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Slavery is a social system that grants individuals legal rights in property ownership over others. Sometimes this system involves perpetual slavery mandating that the children of a slave woman became slaves. It flourishes only where land is cheap, labor is scarce and the laws explicitly protect the institution. Historically, nearly all societies have had slavery at one time.

Slavery has a long history in the human world. It was practiced in many ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome. In Europe, remnants of slavery left over from the Roman Empire died out in the Middle Ages. In modern times, the best-known example of slavery in history involves the use of slaves from southern and western Africa to work on export-oriented plantations in the Caribbean, America and Brazil. Slavery was a major cause of the American Civil War, which ended slavery there in 1865; Reconstruction made the Freedmen citizens in 1866 and voters in 1867. Demands for reparations and apologies for American slavery waxed and waned from the 1880s to the present.

"Slavery" is often used as a metaphor for total political domination by outsiders, or for forced labor under harsh conditions without legal protection, and with no buying and selling. In that sense it has not, however, disappeared from the modern world, although it can take many forms. Various insurgent groups, such as the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, have made a practice of impressing child soldiers, who effectively are slaves. There are international [1][2] and national anti-slavery activities.

The term "Slavery" is derived from "Slav", referring to people of Slavic origin who were at one time the Vikings main source of slaves.

Becoming a slave

People became slaves by being captured during warfare, or being born into it. Sometimes, people might actually sell themselves, as starving serfs did in Russia. In Africa from 1500 to 1800, tribes would war on other tribes to capture slaves, then sell them to traders along the seacoast (usually Arabs), who in turn sold them to slaveships (operated by Europeans) who took them to the Caribbean, South America, and North America. About 12,000,000 slaves were transported; many died in passage or on arrival in the new disease environment. About 3% were brought to the American colonies.

Slaves lead a marginal life, with little personal freedom, but can maintain and develop their own culture, religion, traditions and norms, and in some cases even own property. Often, the slaves and masters are of the same race, but slavery in the western hemisphere generally[3] involved European masters and African slaves, and between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries Arab slavers held Europeans as slaves.


Voluntary emancipation

Some slaves might be freed by their masters, especially if they were the children of masters.

Natural death of slavery

Slavery is an economic system and ends when it is no longer profitable to purchase slaves (rather than use free labor, including serfs or hired workers). When no one was buying, no one could sell. Slavery died out in the Roman Empire, medieval Europe, and in countries such as Brazil and Cuba when the economic turning point was reached. Typically just turned their slaves loose one day, letting them fend for themselves. Some slaves, especially household workers, were luxury goods and were kept even if uneconomical. This sort of slavery persisted among wealthy families in the northern U.S. until 1800.

Slave revolts

Many slaves ran away but were usually recaptured. Slave revolts were a constant threat to the owners, who devised police or military controls to deal with it. Every slave society created a system of police patrols and passes that could identify and return runaways. In the western hemisphere, slavery ended violently in Haiti (1793-1803),[4] Haiti was the main case in history of a successful slave rebellion.

Government emancipation

In 18th century Europe new values regarding liberty rejected slavery. Abolitionists emerged from the Quaker and other Protestant communities to demand the end of slavery on moral grounds. The first large-scale emancipations came in the United States of America after the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776. All the northern states abolished slavery by a gradual plan, with New York (1799) and New Jersey (1805) the last ones. SOuth of the Mason-Dixon line (the line separating Pennsylvania and Maryland), all the states kept slavery and became known as the "slave states." The international slave trade was illegal after about 1815, enforced by the British Royal Navy. However, overland slave trading continued into the twentieth century, with Africans shipped to the Arab world as slaves as late as the 1950s.


'Slavery' is also a rhetorical term in politics used to protest unwanted restrictions on people. For example, the American patriots of 1775 denounced British policy as imposing "slavery" on them. The U.S. Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which allows the president to stop certain strikes and force the workers back to work, was denounced by labor unions as a "slave labor law"; it is still in effect. The term 'slavery' (or 'sexual slavery') has been used since 1900 to denounce the holding of prostitutes through coercion and human trafficking.

Slavery in Greece and Rome

The Ancient Greek civilization had practiced slavery, but in different degrees depending on different states (city-states). Sparta used slaves, called helots, most extensively.

Slave labor was vital in the development of the Roman civilization. Rome had acquired a massive number of slaves from military conquests. Around 1 AD, 300,000-350,000 out 900,000 Roman residents were enslaved.[5]

Slavery in southern and western Africa

Slavery in Arab world

The Arabs were long-standing slave traders southwards through eastern Africa. In the 19th century, the wish to stop this trade was one of the ostensible reasons for building the Uganda Railway.

Saudi Arabia officially abolished slavery in 1962. Former slaves of the Royal Family remained in senior government positions; these people were highly respected and quite influential both before and after their emancipation.

Slavery in Europe

Slavery in the Caribbean and South America

Much of the development of agriculture, especially sugar, in the Caribbean involved slaves.

Slavery in the United States and Canada

See Slavery, U.S.



  1. Dodson, Howard, "Slavery in the Twenty-First Century", UN Chronicle Online
  2. Ban Ki-Moon (2 March 2007), World should be inspired by triumph over slavery, remember millions today, United NationsDepartment of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York, Secretary-General SG/SM/10895 HQ/653
  3. A few freed slaves ended up owning their own.
  4. After a successful slave revolt; see [1].
  5. Roman slavery.