Trafficking in Persons: A History

Editorial note: A few weeks ago, on 12 June, we observed World Day Against Child Labor. The sin of child labor is among the many forms of trafficking of human persons and other forms of contemporary slavery challenging our deeply troubled and fractured world. CNEWA has long partnered with local churches to prevent trafficking and the enslavement of human life, and is increasingly engaged in supporting programs that aid survivors of this evil. Below, Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., addresses, in the first of a two-part article, what defines human trafficking and slavery and its unfortunate presence since the dawn of human history.

If the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the “Original Sin,” it has a slightly younger sibling in slavery. Slavery is first mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures when Noah curses his son Canaan in Genesis 9:25: “Canaan is cursed; he will be the lowest slave to his brothers.”

How does one describe slavery? One description of slavery appeared in 1866: “For the sort of ownership which a slave owner has over a slave is … the perpetual right of disposing of the work of a slave for one’s own benefit — services which it is right for one human being to provide for another. From this it follows that it is not contrary to the natural or divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged, or donated,” if the proper conditions are observed.

Slavery is one of the oldest human institutions, predating written history, and is mentioned in ancient documents of almost every culture and religion. While what follows focuses on slavery in the Atlantic region, it is not meant to imply that slavery was limited to Europe, the Americas and West Africa. There was an extensive East African slave trade and slaves were common throughout the lands around the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Practically, legally and, all too often, theologically, slavery was seen as part of the natural order of things. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for a male slave appears 759 times and the word for a female slave 61 times. In the Greek New Testament, the word for male slave appears 127 times; 16 times for a female slave. The fact that the word for slave has also been translated as “servant” and “handmaid” in both testaments, for example, obscures the underlying presence of “slaves” and slavery throughout Scripture.

The scriptures of the three monotheistic world religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all recognize slavery and attempt to soften it, but none condemn it.

It is estimated that, during the lifetime of Jesus and the earliest days of the church, about a third of the population of Rome was enslaved. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the slave population was estimated to be lower than 20 percent. The New Testament says nothing about the institution of slavery. In fact, in the Letter to Philemon, Paul writes Philemon and sends Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, back to his master.

Throughout its history, Christianity — with perhaps the exception of Quakerism — has had vacillating attitudes toward slavery, here understood as slaveholding and slave trading. While there were Christian thinkers, such as Gregory Nazianzen, Abbott Smaragdus of St. Mihiel, the Franciscan Dun Scotus, the Dominican Bartolomeo de las Casas and a handful of others who clearly held slavery to be a sinful evil, the majority of voices either accepted slavery as a reality of life or worse, defended and promoted it.

The Atlantic slave trade extended from the 15th through the 19th centuries. During that time, western European powers — Catholic and Protestant — captured or bought from others about 12 million Africans who were shipped to the “New World.”

The Atlantic slave trade injected a new toxicity to slavery: racism. In the ancient world, slaves were very often captives of war. Since the Roman Empire was at war with much of the western European and Mediterranean world, the ethnic identities of Roman slaves were as diverse as Rome’s enemies.

In 1537, Pope Paul III forbade the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Yet there was no prohibition of the African slave trade at the time. In fact, 85 years earlier, in 1452, Pope Nicholas V published the bull “Dum Diversas,” which gave the Portuguese permission to “reduce … to perpetual slavery” those he called “Saracens, pagans and other infidels.” He extended this permission to the rest of Europe’s Catholic monarchs in 1455 with the bull “Romanus Pontifex.

Injecting racism into slavery promoted theories of the innate inferiority of Black people, considered “natural slaves.” Directed almost entirely against the 12 million African victims, racism continues to have repercussions into the 21st century.

By the beginning of the 19th century, cries against the morality of the slave trade could be heard. Yet one notes a differentiation made between “slave trading,” that is, the Atlantic slave trade and “slave holding,” which played a significant role in the economies of the United States and Brazil. The first pope to condemn the trade was Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) in a private letter to European rulers. In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI publicly condemned the slave trade when he published “In Supremo Apostolatus.” Yet, neither pope referred to slave holding. Nevertheless, the tide was turning against the slave trade and slave holding.

In 1807, the United States Congress passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves. Slave holding was not abolished until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. On 24 May 1888, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical “In plurimis,” in which he condemned slavery as evil. There was a second condemnation in “Catholicae Ecclesiae” in 1890. Brazil, then the largest slave-holding country in the world, abolished slavery in 1888; this legislative act is considered the end of slavery in the Christian world. The last country to abolish legal slavery globally was Mauritania in 1981.

The struggle against slave trading and slave holding has taken millennia. Abolition movements have effected huge changes for the dignity of all human life. Yet, the struggle goes on. Trafficking in persons and what the United Nations calls “contemporary forms of slavery” still plague our world. In our next blog piece, we will look at these evils and the struggle to overcome them.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

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