Document-Based Question: Compare the idea of slavery as a form of social death across cultures in the premodern period.

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: Description of the Aztec slave market by Diego Durán, a Dominican friar who was born in Spain but moved to Mexico as a young child and was fluent in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. This passage comes from his Book of the Gods and Rites, written 1574-1576.

In times of famine a man and wife could agree to a way of satisfying their needs and rise from their wretched state. They could sell one another, and thus husband sold wife and wife sold husband, or they sold one of their children if they had more than four or five. These could be redeemed later by returning their price to those who had bought them… Regarding the second [type of slaves], men captured in war… It was certain and sure that such captives were to serve as victims in sacrifice… because they had been brought exclusively to be sacrificed to the gods.

Document 2

Source: Letter from Sebastien Rale, a Jesuit missionary in New France, to his brother, written in 1721. In this passage Rale describes the treatment of captives taken by the Illinois.

When a savage returns to his own country laden with many scalps, he is received with great honor; but he is at the height of his glory when he takes prisoners and brings them home alive. As soon as he arrives, all the people of the village meet together, and range themselves on both sides of the way where the prisoners must pass. This reception is very cruel; some tear out the prisoners’ nails, others cut off their fingers or ears; still others load them with blows from clubs. After this first welcome, the old men assemble in order to consider whether they shall grant life to their prisoners, or give orders for their death. When there is any dead man to be resuscitated, that is to say, if any one of their warriors has been killed, and they think it a duty to replace him in his cabin, they give to this cabin one of their prisoners, who takes the place of the deceased; and this is what they call “resuscitating the dead.”

Document 3

Source: Excerpt from the twelfth-century book Pingzhou Chats on Things Worthwhile by Zhu Yu, a Chinese scholar. He described the foreign slaves he encountered while accompanying his father to Guangzhou, an important port city in southern China.

The wealthy in Guang[zhou] maintain numerous foreign slaves. These slaves are unequaled in strength and are capable of carrying—on their backs—several hundred catties.[1] Neither their language nor their passions bear any connection to ours. Their natures are simple; they do not attempt to flee… As for the color of these slaves, it is as black as ink. Their lips are red and their teeth are white. Their hair is curly as well as ochre-colored… They eat raw food. But once they are acquired as slaves, they are fed cooked food. They thereupon endure days of diarrhea, which is referred to as “converting the bowels (huanchang).” As a consequence [of this switch to cooked food], they occasionally die of illness. But if they do not die, then they are capable of being socialized. After a long period of socialization, they become able to understand what people say [to them], even though they themselves are incapable of [our] speech.

[1] One catty was equivalent to 1 and 1/3 pounds.

Document 4

Source: A chapter from a manual for market inspectors written by a legal scholar, al-Saqati, who lived in Málaga, an important port city in Islamic Spain, during the thirteenth century. In this chapter, al-Saqati describes different kinds of fraud practiced by sellers and brokers in the slave market.

One of the most famous and well-known frauds [of slave sellers] is that they have crafty women, of beauty without par and admirable looks, teachers in speaking romance[1] and [dressing] in the rūmī style.[2] When it befalls them [that] someone who is not from there asks for a beautiful slave, recently imported from Christian countries, [the dealer] promises to find one soon… Meanwhile [the seller] has prepared an accomplice, from the same ilk as the slave, who pretends to be her master and who has to receive her price, by having acquired her on the upper frontier. [The said accomplice] raises the price as much as he wants because she is recently imported, emphasizing her uniqueness. As soon as the deal has been closed, both [accomplices] divide up their price with the slave. The buyer takes her to his home. If he finds her to his liking and is satisfied with her position, he will ask to manumit her and marry her. On the contrary, she [then] proclaims her status as a free woman, exhibiting in front of the local judge her reservation contracts[3] and the remaining [documents] that make her emancipation mandatory. The mentioned [buyer] returns with his act of purchase and it fails… But the dealer emphatically denies knowing [where] the seller is, saying: “He was fed up being known as a dealer and importer of rūmī and other slaves.” Useless are all the efforts of the troubled one that loses his money.

[1] He means Romance languages such as Spanish, Catalan, French, or Italian.

[2] Rūmī literally means Roman. In this context, it refers to the Christian population of northern Iberia.

[3] Testimony secretly recorded that makes the sale invalid. In this case, it is probably testimony that the woman is a Muslim and therefore not eligible to be sold or owned as a slave by other Muslims.

Document 5

Source: This edict of King Gälawdéwos of Ethiopia, issued in 1548, banned the sale of Christian slaves to Muslim merchants. Christians were still permitted to own Christian slaves, and Muslims were still permitted to purchase slaves from Damot and Gamo, two regions where Christianity was not well-established.

I, King Gälawdéwos, son of Wänag Sägäd, have ordered that from now onwards any merchant [traveling with slaves], whether he be Muslim or Christian, shall not proceed to the sea, to Adal,[1] and to other market places visited by merchants, without coming to my gate [for inspection]. Let him bring both female and male slaves before me… If the captive turns out to be Christian and the one [who knowingly bought him] is an Arab, let them deprive him of all his merchandise and send him to me. Let them kill the seller who [knowingly] puts up for market and sale [to the Arab merchant] the Christian slave. If the seller who [knowingly] sold a Christian is a merchant, whether he be Muslim or a Christian Ethiopian compatriot, let them kill him.

[1] A neighboring kingdom with a Muslim ruler which controlled the Red Sea coast.

Document 6

Source: A request for legal advice addressed to Moses Maimonides, a famous medieval Jewish rabbi, physician, legal scholar, and philosopher who lived in Egypt under Islamic rule during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

What does our master [Maimonides] say in the matter of a young man who purchases a slave women who is a beautiful captive and she is with him in his house… Then there was an argument between the young man and his brother. The brother summoned his sibling to the [Jewish] judge and there was a big argument between the two of them. Subsequently his brother informed on him to the [Muslim] judge that he had purchased a Christian maidservant, converted her [to Judaism], and secludes himself with her. The slave girl appeared [before the judge]. The judge asked what she was. She said, ‘I am a Jew.’ The judge suggested that she convert to Islam. She rejected [this notion] and said: ‘I am a Jew. I am the daughter of a Jewish woman.’ The judge returned the slave girl to him and he took her to his house. The city gossiped about him… This is either unmarried seclusion or seclusion with a non-Jew. How can we forbid her from dwelling in his house? Is the law on her side, or not? Teach us, Rabbi, and may your reward be multiplied by Heaven.

Document 7

Source: Two entries from the Korean Testimony of Proprietors concerning a twenty-five-year-old woman who was enslaved as a nobi by her uncle in accordance with the Law of Enslaving Starving Children. The Government Office of Relief was responsible for measures to mitigate famine, including enforcement of the Law of Enslaving Starving Children.

  1. In 1671 a neglected girl aged 12 was adopted. Thus, the Government Office of Relief draws up a document on her.[1]
  2. In the 10th year of King Sukjong in 1684, it was transacted between uncle and niece in the Testimony of Proprietors.[2]

[1] Because the girl was adopted according to the Law of Enslaving Starving Children, there must have been a famine during this period and she must have been abandoned by her parents.

[2] At this point there was a dispute about the girl’s status and she was officially degraded to nobi (slave) status.