Death, obligation and the origins of slavery

Research output: Other contribution


Despite the fact that slavery existed historically in almost all known societies, historians have as yet been unable to identify any shared values from which the institution could have arisen. This article reconstructs slavery as a form of debt or obligation, by suggesting that slavery occurred when an individual with no apparent alternative but that of imminent death offered the sum total of his life services in exchange for the chance to survive. Slavery may then have emerged in response to the threat of famine, as a result of judicial punishment, or through situations of conflict, for example. The slave trade was likely to have been a later development, as groups requiring additional labour supplies sought to sell or exchange subject individuals for an agreed price. This transfer of a life debt , which encapsulated within it all the future labour services of the debtor (slave), supported the development of a market in lives that is now recognized as the cornerstone of slavery as an institution. Distraint on the body of the debtor was the earliest form of debt recovery. Enslavement then appears as a peculiarly exploitative form of distraint, with obligation as its primary justification.
Original languageEnglish
TypeDiscussion paper
Media of outputelectronic
Number of pages29
Place of PublicationDepartment of Economics and Related Studies, University of York
VolumeCHERRY Discussion Paper
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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