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Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation. Historically, slavery was institutionally recognized by many societies; in more recent times slavery has been outlawed in most societies but continues through the practices of debt bondage, indentured servitude, serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, certain adoptions in which children are forced to work as slaves, child soldiers, and forced marriage. There are more slaves in the early 21st century than at any previous time but opponents hope slavery can be eradicated within 30 years.

Slavery predates written records and has existed in many cultures. The number of slaves today remains as high as 12 million to 27 million. Most are debt slaves, largely in South Asia, who are under debt bondage incurred by lenders, sometimes even for generations. Human trafficking is primarily used for forcing women and children into sex industries.

In pre-industrial societies, slaves and their labour were economically extremely important. Slaves and serfs made up around three-quarters of the world's population at the beginning of the 19th century.

In modern mechanised societies, there is less need for sheer massive manpower; Norbert Wiener wrote that "mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, though ... it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty."


The English word slave comes from Old French sclave, from the Medieval Latin sclavus, from the Byzantine Greek σκλάβος.

The word σκλάβος, in turn, comes from the ethnonym Slav, because in some wars in early mediaeval times many Slavs were captured and enslaved. An older theory connected it to the Greek verb skyleúo 'to strip a slain enemy'.


Photograph of a slave boy in Zanzibar. 'An Arab master's punishment for a slight offence. ' c. 1890.

Chattel slavery

Chattel slavery, so named because people are treated as the personal property, chattels, of an owner and are bought and sold as commodities, is the original form of slavery. When taking these chattels across national borders it is referred to as human trafficking especially when these slaves provide sexual services.

Bonded labor

Debt bondage or bonded labor occurs when a person pledges himself or herself against a loan. The services required to repay the debt, and their duration, may be undefined. Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation, with children required to pay off their parents' debt. It is the most widespread form of slavery today.

Forced labor

Forced labor occurs when an individual is forced to work against his or her will, under threat of violence or other punishment, with restrictions on their freedom. It is also used to describe all types of slavery and may also include institutions not commonly classified as slavery, such as serfdom, conscription and penal labor.


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

Early history

Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures. Prehistoric graves from about 8000 BC in Lower Egypt suggest that a Libyan people enslaved a San-like tribe. Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations, as it is a system of social stratification. Mass slavery also requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Due to these factors, the practice of slavery would have only proliferated after the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution about 11,000 years ago.

In the earliest known records slavery is treated as an established institution. The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 BC), for example, prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave to escape or who sheltered a fugitive. The Hebrew Bible refers uncritically to slavery as an established institution.

Slavery was known in almost every ancient civilization, and society, including Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Ancient India, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Islamic Caliphate, the Hebrews in Palestine, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. Such institutions included debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.

Classical Antiquity

The work of the Mercedarians was in ransoming Christians slaves held in Muslim hands (1637).

Records of slavery in Ancient Greece go as far back as Mycenaean Greece. It is certain that Classical Athens had the largest slave population, with as many as 80,000 in the 6th and 5th centuries BC; two to four-fifths of the population were slaves. As the Roman Republic expanded outward, entire populations were enslaved, thus creating an ample supply from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Greeks, Illyrians, Berbers, Germans, Britons, Thracians, Gauls, Jews, Arabs, and many more were slaves used not only for labour, but also for amusement (e. g. gladiators and sex slaves). This oppression by an elite minority eventually led to slave revolts (see Roman Servile Wars); the Third Servile War led by Spartacus being the most famous and severe. By the late Republican era, slavery had become a vital economic pillar in the wealth of Rome, as well as a very significant part of Roman society. At the least, some 25% of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved. According to some scholars, slaves represented 35% or more of Italy's population. In the city of Rome alone, under the Roman Empire, there were about 400,000 slaves. During the millennium from the emergence of the Roman Empire to its eventual decline, at least 100 million people were captured or sold as slaves throughout the Mediterranean and its hinterlands.

Middle Ages

Medieval Europe

A Jewish slave trader being presented to Boleslaus of Bohemia, 10th century.

Large-scale trading in slaves was mainly confined to the South and East of early medieval Europe: the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world were the destinations, while pagan Central and Eastern Europe (along with the Caucasus and Tartary) were important sources. Viking, Arab, Greek, and Radhanite Jewish merchants were all involved in the slave trade during the Early Middle Ages. The trade in European slaves reached a peak in the 10th century following the Zanj rebellion which dampened the use of African slaves in the Arab world.

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

Depiction of socage on the royal demesne in feudal England, ca. 1310. Socage is an aspect of serfdom, not usually included under the term "slavery".

In Britain, slavery continued to be practiced following the fall of Rome and sections of Hywel the Good's laws dealt with slaves in medieval Wales. The trade particularly picked up after the Viking invasions, with major markets at Chester and Bristol supplied by Danish, Mercian, and Welsh raiding of one another's borderlands. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), nearly 10% of the English population were slaves. Slavery in early medieval Europe was so common that the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it — or at least the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands was prohibited at e. g. the Council of Koblenz (922), the Council of London (1102), and the Council of Armagh (1171). In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, granting the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery, legitimizing the slave trade as a result of war. The approval of slavery under these conditions was reaffirmed and extended in his Romanus Pontifex bull of 1455. However, Pope Paul III forbade enslavement of the native Americans in 1537 in his papal bull Sublimus Dei. Dominican friars who arrived at the Spanish settlement at Santo Domingo strongly denounced the enslavement of the local native Americans. Along with other priests, they opposed their treatment as unjust and illegal in an audience with the Spanish king and in the subsequent royal commission.

The Byzantine-Ottoman wars and the Ottoman wars in Europe brought large numbers of slaves into the Islamic world. From the mid to late 14th, through early 18th centuries, the Ottoman devşirme– janissary system enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam an estimated 500,000 to one million non–Muslim (primarily Balkan Christian) adolescent males. After the Battle of Lepanto approximately 12,000 Christian galley slaves were freed from the Ottoman fleet. A few years later Cervantes, who later wrote the famous book Don Quixote, was captured by corsairs and enslaved in Algiers, attempted to escape and was eventually ransomed; he wrote about the plight of Christian slaves in his fiction. Eastern Europe suffered a series of Tatar invasions, the goal of which was to loot and capture slaves into jasyr. Seventy-five Crimean Tatar raids were recorded into Poland–Lithuania between 1474 and 1569. There were more than 100,000 Russian captives in the Kazan Khanate alone in 1551.

Crimean Tatar raiders enslaved more than 1 million Eastern Europeans.

Approximately 10–20% of the rural population of Carolingian Europe consisted of slaves. In Western Europe slavery largely disappeared by the later Middle Ages. The trade of slaves in England was made illegal in 1102, although England went on to become very active in the lucrative Atlantic slave trade from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. Thralldom in Scandinavia was finally abolished in the mid-14th century. Slavery persisted longer in Eastern Europe. Slavery in Poland was forbidden in the 15th century; in Lithuania, slavery was formally abolished in 1588; they were replaced by the second serfdom. In Kievan Rus and Muscovy, the slaves were usually classified as kholops.

Islamic world

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

In early Islamic states of the western Sudan, including Ghana (750–1076), Mali (1235–1645), Segou (1712–1861), and Songhai (1275–1591), about a third of the population were enslaved.

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

In the Thousand and One Nights there are mentions of white slaves.

Modern history


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

David P. Forsythe wrote: "In 1649 up to three-quarters of Muscovy's peasants, or 13 to 14 million people, were serfs whose material lives were barely distinguishable from slaves. Perhaps another 1.5 million were formally enslaved, with Russian slaves serving Russian masters. " Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679. Russia's more than 23 million privately held serfs were freed from their lords by an edict of Alexander II in 1861. State-owned serfs were emancipated in 1866.

During the Second World War (1939–1945) Nazi Germany effectively enslaved about 12 million people, both those considered undesirable and citizens of countries they conquered.


The main routes that were used to transport slaves across medieval Africa.
Arab slave traders and their captives along the Ruvuma river (in today's Tanzania and Mozambique).

In Senegambia, between 1300 and 1900, close to one-third of the population was enslaved. In Sierra Leone in the 19th century about half of the population consisted of enslaved people.

In the 19th century at least half the population was enslaved among the Duala of the Cameroon, the Igbo and other peoples of the lower Niger, the Kongo, and the Kasanje kingdom and Chokwe of Angola. Among the Ashanti and Yoruba a third of the population consisted of enslaved people.

The population of the Kanem (1600–1800) was about a third-enslaved. It was perhaps 40% in Bornu (1580–1890). Between 1750 and 1900 from one- to two-thirds of the entire population of the Fulani War states consisted of slaves.

In Algiers, the capital of Algeria in Northern Africa, Christians and Europeans that were captured had been forced into slavery. This eventually led to the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816.

The population of the Sokoto caliphate formed by Fulanis and Hausas in northern Nigeria and Cameroon was half-slave in the 19th century. Between 65% to 90% population of Arab- Swahili Zanzibar was enslaved. The Swahili-Arab slave trade reached its height about 150 years ago, when, for example, approximately 20,000 slaves were considered to be carried yearly from Nkhotakota on Lake Malawi to Kilwa. Roughly half the population of Madagascar was enslaved.

According to the Encyclopedia of African History, "It is estimated that by the 1890s the largest slave population of the world, about 2 million people, was concentrated in the territories of the Sokoto Caliphate. The use of slave labor was extensive, especially in agriculture. " The Anti-Slavery Society estimated there were 2 million slaves in Ethiopia in the early 1930s out of an estimated population of between 8 and 16 million.

Hugh Clapperton in 1824 believed that half the population of Kano were enslaved people. W. A. Veenhoven wrote: "The German doctor, Gustav Nachtigal, an eye-witness, believed that for every slave who arrived at a market three or four died on the way ... Keltie (The Partition of Africa, London, 1920) believes that for every slave the Arabs brought to the coast at least six died on the way or during the slavers' raid. Livingstone puts the figure as high as ten to one. "

Slave traders in Gorée, Senegal, 18th century

One of the most famous slave traders on the East African coast was Tippu Tip, who was himself the grandson of an enslaved African. The prazeros slave traders, descendants of Portuguese and Africans, operated along the Zambezi. North of the Zambezi, the waYao and Makua people played a similar role as professional slave raiders and traders. The Nyamwezi slave traders operated further north under the leadership of Msiri and Mirambo.


In Constantinople about one-fifth of the population consisted of slaves. It has been estimated that some 200,000 slaves – mainly Circassians – were imported into the Ottoman Empire between 1800 and 1909. As late as 1908, women slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire. A slave market for captured Russian and Persian slaves was centred in the Central Asian khanate of Khiva. In the early 1840s, the population of the Uzbek states of Bukhara and Khiva included about 900,000 slaves. Darrel P. Kaiser wrote, " Kazakh-Kirghiz tribesmen kidnapped 1573 settlers from colonies [German settlements in Russia] in 1774 alone and only half were successfully ransomed. The rest were killed or enslaved. "

According to Sir Henry Bartle Frere (who sat on the Viceroy's Council), there were an estimated 8 or 9 million slaves in India in 1841. About 15% of the population of Malabar were slaves. Slavery was abolished in British India by the Indian Slavery Act V. of 1843.

In East Asia, the Imperial government formally abolished slavery in China in 1906, and the law became effective in 1910. Slave rebellion in China at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century was so extensive that owners eventually converted the institution into a female-dominated one. The Nangzan in Tibetan history were, according to Chinese sources, hereditary household slaves.

Indigenous slaves existed in Korea. Slavery was officially abolished with the Gabo Reform of 1894 but continued in reality until 1930. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) about 30% to 50% of the Korean population were slaves. In late 16th century Japan slavery as such was officially banned, but forms of contract and indentured labor persisted alongside the period penal codes' forced labor.

In Southeast Asia, a quarter to a third of seventeenth- to twentieth-century populations in some areas of Thailand and Burma were slaves. The hill tribe people in Indochina were "hunted incessantly and carried off as slaves by the Siamese (Thai), the Anamites (Vietnamese), and the Cambodians. " A Siamese military campaign in Laos in 1876 was described by a British observer as having been "transformed into slave-hunting raids on a large scale". The census, taken in 1879, showed that 6% of the population in the Malay sultanate of Perak were slaves. Enslaved people made up about two-thirds of the population in part of North Borneo in the 1880s.


The Brazilian slave-hunter, 1823, by Johann Moritz Rugendas.

Slavery in the Americas had a contentious history, and played a major role in the history and evolution of some countries, triggering at least one revolution and one civil war, as well as numerous rebellions. The Aztecs had slaves. Other Amerindians, such as the Inca of the Andes, the Tupinambá of Brazil, the Creek of Georgia, and the Comanche of Texas, also owned slaves.

Slavery was prominent in Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean from the Americas, long before the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. The maritime town of Lagos, Portugal, Europe, was the first slave market created in Portugal (one of the earliest colonizers of the Americas) for the sale of imported African slaves – the Mercado de Escravos, opened in 1444. In 1441, the first slaves were brought to Portugal from northern Mauritania.

In 1519, Mexico's first Afro-Mexican slave was brought by Hernán Cortés.

By 1552, black African slaves made up 10% of the population of Lisbon. In the second half of the 16th century, the Crown gave up the monopoly on slave trade and the focus of European trade in African slaves shifted from import to Europe to slave transports directly to tropical colonies in the Americas – in the case of Portugal, especially Brazil. In the 15th century one-third of the slaves were resold to the African market in exchange of gold.

Spain had to fight against the relatively powerful civilizations of the New World. The Spanish conquest of the indigenous peoples in the Americas included using the Natives as forced labour, part of the wider Atlantic slave trade. The Spanish colonies were the first Europeans to use African slaves in the New World on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola.

The public flogging of a slave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From Jean Baptiste Debret, Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil (1834–1839).

Bartolomé de Las Casas a 16th-century Dominican friar and Spanish historian participated in campaigns in Cuba (at Bayamo and Camagüey) and was present at the massacre of Hatuey; his observation of that massacre led him to fight for a social movement away from the use of natives as slaves and towards the importation of African Blacks as slaves. Also, the alarming decline in the native population had spurred the first royal laws protecting the native population ( Laws of Burgos, 1512–1513).

The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501. In 1518, Charles I of Spain agreed to ship slaves directly from Africa. England played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade. The " slave triangle" was pioneered by Francis Drake and his associates. A black man named Anthony Johnson of Virginia first introduced permanent black slavery in the 1650s by becoming the first holder in America of permanent black slaves. By 1750, slavery was a legal institution in all of the 13 American colonies, and the profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

The Transatlantic slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured on raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa. These expeditions were typically carried out by African kingdoms, such as the Oyo empire ( Yoruba), the Ashanti Empire, the kingdom of Dahomey, and the Aro Confederacy. Europeans rarely entered the interior of Africa, due to fierce African resistance. The slaves were brought to coastal outposts where they were traded for goods. A significant portion of African Americans in North America are descended from Mandinka people. Through a series of conflicts, primarily with the Fulani Jihad States, about half of the Senegambian Mandinka were converted to Islam while as many as a third were sold into slavery to the Americas through capture in conflict.

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

An estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15% of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. Approximately 6 million black Africans were killed by others in tribal wars.

The white citizens of Virginia decided to treat the first Africans in Virginia as indentured servants. Over half of all European immigrants to Colonial America during the 17th and 18th centuries arrived as indentured servants. In 1655, John Casor, a black man, became the first legally recognized slave in the present United States. According to the 1860 U. S. census, 393,975 individuals, representing 8% of all US families, owned 3,950,528 slaves. One-third of Southern families owned slaves.

Funeral at slave plantation, Suriname. Colored lithograph printed circa 1840-1850, digitally restored.

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

Author Charles Rappleye argued that

In the West Indies in particular, but also in North and South America, slavery was the engine that drove the mercantile empires of Europe..It appeared, in the eighteenth century, as universal and immutable as human nature.
Lady in litter being carried by her slaves, province of São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860.

Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended shortly after the American Revolution, slavery remained a central economic institution in the Southern states of the United States, from where slavery expanded with the westward movement of population. Historian Peter Kolchin wrote, "By breaking up existing families and forcing slaves to relocate far from everyone and everything they knew" this migration "replicated (if on a reduced level) many of [the] horrors" of the Atlantic slave trade.

Historian Ira Berlin called this forced migration the Second Middle Passage. Characterizing it as the "central event" in the life of a slave between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Berlin wrote that whether they were uprooted themselves or simply lived in fear that they or their families would be involuntarily moved, "the massive deportation traumatized black people, both slave and free. "

By 1860, 500,000 slaves had grown to 4 million. As long as slavery expanded, it remained profitable and powerful and was unlikely to disappear. Although complete statistics are lacking, it is estimated that 1,000,000 slaves moved west from the Old South between 1790 and 1860.

Most of the slaves were moved from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Michael Tadman, in a 1989 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South, indicates that 60–70% of interregional migrations were the result of the sale of slaves. In 1820, a child in the Upper South had a 30% chance to be sold south by 1860.

In Puerto Rico, African slavery was finally abolished on March 22, 1873.

Middle East

Ottoman wars in Europe resulted in many captive Christians being carried deep into Muslim territory.

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

Persian slave in the Khanate of Khiva, 19th century
British captain witnessing the miseries of the Christian slaves in Algiers, 1815
The Arab enslavement of the Dinka people.

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

Under Omani Arabs Zanzibar became East Africa's main slave port, with as many as 50,000 enslaved Africans passing through every year during the 19th century. Some historians estimate that between 11 and 18 million African slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert from 650 AD to 1900 AD. Eduard Rüppell described the heavy mortality of the enslaved Sudanese before reaching Egypt: "after the Daftardar bey's 1822 campaign in the southern Nuba mountains, nearly 40,000 slaves were captured. However, through bad treatment, disease and desert travel barely 5000 made it to Egypt. "

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

Present day

The number of slaves today remains as high as 12 million to 27 million, even though slavery is now outlawed in all countries. Several estimates of the number of slaves in the world have been provided. According to a broad definition of slavery used by Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves (FTS), an advocacy group linked with Anti-Slavery International, there were 27 million people in slavery in 1999, spread all over the world. In 2005, the International Labour Organization provided an estimate of 12.3 million forced labourers in the world. Siddharth Kara has also provided an estimate of 28.4 million slaves at the end of 2006 divided into the following three categories: bonded labour/ debt bondage (18.1 million), forced labour (7.6 million), and trafficked slaves (2.7 million). Kara provides a dynamic model to calculate the number of slaves in the world each year, with an estimated 29.2 million at the end of 2009.

Examples of modern slavery are numerous. In 2008, the Nepalese government abolished the Haliya system of forced labour, freeing about 20,000 people. An estimated 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits or "untouchables", are bonded workers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off debts. Though slavery was officially abolished in China in 1910, the practice continues unofficially in some regions of the country. In June and July 2007, 550 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. The North Korean government operates six large political prison camps, where political prisoners and their families (around 200,000 people) in lifelong detention are subjected to hard slave labor, torture and inhumane treatment. In 2010 in Brazil more than 5,000 slaves were rescued by authorities as part of a government initiative to eradicate slavery. Poverty has forced at least 225,000 Haitian children to work as restavecs (unpaid household servants); the United Nations considers this to be a form of slavery.

In Mauritania, the last country to abolish slavery (in 1981), it is estimated that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are enslaved with many used as bonded labour. Slavery in Mauritania was criminalized in August 2007. The Middle East Quarterly reports that slavery is still endemic in Sudan. In Niger, slavery is also a current phenomenon. A Nigerien study has found that more than 800,000 people are enslaved, almost 8% of the population. Niger officially abolished slavery in 2003. Many pygmies in the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo belong from birth to Bantus in a system of slavery. 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 US 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.

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

While the majority of trafficking 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 to 800,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally. Another research effort revealed that between 1.5 million and 1.8 million individuals are trafficked either internally or internationally each year, 500,000 to 600,000 of whom are sex trafficking victims.


John Beaumont B. Godwin William Taylor William Taylor John Morrison GK Prince James Dean (abolitionist) Joseph Eaton James Whitehorne George Bennett William Tatum Nathaniel Colver - American not known John Cropper - Most generous Liverpudlian William James William Wilson Thomas Swan Edward Steane Edward Baldwin Jonathon Miller Charles Stovel - Baptist John Sturge Rev. Isaac Bass Henry Sterry Peter Clare -; sec. of Literary & Phil. Soc. Manchester J.H. Johnson Thomas Price Joseph Reynolds Samuel Wheeler William Boultbee William Fairbank John Woodmark Joseph Cooper Thomas Bulley Isaac Hodgson Edward Smith not known Thomas Pinches Richard Barrett John Steer Henry Tuckett John Birt M. L'Instant from Haiti T.M. McDonnell Mrs John Beaumont Thomas Morgan Henry Beckford - emancipated slave and abolitionist Use your cursor to explore (or Click
The painting of the 1840 Anti-Slavery Society Convention at Exeter Hall. Move your cursor to identify delegates or click the icon to enlarge.

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.

The Greek Stoics advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings, and consistently critiqued slavery as against the law of nature. Emperor Wang Mang abolished slave trading (although not slavery) in China in 9 CE. Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned slavery in Japan in 1590.

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

One of the first protests against the enslavement of Africans came from German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1688. One of the most significant milestones in the campaign to abolish slavery throughout the world occurred in England in 1772, with British judge Lord Mansfield, whose opinion in Somersett's Case was widely taken to have held that slavery was illegal in England. This judgement also laid down the principle that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions (such as the American colonies) could not be enforced in England. In 1777, Vermont became the first portion of what would become the United States to abolish slavery (at the time Vermont was an independent nation). In 1794, under the Jacobins, Revolutionary France abolished slavery. There were celebrations in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom through the work of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

William Wilberforce received much of the credit although the groundwork was an anti-slavery essay by Thomas Clarkson. Wilberforce was also urged by his close friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, to make the issue his own, and was also given support by reformed Evangelical John Newton. The Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament on March 25, 1807, making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire, Wilberforce also campaigned for abolition of slavery in the British Empire, which he lived to see in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. After the 1807 act abolishing the slave trade was passed, these campaigners switched to encouraging other countries to follow suit, notably France and the British colonies. In 1839, the world's oldest international human rights organization, Anti-Slavery International, was formed in Britain by Joseph Sturge, which campaigned to outlaw slavery in other countries.

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

Three people in chains, probably somewhere in East-Africa. By 1900, slaves comprised up to one-third of Ethiopia's population. Emperor Haile Selassie officially abolished slavery in 1942.

In the United States, abolitionist pressure produced a series of small steps towards emancipation. After January 1, 1808, the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited, 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. were legally emancipated only in 1863. Many American abolitionists took an active role in opposing slavery by supporting the Underground Railroad. Violence soon erupted, with the anti-slavery forces led by John Brown, and Bleeding Kansas, involving anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers, became a symbol for the nationwide clash over slavery. By 1860 the total number of slaves reached almost four million, and the American Civil War, beginning in 1861, led to the end of slavery in the United States.

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

Photographed in 1863 – Peter, a man who was enslaved in Mississippi. This famous photo was distributed by abolitionists.

In the 1860s, David Livingstone's reports of atrocities within the Arab slave trade in Africa stirred up the interest of the British public, reviving the flagging abolitionist movement. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s attempted to suppress "this abominable Eastern trade", at Zanzibar in particular. In 1905, the French abolished indigenous slavery in most of French West Africa.

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

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

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.

Legal actions

In November 2006, the International Labour Organization announced it will be seeking "to prosecute members of the ruling Myanmar junta for crimes against humanity" over the continuous unfree 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.

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


Gustave Boulanger's painting The Slave Market

Economists have attempted to model the circumstances under which slavery (and variants such as serfdom) appear and disappear. One observation is that slavery becomes more desirable for landowners where land is abundant but labour is scarce, such that rent is depressed and paid workers can demand high wages. If the opposite holds true, then it becomes more costly for landowners to have guards for the slaves than to employ paid workers who can only demand low wages due to the amount of competition. Thus, first slavery and then serfdom gradually decreased in Europe as the population grew, but were reintroduced in the Americas and in Russia as large areas of new land with few people became available. In his books, Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract: the Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert Fogel maintains that slavery was in fact a profitable method of production, especially on bigger plantations growing cotton that fetched high prices in the world market. It gave whites in the South higher average incomes than those in the North, but most of the money was spent on buying slaves and plantations.

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

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

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

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

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

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


On May 21, 2001, the National Assembly of France passed the Taubira law, recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity. Apologies on behalf of African nations, for their role in trading their countrymen into slavery, remain an open issue since slavery was practiced in Africa even before the first Europeans arrived and the Atlantic slave trade was performed with a high degree of involvement of several African societies. The black slave market was supplied by well-established slave trade networks controlled by local African societies and individuals. 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 Calabar and other southern parts of Nigeria had economies depended solely on the trade. African peoples such as the Imbangala of Angola and the Nyamwezi of Tanzania would serve as middlemen or roving bands warring with other African nations to capture Africans for Europeans.

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.

In 1999, President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin (formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey) issued a national apology for the central role Africans played in the Atlantic slave trade. Luc Gnacadja, minister of environment and housing for Benin, later said: "The slave trade is a shame, and we do repent for it." Researchers estimate that 3 million slaves were exported out of the Slave Coast bordering the Bight of Benin. President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana also apologized for his country's involvement in 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 might issue a "statement of regret" over slavery. This was followed by a "public statement of sorrow" from Tony Blair on November 27, 2006, and a formal apology on March 14, 2007.

On February 25, 2007, the Commonwealth 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.

Liverpool, which was a large slave trading port, apologized in 1999. 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. Specifically, London outfitted, financed, and insured many of the ships, which helped fund the building of London's docks. Jesse Jackson praised Livingstone, and added that reparations should be made, one of his common arguments.

On July 30, 2008, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for American slavery and subsequent discriminatory laws. In June 2009, the US Senate passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery". The news was welcomed by President Barack Obama, the nation's first President of African descent. Some of President Obama's ancestors were slave owners.

In 2010, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi apologized for Arab involvement in the slave trade, saying: "I regret the behaviour of the Arabs… They brought African children to North Africa, they made them slaves, they sold them like animals, and they took them as slaves and traded them in a shameful way."


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

Other uses of the term

"Bound slave". Orientalist nude photograph by Lehnert & Landrock, Tunisia circa 1900.

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

  • Many argue that military drafts and other forms of coerced government labour constitute state-operated slavery.
  • Some socialists, including Noam Chomsky, view total and immediate wage dependence as a form of slavery.
  • Some libertarians and anarcho-capitalists view government taxation as a form of slavery.
  • Some proponents of animal rights apply the term slavery to the condition of some or all human-owned animals, arguing that their status is comparable to that of human slaves.


Year Original title English title
(if different)
Format Film genre Director Actor Country Book Author
1960 Spartacus     Historical drama film, Historical epic Stanley Kubrick Kirk Douglas  United States    
1969 Queimada Burn!   Drama Gillo Pontecorvo Marlon Brando  Italy    
1977 Roots   TV series Drama, Historical drama film Chomsky, Erman, Greene et Moses    United States Roots: The Saga of an American Family Alex Haley
1997 Amistad     Drama Steven Spielberg    United States    
1998 Beloved     Drama Jonathan Demme    United States   Toni Morrison
2000 Gladiator     Historical epic Ridley Scott Russell Crowe  United Kingdom,  United States  
2005 500 Years Later     Documentary Owen 'Alik Shahadah    United Kingdom,  United States    
2006 Amazing Grace     Drama, Historical drama film Michael Apted    United Kingdom,  United States    
2007 Trade     Thriller Marco Kreuzpaintner    Germany,  United States    
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