Document-Based Question: Describe some of the ways in which people could become enslaved or gain their freedom during the period before 1500.

In your response you should do the following:

  • Respond to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis or claim that establishes a line of reasoning.
  • Describe a broader historical context relevant to the prompt.
  • Support an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents.
  • Use at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt.
  • For at least three documents, explain how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument.
  • Use evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the prompt.

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

Document 1

Source: Lyrics from an indita ballad reflecting the interaction of indigenous and Spanish cultures in the Rio Grande region of New Mexico. Probably composed in the nineteenth century.

The captive, Marcelina,
when she arrived at the cattail marsh,
when she arrived at the cattail marsh,

she looked back crying,
“They killed my father,
they killed my father.”

That’s why I no longer
want to live in this world,
from my beloved homeland
they are taking me away.

Document 2

Source: A decision of the Ducal Court, the highest court of appeal in the judicial system of Venetian colony of Crete, about the status of the child of an enslaved woman. It was issued on January 9, 1368.

It is said by the aforementioned lord Duke [of Crete] and his counsel, in agreement and concisely, that George Crassa is and must be the slave of John Hebramo, for the same John proved him [George] to have been the son of the Maria, his late slave, who was pregnant at the time that he bought her, and that the said George was born in the house of the said John from this pregnant [woman] and he confirmed this by oath.

Document 3

Source: A description of the consequences of famine in the Aztec empire from the General History of the Things of New Spain by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary to early colonial Mexico. Sahagún based his text on interviews with local elders, which his students recorded in the local language (Nahua) and which he then translated into Spanish.

The Eighth Chapter telleth how they held in dread hunger and famine when One Rabbit ruled the year count… This was a time when they bought people; they purchased men for themselves. The merchants were those who had plenty, who prospered…In the homes of [such men] they crowded, going into bondage…the orphan, the poor, the indigent, the needy, the pauper, the beggar, who were starved and famished[.] At this time one sold oneself. One ate oneself; one swallowed oneself. Or else one sold and delivered into bondage his beloved son, his dear child.

Document 4

Source: This is an excerpt from Routes toward Insight into the Capital Kingdoms, an encyclopedic work of geography and history by al-ʿUmarī, a fourteenth-century scholar from Damascus. In this passage he describes the behavior of the Mongol rulers of the Golden Horde.

When their princes are angry with one of their followers, they cherish their power to take and sell their children.  If someone commits a theft, the victim likewise has the right to the property and the children of the thief, which he then sells… The whole population is taxable by the ruler of the land according to the Mawla al-Fadil of Nizam ad-Din Abul-Fada’il Yahya b. al-Hakim.  Sometimes the tax is also demanded in a bad year, when plague beset the herds, deep snow fell and severe frost reigned, so that the people, in order to be able to pay, sold their children.

Document 5

Source: This manumission document was drawn up in the city of Genoa on May 13, 1214.

The witnesses are Raymond the notary, Raibaldus Formica, Martinus the barber, [and] Montanarius the weigher. I, Sergius de Castello, for the love of God and the remedy of my sins, give to you, Gilla the Corsican, my slave woman, pure and clean liberty, therefore releasing you and all your peculium and acquisition from every bond of servitude, and granting to you and your heirs in every way the faculty of bestowing, receiving, taking an oath, and making a testament, and carrying out all civil contracts and business just as you wish as a Roman citizen. Also I remit the law of patronage to you. I promise to you the aforementioned liberty, which I and my heirs ought to hold firm and broad and to defend from any person, under the penalty of 10 lire of pure gold, etc. Done in Genoa, in the fondaco, the 13th day of May, after terce.

Document 6

Source: Statements recorded as part of a lawsuit by an enslaved woman named Soffia against her former owner, Johan de Bonastre, in the kingdom of Valencia in 1458. Soffia claimed that she was no longer a slave and demanded to be paid the money she had earned through domestic service in the house of Anthoni Pugol.

It is said… that since the said mossen Bonastre had a daughter by the said Soffia, while being his slave, according to the law and reason the said Soffia attained freed status and was free immediately after giving birth and, in consequence, he [mossen Bonastre] could neither put her up for sale nor place her in any contract of service with the said Pugol.  And this is true and public knowledge. Likewise, it is said, as above, that not only has the said Soffia attained freed status by giving birth [to her owner’s child] but also, according to justice, the said salary is and should likewise pertain to the said Soffia, having been earned by her as a free person, and also in accordance with the contract and [mossen Bonastre’s expressed] will, the said salary was for the said Soffia and should serve her interests.  And this is true and public knowledge.

Document 7

Source: An anecdote about an enslaved man (whose name is never mentioned in the text) from the chronicle and memoir The Smiling Gardens of the Events and Biographies of the Age by Ibn Khalīl, a fifteenth-century scholar and merchant. At the time of the events recorded here, Ibn Khalīl was living in Tripoli, a port city in what is now Libya.

His origin was from the infidels of Sardinia. He was taken captive and converted to Islam and became a slave, and the years moved him around among several countries until I bought him. I was good to him and became accustomed to him and freed him, and I began to rely on him in many of my affairs and connections… I became confident in him and made that [merchandise] ready for him, and I spent a good sum on the price of the slave women and on their provision and making it pour forth, and I sent him down [to Beirut] accompanied by the merchants. Then, after a period [of time], the news arrived in Tripoli with someone who had gone with the slave that he had disembarked with [the slave women] on the island of Rhodes and sold them there! This news reached the leader of Tripoli, and [also] that he had taken from the Franks of Rhodes the prices of [the slave women] whom he had disembarked, and he apostatized from Islam and went to Sardinia.