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Slavery is the forced labour of another person.

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Slavery is the absolute legal ownership of a person or persons. Slavery includes the legal right to buy and sell slaves. Tax slavery is the absolute legal ownership of the ruler over a person's labour or income. Serfdom (as last present in 19th century Russia) is generally defined as the ruler/landowner owning between a third and a fifth of a person's income. While slavery has been a prominent feature of many civilizations throughout recorded human history, it has acquired a repugnant aura, in part as a result of abolitionist movements in the 19th century.

Etymology of the word slavery.

Slavery Memorial Fountain.
The Buxton Memorial Fountain, celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1834, London.
Slave market.
Slave market in early medieval Eastern Europe.

The word slave in the English language originates from the Middle English sclave, which comes from the Old French esclave, which in turn comes from the Medieval Latin sclavus, which originates from the early Greek sklabos, from sklabenoi Slavs, of Slavic origin; akin to Old Russian Slovene, an East Slavic tribe. The Latin term sclavus originally referred to the Slavs of Eastern and Central Europe, as many of these people had been captured and then sold as slaves. The current usage of the word serfdom is not usually synonymous with slavery, because medieval serfs were considered to have some (though limited) rights. Slaves are people who are owned and controlled by others in a way that they have almost no rights or freedom of movement and are not paid for their labour, aside from food, clothing and shelter needed for basic subsistence.

Definitions of slavery.

Where slavery has been a legal or customary practice, slaves were held under the involuntary control of another person, group, organization, or state. The legal presence of slavery has become rare in modern times, as nearly all societies now consider slavery to be illegal, and persons held in such condition are considered by authorities to be victims of unlawful imprisonment.

A specific form, known as chattel slavery, is defined by the legal ownership of a person or persons by another person or state, including the legal right to buy and sell them just as one would any common owned object.

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.

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.

Other uses of the term

None of the following are covered by this article. See the respective articles for details.

  • The International Labour Organization says that child labour usually amounts to forced labour.
  • Many socialists and communists have condemned "wage slavery" or "economic slavery", where workers are forced to choose between accepting wages perceived as too low for their work and not being paid at all (and so presumably starving). This is related to the notion of economic coercion.
  • Some anarchists and libertarians view government taxation as a form of slavery.
  • Some feel that military drafts and other forms of coerced government labor constitute 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 no different from that of human slaves.

How people become slaves.

Captive Andromache by Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton - a Trojan princess enslaved after the Trojan war.

Historically, most slaves ancestors were initially captured in wars or kidnapped in isolated raids but some were sold into slavery by their parents as a means of surviving extreme conditions. Most slaves were born into that status. Ancient warfare often resulted in slavery for prisoners and their families who were either killed, ransomed or sold as slaves. Captives were often considered the property of those who captured them and were looked upon as a prize of war. Normally they were sold, bartered or ransomed. It originally may have been more humane than simply executing those who would return to fight if they were freed, but the effect led to widespread enslavement of particular groups of people. Those captured sometimes differed in ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race from the captors but often were the same as the captors. The dominant group in an area might take captives and turn them into slaves with little fear of suffering the like fate, but the possibility might be present from reversals of fortune, as when Seneca warns, at the height of the Roman Empire,

And as often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you. "But I have no master," you say. You are still young; perhaps you will have one. Do you not know at what age Hecuba entered captivity, or Croesus, or the mother of Darius, or Plato, or Diogenes

and when various powerful nations fought among themselves anyone might find himself enslaved. The actual amount of force needed to kidnap individual people for slaves could lead to enslavement of those secure from warfare, as brief sporadic raids or kidnapping often sufficed. St. Patrick recounts in his Confession having been kidnapped by pirates, and the Biblical figure Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers.

Ancient societies characterized by poverty, rampant warfare or lawlessness, famines, population pressures, and cultural and technological lag are frequently exporters of slaves to more developed nations. Today the illegal slave trade (mostly in Africa) deals with slaves who are rural people forced to move to cities, or those purchased in rural areas and sold into slavery in cities. These moves take place due to loss of subsistence agriculture, thefts of land, and population increases.

In many ancient cultures, persons (often including their family) convicted of serious crimes could be sold into slavery. The proceeds from this sale were often used to compensate the victims. The Code of Hammurabi (~1800 BCE) prescribes this for failure to maintain a water dam, to compensate victims of a flood. The convicted criminal might be sold into slavery if he lacked the property to make compensation to the victims. Other laws and other crimes might enslave the criminal regardless of his property; some laws called for the criminal and all his property to be handed over to his victim.

Also, persons have been sold into slavery so that the money could be used to pay off their debts. This could range from a judge, king or Emperor ordering a debtor sold with all his family, to the poor selling off their own children to prevent starvation. In times of dire need such as famine, people have offered themselves into slavery not for a purchase price, but merely so that their new master would feed and take care of them.

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 were 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.

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 are 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 may include up to four female slaves and their children on its staff. The chattels (as they are called in some countries) are expected to cook, clean, sometimes carry water from an outdoor pump into the house, and grind cereal. Most hired servants to do the same tasks.

Many slaves were used in agriculture and cultivation from ancient times to about 1860. 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 well 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.

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 that 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.

Female slaves, who for the most were from Africa, were long traded to the Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab traders, and sold into sexual slavery to work as concubines or prostitutes. Typically, females were sold at a lower price than their male counterparts, with one exception being when (predominantly) Irish women captured in Viking raids were sold to the Middle East in the 800-1200 period.

History of slavery.

Slave Market.
Gustave Boulanger's painting The Slave Market.

Slavery predates writing and evidence for it can be found in almost all cultures and continents. Its many origins remain unknown. An example of slavery is thought to have existed in the walled town of Jericho which was established around 10,000 BCE. The settlers of Jericho were plagued by roaming hunting and gathering bands, which they killed or captured. It is thought that the ones that were captured were then put to work as slaves who themselves may have later eventually become citizens and slave owners. Slavery can be traced to the earliest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia (~1800 BCE.), which refers to slavery as an already established institution. The forced labor of women in some ancient and modern cultures may also be identified as slavery. Slavery, in this case, includes sexual services.

The history of slavery in the ancient world was closely tied to warfare. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Mayan, Aztec and Indian sources are replete with references to slavery in connection with warfare. Captured prisoners of war were frequently impressed into slavery by their captors, often as manual labourers in military, civil engineering, or agricultural projects, or as household servants. Many ancient households were maintained with one or more slaves and slaves provided nearly all the agricultural and Construction labour in some societies.

Many ancient societies had many more slaves than nominally "free" citizens who controlled them. Slavery nearly everywhere permitted cruelty and abuse although slaves were usually treated semi-humanely as valuable "property". Slavery nearly always predates written history on every continent. After writing was introduced, domestic slavery and sometimes concubine slavery was noted among the nomadic Arabs, and among Native American hunter gatherers, African, New Guinean, and New Zealand tribes, and among the Germanic and Viking raiders and many other pre-literate people.

Most slavery is associated with war in that losers are taken prisoner by the victors to prevent a future conflict, or as a form of penal punishment with the criminals being made slaves to partially compensate the victims. Debt slavery existed in very early times, and some African people had the custom of putting up wives and children as hostages for an obligation; if the obligation was not paid, the hostages became slaves. In Homer's Greece, it was not a crime, although unusual, for a master to beat or kill a slave, and the testimony of slaves was not allowed in Greek courts unless it was obtained through torture.

Slavery in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians used slaves captured in war or bought from foreigners. Contrary to popular belief, the great pyramids were built by free, not slave, labor. The Egyptians did not use slaves in great numbers. The lands were farmed by free peasants who gave the pharaoh a portion of their crops. One historian noted that the peasants were "only a notch above nudity and starvation." All of the slaves captured in war were considered the property of pharaoh and were not sold to private citizens. Although, it is recorded that the pharaohs did give many slaves as gifts to generals or priests.

Pharaohs such as Thutmose III and Rameses II published detailed lists of the type and number of enemies captured during their campaigns into Canaan. Ahmose, a soldier under the Pharaoh Ahmose, founder of the 18th Dynasty, in describing the fall of the Hyksos capital at Avaris reports on the walls of his tomb: "Then Avaris was despoiled. Then I carried off spoil from there: one man, three women, a total of four persons. Then his majesty gave them to me to be slaves" (see Hyksos). Slaves were also obtained throughout the Pharaonic period by expeditions into Nubia. As in other ancient cultures, there was a strong link between military aggression and slavery.

Slavery is also found in the sections of the Bible related to Egypt. Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, and after his time, at the beginning of Exodus, all the Hebrews of Egypt have been reduced to slave laborers. Much like the story of Joseph, there are examples of slaves rising to higher social status, even of marrying into native Egyptian families. However, there are many more exmples of slaves being worked until death in Sinai copper mines. As in many later societies, there was a wide variety of slaves: from highly valued house servants and tutors, to skilled artisans, to field laborers (Canaanite "asiatics" are often depicted at the wine press).

Slavery in Ancient Rome.

In the Roman Republic and the Early Roman Empire about 15% to 20% of the population were slaves, and - until the 2nd century when laws protecting slaves were instituted - a master could legally kill a slave. However this seems to have been a somewhat rare occurrence, for complex social reasons. In any event, the Cornelian Law in 82 BCE forbade masters from killing a slave; the Petronian Law in 32 BCE forbade masters from compelling slaves to fight in the arena. Suetonius wrote (Claudius, 25) that, under Emperor Claudius, if a master neglected the health of his slave, and the slave died, the master was guilty of murder; furthermore, if the slave recovered in a temple of Asclepius, he should be freed. Dio Chrysostom, a Stoic Greek under Emperor Trajan, devoted two Discourses (14 and 15), delivered over two days at the Forum, to the condemnation of slavery. Seneca the Elder (in De Clementia or "On Mercy," 1:18), in the first century CE, records that masters who were cruel to their slaves were publicly insulted. Hadrian, in the second century CE, renewed the Cornelian and Petronian laws. Ulpian, a Stoic lawyer of the third century CE under Emperor Caracalla, made it illegal for parents to sell their children into slavery. The last notable pagan Emperor, Diocletian, in the late third and early fourth century CE, made it illegal for a creditor to enslave a debtor and for a man to sell himself into slavery to pay a debt.

Vedius Pollio, a citizen of Rome, reportedly fed the bodies of his slaves to his pet fish. Flavius Gratianus, a fourth-century Roman emperor who favored Christianity, ruled that any slave who accused his master of a crime should be immediately burned alive, but this applied mostly to plots against the emperor's own life. Roman slaves who participated in revolts were often crucified.

In ancient Greco-Roman times, slavery was related to the practice of infanticide. Unwanted infants were exposed to nature to die; these were then often rescued by slave traders, who raised them to become slaves. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, defended the Christian practice of not exposing infant only secondarily because the child might die; first of all,

But as for us,we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution.

Slavery in ancient China.

In ancient China, the lives of slaves were the hardest of all Chinese. Many rich Chinese families had slaves to do the menial work for them, both in the fields and at home. The Emperor and his court usually owned hundreds or even thousands of slaves. Most people were born slaves because their mothers were slaves; other people were sold into slavery to pay debts and others were captured in raids or battle.


In Byzantium, there was a considerable slave population, and, up until the 12th century, "infidel" and "heathen" slaves worked for both individual families and the state. By the 12th century there was a growing opposition to slavery, but nothing like the American Emancipation Proclamation was ever issued.

It was not uncommon in Byzantium for male slaves to be castrated. Even some important leaders of the army and navy, during various periods of Byzantine history, were castrated -- often because very high positions were available to eunuchs, as they were of no threat to the Byzantine Emperor (The Emperor was never castrated). Once Western ideas of sex, chivalry and more humane treatment became more popularized in Byzantium, however, there was a stigma attached to castration.

Slavery in the Arab Empire.

The Arab or Middle Eastern slave trade or trans-Saharan slavery was mostly centered around settlements and ports in East Africa, though it is estimated that the Arab Barbary Pirates of North Africa took over 1 million white slaves from Europe between 1530 and 1780. It is one of the oldest known slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by hundreds of years. Male slaves, after being transported and sold, were employed as servants, soldiers, or labourers by their owners. Female slaves, mostly from Africa, were long traded to Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab, Indian, or Oriental traders, some as female servants, others as sexual slaves. Arab, Indian, and Asian traders were often involved in the capture or purchase and transport of African slaves northward across the Sahara desert and the Indian Ocean region into Arabia and the Middle East, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent.

More African slaves may have crossed the Sahara Desert, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean than crossed the Atlantic. Some sources estimate that between 11 and 17 million slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert from 650 to 1900 (1250 years), compared to perhaps 11-12 million transported across the Atlantic from 1500 to the late 1860s (~360 years). The Arab or Middle Eastern slave trade continued in some areas into the early 1900s.

Slaves were also brought into the Arab world from Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus mountains (Georgians, Armenians, etc.) White slaves were generally called Mamluks and black slaves referred to as zanji (it should be pointed out that the word zanji in Arabic simply means 'black' as it does zenci in Turkish).

Until the 10th century many black slaves could be found in the marshlands of Iraq, until the zanji/Khawarij revolt which turned the tide in the import of black slaves, after that many more white slaves than black were brought into the Arab world (see Tabari "Revolt of the zanj").

White slaves served in the army and formed an elite corp of troops eventually revolting in Egypt to form the Mamluk dynasty.

As in the Ottoman empire slavery had no racial connotations. During the Fatimid rule of Egypt at least one black slave rose to the position of ruler of Egypt. The white Mamluks ruled Egypt after the Ayyubids until the coming of the Ottomans.

slave market in Europe.
Old site of a slave market in Europe; Lagos, Portugal.

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire.

In the Ottoman Empire after battles, winners often castrated their captives as a display of power. Castrated men - eunuchs - were often admitted to special social classes and were used to guard harems. Ottoman tradition relied on slave concubines for the "royalty" along with legal marriage for reproduction. Slave concubines were used for sexual reproduction to emphasize the patriarchal nature of power (power being "hereditary" through sons only). Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage.

Slaves in the Ottoman empire in general were brought from Eastern Europe and parts of Southern Russia. In the Islamic world slavery had religious rather than racial connotations, with most of the slaves in Ottoman history being Christians. The Ottomans had many European and Central Asian "Mameluk" slaves and the elite Janissary troops of the Ottoman army were all Christian-born slaves taken mostly from the Balkans.

Towards the latter part of the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century with the decline of its European territories the Ottomans began to import slaves from the sub Sahara via Egypt. Black slaves became a common sight amongst the Ottoman elite where they worked mostly in the households of rich Ottomans as servants or maids. When slavery was abolished in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk some of these black former slaves moved from Istanbul to the city of Izmir and the surrounding villages.

Turkey has had no history of segregation on racial grounds and many of those both black and white who were the descendants of slaves have intermarried with the Turkish population.

European slave trade

The later European or Transatlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas originated around 1500, during the early modern period of European exploration of West Africa and the establishment of Atlantic colonies in the Caribbean, South and North America when growing sugar cane (and a few other crops) was found to be a lucrative enterprise. Slaves were usually captured by African tribes in raids or open warfare or purchased from other African tribes. Many tribes were happy to get rid of their enemies by capturing and selling them for trade goods--usually whiskey, swords, guns and gold.

Whole tribes were often captured and sold, not just the warriors. (Mintz, S. Digital History Slavery, Facts & Myths) A large number of slaves in the Atlantic slave trade were transported from what is now Guinea, the Congo, Angola and other parts of West Africa. It is believed that about 11-12 million men, women and children were transported in ships across the Atlantic to various ports in the New World--mostly to South America and the islands in the Caribbean from 1500 to 1850. Less than 500,000 came to North America. Far from docilely accepting their imprisonment, some transported Africans actively resisted the brutality of their captors. African slaves are known to have engaged in at least 250 shipboard rebellions during the period of the transatlantic crossings. (Mintz, S. Digital History Slavery, Facts & Myths)

During the period from late 19th and early 20th centuries, demand for the labor-intensive harvesting of rubber drove frontier expansion and slavery in both Latin America and Africa. The personal monarchy of Belgian King Leopold in the Congo Free State saw a massive use of killing and slavery to extract rubber (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost). Meanwhile, indigenous people were enslaved as part of the rubber boom in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil (Michael Edward Stanfield , Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850-1933). In Central America, rubber tappers participated in the enslavement of the indigenous Guatuso-Maleku people for domestic service (Mark Edelman, "A Central American Genocide: Rubber, Slavery, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Guatusos-Malekus," Comparative Studies in Society and History (1998), 40: 356-390.).

Slavery in the Americas.

Whipped slave.
Whipped slave, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, April 2, 1863.

In the Americas, slavery played an important role in the economic development of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, nearly all of the West Indies, Venezuela, and the United States. Slaves planted and harvested cash crops and worked in the construction of buildings and roads, along with performing domestic duties.

On the Spanish colony of Hispaniola, Native Americans were quickly enslaved; after their population dropped sharply, importation of African slaves began, with the first arriving in 1503.

In 1619, 20 Africans were dropped off by a Dutch trader at Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery did not legally exist in the colony at the time, and the Africans were treated as indentured servants, gaining their freedom after a fixed period of time. In 1654, John Casor, a black man, become the first legally-recognized slave in the area to become the United States. Casor was owned by one of the original indentured servants, a black colonist named Anthony Johnson. Slavery became formally codified in the English colonies in the second half of the 17th century.

The cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane harvested by slaves became important exports for Brazil, the United States and Caribbean island countries. The money generated by this trade was mostly used to support the subsistence of the slaves and expand the lifestyle of the slaveowners.

The importation of slaves into the United States was banned in 1808, by which time about 300,000 had been imported. Subsequent slaves were nearly all born in the United States and the slave population in the United States eventually grew to 4 million by the 1860 Census. In other countries, the slave population barely reproduced itself. From the later eighteenth century, and possibly before that even, and until the Civil War, the rate of natural growth of North American slaves was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice as rapid as that of England.

By 1800, slavery was abolished in most of the Northern states and many believed it would be soon in the South also. However, following invention of the cotton gin (in 1793), cotton became the main cash crop of the South and slave labor became the backbone of the Southern oligarchy and its plantation lifestyle. Slavery in the United States also had important political implications. During the westward expansion of the United States during the early and mid-1800s, many Northerners, thoroughly detesting the institution of slavery, tried to prevent its expansion into new territories and new states entering the Union. Attempts by the North to exclude slavery from these lands angered the South and helped lead to the American Civil War in 1861.

The adoption of slavery carried many effects. Slaves provided a relatively cheap source of labor. Having originated in tropical West Africa, it was widely believed that African slaves would be effective workers, being accustomed to hot climates and to the infectious diseases prevalent in the tropics. Millions were imported to Brazil, Peru, and the Caribbean colonies. To hire non-slave labor would have been more expensive, as the early experience of using English indentured servants in the United States demonstrated. But while Africans may have carried some resistance to tropical diseases, they had no such immunity to the numerous European diseases that spread through the New World: smallpox, chicken pox, cholera, whooping cough and other diseases continually ravaged slave populations.

While the treatment of slaves varied in time and location, it is usually apparent that in those cases where slaves were treated better, they were more likely to be productive, trained and efficacious, perhaps taking pride in their work. Harsh treatment had the opposite reaction, reducing morale, lowering productivity, and required higher levels of supervision, but importantly also removing all incentive for slave workers to work harder than necessary to get by. Absentee ownership, particularly in Brazil and the Caribbean islands often caused the overseers to literally work the slaves to death. They had little or no incentive to take care of another person's human property.

To many, toil can be a source of inspiration if free to realize some of the benefits. In the short term, some parts of United States society did benefit by solving a short-term lack of plantation laborers. But slavery was often counter productive for a larger segment of the society. After abolition, many former slave owners found productive ways to survive and contribute to society without the necessity of using slave labor. A comparative look at U.S. economic growth during the periods of slavery and after would demonstrate as much.

A further effect of slavery was to relatively denigrate, in some areas of the United States, the value of manual labor itself. Hard physical work became something people did if they were forced to do it, rather than a necessary part of self-improvement and advancement. It created an idle slave-owning self-proclaimed "aristocracy" who, while asset rich, were income poor and lazy. Slavery was not a cost free enterprise, slaves were seldom paid a wage, but the owners were responsible for feeding, housing, clothing, providing simple medical care, and (in some rare cases) education for all of the slaves' lives from birth to death. If a slave was not treated reasonably, he would only do the minimum work necessary.

Slavery was a source of fear, suspicion and hatred between slave masters and slaves. Occasionally these feelings escalated into uprisings resulting in the destruction of property, murder, rape, incarceration, or desertion. These conflicts also increased the cost of business and judicial intervention to maintain the balance between society and an economy based on slavery.

The contemporary status of slavery

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."http://www.anti-slaverysociety.addr.com/slavery.htm 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 economics of 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.

According to a broader definition used by Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, another advocacy group linked with Anti-Slavery International, there are 27 million people (though some put the number as high as 200 million) in virtual slavery today, spread all over the world (Kevin Bales, Disposable People). This is, also according to that group:

  • The largest number of people that has ever been in slavery at any point in world history.
  • The smallest percentage of the total human population that has ever been enslaved at once.
  • Reducing the price of slaves to as low as US$40 in Mali for young adult male laborers, to a high of US$1000 or so in Thailand for HIV-free young females suitable for use in brothels (where they frequently contract HIV). This represents the price paid to the person, or parents.
  • This represents the lowest price that there has ever been for a slave in raw labor terms - while the price of a comparable male slave in 1850 America would have been about US$1000 in the currency of the time (US$38,000 today), thus slaves, at least of that category, now cost one thirtyeighth of their price 150 years ago, although this does not refer to the price of an 1850 slave in Africa.

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

Slavery and human trafficking.

Trafficking in human beings, sometimes called human trafficking, or sex trafficking (as the majority of victims are women or children forced into prostitution) is not the same as people smuggling. A smuggler will facilitate illegal entry into a country for a fee, but on arrival at their destination, the smuggled person is free; the trafficking victim is enslaved. Victims do not agree to be trafficked: they are tricked, lured by false promises, or forced into it. Traffickers use coercive tactics including 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, forced into prostitution, other victims include men, women and children forced into manual labor. Due to the illegal nature of trafficking, the exact extent is unknown. A US Government report published in 2003, estimates that 800,000-900,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally.

Slavery and the abolitionist movements.

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 B.C.E., 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.

Portugal was the first country in Europe to abolish slavery, at least in its European territory. This was done by a decree issued in February 12, 1761 by the prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

In 1772, a legal case concerning James Somersett established the illegality of slavery in England .

abolition of slavery.
Proclamation of the abolition of slavery by Victor Hughes in Guadeloupe, 1 November 1794.

There were slaves in mainland France, but the institution was never fully authorized there. However, slavery was vitally important in France's Caribbean possessions, especially Saint-Domingue. In 1793, unable to repress the massive slave revolt of August 1791 that had become the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolutionary commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel declared general emancipation. In Paris, on February 4, 1794, Abbé Grégoire and the Convention ratified this action by officially abolishing slavery in all French territories. Napoleon sent troops to the Caribbean in 1802 to try to re-establish French control. They were successful at doing so in Guadeloupe and Martinique, but the ex-slaves of Saint-Domingue defeated the French army and declared independence. The colony became Haiti, the first black republic, on January 1, 1804. To prevent the reimposition of slavery, the new state broke up the plantations into small private land holdings. However, these also proved too small for economic development, leading to widespread poverty. In France's other Caribbean colonies, where slavery was re-established, abolition did not take place until 1848.

Following the work of campaigners in the United Kingdom, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on March 25, 1807. The act imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship. The intention was to outlaw the slave trade within the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed on August 23, 1833, outlawed slavery in British colonies. On August 1, 1834 all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but those still working were indentured to their former owners in an "apprenticeship" system, which was abolished in 1838 after peaceful protests in Trinidad.

Around this time, slaves in other parts of the world, aided by abolitionists, also began their struggle for independence. Beginning during the American Revolution, states in the Northern parts of the U.S. began to free their slaves. Pennsylvania passed the first Gradual Emancipation act in 1780, and Massachusetts ended slavery wholesale in 1783 by judicial decree. By 1804, NJ would be the final "Northern" state to end enslavement. Slaves in the United States who escaped ownership would often make their way north with white and black abolitionist support to the northern part of the country or Canada through what became known as the "Underground Railroad". Famously active abolitionists of the U.S. include William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Disputes over slavery, and its extension into new territories, helped to lead to the American Civil War, which took the lives of more than 620,000 soldiers. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the war, and the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, finally abolished slavery in the United States.

Portugal abolished slavery in its overseas territories in 1869, following British lobbying and prior agreements to the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the Portuguese Empire. Spain officially abolished slavery throughout its territories in 1811, though colonies Cuba and Puerto Rico stopped the practice in 1873 and 1886, respectively. The last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery was Brazil, who did so in 1888.

The abolition movement was fueled in part by a growing sense that slavery was morally repugnant, but also for economic reasons. Most of the former slaveowners (those that did not go bankrupt) found they could get cheaper labor costs by simply hiring the former slaves only when they needed them, instead of committing to feeding and housing them in perpetuity. The invention of the electric motor and a myriad of household machinery that had taken most of the drudgery out of housework removed the necessity of household slaves. The invention of labor saving devices has made farming and industrial production so labor-free that slaves are in actuality not cost effective; not considering of course the importance of the equity value involved in slave ownership.

Abolition led to new concerns, notably the question of what to do with the massive increase in the number of people needing work, housing, and so on. To answer this question, Sierra Leone and Liberia were established for former slaves of the British Empire and United States respectively. Supporters of the effort believed the repatriation of slaves to Africa would be the best solution to the problem as well as setting right the injustices done to their ancestors. While these efforts may have been in good faith, and indeed some blacks (notably parts of the Harlem Renaissance) embraced repatriation, there were other motives as well; for instance, trade unions did not want the cheap labor of former slaves around, and racism (i.e. solving the problem by getting rid of the blacks) may have played a role. Regardless of the motives, both efforts were largely unsuccessful.

The 1926 Slavery Convention, an initiative of the League of Nations, was a turning point in banning global slavery. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, explicitly banned slavery. The United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery was convened to outlaw and ban slavery worldwide, including child slavery. In December 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was developed from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 8 of this international treaty bans slavery. The treaty came into force in March 1976 after it had been ratified by 35 nations. By November 2003 104 nations had ratified the treaty.

Slavery the potential for total abolition.

The 27 million people referred to by Bales (see above) produce a gross economic product of US$13 billion annually. This is also a smaller percentage of the World economy than slavery has produced at any prior point in human history. That, in addition to the universal criminal status of slavery, the lack of moral arguments for it in modern discourse, and the many conventions and agreements to abolish it worldwide, make it likely that it can be eliminated in this generation, according to Free The Slaves. According to the latter, there are no nations whose economies would be substantially affected by the true abolition of slavery. Others think this a highly idealized view, since the beneficiaries of unfree labour are not confined within the boundaries of national economies where such relations are found.

Slavery the Cocoa Protocol.

A first step towards this objective is the Cocoa Protocol, by which the entire cocoa industry worldwide has accepted full moral and legal responsibility for the entire comprehensive outcome of their production processes. Negotiations for this protocol were initiated for cotton, sugar and other commodity items in the nineteenth century - taking about 140 years to complete. Thus, it seems that this is also a turning point in history, where all commodity markets can slowly lever licensing and other requirements to ensure that slavery is eliminated from production, one industry at a time, as a sectoral simultaneous policy that does not cause disadvantages for any one market player. Since capitalist enterprises are unlikely to accept such an arrangement, circumvent it in the unlikely event of it being accepted, or seek to disguise employment arrangements that are de facto unfree, any attempt at abolition that does not also address the systemic roots of unfreedom is not likely to succeed.

Timeline of the abolition of slavery

Below is a list of countries and the year in which they formally abolished slavery:

Japan 1588 Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered all slave trading to be abolished. His successor Tokugawa Ieyasu also continued abolishment of slavery although severe servitude was still on practice until XX century.
Canada, Lower 1803 In 1803, William Osgoode, then Chief Justice of Lower Canada, ruled that slavery was not compatible with British law.
Canada, Upper 1810 Abolished slavery in 1793 under Sir John Graves Simcoe, but did not free all the existing slaves until 1810
Chile 1823 The Congress approves the total abolition of slavery, 24 July
United Kingdom 1807-1834 1807 slave trading abolished in UK; 1834 abolished in British Empire, but working slaves required to spend 6 more years as "apprentices"; slavery never legal in UK. See article on abolitionism
Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Leeward Islands, Windward Islands. 1838 Abolished the last vestiges of slavery two years ahead of schedule.
France 1794, 1848 See article on abolitionism
Colombia 1853
Venezuela 1854
United States 1783-1865 Massachusetts abolishes slavery; 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution
Portugal 1761-1869 Abolished in European Portugal and Atlantic Isles in 1761 by Prime-Minister Marquis of Pombal. Abolished in the African colonies of the Portuguese Empire in 1869.
Russia 1861 Emancipation of Serfs under Tsar Alexander II; Emancipation reform of 1861
Cuba 1886 Cuba was then still a Spanish colony
Brazil 1888 The last country to do so in the Americas. The Imperial Princess Isabel de Bragança abolished all forms of slavery existent in the Brazilian Empire, which eventually led to the loss of confidence of the great Brazilian farmers in the Empire and to the Revolution that abolished Monarchy in the country.
Saudi Arabia 1962 See Human rights in Saudi Arabia
Mauritania 1981 Slavery still exists de facto

Slavery apologies.

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 blocked an EU apology for slavery.

The issue of an apology is linked to reparations for slavery and is still being pursued across the world. 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 25th, 2007 the state of Virginia resolved to 'profoundly regret' and apologize for its role in the institution of slavery. While unique and the first of its kind in the U.S., the apology came in the form of a non-binding resolution.

Slavery reparations.

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.

In the United States, the reparations movement often cites the unofficial 40 acres and a mule decree, which was never implemented, as an unpaid claim. Recent effort have also targeted the few surviving businesses that profited from the slave trade or issued insurance on slaves. Almost all these cases have been dismissed and reparations have never been paid to descendants of slaves.

In Africa, the second self-appointed World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission was convened in Ghana in 2000. Its deliberations concluded with a petition being served in the International Court at the Hague for US$777 trillion (more than ten times the annual world GDP, equivalent to about 250 years' worth of the current U.S. federal budget) against the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom for "unlawful removal and destruction of Petitioners" mineral and human resources from the African continent" between 1503 up to the end of the colonial era in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Following Blair's statement expressing "sorrow" over slavery, Esther Stanford, of the Pan African Reparation Coalition called for "various reparative measures including financial compensation" from the British government to the descendants of black Africans transported in the international slave trade. This view was repeated by Anti-slavery International's director Aiden McQuade, who called for "measures of reparation towards the communities and countries which have been impoverished and devastated by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade". Such reparations are not completely without precedent, since descendants of black American slaves sued Lloyd's of London in 2004 for insuring ships used in the slave trade during the 1700s and 1800s. There is widespread disagreement with reparations for slavery among the British public, including anger that such reparations are unilateral (i.e. focus purely on black African slavery by white people and do not take into account slavery within Africa by black Africans over a longer period), single-issue (i.e. do not include other slavery within Britain under, for example, the Romans and Vikings), legally dubious (group responsibility for the actions of forebears has no legal basis under British law) and fail to take into account changing political, legal and moral attitudes.

The idea of reparations for slavery has also been rejected by some black Africans. The president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, has ridiculed reparations by saying he is the descendant of generations of slave-owning African royals. "If one can claim reparations for slavery, the slaves of my ancestors or their descendants can also claim money from me"

Religion and slavery.

Some argue that the Bible - particularly the Old Testament - condones slavery in Ancient Israelite society by failing to condemn the widespread existing practice present in other cultures. It also explicitly states that slavery is morally acceptable, but only under certain circumstances (Leviticus 25:44-46; Exodus 21:7-11).

But there are also many limits to slavery. For example, Hebrew slaves must be freed after six years of servitude (Exodus 21:2), although slaves from other nations can be enslaved in perpetuity (Leviticus 25:44-46). Masters also do not have complete control over the lives of their slaves. If a master beats his slave so severely that the slave is killed immediately, the master is to be punished (contrary to widespread practice elsehwere and even much later that masters have complete control over the lives of their slaves). If the master had beaten the slave but had no intent on killing him/her, the master can go unpunished (Exodus 21:21). Ancient Israel during the time of the Old Testament was certainly not as slave-dominated as later societies such as Ancient Rome.

The New Testament admonishes slaves to obey their masters (1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 6:5-8; Titus 2:9-10; Colossians 3:22-25; 1 Timothy 6:1), and the prophets and apostles urged kindness to slaves, mainly because Christianity in its early days did not aim to stir a social revolution. Modern Protestant churches have differently interpreted these passages to be either anti- or pro-slavery, with some regarding these passages to consist of the Bible reporting existing social customs and laws, rather than a moral endorsement of the institution of slavery.

In regards to the Catholic Church, the early Church had nothing to say about the slavery that was part of the prevailing culture in Ancient Rome. The most influential of the Catholic Fathers for a thousand years, St. Augustine (354-430), wrote in City of God (19:15) that slavery "is no crime in the eyes of God," since slavery is part of God's punishment for sin. Pope Leo I (440-461) forbade admitting slaves (servi) into the clergy "because of the vileness [vilitas] of their condition," which he maintained, would "pollute" the sacred profession. Pope Gregory I (590-604), whose Church owned more than 1,500 square miles of land cultivated by slaves, repeated this prohibition and also (in "Epistles" 7:1) the prohibition of a slave marrying a free Christian.

The position of the Christian churches became firmly anti-slavery only in the 1800s. For about one thousand years there was little protest from Christian clergy until, in 1462, Pope Pius II declared slavery to be "a great crime" (magnum scelus). In 1537, Pope Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians, while Pope Urban VIII forbade it in 1639, and Pope Benedict XIV in 1741. Pope Pius VII in 1815 demanded that the Congress of Vienna suppress the slave trade, and Pope Gregory XVI condemned it in 1839. In the Bull of Canonization of the St. Peter Claver, Pope Pius IX branded the "supreme villainy" (summum nefas) of the slave traders. Pope Leo XIII, in 1888, addressed an encyclical to the Brazilian bishops, In Plurimism (On the Abolition of Slavery), exhorting them to banish the remnants of slavery from their country.

In Islam, the Qur'an accepts and endorses the institution of slavery, and Muhammad owned slaves (his actions are religiously binding through the Hadith). The slavery endorsed by the Qur'an limited the source of slaves to those captured in war and those born of two slave parents. The Qur'an considers emancipation of a slave to be a meritorious deed, yet nationwide emancipation did not occur in Muslim lands until post-WWII, with pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France to secularise. Some Islamic nations have been among the last to outlaw slavery.

In Hinduism, the caste system is analogous to slavery in several ways (low inherited status), while distinct in others (ownership). Hindus and scholars debate whether the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism sanctioned by the scriptures or an outdated social custom. Discrimination based on caste, including untouchability against the so-called low castes, was criminalized in India upon independence by the Indian Constitution.

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