[sley-vuh-ree, sleyv-ree]
slavery, institution based on a relationship of dominance and submission, whereby one person owns another and can exact from that person labor or other services. Slavery has been found among many groups of low material culture, as in the Malay Peninsula and among some Native Americans; it also has occurred in more highly developed societies, such as the southern United States.


Although it is commonly held that slavery was rare among primitive pastoral peoples and that it appeared in full form only with the development of an agricultural economy, there are numerous instances that contradict this belief. Domestic slavery and sometimes concubine slavery appeared among the nomadic Arabs, among Native Americans primarily devoted to hunting, and among the seafaring Vikings. Some ascribe the beginnings of slavery to war and the consequent subjection of one group by another. Slavery as a result of debt, however, existed in very early times, and some African peoples have had the custom of putting up wives and children as hostages for an obligation; if the obligation was unfulfilled, the hostages became permanent slaves.

Slavery in the Ancient World

The institution of slavery extends back beyond recorded history. References to it appear in the ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi. Its form and nature varied greatly in ancient society. It seems to have been common in the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations and in ancient Persia. It may not have been common in ancient Egypt until the New Kingdom or later, and the belief that slaves built the pyramids is probably incorrect. The institution was familiar to the ancient Hebrews, according to passages in the Bible.

Slavery was an established institution in the Greece of Homer's time, and a large portion of the population of the Greek city-states in later days were of the servile class. There were domestic slaves, agricultural slaves, and artisans and workers. In Greece, although not quite as commonly as in Asia Minor, there were also public slaves, for example, those belonging to the temples. In general it is thought that slaves in the Greek city-states were relatively well treated, and there were laws protecting them against excessive cruelty or abuse. However, the slaves were regarded as property and had no rights in courts of law. Slaves could obtain their freedom by buying it, by being granted it in the owner's will, or as a reward for outstanding service.

Slavery in early Roman history seems to have been of the same type as in Greece, but by the 1st cent. B.C., as the Roman Empire continued to expand, a form of agricultural slavery called estate slavery was introduced on a wide scale; in this form agriculture was pursued by large numbers of slaves in an impersonal relationship with the landowner, who had practically absolute power over them. The increasing wealth of Rome led to an expansion in domestic slaves, and the servile class grew to great numbers. They were employed in the theater, in gladiatorial combats, and, to some extent, in prostitution. Most of the slaves were foreign, and some were highly educated and were employed as instructors. Having a large retinue of slaves became one of the prime marks of luxury, and exotic, especially Asian, slaves were in great demand. As the number of conquered provinces grew, so did the slave supply. Consequently, manumission (emancipation from slavery) was common, and freedmen became a significant factor in the Roman social system. The slave had almost no legal status, although custom mitigated against extreme brutality; the slave could testify against his or her master only in a very limited number of serious crimes (adultery, incest, and, later, lese majesty). As the Roman expansion abated, conditions of slavery improved somewhat.

Slavery after the Fall of the Roman Empire

The introduction of Christianity toward the end of the Roman Empire had no effect on the abolition of slavery, since the church at that time did not oppose the institution. However, a change in economic life set in and resulted in the gradual disappearance of the agricultural slaves, who became, for all practical purposes, one with the coloni (tenant farmers who were technically free but were in fact bound to the land by debts). This process helped prepare the way for an economy in which the agricultural slave became the serf.

The semifreedom of serfdom was the dominant theme in the Middle Ages, although domestic slavery (and, to some extent, other forms) did not disappear. The church began to encourage manumission, while ignoring the fact that many slaves were attached to church officials and church property. Sale into slavery continued to be an extreme punishment for serious crimes.

Slavery flourished in the Byzantine Empire, and the pirates of the Mediterranean continued their custom of enslaving the victims of their raids. Islam, like Christianity, accepted slavery, and it became a standard institution in Muslim lands, where most slaves were African in origin. In Islamic life, keeping slaves was largely a sign of wealth, with slaves used as soldiers, concubines, cooks, and entertainers and to perform a variety of other functions. Another form of Muslim slavery was in the eunuch guardians of the harems; eunuchs had been widely known in Greek, Roman, and especially Byzantine times, but it was among the Muslims and in East Asia that they were to survive longest. In Muslim countries, slavery and freedom had a much more fluid boundary than in the West, with some slaves and former slaves reaching positions of great power and prestige.

In Western Europe slavery largely disappeared by the later Middle Ages, although it still remained in such manifestations as the use of slaves on galleys. In Russia slavery persisted longer than in Western Europe, and indeed the serfs were pushed into the classification of slavery by Peter the Great.

Modern Slavery

A revolution in the institution of slavery came in the 15th and 16th cent. The explorations of the African coast by Portuguese navigators resulted in the exploitation of the African as a slave, and for nearly five centuries the predations of slave raiders along the coasts of Africa were to be a lucrative and important business conducted with appalling brutality. The British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all engaged in the African slave trade. Although Africans were, as early as 1440, brought back to Portugal, and although subsequent importations were large enough to change distinctly the ethnography of that country, it was not in Europe that African slavery was to be most profitable and widespread, but in the Americas, where European exploitation began at the end of the 15th cent.

The first people to be enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese in the West Indies and Latin America were the Native Americans, but, because the majority of Native American slaves either revolted or escaped, other forms of forced labor, akin to serfdom, were introduced (see repartimiento and encomienda). The resistance of the Native Americans to slavery only increased the demand for Africans to replace them. Africans proved to be profitable laborers in the Caribbean islands and the lowlands of the South American mainland. In the colder highlands Native American slavery or quasi-slavery continued; long after the introduction of the first Africans the Paulistas (inhabitants of the city and state of São Paulo, Brazil) continued their slave raids against the Native Americans of the Brazilian hinterlands. But African slavery gradually became dominant.

The first Africans arrived in the British settlements on the Atlantic coast when they were traded or sold for supplies by a Dutch ship at Jamestown, Va., in 1619. They may have been indentured servants, but by the 1640s lifetime servitude existed in Virginia, and slavery was acknowledged in the laws of Massachusetts. The raising of staple crops—coffee, tobacco, sugar, rice, and, much later, cotton—and the rise of the plantation economy made the importation of slaves from Africa particularly valuable in the Southern colonies of North America. The slave trade moved in a triangle; setting out from British ports, ships would transport various goods to the western coast of Africa, where they would be exchanged for slaves. The slaves were then brought to the West Indies or to the colonies of North or South America, where they were traded for agricultural staples for the return voyage back to England. Later, New England ports were included in this last leg. The number of slaves in the colonies increased until in some (notably French Saint-Domingue, the modern Haiti) they constituted a majority of the population. In America by the date of the Declaration of Independence (1776) about one fifth of the population was enslaved.

The Antislavery Movement

The growth of humanitarian feeling during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th cent., the spread of the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and others, and the increase of democratic sentiment led to a growing attack on the slave trade. The French Revolution had a great effect not only in the spread of agitation for human rights but more directly in the uprisings in Saint-Domingue and the establishment of Haitian independence. The movement for the abolition of slavery progressed slowly in the United States during the 18th and the first half of the 19th cent. Each of the Northern states gradually abolished the practice, but the prohibition of foreign slave trade promised in the Constitution (ratified in 1789) was not realized until 1808.

In Great Britain

British humanitarians who had incorporated the abolition of slavery into their conception of Christianity labored successfully to outlaw (1807) the British slave trade. These same men, especially William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Zachary Macaulay, and Lord Brougham (Henry Peter Brougham), continued to work for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, which was finally effected with the Abolition Act of 1833. However, according to some writers, the British, in abolishing slavery, were primarily motivated by economic, not humanitarian, interests. These critics argued that, while the institution produced great wealth under the mercantilist system, it became unprofitable with the rise of industrial capitalism, which displaced mercantilism early in the 19th cent. At any rate, the abolition legislation of 1833 was followed by the gradual abolition of slavery in all lands under British control, principally by the device of invalidating the legality of slavery and removing its legal safeguards, usually by recompensing the owners.

In the United States

Slavery proved unprofitable in the Northern states and by the early 19th cent. had disappeared. Its abolition had been hastened by the work of the Quakers, who, as in Great Britain, were staunchly opposed to the institution. In the South, however, where African slaves arrived in the tens of thousands from the late 17th through the early 18th cent., slavery came to be an integral part of the plantation system (especially after the introduction of the cotton gin in 1793). From the late 18th cent. to the eve of the Civil War, more than a million slaves were moved from the Eastern Seaboard to the Deep South, where many labored in the sugar and cotton fields. This vast internal slave trade, which often tore slave families apart, was the South's second largest enterprise; only the plantation system itself surpassed it in size.

In the Northern United States, humanitarian principles led to the appearance of the abolitionists. They knew little of the actual conditions in the South and were fighting not for economic reform but for idealistic principles. The abolitionists in general tended to regard slavery as an unmitigated evil. The small Northern farmer also feared slavery as a system of cheap labor against which it was difficult to compete.

The South, eager to conserve the status quo, developed a bellicose defense of the system, which was hardened by such factors as the slave uprising led by Nat Turner, the troubles over fugitive slaves, and the very active propaganda against the South. The question, involving the very existence of Southern society as then organized, was the dominant one in U.S. history from 1830 to 1860. The political expression of the struggle was largely an attempt on the part of the South to maintain legislative guarantees of the system against the efforts of the abolitionists.

The chief question concerned the right of extension of slavery in the Western territories. This first became important in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise. Many leading statesmen of the time sought an answer: Henry Clay, the great compromiser; Daniel Webster; John C. Calhoun; Stephen A. Douglas, who proposed popular sovereignty as means to decide the free or slave status of territories; and the uncompromising antislavery men, such as Charles Sumner and William H. Seward. The great compromises—the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act—were ultimately ineffective.

Sectional opposition, which involved even broader questions than slavery, including the constitutional issue of states' rights, grew more passionate as the two sections became more and more hostile. The Ostend Manifesto and the proposed annexation of Cuba, the fugitive slave laws, the operations of the Underground Railroad, the furor caused by the Dred Scott Case, the Wilmot Proviso—all heightened the tension. Sporadic armed conflict erupted in Kansas and in the Harpers Ferry raid of John Brown. The struggle became more clearly defined as the Republican party was formed with a definite antislavery platform.

In the victory of the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln (1860), the South saw a threat to Southern institutions, and the Southern states in an effort to secure those institutions resorted to secession and formed the Confederacy. The Civil War followed, and the victory of the North brought an end to slavery in the United States. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (issued in 1863, it declared all slaves in the Southern secessionist states free) was followed by other legislation, especially the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The end of the Civil War did not result in the integration of the former slaves into American life. Although there were gains toward this under Reconstruction, these were subsequently reversed by the Jim Crow laws. Generally easily identified by the color of their skin, African Americans were subjected to segregation and other forms of discrimination practiced by most white Americans and legislated in many jurisdictions. This situation did not begin to be ameliorated until the civil-rights struggles of the 20th cent. (see civil rights; integration).

In the late 20th cent. the idea of compensating American blacks for their enslavement through some form of reparations won widespread support from African-American organizations and greater notice, although little support, from the broader society. The reparations movement was spurred in part by payments to Holocaust victims, to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and to some Native American tribes. Unlike these groups, however, reparations for slavery would be paid to individuals who are descendants by several generations of the victims, instead of to the victims or to a tribal people. Supporters of reparations, however, argue that contemporary African Americans continue to suffer from the vestiges of slavery and the discrimination that followed emancipation.

In Other Countries

In other countries emancipation of slaves was also a serious problem, but never to such an extent as in the United States, chiefly perhaps because the question of race prejudice was nowhere else so important. As the South American nations gained independence, they broadened their democratic principles to include absolute prohibition of slavery (Chile in 1823, Central America in 1824, Mexico in 1829, and Bolivia in 1831) or gradual emanicpation (Argentina in 1813, Colombia in 1814, and Venezuela in 1821). In Brazil the opposition of the planters to abolishing slavery was strong, and it was only after a series of rather ineffective measures that the slaves were emancipated in 1888. Opposition to that action helped to launch the revolution of 1889.

In later years the slave trade was conducted on the east coast of Africa, the market being in Muslim lands. Most antislavery efforts during the 19th cent. were directed against slave trading. Great Britain had passed antislave-trade laws in 1807 and 1811; the British attempted to enlist other nations in an effort to stop the slave trade, and several treaties for such a purpose were signed in the 1840s. However, the first important international agreement was not reached until the Berlin Conference in 1885, which bound the more important Muslim potentates to act against the slave traffic. This was supplemented by the even more significant Brussels Act of 1890, to which 18 states were signatory.

The emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was unable to prevent traffic from that land to Arabia, and a brisk trade went on over the Red Sea. International scandals occurred from time to time with regard to forced labor; three notable ones concerned the Congo, Liberia, and the Putumayo region of Peru in the 1930s (Native American servitude). The League of Nations adopted the resolutions of the International Slavery Convention of 1926, which was considered an advance over the Brussels Act of 1890; its main weakness was in not providing a permanent commission to oversee the total abolition of slavery. Slavery continued to exist in parts of Asia, the Middle East, and, despite increasingly successful efforts to abolish it, in various parts of Africa.

The United Nations has continued the efforts of the League of Nations to achieve worldwide abolition of slavery. The Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, contained a provision prohibiting slavery or trading in slaves. The Security Council in 1954 condemned systems of forced labor, particularly those employed as a means of political coercion. In 1956 a UN conference of plenipotentiaries adopted a convention on the abolition of slavery; an important aspect of the convention was the inclusion of other institutions similar to slavery as practices to be abolished. However, a report prepared for the United Nations in 1966 charged that slavery still existed in parts of Africa and Asia. Although efforts to end involuntary servitude continued throughout the last half of the 20th cent., by the beginning of the 21st cent. forms of slavery, forced, or bonded labor still persisted in a number of Third World countries, e.g., Sudan, Mauritania, Niger, Myanmar, Pakistan, and the Amazon region of Brazil. More isolated instances have been occasionally revealed elsewhere, e.g., involving Asian immigrants in the United States.


See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896, repr. 1970); A. H. Abel, The Slaveholding Indians (3 vol., 1915-25; repr. 1970); G. Glotz, Ancient Greece at Work: An Economic History of Greece from the Homeric Period to the Roman Conquest (1926, repr. 1967); R. H. Barrow, Slavery in the Roman Empire (1928, repr. 1968); U. B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (1929, repr. 1963); W. L. Westermann, Upon Slavery in Ptolemaic Egypt (1929); M. W. Jernegan, Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607-1738 (1931, repr. 1965); W. L. Mathieson, British Slavery and Its Abolition, 1823-1838 (1926, repr. 1967), Great Britain and the Slave Trade, 1839-1865 (1929, repr. 1967), and British Slave Emancipation, 1838-1849 (1932, repr. 1967); E. Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America (4 vol., 1930-35; repr. 1965); G. MacMann, Slavery through the Ages (1938); R. Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa, 1856-1890: The Slave Trade and the Scramble (1939, repr. 1968); I. E. Edwards, Towards Emancipation: A Study in South African Slavery (1942); E. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944, repr. 1964); Fisk Univ., Social Science Institute, Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Account of Negro Ex-Slaves (1945, repr. 1970); G. Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization (tr. 1946; 2d ed. 1956, repr. 1963); I. Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (1949); C. W. W. Greenidge, Slavery (1958); M. I. Finley, ed., Slavery in Classical Antiquity (1960, repr. 1968); S. O'Callaghan, The Slave Trade Today (1962); D. P. Mannix, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865 (with M. Cowley, 1962); J. Williamson, After Slavery (1965); M. Awad, Report on Slavery (1966); D. B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966); A. Zilversmidt, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (1967); S. M. Elkins, Slavery (2d ed. 1968); A. Weinstein, ed., American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader (1968); L. Foner and E. D. Genovese, ed., Slavery in the New World (1969); D. L. Robinson, Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, 1765-1820 (1970); R. S. Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (1970); J. Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle (1971); A. J. Lane, ed., The Debate over Slavery (1971); R. W. Winks, Slavery: A Comparative Perspective (1972); R. Fogel and S. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974); E. D. Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974); J. A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade (1981); E. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household (1988); C. B. Dew, Bond of Iron (1994); H. Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (1997); P. D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint (1998); K. Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (1999); J. H. Franklin and L. Schweninger, Runaway Slaves (1999); R. L. Paquette and L. A. Ferleger, ed., Slavery, Secession, and Southern History (2000); R. Segal, Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora (2001); I. Berlin, Many Thousands Gone (1998) and Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (2003); A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (2005); S. Deyle, Carry Me Back (2005); S. M. Wise, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery (2005); E. Fox-Genovese and E. D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class (2005); S. Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006); D. A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008); Y. Rotman, Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World (2009); S. Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (2009).

Forced labour for little or no pay under the threat of violence. Slavery has existed on nearly every continent, including Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and throughout most of recorded history. The ancient Greeks and Romans accepted the institution of slavery, as did the Mayas, Incas, Aztecs, and Chinese. Until European involvement in the trade, however, slavery was a private and domestic institution. Beginning in the 16th century, a more public and “racially” based type of slavery was established when Europeans began importing slaves from Africa to the New World (see slave trade). An estimated 11 million people were taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. By the mid-19th century the slave population in the U.S. had risen to more than four million, although slave imports had been banned from 1809. Most of the Africans sent to the United States worked on cotton or rice plantations in the South, their status governed by slave codes. Almost 40 percent of captives transported from Africa to the Americas were taken to Brazil, where harsh conditions required the constant replenishing of slaves. Following the rise of abolitionism, Britain outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1833, and France did the same in 1848. During the American Civil War, slavery was abolished in the Confederacy by the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), which was decreed by Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Brazil was the last to abolish slavery, doing so in 1888. Official policy notwithstanding, slavery continues to exist in many parts of the world. Many contemporary slaves are women and children forced into prostitution or working at hard labour or in sweatshops. Debt bondage is common, affecting millions of people, and slaves are often traded for material goods. Seealso Dred Scott decision; Fugitive Slave Acts; serfdom; Underground Railroad.

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As a social-economic system, slavery is a legal institution under which a person (called "a slave") is compelled to work for another (sometimes called "the master" or "slave owner"), under rules typically referred to as slave codes. In the United States the legal term "involuntary servitude" is also used, and is a form of unfree labor.

Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed to varying extents, forms and periods in almost all cultures and continents. Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation (such as wages) in return for their labour. As such, slavery is one form of unfree labor. Today, slavery is formally outlawed in nearly all countries, but the phenomenon continues to exist in various forms around the world.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which article 4 states:

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


Prior to the 10th century, words other than "slave" were used for all kinds of unfree labourers. For instance, the old Latin word servus was used for both serfs and chattel slaves.

The word slave, in Modern English, originates from the Middle English sclave which first appeares around 1290. The spelling was based on Old French esclave, from the Medieval Latin sclavus and ultimately from the Byzantine Greek sklabos (from sklabenoi) meaning "Slavic people" which appears around 580AD. Sklavos approximates the Slavs' own name for themselves, the Slověnci. The spelling of English slave, closer to its original Slavic form, first appears in English in 1538. The term originally referred to various peoples from Eastern and Central Europe, as many Slavic and other people from these areas were captured and sold as slaves by the Vikings, and later a Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I (912–973), and his successors.

Thralldom is an archaic synonym for slavery, and thrall a synonym for slave. This comes from Old English þræl (also rendered thrǣl), from Old Norse þræll (thræll).


The 1926 Slavery Convention described slavery as "...the status and/or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised..." Slaves cannot leave an owner, an employer or a territory without explicit permission (they must have a passport to leave), and they will be returned if they escape. Therefore a system of slavery—as opposed to the isolated instances found in any society—requires official, legal recognition of ownership, or widespread tacit arrangements with local authorities, by masters who have some influence because of their social and/or economic status and their lives. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labour as "all work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily", albeit with certain exceptions of: military service, convicted criminals, emergencies and minor community services.

The current usage of the word serfdom is not usually synonymous with slavery, because medieval serfs were considered to have rights, as human beings, whereas slaves were considered “things”—property.

Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation (such as wages) in return for their labor. In its narrowest sense, the word "slave" refers to people who are treated as the property of another person, household, company, corporation or government. This is referred to as chattel slavery.

Other uses of the term

The word slavery is often used as a pejorative to describe any activity one finds unpleasant or distasteful. On the one hand, this means the word slavery is applied in situations where it does not technically fit the definition. On the other hand, it also means that it is often not applied in situations that do fit the definition, but where the speaker feels that everyone has a duty to perform the action. Examples of the latter might include jury duty or military conscription, where a person is compelled to perform a job and is paid much less than one would have sought for a similar job in a free market.

  • The International Labour Organization says that child labour usually amounts to forced labour.
  • Many anarchists, socialists, and communists have condemned "wage slavery" or "economic slavery", where workers are forced to choose between selling their labor to a boss and facing starvation, poverty or a lack of prosperity. This is related to the notion of economic coercion.
  • Some libertarians and anarcho-capitalists view government taxation as a form of slavery.
  • Some feel that military drafts and other forms of coerced government labor constitute slavery. Gladiators, for example, were often slaves, with Spartacus being a famous example.
  • Some proponents of animal rights apply the term slavery to the condition of some or all human-owned animals, arguing that their status is no different from that of human slaves.
  • Some feel that child support orders amount to slavery . (Labor is compelled in typical court orders, and loss of employment often results in jail time for nonsupport.)

The evidence for slavery predates written records. It can be found in almost all cultures and continents. Slavery can be traced to the earliest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia (~1800 BC), which refers to slavery as an already established institution. An important exception occurred under the reign of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia in 500 BC. The forced labor of women in some ancient and modern cultures may also be identified as slavery. Slavery, in this case, includes sexual services.

In most institutions of slavery throughout the world, the children of slaves became the property of the master. Local laws varied as to whether the status of the mother or of the father determined the fate of the child, but it was usually determined by the status of the mother. In many cultures, slaves could earn their freedom through hard work and buying their own freedom. This was not possible in all cultures.

According to the Anti-Slavery Society, "Although there is no longer any state which legally recognizes, or which will enforce, a claim by a person to a right of property over another, the abolition of slavery does not mean that it ceased to exist. There are millions of people throughout the world—mainly children—in conditions of virtual slavery, as well as in various forms of servitude which are in many respects similar to slavery." It further notes that slavery, particularly child slavery, was on the rise in 2003. It points out that there are countless others in other forms of servitude (such as peonage, bonded labor and servile concubinage) which are not slavery in the narrow legal sense. Critics claim they are stretching the definition and practice of slavery beyond its original meaning, and are actually referring to forms of unfree labour other than slavery .

The type of work slaves did depended on the time period and location of their slavery. In general, they did the same work as everyone else in the lower echelons of the society they lived in but were not paid for it beyond room and board, clothing etc. The most common types of slave work were domestic service, agriculture, mineral extraction, army make-up, industry, and commerce. Prior to about the 18th century, domestic services were acquired in some wealthier households and included up to four female slaves and their children on its staff. The chattels (as they are called in some countries) were expected to cook, clean, sometimes carry water from an outdoor pump into the house, and grind cereal. Most hired servants now do the same tasks.

Many slaves were used in agriculture and cultivation from ancient times through the 1800s. The strong, young men and women were sometimes forced to work long days in the fields, with little or no breaks for water or food. Since slaves were usually considered valuable property, they were usually taken care of in the sense that minimally adequate food and shelter were provided to maintain good health, and that the workload was not excessive to the point of endangering health. However, this was not always the case in many countries where they worked on land that was owned by absentee owners. The overseers in many of these areas literally worked the slaves to death.

Slave trades

Stopping a slave sale would have been a nearly impossible challenge in Richmond, Virginia in 1845. Slave sales were legal then. Slavery was respectable. Even churches justified it. Business depended on slavery. Editors supported slavery in their papers, publishing ads for the sale of slaves or for the capture of runaways. Newspapers also published pro-slavery editorials.

If you were a white person, any mention of doubt about the rightness of slavery was dangerous. Business relationships, friendships, and family connections could end over this question.

If you were a black person, your life was at stake. As a slave, you had no freedom, no self-determination, and no protection. If you gained freedom, you could always be recaptured.

By 1845, slavery had existed in the United States for more than 200 years. Generations of blacks had been born into slavery. Generations of whites grew up knowing only a world with slavery.

However, in the twenty years to come (1845-1865), slavery would end. It would take a war to do it. It would take the combined efforts of thousands to oppose church, government, social practice, and economic greed in order to end slavery.

In mineral extraction, the majority of the work, when done by slaves, was done nearly always by men. In some places, they mined the salt that was used during extensive trade in the 19th century.

Some of the men in ancient civilizations who were bought into chattel slavery were trained to fight in their nation's army and other military services. Chattel slaves were occasionally trained in artisan workshops for industry and commerce. The men worked in metalworking, while the females normally worked in either textile trades or domestic household tasks. The majority of the time, the slave owners did not pay the chattels for their services beyond room and board, clothing etc.

However, not all slaves were manual laborers or servants. In some societies slaves sometimes attained highly responsible positions. In the Bible, Joseph, for instance, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but rose to become vizier to the Pharaoh. And the ranks of the Mamelukes, who ruled Egypt until being defeated by Napoleon in 1798, were filled by slaves from the Caucasus who were allowed to rule Egypt in exchange for maintaining its military defense.

Western slavery

In the West, slavery ended during the Medieval period, only to be revived after the Renaissance and its appreciation of the organization of classical society (i.e. ancient Greece and Rome).

Contemporary slavery

Since 1945, debate about the link between economic growth and different relational forms (most notably unfree social relations of production in Third World agriculture) occupied many contributing to discussions in the development decade (the 1960s). This continued to be the case in the mode of production debate (mainly about 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). Central to these discussions was the link between capitalist development and modern forms of unfree labour (peonage, debt bondage, indenture, chattel slavery). Within the domain of political economy it is a debate that has a very long historical lineage, and - accurately presented - never actually went away. Unlike advocacy groups, for which the number of the currently unfree is paramount, those political economists who participated in the earlier debates sought to establish who, precisely, was (or was not) to be included under the rubric of a worker whose subordination constituted a modern form of unfreedom. This element of definition was regarded as an epistemologically necessary precondition to any calculations of how many were to be categorized as relationally unfree.

Three types of slavery exist in contemporary society: wage slaves, contract slaves, and slaves in the traditional sense:

  • Wage slavery occurs when a person is employed at a wage level which does not allow the worker an opportunity to leave their employer. socialists and anarchists, however, use the term more broadly to refer to a situation in which a person must sell his or her labor power, submitting to the authority of an employer in order to prosper or merely to subsist; creating a hierarchical social condition in which a person chooses a job but only within a coerced set of choices (e.g. work for a boss or starve) which usually excludes democratic worker's control of the workplace and the economy as a whole and unconditional access to a fair share of the basic necessities of life.
  • Contract slavery occurs when people are tricked or compelled into signing contracts requiring them to work under conditions that amount to slavery.
  • Slavery in the traditional sense still exists, though it now operates underground. Actual slavery still operates using much the same methods as in the past, with people (often women and children) being abducted or lured by work offers, transported to another country where they are "sold" - with the men and male children sold for labor, while the women and girls are sometimes destined for domestic work or to work in prostitution, primarily in Asia and the West.

A combination of wage and contract slavery is found in Sarawak mining towns among Indonesian Dayak immigrants. They are required to buy the tools they need to work with. However, as they often do not have the required money, they need to buy them on a loan. Then they discover that local food is so expensive that all their wages are spent on that, so they can't pay off the loan and are forced by law to keep working for no gain.

Though slavery was officially abolished in China in 1910, the practice continues unofficially in some regions.

Slavery also exists in other countries across the world. 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.

One example of the contemporary fight against slavery worldwide, is against that which is especially pervasive in agriculture, apparel and the sex industry.

Current situation

Although outlawed in nearly all countries, forms of slavery still exist in some parts of the world. 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 (although some put the number as high as 200 million) who worked in virtual slavery in 2007, spread all over the world. According to FTS, these slaves represent the largest number of people that has ever been in slavery at any point in world history and the smallest percentage of the total human population that has ever been enslaved at once.

FTS claims that present-day slaves have been sold for US$40, in Mali, for young adult male laborers, or as much as US$1,000 in Thailand for HIV-free, young females, suitable for work in brothels. The lower limit represents the lowest price that there has ever been for a slave: the price of a comparable male slave in 1850 in the United States would have been about US$ in present-day terms (US$1,000 in 1850). That difference, even allowing for differences in purchasing power, is significant. As a result of the lower price, the economic advantages of present-day slavery are clear.

Enslavement is also taking place in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The Middle East Quarterly reports that slavery is still endemic in Sudan. In June and July 2007, 570 people who had been enslaved by brick manufacturers in Shanxi and Henan were freed by the Chinese government. Among those rescued were 69 children. 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.

In Mauritania alone, it is estimated that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are enslaved, many of them used as bonded labour. Slavery in Mauritania was criminalized in August 2007. 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. Pygmies, the people of Central Africa's rain forest, live in servitude to the Bantus. Some tribal sheiks in Iraq still keep blacks, called Abd, which means servant or slave in Arabic, as slaves. 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.

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. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), an estimated 800,000 people are subject to forced labour in Myanmar.

Human trafficking

Trafficking in human beings (also called human trafficking) is sometimes referred to as a form of slavery. The opponents of the practice point out that victims are tricked, lured by false promises, or forced into a "debt slavery" situation by the use against them of coercion, deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat and use of physical force, debt bondage or even force-feeding with drugs of abuse to control their victims.

Whilst 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.

Due to the illegal nature of human trafficking, its exact extent is unknown. A US Government report published in 2005, estimates that 600,000-800,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally.


Economists have attempted to model during which circumstances slavery (and milder 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. 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. It was reintroduced in the Americas and in Russia (serfdom) as large new land areas with few people become available.

Another observation is 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. Thus, slavery tends to decrease with technological advancements requiring more skilled people, even as they are able to demand high wages.

It has also been argued that slavery tends to retard technological advancement, since the focus is on increasing the number of slaves rather than improving the efficiency of labor. Because of this, theoretical knowledge and learning in Greece—and later in Rome—was largely separated from physical labour and manufacturing. Some Russian scholars have argued that the Soviet Union's technological development was hindered by Stalin's use of slave labor.

Abolitionist movements

History of abolitionism

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. The Cyrus Cylinder, inscribed about 539 BC by the order of Cyrus the Great of Persia, abolished slavery and allowed Jews and other nationalities who had been enslaved under Babylonian rule to return to their native lands. Abolitionism should be distinguished from efforts to help a particular group of slaves, or to restrict one practice, such as the slave trade.

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, to make the issue his own. After the abolition act was passed these campaigners switched to encouraging other countries to follow suit, notably France and the British colonies.

Abolitionist pressure in the United States produced a series of small steps forward. After January 1, 1808, the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited, 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 another 60 years.

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 states:

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


On May 21, 2001, the National Assembly of France passed the Taubira law, recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity. At the same time the British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese delegations declined to give an apology for the slave trade and limited to give a "regret." This is probably due to the legal implications of such a statement. It is worth to mention that it is uncertain whether the apology of these four nations are for "slave trade" or "slavery". Apologies on behalf of African nations, for their role in trading their countrymen into slavery, also 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. 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 and the Yoruba 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 Mayor Livingstone, and added that reparations should be made. Neither mentioned the role of the original Arab and Muslim captors of African slaves.


Sporadically 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.

Nonetheless, from time to time misinformation is circulated (often through e-mail) to United States residents describing a $5000 "slavery tax credit", supposedly passed into law under President Bill Clinton's administration during the 1990s, but never announced to the public. No such credit exists, and persons attempting to promote or take advantage of the alleged credit are subject to prosecution. (See Slavery reparations scam for further information.) A similar scam involves a "tax credit" available to Native Americans.

Religion and slavery

Some argue that the Bible condones slavery in Ancient Israelite society by failing to condemn the widespread existing practice present in other cultures. It also explicitly states that under certain circumstances, slavery is morally acceptable.

There are also scholars who argue that Islam condones slavery, although the institution of slavery has largely been outlawed in the Muslim world.

See also


Slavery by region




  • Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, vol. III: The Perspective of the World (1984, originally published in French, 1979.)
  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (1999)
  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1988)
  • Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of Slavery (1999)
  • Lal, K. S. Muslim Slave System in Medieval India (1994) ISBN 81-85689-67-9
  • Gordon, M. Slavery in the Arab World (1989)
  • Jacqueline Dembar Greene, Slavery in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, (2001), ISBN 0531165388
  • Nieboer, H. J. Slavery as an Industrial System (1910)
  • Postma, Johannes. The Atlantic Slave Trade, (2003)
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed., The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery (1997)
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia (2007)
  • Shell, Robert Carl-Heinz Children Of Bondage: A Social History Of The Slave Society At The Cape Of Good Hope, 1652-1813 (1994)
  • William Linn Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (1955), ISBN 0871690403

Uncited sources


Slavery in the modern era

  • Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten, Enslaved: True Stories of Modern Day Slavery, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 ISBN 9781403974938
  • Tom Brass, Marcel van der Linden, and Jan Lucassen, Free and Unfree Labour. Amsterdam: International Institute for Social History, 1993
  • Tom Brass, Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates, London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999. 400 pages.
  • Tom Brass and Marcel van der Linden, eds., Free and Unfree Labour: The Debate Continues, Bern: Peter Lang AG, 1997. 600 pages. A volume containing contributions by all the most important writers on modern forms of unfree labour.
  • Kevin Bales, Disposable People. New Slavery in the Global Economy, Revised Edition, University of California Press 2004, ISBN 0-520-24384-6
  • Kevin Bales (ed.), Understanding Global Slavery Today. A Reader, University of California Press 2005, ISBN 0-520-24507-5freak
  • Kevin Bales, Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves, University of California Press 2007, ISBN 978-0-520-25470-1.
  • Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis, Slave: My True Story, ISBN 1-58648-212-2. Mende is a Nuba, captured at 12 years old. She was granted political asylum by the British government in 2003.
  • Gary Craig, Aline Gaus, Mick Wilkinson, Klara Skrivankova and Aidan McQuade: Contemporary slavery in the UK: Overview and key issues, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 26 Feb 2007, ISBN 978 1 85935 57
  • Somaly Mam Foundation

External links


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