Slavery is involuntary servitude, whether enforced by violence or by other methods. It predates every institution of ownership and authority, and its definition has changed over time to reflect those institutions in every society. It is sometimes an expectation associated with other relationships, such as marriage and other family relations, military service, or debt relationships. See debt slavery.

The article on abolitionism deals in detail with the 19th century advocacy to abolish formal slavery, in first Britain and the British Empire and later the United States.

Table of contents
1 Definition
2 Who becomes a slave
3 Origin of the term
4 History of Slavery
5 International Abolitionist Movements
6 Apologies
7 Economics of slavery
8 Potential for total abolition
9 External links


The 1926 Slavery Convention describes slavery as "...the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised..."

The modern conception of slavery is simply that of an individual whose movements (and usually most of their activities) are under the total control of another. The slave is the one who cannot leave without explicit permission, and who will be returned to the 'owner' or 'master' or overseer or controller if they stray or escape. Typically this is today accomplished through tacit arrangements with local police and other authorities - by masters with some hold over them, or status as landowners or other wealth.

Slavery is in all countries considered to be a criminal activity, outlawed by UN conventions. However some states such as Myanmar and Sudan do facilitate the institution of slavery, according to anti-slavery groups such as Free the Slaves.

In the most common conception of slavery, one person is treated as the chattel property of another person, providing slave labour from birth to death. This is not the most common relation in modern slavery. Capture of modern slaves is normally accomplished by deception or fraud - usually of the young, who are taken from family by slavers who offer them money and some promise or story that this represents advances on wages in some respectable job, or, simply kidnap the children. The slaves are usually not worked to death, but at some point usually escape or are released, often because they are of no further use. For instance, in Thailand, slave prostitutes are thrown onto the street as soon as they test positive for HIV - usually about three years after they are bought at the age of 13 or 14. Thus modern slaves are often called disposable people (see also economics of slavery section below).

It is quite common for a slave to be told that they are working off a debt, but to have no access to an accounting for that debt, and no right to take any lower-paying or less supervised employment. These people may be considered slaves if they are under the impression that challenging these conditions, or leaving in protest of them, would lead to serious bodily harm.

Who becomes a slave

Historically, slaves were often those of a different ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race (Animal rights and Great Ape personhood advocates would also include species) from those who enslaved them, but in general such slaveries were short. It has been relatively rare in history for an entire ethnic group to be held as slaves for more than a couple of generations. In most such cases intermarriage, granting of liberty, right to buy one's own freedom, have caused slave and slave-owning populations to merge.

Societies characterized by poverty, population pressures, and cultural and technological backwardness are frequently exporters of slaves to more developed nations. Today most slaves are rural people forced to move to cities, or purchased in rural areas and sold into slavery in cities. These moves take place due to loss of subsistence agriculture, thefts of land, and population increases.

Slavery is almost always a matter of economics - in effect, those with poor birthright or bad luck in any society have sometimes been forced to thrown themselves on the mercy of those with better birthright and luck, or simply been forced to provide service to those who had power and were willing to use it to subordinate others.

Historical examples include the Slavs and various African societies, such as the Ibo of Nigeria (see below for deatils). These were sometimes what we would today consider prisoners of war.

Individuals could also find themselves condemned to slavery as a result of being convicted of crimes.

Origin of the term

For centuries, the Slavic people of Eastern Europe were the primary source of slaves for Europe and the Near East. Because of this, the word for slave in numerous European languages is derived from the word for Slavs—the English word being a clear example.

History of Slavery

Slavery in the Mediterranean World

Slavery in the ancient Mediterranean cultures was a mixture of debt-slavery and the enslavement of prisoners of war. Undoubtedly a majority of slaves were condemned to agricultural labor and lived hard lives.

Slavery in the Bible

See Sabbatical year, Onesimus in addition to the details of the Book of Exodus.

Slavery in Rome and Greece

Greek and Roman urban slaves, as opposed to agricultural slaves, seem to have had some chance at manumission. In Rome, slaves were organised as a social class, and some authors found in their condition the earliest concept of proletariat, given that the only property they were allowed to own was the gift of reproduction. Slaves lived then within this class with very little hope of a better life, and they were owned and exchanged, just like goods, by free men. They had a price as "human instruments"; their life had not, and their patron could freely even kill them. There was however a sort of class of freedmen and freedwomen, called liberati, in Roman society at all periods. These people were not numerous, but Rome needed to demonstrate at times the great frank spirit of this "civitas", so the freed slaves were made famous, as hopeful examples. Freed people suffered some minor legal disabilities that show in fact how otherwise open the society was to them—they could not hold certain high offices and they could not marry into the senatorial classes. Their children, however, had no prohibitions.

Much of the wealth of classical Athens came from its silver mines, which were worked by slave labor under extremely inhumane conditions.

Most of the gladiators were often slaves. One of them, Spartacus, formed an army of slaves that battled the Roman armies in the Servile War for several years.

The Latin poet Horace, son of a freedman, served as a military officer in the army of Brutus and seemed headed for a political career before the defeat of Brutus by Octavian and Antony. Though Horace may have been an exceptional case, freedmen were an important part of Roman administrative functions. Freedmen of the Imperial families often were the main functionaries in the Imperial administration.

The beginnings of Christianity did not seriously change slavery. Though the Christian leaders often called for good treatment for slaves and condemned the enslavement of Christians, the institution itself was not questioned. The shift from chattel slavery to serfdom in medieval Europe is otherwise an economic rather than a moral issue.

Slavery in the Islamic World

The institution of slavery pre-existed Islam in the Arab world, and was permitted under the laws of Islam. Manumission was encouraged, though not required; however, it was forbidden to free slaves against their will, to prevent them being turned out to starve in hard times or when they were sick or old. Usually, only prisoners of war or the children of slaves could be slaves; however, there were exceptions from time to time, one of the most notable being the practice of devsirme, by which people were accepted as payment of taxes. As there was usually an exploitable peasant population to perform agricultural work, the demand for slaves usually was more for specialised forms of service—eunuchs, artisans, concubines, janissaries etc. This often led wealthy people to have their children trained in valuable skills like carpet making or gardening, in case ill fortune ever made them captives; without that value of their own, if they could not be ransomed they would simply have been killed. In Al-Andalus, Slavic slaves (saqaliba) were trained in the public administration. Some of them even ruled the taifa of Denia.

Race had no impact on slavery in Arabia under Islam. Islam as a political movement was often a liberating force for those held in racial slavery. However, like other ancient cultures, Islamic rulers made a custom of enslaving those defeated in war. Mere conversion to Islam did not automatically result in manumission, either. As those peoples—notably the Turks—became Muslims, their use as slaves did not end immediately. The Islamic world bought and captured slaves from Europe and Africa on a large scale for roughly a thousand years.

Slavery in Medieval Europe

The institution of serfdom in medieval Europe was weaker than chattel slavery; serfs were obligated to serve or work the land for their master, but were not chattel property. Serfdom persisted in Eastern Europe until the mid-19th century, when Russian czar Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861. See also feudalism and guild.

Slavery in Africa

Slavery was common and widespread throughout Africa into the 19th century. The Dutch imported slaves from Asia into their colony in South Africa. Britain, which held vast colonial territories on the continent (including South Africa), made the practice of slavery illegal in these regions. Ironically, the end of the slave trade and the decline of slavery was imposed upon Africa by its European conquerors. This action is what today may be called an instance of cultural imperialism, albeit being one of the less mal-intentioned manifestations of the phenomenon.

The nature of the slave societies differed greatly across the continent. There were large plantations worked by slaves in Egypt, the Sudan, and Zanzibar, but this was not a typical use of slaves in Africa as a whole. In some slave societies, slaves were protected and almost incorporated into the slaveowning family. In others, slaves were brutally abused, and even used for human sacrifices. Despite the vast numbers of slaves exported from Africa, it is thought that the majority of African slaves remained in Africa, continuing as slaves in the regions where they were first captured.

Prior to the 16th century, the bulk of slaves exported from Africa were shipped from East Africa to the Arabian peninsula. Zanzibar became a leading port based on this trade. Arab slave traders differed from European traders in that they would often capture slaves themselves, sometimes penetrating deep into the continent. They also differed in that their market greatly preferred the purchase of female slaves over male slaves. This reflected their desire for household and sexual slaves rather than slaves to work on plantations.

The African slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured in West Africa and shipped to the colonies of the New World (triangular trade). As a result of the Spanish War of Succession, Britain obtained the monopoly (asiento de negros) of transporting African Negroes to Spanish America. It is estimated that over the centuries, twelve to thirteen million people were shipped as slaves from Africa, of whom some 15 percent died during the terrible voyage. The great majority were shipped to the Americas, but some also went to Europe and the south of Africa. While much of the slave trade in Africa was related to external protagonists, an internal slave trade unrelated to non-Africans did exist.

The demographic impact of the slave trade on Africa is an important question, regarding which consensus remains elusive. Some historians conclude that the total loss—persons removed, those who died on the arduous march to coastal slave marts and those killed in slave raids—far exceeded the 65-75 million inhabitants remaining in Sub-Saharan Africa at the trade's end. Others believe that slavers had a vested interest in capturing rather than killing, and in keeping their captives alive; and that this coupled with the disproportionate removal of males and the introduction of new crops from the Americas (cassava, maize) would have limited general population decline to particular regions at particular times—western Africa around 1760-1810 and Mozambique and neighbouring areas half a century later. There has also been speculation that within Africa female captives were taken in preference, for domestic and dynastic reasons, with many male captives being a "bycatch" who would have been killed if there had not been an export market for them. So the balance and timing of the two demographic sorts of market could make a difference.

Slavery persists in Africa above all other continents. Mauritania abolished slavery only in 1981, but several human rights organizations are reporting that the practice continues there. The trading of children has been reported in modern Nigeria and Benin. In parts of Ghana, a family may be punished for an offense by having to turn over a virgin female to serve as a sex slave within the offended family. In the Sudan slavery continues as part of an ongoing civil war.

Slavery in Colonial America

Slavery in the Americas during the 17th century was an institution that made little distinction as to the race of the slave or the free man. But by the 18th century, the overwhelming number of black slaves was such that white and Native American slavery was less common. Slavery under European rule began with importation of white European slaves (or indentured servants), was followed by the enslavement of local aborigines in the Caribbean, and eventually was primarily replaced with Africans imported through a large slave trade as the native populations declined through disease. Most slaves brought to the Americas ended up in the Caribbean or South America where tropical diseases took a large toll on their population and required large numbers of replacements.

Slavery among indigenous people of the Americas

In Pre-Columbian MesoAmerica the most common forms of slavery were those of prisoners-of-war and debtors. People unable to pay back a debt could be sentenced to work as a slave to the person owed until the debt was worked off. Slavery was not usually hereditary; children of slaves were born free. In the Incan Empire, commoners were subject to a tax, the mita, that they paid working on public infrastructure.

Slavery in the Spanish New World Colonies

Slavery in the Spanish colonies began with local Native Americans. Initially, the Spanish maintained the mita directing it to silver mining at Potosí. However, as these populations shrank due to imported European diseases, African slaves began to be imported.

Slavery in Brazil

During the colonial epoch, slavery was a mainstay of the Brazilian economy, especially in mining and sugar cane production. Because of the low cost of slave-produced Brazilian sugar, British colonies in the West Indies were unable to match the market prices of Brazilian sugar. This led to intensive pressure from the British government for Brazil to end this practice. Slavery was legally ended by the "Lei Áurea" (Golden Law) of 1888.

In the early 1990s evidence of illegal "forced labor and debt bondage" amounting to slavery was unearthed in the Amazon region. The Brazilian government has since taken measures against such activities, although concerns continue to be expressed that more stringent steps may be required. In 1995, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso announced a new series of measures to force compliance with the anti-slavery statues.

In September of 2002, a report to the Ministério de Trabalho (Ministry of Labor), stated that between 1995 and 2001 approximately 3,500 slave labourers had been freed, and that it was estimated that 2,500 people remained in such conditions at that time. (See [1], Source: "O Globo" Online ("País tem 2,5 mil trabalhadores escravos"-"Country has 2.5 thousand slave workers"))

Slavery in North America

The first slaves brought to the English colonies on the continent were landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Slavery in the United States ended irregularly. Slavery was legal in most of the 13 colonies, and was ended in many of the states later called "Free States" only after the turn of the 19th century. For instance, slavery was not abolished in New York state until 1827, and even then only absolutely abolished for those born before 1799. Those born between 1799 and the passage of the law were under conditional slavery.

In 1806 the United States passed legislation that banned the importation of slaves, but not the internal slave trade, and the involvement in the international slave trade or the outfitting of ships for that trade by U.S. citizens. Though there were certainly violations of this law, slavery in America became more or less self-sustaining. Several slave rebellions took place during the 1700s and 1800s including the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831. The importation of slaves into the United States was banned on January 1, 1808.

Influential leaders of the abolition movement (1820-60) include:

The 1860s saw the end of slavery in America. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a symbolic gesture that ended slavery nowhere, but only proclaimed freedom for slaves within the Confederacy. However, the proclamation made the abolition of slavery an official war goal and it was implemented as the Union retook territory from the Confederacy. Slaves within the United States remained enslaved until the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865, 8 months after the cessation of hostilities in the Civil War.

In the slave-holding colonies of British North America slavery was first abolished in Upper Canada (now the southern part of Ontario; slavery was officially abolished there in 1810, although slavery had probably disappeared before then (see John Graves Simcoe). Slavery had not been an important part of the Upper Canadian economy; most slaves were servants. In the decades before the American Civil War and especially after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, Canada became the destination of choice of runaway slaves to escape to freedom.

See also: Slavery in Canada

International Abolitionist Movements

Slavery's origins are simply too old to recount. So, too, are movements to free large or distinct groups of them. Moses led Israelite slaves from ancient Egypt in the Biblical Book of Exodus - possibly the first detailed account of a movement to free slaves, although clearly not accepted at face value as real history in all particulars.

In England in 1772 the case of a runaway slave named James Somerset came before the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield. Basing his judgement on Magna Carta and habeas corpus he declared - "Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.". It was thus declared that the condition of slavery could not be enforced under English law. However, little effort was made towards enforcing the judgement, and slaves continued to be held in Britain for years to come.

In 1787 humanitarian campaigners in Britain founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The "slave trade" consisted, not of slavery in Britain, but rather of trafficking in slaves by British merchants operating in British colonies and other countries. Shares of stock in companies engaged in that trade was legally bought and sold in England. The anti-slave-trade movement in Britain had support from Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and others, and reached out for support from the new industrial workers. The primary leader of the fight against slavery in Britain was William Wilberforce.

France never authorized slavery on its mainland, but authorized it in some of its overseas possessions. On February 4, 1794, Abbé Grégoire and the Convention abolished slavery. It was re-established in 1802 by Napoleon, and in the end abolished in 1848 under the Second Republic.

The "Abolition of the Slave Trade Act" was passed by Parliament on March 25, 1807. The act imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship. The intention was to entirely outlaw the slave trade within the British Empire, but the trade continued and captains in danger of being caught by the Royal Navy would often throw slaves into the sea to reduce the fine. In 1827 Britain declared that particiption in the slave trade was piracy and punishable by death. On August 1, 1834 all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but still indentured to their former owners in an apprenticeship system which was finally abolished in 1838. After 1838, the 'British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society' worked to outlaw slavery overseas and to pressure the government to help enforce the suppression of the slave trade by declaring slave traders pirates and pursuing them. This organization continues today as Anti-Slavery International.

Sierra Leone was established as a country for former slaves of the British Empire back in Africa. Liberia served an analogous purpose for American slaves. The goal of the abolitionists was repatriation of the slaves to Africa. Trade unions as well didn't want the cheap labor of former slaves around. Nevertheless, most of them stayed in America.

Slaves in the United States who escaped ownership would often make their way north to Canada via the "Underground Railroad". The Underground Railroad was a grassroots organization, loosely and informally organized.

The 1926 Slavery Convention, an initiative of the League of Nations, was a turning point in banning global slavery.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, explicity banned slavery.

The United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery was convened to outlaw and ban slavery worldwide, including child slavery.

In December 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was developed from the Universal Declaraction of Human Rights. Article 8 of this international treaty bans slavery. The treaty came into force in March 1976 after it had been ratified by 35 nations. As of November 2003, 104 nations had ratified the treaty.


In June 1997, Tony Hall, a Democratic representative for Dayton, Ohio proposed a national apology by the U.S. government for slavery. This was at a time when the Catholic Church in France apologised for its silence and begged "forgiveness for Catholic inaction as regime sent Jews to their deaths in '40s".

At the World Conference Against Racism, Durban, the US representatives walked out on September 3 2001 on the instructions of Colin Powell. His statement only concerns the conference discussion of Israel who also walked out. However the South African Government spokesperson said "The general perception among all delegates is that the US does not want to confront the real issues of slavery and all its manifestations."

At the same time the British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese delegations blocked an EU apology for slavery.

The issue of an apology is linked to reparations for slavery and is still being pursued across the world. E.g. The Jamaican Reparations Movement approved its declaration and action Plan.

Economics of slavery

According to the British Anti-Slavery Society, "Although there is no longer any state which recognizes any claim by a person to a right of property over another, there are an estimated 2.7 million people throughout the world mainly children in conditions of slavery." They further note that slavery, particularly child slavery, was on the rise in 2003. According to a broader definition used by Free The Slaves, another advocacy group, there are 27 million people in slavery today, spread all over the world. This is, also according to that group:

As a result, the economics of slavery is stark: the yield of profit per year for those buying and controlling a slave is over 800% on average, as opposed to the 5% per year that would have been the expected payback for buying a slave in colonial times. This combines with the high potential to lose a slave (have them stolen, escape, or freed by unfriendly authorities) to yield what are called disposable people - those who can be exploited intensely for a short time and then discarded, such as the prostitutes thrown out on city streets to die once they contract HIV, or those forced to work in mines.


As noted above, there have been movements to achieve reparations for those held in involuntary servitude, or sometimes their descendants. There is a growing modern movement to donate funds achieved in reparations efforts not to the descendants of those held as slaves in prior generations, but instead to donate them to those freed from slavery in this generation, in other countries and circumstances.

In general, reparation for being held in slavery is handled as a civil law matter in almost every country. This is often decried as a serious problem, since slaves are exactly those people who have no access to the legal process. Systems of fines and reparations paid from fines collected by authorities, rather than in civil courts, have been proposed to alleviate this in some nations.

Potential for total abolition

Those 27 million people produce a gross economic product of US$1.4 billion dollars. This is also a smaller percentage of the world economy than slavery has produced at any prior point in human history. That, plus the universal criminal status of slavery, the lack of moral arguments for it in modern discourse, and the many conventions and agreements to abolish it worldwide, make it likely that it can be eliminated in this generation, according to Free The Slaves. There are no nations whose economy would be substantially affected by the true abolition of slavery.

A first step towards this objective is the Cocoa Protocol, by which the entire cocoa industry worldwide has accepted full moral and legal responsibility for the entire comprehensive outcome of their production processes. Negotiations for this protocol was initiated for cotton, sugar and other commodity items in the 19th century - taking about140 years to complete! Thus it seems also that this is a unique turning point in history, where slowly all commodity markets can lever licensing and other requirements to ensure that slavery is eliminated from production, one industry at a time, as a sectoral simultaneous policy that does not cause disadvantages for any one market player.

Generally, consumer moral purchasing efforts are ineffective against slavery since such slave production as charcoal to produce rolled steel in Brazil, or on coffee or sugar plantations, is so far down the production chain that final packaged product producers simply do not know how products are produced.

See also Slave trade, Slave narrative, Wage slavery, Sexual slavery, debt bondage, forced labor, coolie.

External links