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Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property and are forced to work.[1] Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation. In some historical situations it has been legal for owners to kill slaves.[2]

The number of slaves today remains as high as 12 million[3] to 27 million,[4][5][6] though this is probably the smallest proportion of the world’s population in history.[7] Most are debt slaves, largely in South Asia, who are under debt bondage incurred by lenders, sometimes even for generations.[8] Human trafficking is primarily for prostituting women and children into sex industries.[9] It is the fastest growing criminal industry and is predicted to eventually outgrow drug trafficking.[9][10]





The English word slave derives through Old French and Medieval Latin from the medieval word for the Slavic people of Central and Eastern Europe.[11][12]


Main article: History of slavery

Slave market in early medieval Eastern Europe. Painting by Sergei Ivanov.

Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures.[13] Slavery is rare among hunter–gatherer populations, as slavery is a system of social stratification. Mass slavery also requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Due to these factors, the practice of slavery would have only proliferated after the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution about 11,000 years ago.[14] The earliest records of slavery can be traced to the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 BC), and the Bible refers to it as an established institution.[15]


Slavery was known to occur in civilizations as old as Sumer, as well as almost every other ancient civilization, including Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Ancient India, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Islamic Caliphate, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas.[13] Such institutions were a mixture of debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.[16] Records of slavery in Ancient Greece go as far back as Mycenaean Greece. Two-fifths (some authorities say four-fifths) of the population of Classical Athens were slaves.[17] Aristotle accepted the theory of natural slavery, that is, that some men are slaves by nature,[18][19] while the Stoics advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings, and consistently critiqued slavery as against the law of nature.[20]

As the Roman Republic expanded outward, entire populations were enslaved, thus creating an ample supply from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Greeks, Illyrians, Berbers, Germans, Britons, Thracians, Gauls, Jews, Arabs, and many more were slaves used not only for labour, but also for amusement (e.g. gladiators and sex slaves). This oppression by an elite minority eventually led to slave revolts (see Roman Servile Wars); the Third Servile War led by Spartacus being the most famous and severe. By the late Republican era, slavery had become a vital economic pillar in the wealth of Rome, as well as a very significant part of Roman society.[21] It is estimated that over 25% of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved.[22] According to some scholars, slaves represented 35% or more of Italy‘s population.[23] In the city of Rome alone, under the Roman Empire, there were about 400,000 slaves.[24] During the millennium from the emergence of the Roman Empire to its eventual decline, at least 100 million people were captured or sold as slaves throughout the Mediterranean and its hinterlands.[25]

13th century slave market in Yemen. Yemen officially abolished slavery in 1962.[26]


The early medieval slave trade was mainly confined to the South and East: the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world were the destinations, pagan Central and Eastern Europe, along with the Caucasus and Tartary, were important sources. Viking, Arab, Greek and Jewish merchants (known as Radhanites) were all involved in the slave trade during the Early Middle Ages.[27][28][29] The trade in European slaves grew by the 10th century, while black slaves became less popular – partly as a result of the Zanj rebellion. Even Egypt and Syria received large shipments of Slavs.[30]

Medieval Spain and Portugal were the scene of almost constant warfare between Muslims and Christians. Periodic raiding expeditions were sent from Al-Andalus to ravage the Iberian Christian kingdoms, bringing back booty and slaves. In raid against Lisbon, Portugal in 1189, for example, the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur took 3,000 female and child captives, while his governor of Córdoba, in a subsequent attack upon Silves, Portugal in 1191, took 3,000 Christian slaves.[31] From the 11th to the 19th century, North African Barbary Pirates engaged in Razzias, raids on European coastal towns, to capture Christian slaves to sell at slave markets in places such as Algeria and Morocco.[32][33]

At the time of the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, nearly 10% of the English population were slaves.[34] Slavery in early medieval Europe was so common that the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it — or at least the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands was prohibited at e.g. the Council of Koblenz (922), the Council of London (1102), and the Council of Armagh (1171).[35] In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, granting Afonso V of Portugal the right to reduce any “Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers” to hereditary slavery which legitimized the slave trade, at least as a result of war.[36] The approval of slavery under these conditions was reaffirmed and extended in his Romanus Pontifex bull of 1455. However, Pope Paul III forbade enslavement of the Indians in 1537 in his papal bull Sublimus Dei.[37] Dominican friars who arrived at the Spanish settlement at Santo Domingo strongly denounced the enslavement of the local Indians. Along with other priests, they opposed their treatment as unjust and illegal in an audience with the Spanish king and in the subsequent royal commission.[38]

An 1852 Wallachian poster advertising an auction of Roma slaves in Bucharest.

The Byzantine-Ottoman wars and the Ottoman wars in Europe brought large numbers of slaves into the Islamic world.[39] From the mid to late 14th, through early 18th centuries, the Ottoman devşirmejanissary system enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam an estimated 500,000 to one million non–Muslim (primarily Balkan Christian) adolescent males.[40] After the Battle of Lepanto approximately 12,000 Christian galley slaves were freed from the Ottoman Turks.[41] Eastern Europe suffered a series of Tatar invasions, the goal of which was to loot and capture slaves into jasyr. Seventy-five Crimean Tatar raids were recorded into Poland–Lithuania between 1474–1569.[42] There were more than 100,000 Russian captives in the Kazan Khanate alone in 1551.[43]

Middle East

Main article: Arab slave trade

Historians say the Arab slave trade lasted more than a millennium.[44] As recently as the early 1960s, the Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 300,000.[45] Along with Yemen, the Saudis only abolished slavery in 1962.[46] Slaves in the Arab World came from many different regions, including Sub-Saharan Africa (mainly Zanj),[47] the Caucasus (mainly Circassians),[48] Central Asia (mainly Tartars), and Central and Eastern Europe (mainly Saqaliba).[49]

Ibn Battuta tells us several times that he was given or purchased slaves.[50] The great 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun, wrote: “the Black nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Blacks) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals…”.[51] Slaves were purchased or captured on the frontiers of the Islamic world and then imported to the major centers, where there were slave markets from which they were widely distributed.[52][53][54] In the 9th and 10th centuries, the black Zanj slaves may have constituted at least a half of the total population in lower Iraq.[55] At the same time, many tens of thousands of slaves in the region were also imported from Central Asia and the Caucasus.[56]

Zanzibar was once East Africa‘s main slave-trading port, and under Omani Arabs in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the city each year.[57][58] Some historians estimate that between 11 and 18 million African slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert from 650 AD to 1900 AD.[13][59][60] Eduard Rüppell described the heavy mortality of the enslaved Sudanese before reaching Egypt: “after the Daftardar bey’s 1822 campaign in the southern Nuba mountains, nearly 40,000 slaves were captured. However, through bad treatment, disease and desert travel barely 5000 made it to Egypt.”[61]

Central and Eastern European slaves were generally known as Saqaliba (i.e., Slavs).[62] The Moors, starting in the 8th century, also raided coastal areas around the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean, and became known as the Barbary pirates.[63] It is estimated that they captured 1.25 million white slaves from Western Europe and North America between the 16th and 19th centuries.[64][65] The mortality rate was very high. For instance, when plague broke out in Algiers‘ overcrowded slave pens in 1662, some said that it carried off 10,000–20,000 of the city’s 30,000 captives.[66]

Redemption of Christian slaves by Catholic monks in Algiers in 1662.


Approximately 10–20% of the rural population of Carolingian Europe consisted of slaves.[67] In Western Europe slavery largely disappeared by the later Middle Ages.[68] The trade of slaves in England was made illegal in 1102.[69] Thralldom in Scandinavia was finally abolished in the mid-14th century.[70] Slavery persisted longer in Eastern Europe. Slavery in Poland was forbidden in the 15th century; in Lithuania, slavery was formally abolished in 1588; they were replaced by the second serfdom. In Kievan Rus and Muscovy, the slaves were usually classified as kholops. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when the Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.[71] Russia‘s more than 23 million privately held serfs were freed from their lords by an edict of Alexander II in 1861.[72] State owned serfs were emancipated in 1866.[73]

According to Robert Davis between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa and Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.[74][75] There was also an extensive trade in Christian slaves in the Black Sea region for several centuries until the Crimean Khanate was destroyed by the Russian Empire in 1783.[43] In the 1570s close to 20,000 slaves a year were being sold in the Crimean port of Kaffa.[76] The slaves were captured in southern Russia, Poland-Lithuania, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Circassia by Tatar horsemen in a trade known as the “harvesting of the steppe”. In Podolia alone, about one-third of all the villages were destroyed or abandoned between 1578 and 1583.[77] Some researchers estimate that altogether more than 3 million people were captured and enslaved during the time of the Crimean Khanate.[78][79] It is estimated that up to 75% of the Crimean population consisted of slaves or freedmen.[80]


Main article: African slave trade

Southern Central Africa in 1880.

Hamoud bin Mohammed, Sultan of Zanzibar from 1896 to 1902. He complied with British demands that slavery be banned in Zanzibar and that all the slaves be freed.

In early Islamic states of the western Sudan, including Ghana (750–1076), Mali (1235–1645), Segou (1712–1861), and Songhai (1275–1591), about a third of the population were slaves. In Senegambia, between 1300 and 1900, close to one-third of the population was enslaved. In Sierra Leone in the 19th century about half of the population consisted of slaves. In the 19th century at least half the population was enslaved among the Duala of the Cameroon, the Igbo and other peoples of the lower Niger, the Kongo, and the Kasanje kingdom and Chokwe of Angola. Among the Ashanti and Yoruba a third of the population consisted of slaves.[81] The population of the Kanem (1600–1800) was about a third-slave. It was perhaps 40% in Bornu (1580–1890). Between 1750 and 1900 from one- to two-thirds of the entire population of the Fulani jihad states consisted of slaves.[81] The population of the Sokoto caliphate formed by Hausas in the northern Nigeria and Cameroon was half-slave in the 19th century. Between 65% to 90% population of ArabSwahili Zanzibar was enslaved. Roughly half the population of Madagascar was enslaved.[81][82] When British rule was first imposed on the Sokoto Caliphate and the surrounding areas in northern Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century, approximately 2 million to 2.5 million people there were slaves.[83] The Anti-Slavery Society estimated there were 2 million slaves in Ethiopia in the early 1930s out of an estimated population of between 8 and 16 million.[84]

Clapperton in 1824 thought half the population of Kano were slaves; in 1827 he was told that slaves far outnumbered free men there.[85] Gustav Nachtigal, an eye-witness, believed that for every slave who arrived at a market three or four died on the way.[86] One of the most famous slave traders on the East African coast was Tippu Tip, who was himself the grandson of an enslaved African. The prazeros slave traders, descendants of Portuguese and Africans, operated along the Zambezi. North of the Zambezi, the waYao and Makua people played a similar role as professional slave raiders and traders. The Nyamwezi slave traders operated further north under the leadership of Msiri and Mirambo.[87]


Persian slave in the Khanate of Khiva, 19th century

As late as 1908, women slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire.[88] A slave market for captured Russian and Persian slaves was centred in the Central Asian khanate of Khiva.[89] According to Sir Henry Bartle Frere (who sat on the Viceroy’s Council), there were an estimated 8 million or 9 million slaves in India in 1841. In Malabar, about 15% of the population were slaves. Slavery was abolished in both Hindu and Muslim India by the Indian Slavery Act V. of 1843.[13][90] In Istanbul about one-fifth of the population consisted of slaves.[80]

In East Asia, the Imperial government formally abolished slavery in China in 1906, and the law became effective in 1910.[91] Slave rebellion in China at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century was so extensive that owners eventually converted the institution into a female-dominated one.[92] The Nangzan in Tibetan history were, according to Chinese sources, hereditary household slaves.[93] Indigenous slaves existed in Korea. Slavery was officially abolished with the Gabo Reform of 1894 but remained extant in reality until 1930. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) about 30% to 50% of the Korean population were slaves.[94] In late 16th century Japan, slavery was officially banned; but forms of contract and indentured labor persisted alongside the period penal codes’ forced labor.[95]

In Southeast Asia, a quarter to a third of the population of some areas of Thailand and Burma were slaves.[13] The hill tribe people in Indochina were “hunted incessantly and carried off as slaves by the Siamese (Thai), the Anamites (Vietnamese), and the Cambodians.”[96] The Siamese military expeditions had been converted into a slave hunting operations on a large scale.[97]


Main article: Atlantic slave trade

Slavery was prominent presumably elsewhere in Africa long before the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade.[80] The maritime town of Lagos, Portugal, was the first slave market created in Portugal for the sale of imported African slaves – the Mercado de Escravos, opened in 1444.[98][99] In 1441, the first slaves were brought to Portugal from northern Mauritania.[99] By 1552 black African slaves made up 10 percent of the population of Lisbon.[100][101] In the second half of the 16th century, the Crown gave up the monopoly on slave trade and the focus of European trade in African slaves shifted from import to Europe to slave transports directly to tropical colonies in the Americas – in the case of Portugal, especially Brazil.[99] In the 15th century one third of the slaves were resold to the African market in exchange of gold.[102]

Spain had to fight against the relatively powerful civilizations of the New World. The Spanish conquest of the indigenous peoples in the Americas included using the Natives as forced labour, part of the wider Atlantic slave trade. The Spanish colonies were the first Europeans to use African slaves in the New World on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola,[103] where the alarming decline in the native population had spurred the first royal laws protecting the native population (Laws of Burgos, 1512–1513). The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501.[104] In 1518, Charles I of Spain agreed to ship slaves directly from Africa. England played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade. The “slave triangle” was pioneered by Francis Drake and his associates. By 1750, slavery was a legal institution in all of the 13 American colonies,[105][106] and the profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution. [107]

“L’execution de la Punition du Fouet” (“Execution of the Punishment of the Whip”) showing the public flogging of a slave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From Jean Baptiste Debret, Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil (1834–1839).

The Transatlantic slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured on raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa. These expeditions were typically carried out by African kingdoms, such as the Oyo empire (Yoruba), the Ashanti Empire,[108] the kingdom of Dahomey,[109] and the Aro Confederacy.[110] Europeans rarely entered the interior of Africa, due to fierce African resistance. The slaves were brought to coastal outposts where they were traded for goods.

An estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries.[111] Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15 per cent of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. Approximately 6 million Africans were killed by other blacks in tribal wars.[112] The white citizens of Virginia decided to treat the first Africans in Virginia as indentured servants.[113] Over half of all European immigrants to Colonial America during the 17th and 18th centuries arrived as indentured servants.[114] In 1655, John Casor, a black man, became the first legally recognized slave in the present United States.[115] According to the 1860 U.S. census, 393,975 individuals, representing 8% of all US families, owned 3,950,528 slaves.[116] One-third of Southern families owned slaves.[117]

The largest number of slaves were shipped to Brazil.[118] In the Spanish viceroyalty of New Granada, corresponding mainly to modern Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela, the free black population in 1789 was 420,000, whereas African slaves numbered only 20,000. Free blacks also outnumbered slaves in Brazil. In Cuba, by contrast, free blacks made up only 15% in 1827; and in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) it was a mere 5% in 1789.[119] Some half-million slaves, most of them born in Africa, worked the booming plantations of Saint-Domingue.[120]

Slaves on a Virginia plantation (The Old Plantation, c. 1790)

Author Charles Rappleye argued that

In the West Indies in particular, but also in North and South America, slavery was the engine that drove the mercantile empires of Europe..It appeared, in the eighteenth century, as universal and immutable as human nature.[121]

The Brazilian slave-hunter, 1823

Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended shortly after the American Revolution, slavery remained a central economic institution in the Southern states. All the Northern states passed emancipation acts between 1780 and 1804; most of these arranged for gradual emancipation.[122] In the South, however, slavery expanded with the westward movement of population. Historian Peter Kolchin wrote, “By breaking up existing families and forcing slaves to relocate far from everyone and everything they knew” this migration “replicated (if on a reduced level) many of [the] horrors” of the Atlantic slave trade.[123] Historian Ira Berlin called this forced migration the Second Middle Passage. Characterizing it as the “central event” in the life of a slave between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Berlin wrote that whether they were uprooted themselves or simply lived in fear that they or their families would be involuntarily moved, “the massive deportation traumatized black people, both slave and free.”[124] By 1860, 500,000 slaves had grown to 4 million. As long as slavery expanded, it remained profitable and powerful and was unlikely to disappear. Antislavery forces, however, proposed to put it on the path to extinction by stopping further expansion. If it became unprofitable, few people would spend the large sums of cash needed to buy and keep slaves, and the system would fade away quietly as it had in most countries in world history.

The plantation system, based on tobacco growing in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and rice in South Carolina, expanded into lush new cotton lands in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi—and needed more slaves. But slave importation became illegal in 1808. Although complete statistics are lacking, it is estimated that 1,000,000 slaves moved west from the Old South between 1790 and 1860. Most of the slaves were moved from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Michael Tadman, in a 1989 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South, indicates that 60–70% of interregional migrations were the result of the sale of slaves. In 1820 a child in the Upper South had a 30% chance to be sold south by 1860.[125]

Political division over slavery was temporarily resolved by the Compromise of 1850 which sought to divide new territories between slave and free states. However, the status of Kansas was left unresolved, producing bloody clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers.[126] In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln as President on a program of limiting slavery led to the secession of Southern States and the outbreak of the US Civil War. Although Lincoln initially disclaimed any intention to interfere with slavery, the progress of the war produced the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Southern states still in revolt, and ultimately the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in December 1865, which ended legalized slavery in the United States.

Contemporary slavery

Debate about a link between economic growth and different relational forms (most notably unfree social relations of production in Third World agriculture) occupied contributed to discussions in the 1960s. This continued in debates over modes of production (such as agrarian transition in India) that spilled over into the 1970s, important aspects of which continue into the present (see the monograph by Brass, 1999, and the 600 page volume edited by Brass and van der Linden, 1997). Links between capitalist development and modern forms of unfree labour (peonage, debt bondage, indenture, and chattel slavery) were particularly stressed. The debate has a long historical lineage and never disappeared. Unlike advocacy groups, for which the number of the currently unfree is paramount, political economists sought to establish who was or was not to be considered to be an unfree worker. This was an epistemologically necessary precondition to any guess about how many unfree workers existed.[citation needed]

Conditions that can be considered slavery include debt bondage, indentured servitude, serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, adoption in which children are effectively forced to work as slaves, child soldiers, and forced marriage.[127] Though slavery was officially abolished in China in 1910,[128] the practice continues unofficially in some regions of the country.[129][130][131] However defined, slavery still exists around the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Group, Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, the Anti-Slavery Society, and the Norwegian Anti-Slavery Society continue to campaign to rid the world of slavery.

Current situation

Slavery still exists,[6][132] although in theory it has now been outlawed in all countries.[133] Mauritania abolished it in law in 1981[134] and was the last country to do so – see Abolition of slavery timeline.

Francis Bok, former Sudanese slave. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 people had been enslaved during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The slaves are mostly Dinka people.[135][136]

Illegal enslavement of agricultural labor persists in Florida in the United States. The Modern-Day Slavery Museum documents seven cases, involving over 1,000 people kept in slavery, of farm labor servitude successfully prosecuted in the US courts there in the past fifteen years. Singling out Florida may give a false impression, since, in the 1980s, cases involving agricultural slavery in the USA were prosecuted across the Southeast states.[137]

Enslavement is also taking place in parts of Africa, in the Middle East, and in South Asia.[138] The Middle East Quarterly reports that slavery is still endemic in Sudan.[139] In June and July 2007, 570 people who had been enslaved by brick manufacturers in Shanxi and Henan were freed by the Chinese government.[140] Among those rescued were 69 children.[141] In response, the Chinese government assembled a force of 35,000 police to check northern Chinese brick kilns for slaves, sent dozens of kiln supervisors to prison, punished 95 officials in Shanxi province for dereliction of duty, and sentenced one kiln foreman to death for killing an enslaved worker.[140] In 2008, the Nepalese government abolished the Haliya system of forced labour, freeing about 20,000 people.[142] An estimated 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits or “untouchables”, are bonded workers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off debts.[143][144][145] In Brazil more than 5,000 slaves were rescued by authorities in 2008 as part of a government initiative to eradicate slavery.[146]

In Mauritania alone, it is estimated that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are enslaved with many used as bonded labour.[147][148] Slavery in Mauritania was criminalized in August 2007.[149] In Niger, slavery is also a current phenomenon. A Nigerian study has found that more than 800,000 people are enslaved, almost 8% of the population.[150][151][152] Pygmies, the people of Central Africa‘s rain forest,[153] live in servitude to the Bantus.[154] Some tribal sheiks in Iraq still keep blacks, called Abd, which means servant or slave in Arabic, as slaves.[155] Child slavery has commonly been used in the production of cash crops and mining. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 109,000 children were working on cocoa farms alone in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in “the worst forms of child labor” in 2002.[156] Poverty has forced at least 225,000 children in Haiti‘s cities into slavery as unpaid household servants, called ‘reste avec’ (French: ‘stay with’).[157] Several estimates of the number of slaves in the world have been provided. According to a broad definition of slavery used by Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves (FTS), an advocacy group linked with Anti-Slavery International, there were 27 million people in slavery in 1999, spread all over the world.[158] In 2005, the International Labour Organisation provided an estimate of 12.3 million forced labourers in the world,.[159] Siddharth Kara has provided an estimate of 28.4 million slaves at the end of 2006 divided into the following three categories: bonded labour/debt bondage (18.1 million), forced labour (7.6 million), and trafficked slaves (2.7 million).[160] Kara provides a dynamic model to calculate the number of slaves in the world each year, with an estimated 29.2 million at the end of 2009.


Main article: Abolitionism

Three people in chains, probably somewhere in East-Africa. The total number of slaves in early twentieth-century Ethiopia is estimated at between 2 and 4 million in a total population of about 11 million.[161]

From the title page of abolitionist Anthony Benezet‘s book Some Historical Account of Guinea, London, 1788

Photographed in 1863 – Peter, a man who was enslaved in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, whose scars are a result of a whipping by his overseer, who was subsequently discharged by Peter’s owner.

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, through the whole of recorded human history — as have, in various periods, movements to free large or distinct groups of slaves. According to the Biblical Book of Exodus, Moses led Israelite slaves out of ancient Egypt — possibly the first written account of a movement to free slaves. Later Jewish laws (known as Halacha) prevented slaves from being sold out of the Land of Israel, and allowed a slave to move to Israel if he so desired.

Emperor Wang Mang abolishes slave trading (although not slavery) in China in 9 CE.[162]

The Spanish colonization of the Americas sparked a discussion about the right to enslave native Americans. A prominent critic of slavery in the Spanish New World colonies was Bartolomé de las Casas, who opposed the enslavement of Native Americans, and later also of Africans in America.

One of the first protests against the enslavement of Africans came from German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1688. One of the most significant milestones in the campaign to abolish slavery throughout the world occurred in England in 1772, with British judge Lord Mansfield, whose opinion in Somersett’s Case was widely taken to have held that slavery was illegal in England. This judgement also laid down the principle that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions (such as the American colonies) could not be enforced in England.[163] In 1777, Vermont became the first portion of what would become the United States to abolish slavery (at the time Vermont was an independent nation). In 1794, under the Jacobins, Revolutionary France abolished slavery.[164] There were celebrations in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom through the work of the British Anti-Slavery Society. William Wilberforce received much of the credit although the groundwork was an anti-slavery essay by Thomas Clarkson. Wilberforce was also urged by his close friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, to make the issue his own, and was also given support by reformed Evangelical John Newton. The Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament on 25 March 1807, making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire, Wilberforce also campaigned for abolition of slavery in the British Empire, which he lived to see in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. After the 1807 act abolishing the slave trade was passed, these campaigners switched to encouraging other countries to follow suit, notably France and the British colonies.

Between 1808 and 1860, the British West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard.[165] Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against “the usurping King of Lagos“, deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.[166]

In the United States, abolitionist pressure produced a series of small steps towards emancipation. After January 1, 1808, the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited,[167] but not the internal slave trade, nor involvement in the international slave trade externally. Legal slavery persisted; and those slaves already in the U.S. would not be legally emancipated for nearly 60 years. Many American abolitionists took an active role in opposing slavery by supporting the Underground Railroad. Violence soon erupted, with the anti-slavery forces led by John Brown, and Bleeding Kansas, involving anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers, became a symbol for the nationwide clash over slavery. The American Civil War, beginning in 1861, led to the end of slavery in the United States.

In 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves held in the Confederate States; the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865) prohibited slavery throughout the country.

In the 1860s, David Livingstone‘s reports of atrocities within the Arab slave trade in Africa stirred up the interest of the British public, reviving the flagging abolitionist movement. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s attempted to suppress “this abominable Eastern trade”, at Zanzibar in particular.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declared freedom from slavery is an internationally recognized human right. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.[168]

Economics of Slavery

The weighted average global sales price of a slave is calculated to be approximately $340, with a high of $1,895 for the average trafficked sex slave, and a low of $40 to $50 for debt bondage slaves in part of Asia and Africa.[160] Worldwide slavery is a criminal offense but slave owners can get very high returns for their risk.[169] According to researcher Siddharth Kara, the profits generated worldwide by all forms of slavery in 2007 were $91.2 billion. That is second only to drug trafficking in terms of global criminal enterprises. The weighted average annual profits generated by a slave in 2007 was $3,175, with a low of an average $950 for bonded labor and $29,210 for a trafficked sex slave.[160] Approximately forty percent of all slave profits each year are generated by trafficked sex slaves, representing slightly more than 4 percent of the world’s 29 million slaves.[160]

Robert E. Wright has developed a model that helps to predict when firms (individuals, companies) will be more likely to use slaves rather than wage workers, indentured servants, family members, or other types of laborers.[170]

Legal Actions

In November 2006, the International Labour Organization announced it will be seeking “to prosecute members of the ruling Myanmar junta for crimes against humanity” over the continuous forced labour of its citizens by the military at the International Court of Justice.[171][172] According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), an estimated 800,000 people are subject to forced labour in Myanmar.[173][174] Since its inception in 1949, 40 to 50 million people are estimated to have been imprisoned in the laogai, the system of forced labor camps in the People’s Republic of China.[175]

The Ecowas Court of Justice is hearing the case of Hadijatou Mani in late 2008, where Ms. Mani hopes to compel the government of Niger to end slavery in its jurisdiction. Cases brought by her in local courts have failed so far.[176]

Human trafficking

Main article: Human trafficking

Monument to the slaves in Zanzibar

Trafficking in human beings (also called human trafficking) is one method of obtaining slaves. Victims are typically recruited through deceit or trickery (such as a false job offer, false migration offer, or false marriage offer), sale by family members, recruitment by former slaves, or outright abduction. Victims are forced into a “debt slavery” situation by coercion, deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat, physical force, debt bondage or even force-feeding with drugs of abuse to control their victims.[177] “Annually, according to U.S. Government-sponsored research completed in 2006, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders, which does not include millions trafficked within their own countries. Approximately 80 percent of transnational victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors,” reports the U.S. Department of State in a 2008 study.[178]

While the majority of victims are women, and sometimes children, who are forced into prostitution (in which case the practice is called sex trafficking), victims also include men, women and children who are forced into manual labour.[179] Due to the illegal nature of human trafficking, its exact extent is unknown. A U.S. Government report published in 2005, estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally.[179] Another research effort revealed that between 1.5 million and 1.8 million individuals are trafficked either internally or internationally each year, 500,000 to 600,000 of whom are sex trafficking victims.[160]


Economists have attempted to model during which circumstances slavery (and variants such as serfdom) appear and disappear. One observation is that slavery becomes more desirable for land owners when land is abundant but labour is not, so paid workers can demand high wages[citation needed]. If labour is abundant but land is scarce, then it becomes more costly for the land owners to have guards for the slaves than to employ paid workers who can only demand low wages due to the competition. Thus first slavery and then serfdom gradually decreased in Europe as the population grew[citation needed]. It was reintroduced in the Americas and in Russia (serfdom) as large new land areas with few people became available.[citation needed]. In his books, Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract: the Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert Fogel maintains that slavery was in fact a profitable method of production, especially on bigger plantations growing cotton that fetched high prices in the world market. It gave whites in the South higher average incomes than those in the North, but most of the money was spent on buying slaves and plantations.

Slave being whipped in Brazil, during the heyday of gold exploration in Minas Gerais (1770).

Slavery is more common when the labour done is relatively simple and thus easy to supervise, such as large scale growing of a single crop. It is much more difficult and costly to check that slaves are doing their best and with good quality when they are doing complex tasks. Therefore, slavery was seen as the most efficient method of production for large scale crops like sugar and cotton, whose output was based on economies of scale. This enabled a gang system of labor to be prominent on large plantations where field hands were monitored and worked with factory-like precision. Each work gang was based on an internal division of labor that not only assigned every member of the gang to a precise task but simultaneously made his or her performance dependent on the actions of the others. The hoe hands chopped out the weeds that surrounded the cotton plants as well as excessive sprouts. The plow gangs followed behind, stirring the soil near the rows of cotton plants and tossing it back around the plants. Thus, the gang system worked like an early version of the assembly line later to be found in factories.[180]

Critics since the 18th century have argued that slavery tends to retard technological advancement, since the focus is on increasing the number of slaves doing simple tasks rather than upgrading the efficiency of labour. Because of this, theoretical knowledge and learning in Greece—and later in Rome—was not applied to ease physical labour or improve manufacturing.[181]

Adam Smith made the argument that free labor was economically better than slave labor, and argued further that slavery in Europe ended during the Middle Ages, and only then after both the church and state were separate, independent and strong institutions,[182] that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in a free, democratic and republican forms of governments since many of its legislators or political figures were slave owners, and would not punish themselves, and that slaves would be better able to gain their freedom when there was centralized government, or a central authority like a king or the church.[183] Similar arguments appear later in the works of Auguste Comte, especially when it comes to Adam Smith’s belief in the separation of powers or what Comte called the “separation of the spiritual and the temporal” during the Middle Ages and the end of slavery, and Smith’s criticism of masters, past and present. As Smith stated in the Lectures on Jurisprudence, “The great power of the clergy thus concurring with that of the king set the slaves at liberty. But it was absolutely necessary both that the authority of the king and of the clergy should be great. Where ever any one of these was wanting, slavery still continues.”


On May 21, 2001, the National Assembly of France passed the Taubira law, recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity. Apologies on behalf of African nations, for their role in trading their countrymen into slavery, remain an open issue since slavery was practiced in Africa even before the first Europeans arrived and the Atlantic slave trade was performed with a high degree of involvement of several African societies. The black slave market was supplied by well-established slave trade networks controlled by local African societies and individuals.[184] Indeed, as already mentioned in this article, slavery persists in several areas of West Africa until the present day.

There is adequate evidence citing case after case of African control of segments of the trade. Several African nations such as the Ashanti of Ghana also Calabar and other southern parts of Nigeria had economies depended solely on the trade. African peoples such as the Imbangala of Angola and the Nyamwezi of Tanzania would serve as middlemen or roving bands warring with other African nations to capture Africans for Europeans.[185]

Several historians have made important contributions to the global understanding of the African side of the Atlantic slave trade. By arguing that African merchants determined the assemblage of trade goods accepted in exchange for slaves, many historians argue for African agency and ultimately a shared responsibility for the slave trade.[186]

The issue of an apology is linked to reparations for slavery and is still being pursued by a number of entities across the world. For example, the Jamaican Reparations Movement approved its declaration and action Plan.

In September, 2006, it was reported[187] that the UK Government may issue a “statement of regret” over slavery, an act that was followed through by a “public statement of sorrow” from Tony Blair on November 27, 2006.[188]

On February 25, 2007 the state of Virginia resolved to ‘profoundly regret’ and apologize for its role in the institution of slavery. Unique and the first of its kind in the U.S., the apology was unanimously passed in both Houses as Virginia approached the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, where the first slaves were imported into North America in 1619.[189]

On August 24, 2007, Mayor Ken Livingstone of London, United Kingdom apologized publicly for Britain’s role in colonial slave trade. “You can look across there to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery,” he said pointing towards the financial district. He claimed that London was still tainted by the horrors of slavery. Jesse Jackson praised Livingstone, and added that reparations should be made, one of his common arguments.[190]

In June 2009, the US Senate passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery”.[191]


There have been movements to achieve reparations for those formerly held as slaves, or sometimes their descendants. Claims for reparations for being held in slavery are handled as a civil law matter in almost every country. This is often decried as a serious problem, since former slaves’ relative lack of money means they often have limited access to a potentially expensive and futile legal process. Mandatory systems of fines and reparations paid to an as yet undetermined group of claimants from fines, paid by unspecified parties, and collected by authorities have been proposed by advocates to alleviate this “civil court problem.” Since in almost all cases there are no living ex-slaves or living ex-slave owners these movements have gained little traction. In nearly all cases the judicial system has ruled that the statute of limitations on these possible claims has long since expired.

Other uses of the term

The word slavery is often used as a pejorative to describe any activity in which one is coerced into performing.


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