Monday, 8 September 2014


If slavery is about the loss of freedom and the loss of choice, about displacement and dislocation, most tragically, it’s about the loss of family.

Stormy evening...

How did people become slaves in thirteenth-century Dubrovnik?  Generally, people were enslaved through war or raids by slave traders.  But many, from the hinterlands around Dubrovnik, also sold themselves or their families into slavery – one can only imagine the desperation which would lead to such a move.

I’ve collected now quite a number of cases of  mothers selling their sons or daughters, fathers selling their children, siblings selling each other.  But I’ve noticed one really striking thing, and perhaps this is just because I’ve only reviewed a relatively small number of cases so far: it may, of course, simply be a coincidence.  It would seem, though, that when family members sold each other into slavery, most of the time they sold the person not ‘diffinite ad mortem’, but with a clause which limited the labour to seven or ten years.  As I’ve said in a previous post, I’m not sure that the practical implications of a straightforward slavery contract and one of these contracts for a limited time period were so very different – but it’s very striking that families in the direst poverty should have been able still to exercise some kind of agency to limit the horror of what was happening.  It suggests, perhaps, that familial affection could find outlets in the most desperate situations.

In one case of 1282, a slave called Dabraça de Bosna bought her freedom for a terrible price – that of her sister (Diversa Cancellariae I, fol 110v).  As she became free to ‘vada[re] per quoatuor partes mundi, quocumque ei placuerit, libera et franca in perpetuum’ (‘wander through the four corners of the earth, wherever it should please her, free and liberated for ever’), her sister was enslaved to ‘omnia servicia ad eius voluntatem facere’ (‘to serve her owner in all ways according to his wishes’).  But as I read on, I was quite moved to find that the sister was not enslaved exactly as Dabraça had been, but rather that her labour for four years had been purchased.  After the four years were up, her sister was, apparently, free to go.  What is this?  A case of one sibling essentially betraying another?   Or a case of the emotive bond between two siblings pushing one to act to free her sister, and the other to exercise what little agency and choice she had to limit the terms of her sister’s bondage.

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