The concept of slavery is loosely understood as ownership of people. Dr. Jonathan Brown poses a question, what does ownership really mean? In generic law, people think of ownership as a bundle of rights. Right to use, Right to control, Right to destroy and Right to sell off. Sometimes an owner has all of them, sometimes there are restrictions and sometimes the owner has only a selected few of them.
In his lecture – Jonathan Brown Slavery on Problem of slavery, Dr. Jonathan Brown explains using a very comprehensible example. He points out that we would probably not think of kids owning their toys, since they are clearly not it control of them ideally. But children all over DO legally own their toys. They OWN the toys we give them. It is understood that a toy when given with the intension of gifting belongs to the person whom you have given it to. But here, their ownership is not complete, since their right to use them is ideally controlled by their parents. Ownership is as much about relationships as it is about exercising real control. As the famous historian Orlando Patterson points out “Who and what we say we own is really a matter of our customs and manners”. Modern parent would gasp at the notion of owning our children. But from the Roman period to the medieval period in Europe, parents could and did sell off their children as slaves to creditors in order to pay their debts. Moreover, poor parents abandoning their children was a regular source of slave markets in Europe. Yet all these children originally started off as technically free in a legal sense.
The same followed for a wife and husband and all the labor they have put in to make the marriage which eventually painfully comes out during a divorce. But no one ever speaks of marriage as an ownership but a relationship. Conventions in early imperial China were very different. There, husbands regularly listed their “Free” wives as property in their will bequeathing them to some friend.
Hence, we get back to the question that Dr Jonathan Browns raises and concludes, that ownership is not a very convulsive definition to understand slavery.