Digital History

The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery

Slavery in Historical Perspective Previous Next
Digital History ID 3025



Slavery in the United States was not unique in treating human beings like animals. The institution of slavery could be found in societies as diverse as ancient Assyria, Babylonia, China, Egypt, India, Persia, and Mesopotamia; in classical Greece and Rome; in Africa, the Islamic world and among the New World Indians. At the time of Christ, there were probably between two and three million slaves in Italy, making up 35 to 40 percent of the population. England's Domesday Book of 1086 indicated that 10 percent of the population was enslaved. Among some Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest, nearly a quarter of the population consisted of slaves. In 1644, just before the Dutch ceded Manhattan to the British, 40 percent of the population consisted of enslaved Africans.

It is notable that the modern word for slaves comes from "Slav." During the Middle Ages, most slaves in Europe and the Islamic world were people from Slavic Eastern Europe. It was only in the 15th century that slavery became linked with people from sub-Saharan Africa.

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