Slavery Is Prehistoric

Kevin Bales is an anti-slavery advocate and the president of Free the Slaves, the U.S. sister organization of the world's oldest human rights organization Anti-Slavery International. He is also a Professor of Sociology at Roehampton University in London.

In 1990, Bales co-founded the fundraising and research consultancy Pell & Bales Ltd., which has since grown into the largest firm of its kind in Britain, raising over $1 billion for charity. His book "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy," published in 1999, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book "Ending Slavery," a roadmap for the global eradication of slavery, was published in September 2007. He holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.

  • Transcript


Question: What are the first known records of slavery, and how has it evolved since then?

Kevin Bales:  One of the things that I get all excited about but I'll never be able to resolve intellectually, is the origin of slavery.  We know that slavery is prehistoric, and we can say that because the very first stylus-on-clay-tablet cuneiform records of ancient Samarra which are the very first human records are records of slavery.  The price of slaves, counts of slaves, how they were acquired through conflict, and so forth.  So clearly it was not just existing before the first written records, it was existing in a fairly sophisticated way.

And there's a question in my mind that I'll never be able to resolve but I find it a wonderful intellectual challenge is to think: "How does any human being come to the point where they can completely control another person use for violence and use that violence to exploit people?  How did that evolve in the prehistory of human societies?"  In their most permeative, if we still use that word but their earliest forms, there seems to be a kind of familial model, the idea that, you know, the way that you can control offspring can sometimes be total and violent control and be explorative as well. I mean, we don't want to do that these days with our middle-class kids but you look back and you see that. 

It also seems that as you look at prehistory and early history, and I mean, really early history, Iron Age stuff, you begin that period of the domestication of animals.  And the nature of enslavement begins to shift from what I would think to be a familial model, a family model, to an animal domestication model, so that you actually get to the point where Aristotle writes, "The ox is the poor man's slave."  In other words he's equating the ox and a slave and saying, you know: "If you can afford it, you'll buy a human, but if you can't afford it you'll end up with an ox." Which is kind of interesting because oxen were very expensive. 

Now what does that mean?  Well, it means it's also... slavery is also pre legal.  You know, the code of Hammurabi the famous one that we study at university because the first written legal code.  If you actually read that straight through what you discover is about 30 percent of the code of Hammurabi is about slavery, which tells us that it was a highly sophisticated part of that society before they even wrote the laws down.  So it was pre-legal in a sophisticated way and had to be included in that.

It's also pre-monetary so that when we have those moments where see here's the invention of money we discover that they come after the records of enslavement.  So pre-monitory, pre-legal, prehistoric is a fascinating question in my mind.  Like how does slavery even began and then what does it evolve into?  There's never been a day in human history without it.  It doesn't... it's not in every society however and that's also kind of important because it's not an integral, inherent part of the human existence.  There are plenty of societies that have existed for thousands of yeas with no slavery whatsoever.

And there's of course that part in all of us as individuals that says, "I don't want to enslave anybody but even more importantly I don't ever want to be enslaved."  So it's not like we're born to slavery and yet its been this kind of semi-permanent condition. And it's evolved to respond to almost every type of economic and political change that's occurred in 5,000 years.  So you see an empire like the Roman Empire that runs on slavery the way America runs on oil, you know?  All the wars of conquest on the expansion of the Roman Empire were fueled exactly by conquest of geographical areas and the harvesting of entire populations to the slave markets of Rome, or to other main cities, that would then bankroll the payment of the legions and the armies and so forth.  And you see this interesting expansion and contraction of slavery linked to almost all imperial growth.  The Ottoman Empire and then the European empires of the 18th and 19th Century, instead of taking it over all physically and making it all colonies but it's all about the harvesting of the slaves for North America... until you even get into the modern late 20th Century, early 21st and you had this new globalization form of empire-building where you don't take physical possession of the land but you still take physical position of the people, at least temporarily as inputs into just-in-time economic processes.

So anything that we've been able to think up as human beings, clever or evil, in terms of economic exploitation somebody has always been able to figure out a way to build slavery into that as well. 

Recorded on September 24, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller