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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.