Slavery exists. Whether you like it or not, it exists, and it has existed almost as long as civilization itself. Around the world, the practice has been, well, practiced for thousands of years. Even today, in the enlightened West, it’s not totally gone. The Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, often cited as banning slavery, does no such thing—it only prohibits private ownership of slaves. The government can and does continue to enslave, specifically in the form of prison labor.
But, you may say, that’s completely different from what slave-owners in the South did before the Civil War! Yes, that’s true. Funny thing is, though, most examples of slavery throughout history are also nothing like that, so you can’t use it as the typical example. It’s just the most well-known, partly because of the general anti-Southern bias in modern media that makes all of us out to be racists who would love nothing more than to enslave all blacks, if only those pesky Feds would let us. (Fact: most of East Tennessee, where I’m from, voted against secession, and almost nobody here actually owned slaves. My great-great-grandfather very vocally freed the two he received as an inheritance from his uncle, because he considered slavery an affront to God, and a coal miner had no use for plantation slave labor besides.)
For fantasy, and the historical periods it tends to cover, slavery is a completely different institution. And “institution” is very often an apt description. Not only was slavery practiced, it was respected, regulated, and treated as nothing more than another part of society.
Before we go any further, let’s take a step back and define what we’re looking at. Slavery, as it has been practiced through the millennia, comes in a few different forms that the author should be careful to distinguish.
What we know from biased history texts is chattel slavery. In this form, the slaves are in all respects considered property, sometimes on the same level as livestock animals, but more often in a higher position commensurate with their status as human beings. They can be bought and sold, auctioned off, passed on as inheritance, and so on. The owner doesn’t always have free reign over their lives, however. In many cases, there are legal or social pressures restricting what a slave-owner may do with his property. (The forms of discipline attributed to antebellum Southerners—whipping, beating, the rack, and some more fanciful ideas—are the exception, not the rule.) Slaves in this system may even be taxed, the same as any other property.
Another form of slavery is indentured servitude. Here, the slavery is intended to be only temporary, and usually in exchange for something. For example, debtors in 18th-century England could submit to indenture for a period of time, such as five or seven years, effectively paying off their debt by letting themselves be owned for that time. Many such servants ended up in America, often in Georgia and the Carolinas, and the key thing to understand here is that they were white. They weren’t captured or sold into slavery, but sentenced to it, and they would be released from it when their time was up.
The third kind doesn’t really have a common name, but here I’ll refer to it as caste slavery. Some cultures consider certain people enslaved by birth. These castes are accorded fewer rights, barred from social and career advancement, and otherwise treated as lesser in some way. This is a kind of slavery that still exists everywhere: illegal immigrants are de facto caste slaves, as are Palestinians and Uyghurs, and the “vaccine passport” system is an attempt to create a caste distinction throughout the world.
Finally, “wage” slavery is another form that continues to exist today, and is even heralded as a good thing by some. Rather than a system of ownership, wage slavery exploits its subjects by forcing them to work to live at a below-subsistence level, by arranging for the cost of living to be higher than the average wage. Yes, wage slaves make money, but so did actual slaves in some cultures. The slavery aspect comes in when it becomes mathematically impossible to make enough money to bring oneself to financial independence.
In all forms of slavery, there is a method for gaining freedom. The more barbaric practices make that more difficult, often requiring an escape to a freer territory (the Underground Railroad) or outside aid. But this isn’t always the case. It’s perfectly possible to have a society where slavery is practiced within well-defined limits, where slaves always know that freedom is possible, and that it is something they can work towards. Indeed, some might even consider such a society better than ours.
Who is a slave?
This is a very important question for a society, and not necessarily one with an easy answer. Who is considered eligible to be enslaved? The Enlightenment gave us the ideal of universal rights, the belief that all men are created equal, that liberty is the natural state of man, but not everyone today accepts that premise. Before 1776, almost no one did.
Yet that doesn’t mean that a specific group or race could always be equated with slavery. Instead, the answer is culture-specific. The New World settled on black Africans as slaves for specific reasons. The African warlords took slaves in their constant raids on each other, then sold them to European traders for a relative pittance, so even shipping them across the Atlantic was cheaper than using local indigenous labor or undesirables from the homeland.
That brief description gives us one source of slaves: prisoners of war. And this was common throughout history. It’s still a tried and true method of gaining slaves among tribal societies today. Industrialized nations ran plenty of POW work camps in World War II, and those tales make for a good modern analogue to previous eras’ concepts of war slavery.
Prisoners in general provide us with another pool of potential slaves. We’re all familiar with the various prison work gangs, but they used to do a lot more than pick up litter on the side of the road; see the opening scenes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as one example of the Depression-era version. Here, it’s assumed by government and society as a whole that the commission of a crime (and, one hopes, being found guilty in a fair trial) is justification for a regulated, public-owned sort of slavery. As most crimes don’t carry a life sentence, we expect this to be limited in time, so indentured servitude is by far the most common kind of prison-related slavery.
The worst kind, on the other hand, simply takes a minority of some sort and assumes they have so few rights that they can be enslaved at any point. Of course, this requires both an authoritarian mindset and a useful foil, so it’s not very common in Western democracies and republics. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is a notable exception, while China’s enslavement of the Uyghurs in occupied East Turkestan illustrates the depths minority slavery can reach when the majority is complicit.
Religion also offers some potential justifications for slavery, and this comes from two directions. One is the obvious: infidels forfeit their rights simply by existing, so enslaving them is not only not a bad thing, but it’s God’s will. This view was common among Muslim countries all the way up to the 20th century, and was one excuse used in Spanish America. It does require scriptural support (the Old Testament and the Koran both provide that, in fact), but dedicated slavers can contort anything into standing behind them.
On the other hand, a tamer and more socially acceptable form of religious slavery can exist as a form of penance. In a sense, this is basically prisoner slavery but with extra steps. The added wrinkle here is that the penitent can submit himself to slavery. Monks could, for instance, require acolytes to offer themselves as servants for a period of initiation. Those who violate the precepts of the church could face a period of indenture on earth, or instead opt to face judgment in the hereafter. (In a fantasy setting, this might not be a simple choice!)
Work makes you free
While most of us think of slaves as forced to do whatever their owners wish, it’s not always that simple. Some cultures and societies reserve certain areas of work as the province of slaves. Typically, this is menial labor such as farming (in the American South), building (in ancient Egypt), or something of that sort. Domestic servants—maids, cooks, babysitters, and the like—were also often enslaved. Skilled craftsmen might employ slave labor for the unskilled jobs around their shops, as well, especially in lower-tech settings.
Those aren’t the only options, though. Literate slaves could be used as scribes in a society that predates printing. Others, especially women, could do the “grunt work” of spinning wool or working a loom. In all cases, the object is to free up the free citizens’ time by offloading the more repetitive or less creative labor on those who don’t have a choice.
That’s not to say slaves couldn’t earn respect. Many could, and many did. At court, for instance, slaves could rise high in the ranks simply by being attached to the elite. Often, nobles of high rank would have slaves they trusted as much as (or more than) their peers. Fantasy literature tends to overemphasize this kind of slavery, as it’s more palatable to the general reader, but it does have a basis in fact. Just remember that this is the minority, the same as the nobility is a vanishingly small minority of the free populace.
Slaves in some cultures thus earned a measure of trust and respect. They did their jobs well, proved their loyalty, and received higher positions as a result. This is directly at odds with the common picture of the beaten and bloody chattel slaves on Southern plantations, but that situation once again has a reason for existing as it did. In this case, it’s because the South was already a fairly “flat” social structure. Yes, you had a kind of aristocratic landowning class that stood above the tradesmen and shopkeepers, but there wasn’t a lot of mobility to begin with. Thus, there wouldn’t have been anywhere for slaves to climb to. And the labor they did on tobacco and cotton plantations was both menial and specialized—it didn’t really translate to anything else.
The dark side
There is one universal sort of slavery, however, something that transcends barriers of color and culture alike: the sex slave. This is also the one kind that not only still exists, but has tacit endorsement and even participation from politicians in power right now, as the Epstein and Maxwell cases proved.
Sex slaves could come from anywhere. They could fit into any of the groups listed above. Although the practice was very often officially banned, ways around the legal prohibitions abounded. Prisoners were—and still are—very often abused in this manner. Victims of kidnapping continue to be sold into sexual slavery by the thousands.
You’d have to be a very brave or very foolish author to even begin to delve into such waters. (Unless you’re writing a true crime piece, I guess.) Still, it’s worth remembering that any society practicing slavery is almost certain to have at least a black market for a very specific sort of merchandise. If nothing else, single or married men of sufficient means would purchase a domestic slave fully intending to use her (or him) as a bed-warmer instead.
In some cases, it becomes something of a semi-consensual relationship. The owner provides room and board, as well as some light work giving a sense of purpose, to someone who otherwise would have nothing at all, and he or she gives nothing more in return than sexual favors. Yes, that’s kind of a Stockholm Syndrome sort of love, but some people in such settings don’t have anything else to aspire to. After all, they’re slaves. They know where they stand in society.
The alternative of force happened more often than we’d care to admit, and it can get as dark as you dare. But even then, only the sadistic would physically torture their slaves. Remember, the whole point of a slave, especially in chattel systems, is that you own property. Just as you’re not going to set your house on fire because you hate the wallpaper, you’re not going to beat the help to the point where they can’t work. Say what you will about slave-owners, but most of them realized that was bad business.
The biggest problem with slavery as it’s handled in fiction today is that it…well, isn’t. Too many authors have decided that the practice is so horrible that it shouldn’t even exist in fantasy literature and gaming. Large publishing houses like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo have taken this limiting step, unfortunately, deeming the topic off-limits in their roleplaying games. Others instead use a caricature of Southern chattel slavery as a thinly veiled racist commentary against whites, which might actually be worse.
The right way to do it, on the other hand, is to think about it. Yes, you as an author can be completely against the very notion of slavery. I am. But the characters you create may have different outlooks. The practice of slavery has existed for thousands of years for a reason, and it only started going away because of a sea change in morality, the product of the Enlightenment. If your setting hasn’t had one of those, then you need to come up with some other reason why the abolitionists would come to power.
Instead of wholesale banning just because you don’t like it, think about how slavery would come to be in your created world, then work from there. Subjugated cultures and defeated peoples make a tantalizing pool of slaves, and that’s true whether they’re heathens or orcs or simply members of a different tribe. Unless there’s severe social pressure not to, having prisoners of war can very easily become using prisoners of war to finish building the wall. And when that wall’s done? Well, surely there’s something else for them to do. Eventually, the war’s over, but they’re still working the fields or hauling stone from the quarry, and they’ll stay because they’ve all but forgotten how to reintegrate into their home society.
If slaves are property, then a market will form. That’s just a fact of economics. It may not be as dehumanizing as we’re told the slave markets of the South were, but what form it takes will depend on the setting. And chattel suffers from the same problems as livestock in being cumbersome to transport and difficult to secure.
Under the harshest conditions, slave rebellions can occur. This is most common in chattel and POW situations, as both of these leave little in the way of positive outcomes. The fewer freedoms you have, the easier it becomes to foment rebellion by using the promise of freedom. This can make for some interesting stories, but bear in mind that the punishment for rebellion is very often death. In other words, rebel slaves have nothing to lose, and that is not an environment conducive to breeding white-hat heroes. Also remember that fugitives can’t always find sanctuary where they think: the Dred Scott decision in the years before the Civil War made escaping to the North a nonstarter, for example.
All in all, slavery is a deeper subject than most people think, and it bears more exploration in fantasy literature than it gets. Too often, we’re conditioned to see something monstrous and immediately look away, so we don’t really study the whys, the causes and effects that created what truly is, for better or worse, one of humanity’s most enduring practices.
But slavery did exist. It still exists, though more in the shadows today. There are very good reasons why so many of the greatest men and women of history owned slaves and thought nothing of it. It wasn’t because they were racist, or conservative, or supremacist. No, they were products of their society, of the time and place in which they lived. To many of them, slavery was natural, the way things were, and our insistence that no man be taken against his will and forced into servitude would seem hopelessly idealistic.
It’s that disconnect which offers fertile ground for the fantasy author. Rather than writing stories in settings where slavery has never existed, perhaps consider one where it is practiced, but it’s on its way out. Examine the potential changes that would cause in society. (For many Southerners, abolition was an economic issue first, not a moral or ethical one!) Or look at the post-emancipation generation, how they would struggle to fit into a society that, until very recently, considered them little more than animals. Imagine a society more like that of the Greeks, where slaves were taken in battle, then trained alongside free men, earning respect as they went.
There’s more to slavery than just beating people down. That’s not to say it’s a good practice, but it’s lasted all these millennia for a reason. Maybe, instead of trying to ignore it, we should learn why it continues to endure despite our best efforts at stopping it.