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Slavery is a form of involuntary servitude in which one person is treated as the chattel property of another person, providing labor from birth (or capture) until death (or such time when their liberty is granted). In the 19th century, first Britain and later the United States abolished slavery (see abolition), although various forms of slavery exist to this day in less economically developed nations.

Historically, slaves were often those of a different ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race from those who enslaved them. Individuals could also find themselves condemned to slavery as a result of being convicted of crimes.

Societies characterized by poverty, population pressures, and cultural and technological backwardness were frequently exporters of slaves to more developed nations. Historical examples include the Slavs and various African societies, such as the Ibo of Nigeria.

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

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Slavery in the Mediterranean World

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

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

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

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

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

Slavery in the Islamic World

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

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

Slavery in Medieval Europe

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

Slavery in Africa

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

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

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

The African slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured in West Africa and shipped to the colonies of the New World. It is estimated that over the centuries, at least eleven million people were shipped as slaves to the Americas, of whom some 15 percent died during the terrible voyage. While much of the slave trade in Africa was related to external protagonists, an internal slave trade unrelated to non-Africans did exist.

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

Slavery has persisted in Africa into the present-time. Mauritania abolished slavery only in 1980, though it is thought the practice continues there. The trading of children has been reported in modern Nigeria and Benin. In parts of Ghana, a family may be punished for an offense by having to turn over a virgin female to serve as a sex slave within the offended family. In the Sudan slavery continues as part of an ongoing civil war.

Slavery in Colonial America

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

Slavery among indigenous people of the Americas

In Pre-Columbian MesoAmerica the most common forms of slavery were those of prisoners-of-war and debtors. People unable to pay back a debt could be sentenced to work as a slave to the person owed until the debt was worked off. Slavery was not usually hereditary; children of slaves were born free.

Slavery in the Spanish New World Colonies

Slavery in the Spanish colonies began with local Native Americans. However, as these populations shrank due to imported European diseases, African slaves began to be imported.

Slavery in Brazil

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

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

In September of 2002, a report to the Ministério de Trabalho (Ministry of Labor), stated that between 1995 and 2001 approximately 3,500 slave labourers had been freed, and that it was estimated that 2,500 people remained in such conditions at that time. (See [1] (http://oglobo.globo.com/arquivo/plantao/20020925/44869582.htm), Source: "O Globo" Online ("País tem 2,5 mil trabalhadores escravos"-"Country has 2.5 thousand slave workers"))

Slavery in North America[?]

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

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

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

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

International Abolitionist Movements

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

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

In France, february 4, 1794, Abbé Grégoire[?] and Convention do abolition of slavery.

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

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

The United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery was convened to outlaw and ban slavery worldwide, including child slavery. Legally, slavery has been abolished, but recent news reports have stated that the practice has re-emerged in the more rural, less economically developed areas of the world.


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

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

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

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

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

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