What would you do to survive? Voluntary enslavement and the fear of death

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


The arrival of COVID-19 has not only delivered us a sharp reminder that human existence is fragile and impermanent, but raised it to a new level of priority, as politicians in many parts of the world privilege the survival of their citizens in ways that only a few months ago would have been unimaginable. From the opposite perspective, we as citizens expect it. The role of government is in the first instance to protect those it serves from external threat.   The classic statement of this is perhaps Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which describes a world of unrelenting insecurity in the absence of a government able to protect its citizens from each other as well as from foreign attack. As we now know only too well, that attack can take biological as well as military form.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand why societies in the past not only allowed the enslavement of some of their citizens but legislated for it. Roman civil law is interesting in this context. It ruled that slaves, or servi, were given this title because generals in war did not kill their prisoners but allowed them instead to survive (from the Latin servare). This linguistic derivation may have been spurious, but it seems that those who were saved from death were understood to owe their lives to those who spared them, and as a result became slaves for the rest of their lives.

This brings me back to today. Though there is no sense that we owe our government a debt for saving our lives, those who leave hospital having beaten COVID-19 are keen to reveal how much they owe to the medical staff who brought them through. There is no understanding that such a debt requires repayment, however, nor would the medical staff expect it: the utterance is an expression of gratitude rather than a recognition of obligation. Those who feel particularly strongly have been known to act, usually by engaging in money-raising ventures for organisations that saved their lives or the lives of their children, but we all know that a life debt can never be adequately repaid.

Or do we? What if we were able to offer up our lives in exchange for the opportunity to survive? What would that look like? In reality, as the Roman example above reveals, we already know – enslavement.  The idea of slavery in exchange for survival is a consistent theme throughout the period in which slavery existed as a legal institution. Those taken in war tended to have slavery thrust upon them, but there were also cases in which such actions were undertaken voluntarily. Some of this, as we might expect, took place in a religious context. In the demotic papyri of Ancient Egypt we find a woman offering herself, her children, and her children’s children to a deity to secure her good health, for example. But illness could also encourage individuals to enslave themselves to healers as a way to access the medical care they needed.  Chanana, who examined slavery in Ancient India, found stories in the ancient texts of a mother who offered herself as a slave in return for the cure of her eye disease, and a sex-worker who did the same to save her life. Widespread episodes of infectious disease could also instil such high levels of fear that individuals were prepared to give up their freedom for the chance to stay alive. ‘People caught in an epidemic offer themselves to Jivaka, the famous physician, if only he were to treat and cure them.’ (See D.R. Chanana, Slavery in Ancient India, New Delhi; People’s Publishing House, 1960, 67.).

Such practices offer a whole new slant on the fear of death and the power of medical knowledge, as well as a reflection on the distance we as a species have travelled.  Not all the stories have concrete evidential bases in the form of contracts or agreements, but they point to the existence of an idea in which control over the life of an individual could be exchanged for the opportunity to live. And it’s not just that; such stories indicate that in life-threatening circumstances, a transfer of this sort could have been expected, even demanded. For much of human history, it seems that a loss of authority went hand in hand with survival, and those who faced death with no power to evade it often had little alternative but to accept enslavement, if they wanted to remain alive.

Image: Anthony Wildgoos, In Divine Meditations on Death (1640) https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240871183?accountid=11528 (accessed July 25, 2020).