ways that a person could become enslaved. Document 1 is about capture. It illustrates enslavement from the perspective of a woman at the moment of her transition into slave status. She has been captured in a raid and is being taken away; at the end of the journey, she expects to find herself in permanent slavery. This document is especially interesting because it comes from an oral tradition that reflects a long history of raiding and captivity in the American Southwest. That long history is unpacked in detail in James Brooks’ Captives and Cousins and in Catherine Cameron’s “How People Moved among Ancient Societies.” Oral traditions like these help historians access the perspectives of people such as enslaved women who were not able to leave many traces in the written record.

Document 2 is about birth. It reflects a long-standing principle in Roman and canon law, later incorporated into the American legal system, according to which children followed the status of their mothers and not their fathers. Thus the child of an enslaved woman would be born into slave status even if its father was free. Despite this principle, free fathers in Venetian Crete sometimes acknowledged their children by enslaved women and claimed them as heirs. Sally McKee’s article explores how and why this occurred.

Document 3 is about self-sale and sale by family members. In many premodern societies, these acts were possible to imagine, but they were associated with famine, desperate poverty, and often with critique of the government or society which allowed them occur. Document 4 is about penal slavery and debt slavery. Enslavement as individual or collective punishment for a crime was practiced in societies which practiced extrusive slavery, demoting free people from within the society to slave status rather than bringing in outsiders as slaves. In this case, the Mongol rulers of the Golden Horde were said to have used enslavement as a collective punishment for political disloyalty as well as for theft. As in Document 3, selling children into slavery was associated with poverty and desperation, in this case caused by unreasonably harsh taxation. John Millerhauser discusses debt slavery and sale in the Aztec context. Hannah Barker and Michal Biran discuss debt slavery, sale, and penal slavery in the Mongol context. See also The Law of Enslaving Starving Children in Chosun Korea and the work of Alice Rio on self-sale in the Carolingian empire.

Documents 5-7 illustrate various ways that a person could escape slave status. Document 5 is about manumission, the legal act by which a slaveholder gave up ownership rights over an individual slave. It is worth noting that this particular manumission document, drawn up in Italy in the thirteenth century, still made use of thousand-year-old Roman terms and concepts related to slavery. Peculium was the Roman technical term for a slave’s “property,” items or money which slaves could not legally own but over which they exercised functional control. Technically the peculium belonged to the master. Upon manumission masters usually transferred it to their former slaves, but they were not required to do so. Likewise, Roman law conferred certain patronage rights to former masters over their former slaves. Perhaps the most important was the right of the master or his descendants to inherit the estate of his former slave, especially if the slave died without descendants. Slaveholders during the medieval period usually renounced their patronage rights after manumission, but again, they were not required to do so. Finally, the core of a manumission document was the grant of the rights belonging to a Roman citizen. The Roman Empire and Roman citizenship had long since ceased to exist, but this language remained a convenient shorthand for the full legal rights enjoyed by a freeborn person. Andrew Borkowski and Paul du Plessis give a useful summary of the Roman legal structure of slavery and manumission.

Document 6 is about suing for freedom. In certain societies, people who believed that they had been wrongfully enslaved could challenge their status in court. This case concerns a woman in Valencia who had previously been enslaved, but who argued that she had been freed according Valencian law and custom when her master acknowledged that she had given birth to his child. It was therefore illegal for him to continue to treat her as a slave, renting out her labor and seizing her wages. The outcome of this case is unknown. Similar cases in Valencia are discussed by Debra Blumenthal. See also Cali or Theodora? for a woman challenging her status as a slave in Genoa.

Finally, Document 7 is about escape. Ibn Khalīl manumitted his unnamed Sardinian slave but continued to control his life and use him as a commercial agent, first for local business in Tripoli and then for long-distance trade to Beirut. Rather than spend the rest of his life under Ibn Khalīl’s patronage, the Sardinian man seized the opportunity to flee to Rhodes, the stronghold of the Hospitaller crusading order, where he cast off his identity as a Muslim and former slave in order to return home. Ibn Khalīl focused on the inconvenience which this caused for himself, but knowledge of the historical context allows us to fill in more of the Sardinian man’s perspective. Would he have been welcomed home? As Daniel Hershenzon and others have explained, returning captives, especially those who had converted to Islam, were often met with suspicion and ostracism. What about the merchandise he was supposed to sell in Beirut, a group of enslaved African women? They remained in slavery, the Sardinian man using their sale to finance his own escape. In this case, one former slave’s strategy to improve his situation involved perpetuating the enslavement of others.

Recommended Readings

  • Joseph Miller, The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
  • James Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
  • Catherine Cameron, “How People Moved Among Ancient Societies: Broadening the View,” American Anthropologist 115, no. 2 (2013): 218-231.
  • Sally McKee, “Inherited Status and Slavery in Renaissance Italy and Venetian Crete,” Past and Present 182 (2004): 31-54.
  • John Millerhauser, “Debt as a Double-Edged Risk: A Historical Case from Nahua (Aztec) Mexico,” Economic Anthropology 4 (2017): 263-275.
  • Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1250-1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
  • Michal Biran, “Encounters Among Enemies: Preliminary Remarks on Captives in Mongol Eurasia,” Archivum Eurasia Medii Aevi 21 (2015): 27-42.
  • Alice Rio, “Self-sale and Voluntary Entry into Unfreedom, 300-1100,” Journal of Social History 45, no. 3 (2012): 661-685.
  • Andrew Borkowski and Paul du Plessis, Textbook on Roman Law, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Debra Blumenthal, Enemies and Familiars: Slavery and Mastery in Fifteenth-Century Valencia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), chapters 4-6.
  • Daniel Hershenzon, The Captive Sea: Slavery, Communication and Commerce in Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Citations for DBQ Sources

  1. La Cautiva Marcelina. Contributed by Catherine Cameron.
  2. Slave Women and Their Children in Venetian Crete. Translated from the Latin by Rena Lauer. Venice, Archivio di Stato di Venezia (ASVe) Duca di Candia, b. 26, r. 2/2, fol. 122v (9 January 1368).
  3. Aztec Slaves. Contributed by John Verano. Published in Bernardino de Sahagún, General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: The Florentine Codex, translated by Charles Dibble and Arthur Anderson (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1953), 23.
  4. Translated from the German by Hannah Barker. Published in Klaus Lech, trans., “Das Mongolische Weltreich: Al-ʿUmari’s Bericht über die Reiche der Mongolen in seinem Werk Masalik al-absar fi mamalik al-amsar,” Asiatische Forschungen 22 (1968), 140-141.
  5. Manumission in Genoa. Translated from the Latin by Hannah Barker. Published in John Williams, “From the Commercial Revolution to the State Revolution: The Development of Slavery in Medieval Genoa” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1995), doc. 7b.
  6. Demandes de Libertat: Enslaved Mothers Suing for Freedom in Late Medieval Iberia. Translated from the Catalan by Debra Blumenthal. From the Arxiu del Regne de València: Gobernacíon 2291: M. 4: 9v; ARV Gobernación 2293: M. 21: 30r-31v (26 September 1458 – 7 April 1459).
  7. A Former Slave Deceives Ibn Khalīl. Translated from the Arabic by Hannah Barker. ʿAbd al-Bāsiṭ ibn Khalīl ibn Shāhīn, Kitāb al-rawḍ al-bāsim fī ḥawādith al-ʿumr wa-al-tarājim, ed. ʿUmar Tadmuri (Beirut: Al-Maktabah al-ʿaṣriyah, 2014), 2:229-231.