Updated 26 November 2013

The horror of slavery

A London couple has been arrested for allegedly holding three woman as slaves. Here's more about the horror of slavery - both ancient and modern.

A couple living in London has been arrested for allegedly holding three women as slaves in a  London household for 30 years, News24 reports.

What is slavery, what is the history of slavery and how common is it today?

- The free dictionary defines slavery as ‘the state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household’.

-    Slavery is as old as mankind. The losers of territorial battles (and their wives and children) were either killed or carted off to work as slaves for the victors.

-    Slave markets were a common feature of the Roman world. Often slaves were brought from conquered countries, such as the Jewish slaves who were forced to build the Colosseum in Rome after the sack of Judea.

-    Slaves were expensive and although owned by slaveholders, it was not in the interest of the owners to treat them too badly or kill them as this would mean a financial loss. But this did not stop many slaves being killed by their owners through the centuries. This could mostly be done with impunity.

-    In 73 BC there was a major slave revolt led by Spartacus. These slaves, many of them ex- soldiers, defeated five legions of the Roman army before being crushed.

-    Most people associate slavery with the American South and the Caribbean. Thousands of slaves were captured in West Africa and taken across the Atlantic in appalling conditions to be sold to plantation owners.

-    In all societies the slaves who were the worst off were those who worked in the agricultural sector. Household slaves tended to have a more personal relationship with their owners, unlike these poor slaves, who were merely seen as workhorses. Archaeologists and historians working in Pompeii  and Herculaneum noted how many slaves (some of them not old at all) who died in the eruption had suffered from severe arthritis prior to their deaths. It was not at all unusual for agricultural slaves the world over to be worked to death. There was no medical treatment for their ailments.

-    Slavery was abolished in South Africa in 1834 and in the United States in 1865. Michele Obama’s great-great-great grandmother Melvinia was a slave. Many of the slaves in SA came from Madagascar, Mozambique, East Africa and Indonesia.

-    Modern-day slavery definitely exists – usually in the form of people (often children) sold or kidnapped in order to do forced labour. This includes women tricked into prostitution. This is often done by promising them a job overseas, and then confiscating their documents and money once they arrive.

-    Slavery is technically illegal in all countries where it is practised, but this is often not enforced.

-    Most modern slaves find themselves in a situation where they and their movements are controlled by an owner or an employer, they are often physically constrained, and are often subject to mental or physical abuse, or the threat thereof.

-    Modern slavery  exists in several forms, such as bonded labour (often as a result of a loan that cannot be paid back), child slavery (this affects an estimated 5,5 million children around the world), forced labour, descent-based slavery or international slave trafficking.

-    Many people see early or forced marriage as a form of slavery.

(Sources:;; Pompeii, The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence;


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