Book Recommendation : 5000 Years of Slavery

I have been frustrated in trying to find a good book about slavery.  Most in our library focus entirely on the history of slavery in the United States, with perhaps a brief mention in passing of the existence of slavery in other times and places.  I find this limited treatment of the topic leads to some problematic misunderstandings — in many ways perpetuating the same racism that enabled American slavery and the subsequent post-emancipation civil rights abuses.

So I was glad to discover this book:

This is an introductory treatment, very readable and with lots of pictures, but it is not for young children.  What I like:

  • Separate chapters on slavery in the ancient world, pre-colonial Europe, Africa from ancient times to present, in the Americas among indigenous tribes and states, in Asia, and in the modern world internationally.
  • Precise scope.  Serfdom, for example, is mentioned only when the conditions truly amounted to slavery — mere garden-variety medieval serfdom is passed over in favor of actual slavery in the era.  In the same way, contemporary slavery is restricted to true slavery — forced labor with no option of departure — rather than degenerating into a diatribe against poor wages and lousy working conditions.  (Those are serious problems, but they are not slavery.)
  • Honest who-did-what-when reporting.  No bizarre cultural biases or weird anti-European narratives.
  • Factual but not voyeuristic accounts.  The realities of rape, starvation, torture, and the like are all mentioned where the historical record shows they happened, but there is no morbid dwelling on gruesome details.

What it amounts to is a book you can take seriously.  Good starting point, though it certainly left me wanting to learn more.  Highly recommended.


15 thoughts on “Book Recommendation : 5000 Years of Slavery

  1. And only 5000 years? 😉 Thinking about evolution and such here… beyond the book, too. It seems that evolutionary scientists/historians probably just assume that there’s no written record beyond that, or that humans have only been around that long, though the earth is older. Any idea?

    Back to the book: How do they treat the subject of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt?

    Humor me? lol

    1. Goodness gracious, Anna, I just returned the book today, and I read it a few weeks ago, which means . . . I can’t remember re: Hebrew slaves. I’m pretty sure they were mentioned. Book sticks to recorded history, not at all into metaphysics or why people do this or that or anything like that. It’s a “what” book, not a Deep Theories of Everything book.

    1. R11, I really don’t have a good children’s book on this topic. Honestly I’ve not been impressed with what I’ve found in the past.

      For my littles, I’ve preferred to do more general history from different times and places. Slavery plays a part of that, but isn’t the primary focus. With respect to US history, I’ve gone heavier for the little guys on more positive aspects of African-American history, and also to stories with strong (positive) black characters and a positive portrayal of African-American culture.

      My 4th grader loves the American Girls series, and I’ve liked the stories I’ve read, though I have not read the Addie books. I was pretty happy with the colonial-era Felicity series and the associated non-fiction title that went with it.

  2. Oops, sorry for the confusion! I didn’t mean children’s books about slavery. :O

    Ooh, have your children read the Ramona Quimby series? It’s totally clean and entertaining. 🙂 American Girl series, I’ve heard of that. Is it good?


  3. Hilda,

    I loved the Quimby books when I was a kid. So far have been pretty happy with the AG’s I’ve read. The boy & I have enjoyed both the 39 Clues series and the Spiderwick Chronicles. I’m a sucker for the old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews, but we picked up a newer one and it was so silly I couldn’t read it. For older girls I’ve liked Meg Cabot, and goodness there’s another one my nieces (now teens) love, but I can’t remember her name. If I remember I’ll post it. And of course the Narnia books are massively fun.

    You can check the “children’s book” category on this blog and my old one for reviews of less well-known stuff.

    1. That is awesome! 🙂 I think I need to re-read a Nancy Drew Mystery to understand it. I remember I read a piece on Amazon but it didn’t grab my attention. I know the series is really popular.

      Thanks again, I’ll check it out! 🙂


        1. Hilda, if you scroll all the way to the bottom of this page, there’s a drop-down for “view posts by topic”. Pick “Childrens’ Books”, and I see that there are maybe a dozen posts altogether. Not a ton, but you might like a couple of the titles. I should start back up more library-blogging. Hey and for a good kids’ book blogger, check out Melissa Wiley. I don’t think she’s in my sidebar (yet), but google her. Great new-to-me blog someone here pointed me to the other week.

        2. 2nd Reply: On my old blog, I just added back the drop-down category menu into the sidebar. It isn’t pretty (it hangs off the side — my categories are too wordy), but it works. All the book reviews on that one are lumped together, so you’ll have to sort through the big-people books. But they are good too, so you can’t go that wrong :-).

  4. Clearly, I’ve been reading too many stuffy homeschool history books recently. 😉

    The AG royal diaries books are excellent, for historic fiction. Rachel has devoured all of them that she can find. She hasn’t read as many of the random-kid-in-history books.

  5. I never heard of the royal diaries. Will have to look them up. I have been neglecting my library duties I see.

    re: Stuffy: Like Story of the World? Or like regular books I should know about? (A la Charlotte Mason’s “living books”, only without the tromping and snide comments for Maria M.)

  6. Jennifer, Anna asked an interesting question about why we started five thousand years ago. The book Five Thousand Years of Slavery uses first-hand stories of slaves and slave owners to show that slavery has existed from antiquity to the present day all over the world. We began with the recorded history available, and that was the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. The book does describe the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, using the Hebrew Bible as the source, but it also goes beyond that to ask how slaves were actually treated. The book also looks at other religions, their Holy Books and actual practices.

    There’s more information at our website

    Janet Willen, co-author, Five Thousand Years of Slavery

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