The connection between agriculture and slavery dates back nearly 5,000 years to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. The use of slaves to improve land and cultivate crops was, in fact, the earliest use of slave labor, and landholders needed workers to construct irrigation systems, plant seeds, raise livestock, and harvest crops. Slavery emerged to meet extensive labor shortages in areas where landholders sought wealth by growing a surplus of commercially profitable, labor-intensive crops like rice, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Although the use of slaves for agricultural pursuits took various forms in different regions and periods, the landholders' desire for profits and free agricultural labor served as a common link between cultures over time.
The first known use of slaves for agricultural work was around 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) as Sumerians began to plant crops and to breed animals rather than gather food and hunt wild animals. Settled agricultural communities replaced the nomadic wandering of the hunter-gatherer peoples of previous civilizations, and Sumerians settled the bottomlands of Mesopotamia between two powerful rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Growing food crops in the bottomlands proved challenging, however, because of the semiarid, subtropical climate. Inadequate rainfall made irrigation necessary, which in turn required a massive labor force to construct irrigation canals. The Mesopotamian rulers forced slaves to build sophisticated irrigation systems that brought water to the land in dry seasons and controlled the overabundant rainfall during wet seasons.
In the ancient world, the use of slaves in agriculture varied by region and time period. In Egypt, instead of slave labor, the peasants worked the land as serfs who were bound to the land. The serfs worked under a sharecropping system on landed estates. Slaves rarely worked in the fields; instead, Egyptians enslaved Semites, Nubians, and other captives for personal service and a variety of other tasks. Slave labor was not essential to agricultural growth in Egypt.
In Greece prior to the eighth century B.C., families were self-sustaining, growing enough food to survive. Everyone worked, even in wealthy families. Labor needs were uncomplicated. Greeks lived on steep mountains in a rocky terrain better suited to small family-run farms. Families grew such food crops as grapes and olives that were not grown on a large scale but were carefully cultivated in small batches by skilled agricultural workers.
However, around the sixth century, after a series of wars, growers expanded their markets within the Mediterranean world, and the Greek economy became more complicated. Trade with other regions meant that farmers had to produce quality foodstuffs, including olive oil and wine. Peasant families were driven from the land as landholders created larger farms and purchased slaves to work the land. That development forever changed Greek agriculture. Slaves from western Asia and northern Africa flowed into Greece to work the land for the ruling class. By 350 B.C., slavery had evolved as the principal form of labor on Greek estates and larger farms, even as some families remained on smaller farms.
Although Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks all employed slaves as agricultural workers to varying degrees, it was the Romans who first developed full-scale plantation slavery in the second century B.C. Romans became slavers because the Punic Wars of 264-146 B.C. made the Roman Republic rich in Carthaginian slaves, who had been used in agricultural work prior to the wars and were therefore skilled agricultural workers. Italy's climate was excellent for growing grains, grapes, olives, and fresh fruit, and the Carthaginian slaves brought knowledge and labor to bear on the natural abundance of the land. The combination of geography and slavery created conditions favorable to the rise of plantation agriculture, and the basic structure of later agricultural slavery emerged as captured slaves were put to work as farmers and herders.
As the number of captured slaves increased, the number of agricultural workers rose dramatically, and Roman landowners exploited slave labor to create large plantation estates. Trade routes in the Mediterranean were beginning to expand, and the more landowners could produce, the greater the profits. Slave labor thus became essential to the profitable existence of large-scale plantation agriculture. During the same period, the institution of slavery spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.
The development of plantation agriculture in Rome increased awareness about the profitability of food crops for landowners, but the end of the Roman Empire brought a temporary decline in slavery. It became expensive to house and feed slaves when peasant sharecroppers or tenant farmers might work the land instead. Following the classical period, most European regions adopted a feudal tenancy system whereby the mass of peasants worked the land for the landowner, a noble lord who, in turn, paid his allegiance to a sovereign. The landed classes took responsibility for protecting peasants from invasion and starvation; in return, peasants cultivated and improved the lands of the noble classes. Although technically not slaves, the peasants were bound to the land much as Egyptian serfs had been in ancient times.
The course of agricultural slavery in Africa followed a different path from that of classical Rome and Medieval Europe. In ancient Africa, the development of slavery and the slave trade itself had significant implications for agricultural pursuits. Africans enslaved other Africans captured as prisoners of war for countless centuries prior to the European slave trade of later centuries. As the historian John Hope Franklin has pointed out, slavery was widespread in Africa, and as an economic and social institution, it was as old as African society.
Africans considered agriculture so central to their way of life that land belonged to all community members. That belief had been passed down among African peoples from ancient times and did not lend itself to the development of plantation agriculture in Africa. Largely because of the geographical diversity of Africa, the people there specialized in growing a wide variety of food crops and in developing vast natural resources for economic ends. Palm oil, grains, minerals, iron, pepper, rice, coffee, and other agricultural foodstuffs flourished in certain African regions, and African agriculture was so diversified that, in time, areas became associated with specific products, including gold and ivory. Even African slaves were included in the list of valuable agricultural "products." Slaves were valued not only for their labor but also because they possessed agricultural skills.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese and Spanish slavers understood the commercial value of enslaving Africans for agricultural work. Skilled at growing certain crops and accustomed to an agrarian life, Africans were, from the European point of view, ideal agricultural workers. Other factors also influenced the development of the modern slave trade. The rise of the modern nation-state, technological advances in shipbuilding and navigating, and the expansion of commercial markets combined to create conditions in which the African slave trade flourished. In addition, centuries of Christianity, the Italian Renaissance, and the new age of exploration led Europeans to believe in their "cultural superiority," which allowed them to justify slavery in spite of stated Christian and Renaissance ideals.
"agricultural slavery." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.