Slavery or What Happens to a Dream Deferred

Slavery or What Happens to a Dream Deferred


In this era of heightened awareness of human rights, the title looks like a blasphemy, but bitter truth is often more repugnant than fiction. For instance, presently, a slave costs 1/38th of the price 160 years ago, making the business very profitable with a ROI of 8 times.

Throughout history (and even now, though outside law in almost all the countries) and across cultures, humans have been exploiting their own kind in many forms, the omnibus term for which is slavery. No timeline can be drawn to show its formation, growth and decline because of the diversity of its forms and close relationship with  a human attribute, domination. It can also be argued that there is no decline in sight, at best the practice is standing still, in status quo. It was already there, as an established institution in one of  the earliest written records, the law code of Hammurabi (Mesopotamia, ca 18th century BCE) . Interestingly, one of the roots of the English word “slave” is the medieval Latin sclavus referring to the peoples of  eastern and central Europe, as many of these people had been captured and then sold as slaves. The other roots are: the medieval English sclave, the old French esclave and the early Greek sklabos. Also, there are sklabenoi Slavs of  Slavic origin, which again is similar to the old Russian slovene, the name of an east Slavic tribe. A  Convention on Slavery held in 1926  defined it 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…” It would appear from this definition that slaves cannot leave who supposedly own them, nor can they leave their master or the place where they are held without  an explicit permission to do so. It follows therefore (hypothetically, so to say) that they would be restored to their owners and that they would be returned to their owners should they escape. Thus a system of slavery compared to the isolated instances of bonded or forced labour in any society would require official, legal recognition of ownership, or widespread unrecorded agreements from local authorities by masters who wield some influence because of their social and/or economic status. The first is a situation not exactly tenable at present while the second is possible when the powers that be look the other way. An illustration of this is the recent (2007) press report of  captive brick kiln workers in  the People’s Republic of (Communist) China.

According to the International Labour Office (ILO) forced labour is “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”. There are, of course, exceptions to this, such as, compulsory military service or conscription, forced labour to which convicted criminals are subjected to, essential services needed by a state during emergencies and community services to be performed by an individual (ordered by the judiciary) for minor infractions of the law. Using their own defining terms, the Internanational Labour Organization insist that all child labour is nothing but forced labour. While that makes sense upto a point (child labour also brings monetary benefits to the family) there are sections of people who use the word slavery in unusual contexts. Using the notion of economic coercion, some anarchists, communists and socialists denounce many forms of employment as wage slavery or economic slavery where employees are paid significantly low wages or given money not enough for sustenance, thus leaving them in perpetually semi-starved conditions. Anarcho-capitalists and libertarians compare taxes imposed by governments on people as tributes extracted from slaves. Likewise, some conscientious objectors to drafting regard compulsory military service as a form of slavery. Not to be left behind are some animal rights activists who argue that the conditions of animals kept by humans are generally not different from those of the slaves. The word serf (as it is presently used) is, however, not the same as slave. It is is so because serfs in the middle ages were believed to possess rights as human beings as opposed to the slaves who had none whatsoever and were considered as things or properties like cattles. Slaves were people owned and controlled by others in a manner which excluded almost all the rights and the freedom of movement. They were not paid for their labour, excepting food, clothing and shelter needed for  survival. In other words, slavery was a systematic exploitation of the work done by and services performed by someone else without consent and payment.

From a socio-economic point of view, slavery is a system depriving an individual of all personal freedom and forcing the person to work or render services without paying for it, and considering the individual as the property or chattel of someone or a household. (Hence the term chattel slave.) From the time of their capture or births to slave parents or purchase from slave marts, they were held against their will and were not free to leave or to refuse work for which they receive no wages. It is for these reasons slaves are also called unfree labourers. As regards  its prevalence in modern times, it is believed that there are currently 27 million people in the world under some form of slavery practiced in secret. As recently as August 2007, Mauritania in western Africa passed a law proclaiming slavery as a criminal act, where nearly 600,000 of  its men, women and children (20 percent of the population) are considered to be bonded labourers if not slaves. A recent study in its neighbouring state of Nigeria revealed that over 800,000 people there or about 8 percent of its population are still slaves.

Trafficking   in  people

Trafficking in people or human trafficking is yet another form of slavery, and is also known as sex trafficking because most of the victims are women and children who are forced to become prostitutes. It is, however, different from what is called smuggling of people, in which a fee is charged for helping the people to cross the borders of the country they intend to settle down illegally. After that, the people are free to do whatever they want. Not so are the victims of trafficking who remain permanently enslaved. The victims of trafficking are either tricked by the lure of false promises or simply forced to participate. Coercive tactics employed by the traffickers to control their victims include deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat and use of physical force. They also take the advantage of debt bonding and even go to the extent of  force-feeding their victims with drugs of abuse. Besides women and children forced into prostitution, their other victims include men, women and children who are forced to do manual work under hazardous conditions. The numbers of such people trafficked illegally are not known, but a report published in 2003 by the U S Government states that 800,000 to 900,000 people worldwide are taken in this manner across borders each year, not including those who are trafficked within a country.

Economic  models

There have been attempts by economists to create models of economic conditions during which  slavery and its milder forms like serfdom prevail or become moribund, especially in agrarian contexts. It has been found that when land is abundant but labour is not (and freemen demand high wages) slaves are preferred as labourers. If, however, labour is abundant and land is not, then freemen labourers are willing to work for low wages, and landholders prefer to engage them. Under such conditions, slaves are relatively costly due to the expenses for their maintenance and the wages of the supervisors guarding them. In the opinion of the economists, for this reason slavery (and its less harsh version serfdom) gradually decreased in Europe as the population increased. It appeared in the Americas and was reintroduced in Russia when large sparsely populated new land areas were brought under cultivation. Yet another finding is that 

slavery was more common when the work was relatively simple, such as large scale growing of a single crop, and did not require close supervision. For complex tasks, however, it was much more difficult and costly to check that the slaves were carrying out their tasks properly. In view of this, slavery was found to be decreasing with technological advancements which required employment of more skilled people at high wages vis-a-vis the low maintenance cost of slaves. Cultures with institutionalised slavery were thus found to be low in technological advancement, since the emphasis was on increasing the number of slaves and not on finding new methods of  production or new sources of energy. It was for this reason a wide gap separated theoretical knowledge and learning from physical labor and manufacturing in ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

From 1945 and in the 1960s and 70s, known as the development decades especially, economists debated over issues concerning the relationship between unfree labour and capitalist production. In the Indian context, the discussion mainly dealt with the agrarian transition that was going on at that time, and the role of unfree labour therein. Stated simply, unfree labour is the modern term (or euphemism) for slavery. Unlike slaves of yore, they are not the people of a vanquished state nor prisoners of war, but their plight is just the same. Such people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves, or to members of their families. The term forced labour can also be used to describe these forms of employment, but usually violence is the coercive element there. Strictly speaking, serfdom is also a form of unfree labour, but usually applied to pre-industrial, feudal societies. In the sphere of political economy, this debate on who among the labourers is or is not unfree is going on for long and has actually not been resolved so far. The Latin American peon, the Indian bonded labour, the indentured Fijian-Indian, etc. were past examples of unfree labour. Advocacy groups apart (who place the numbers worldwide between 27 to 200 million), a section of political economists contend that the number of the unfree in capitalist forms of production is considerable.

Then there are the disposable people, exemplified by the victims of the holocaust over half a century ago. The Nazis in Germany during 1933-45 created labour camps for the Jews to work while keeping them in starvation, and sent them to gas chambers when they could not work anymore. Before that, labour camps were established in Russia in 1930 which continued upto the late 50s (according to some, the camps or gulags were set up earlier still by Lenin). Compared to the holocaust, the social history of which has been studied exhaustively, not much is available on the social history of the gulags. There also unreachable production targets, little food and harsh living conditions finished off nearly eighty percent of the inmates, who were found disposable not because what they had done but because who they were. Their present-day counterparts are the AIDS-affected prostitutes (though not on the same scale) left to die when they could earn no more as also people working under hazardous conditions in mines.

Evolution  of  slavery

Humans had been keeping slaves even before they learned to write, to say nothing of the practice of  forcing captive women into sexual services. Generally, slaves were captured in wars  by the winners or spirited away in isolated raids. Also, there were occassions when parents sold their children to slavery due to extreme poverty or such other compulsion. It would appear that in ancient times quite a lot of slaves were born of slave parents. The parents were in turn captives from some past war. Such wars resulted in slavery for prisoners and their families who were either killed, exchanged for money or sold as slaves. They were considered as rewards of the war and as properties of their captors. Thus, as a commodity of trade, slaves were sold or bartered in exchange for other goods. Apparently, it was a kind act to let them live instead of killing them outright, but the consequence was that particularly weak and vulnerable groups became more and more enslaved. People taken into slavery in this manner sometimes differed from their captors by race, religion, nationality or ethnic origins, but quite often they were the same as their enslavers in these respects. It was quite likely for a dominant group in an area to take captives and turn them into slaves with little fear of suffering the same fate; but such a possibility was always there in time to come due to reversals of fortune. Seneca the Younger pointed out this to the Romans when their empire was at the peak of its glory and added that when various powerful nations fight amongst themselves anyone might find himself enslaved. It was so because all that was needed to kidnap an individual (otherwise secure from warfare) was a forceful raid of short duration. In his Confession, Saint Patrick narrated how he was kidnapped by pirates, and the Hebrew Bible says that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers along with the cautionary passage :

“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 Plato, or Diogenes?


The causes due to which the population of ancient societies ended up as slaves were mainly incessant wars and the resulting lawlessness. Conditions for the development of such situations were overpopulation leading to widespread famines. Then, such societies were normally underdeveloped in a cultural and technological sense, and were easily conquered by those who were superior to them in this regard.  The proces is still going on in Africa, where the illegal slave trade turns into slaves rural people after forcing them to move to cities, or purchase them  in rural areas and sell them into slavery in cities. It happens due to population increases, thefts of land and loss of even the subsistence level agriculture the people were carrying out earlier.     

A feature of the legal systems of ancient societies was that persons (often including their family) convicted of serious crimes could be sold into slavery, and the proceeds from such transactions  were generally handed over to the victims as compensation. King Hammurabi (~ 1800 BCE)proclaimed in his Codes of Law that if someone looking after a dam failed to do his job properly, the cost of the property damaged due to the resulting flood should be recovered from him. If  his property was not enough for the damage done, then he should be sold as a slave to makeup the shortfall. For other crimes the laws pescribed enslavement of the perpetrator, and               some laws even required that the criminal and all his property be handed over to his victim. There was also the system of selling a person as a slave so as to pay off the debts he incurred, and if the loaned amount was large his family was included to square the deal. It was not uncommon for parents to sell their children into slavery during famine; not for the price, but to save the kids from death by starvation. Generally, in institutionalised slavery,  children born to slave parents were considered property of their owners. In some cultures, the status of the mother or father was the defining element for the child, but mostly the status of the mother was considered important. It was possible in some cultures for a slave to earn his freedom by hard work and good behaviour, a reward denied in others

Tasks  set  for  the  slaves


Work done by the slaves depended on the historical time period and the geographical position of the place of their slavery. Usually, they were assigned work similar to that carried out by the supporting members (lower rungs) of the society which held them as slaves.  They, however, received no wages for their labour excepting the bare necessities like food, shelter snd clothing. Normally, they were employed as domestic helps, agricultural labourers, mine workers, army recruits, and commercial and industrial workers. Around the middle ages, it was customary for the rich people in Europe to keep four-five female slaves and their children for household work.                         In some places such chattels (as they were commonly known) were required cook, clean, as also to draw water from wells or outside water sources. Grinding corns was also a part of their work, in which along with other works they were assisted by outside hired helps. Slaves, however, were mostly engaged in agricultural work or cultivation from antiquity to the middle of the nineteenth century when slavery was supposedly abolished. They were required to work for long hours in the fields, with hardly any recess for rest, water or food. As they were regarded as valuable property, slave-owners usually ensured that they were not worked beyond endurance and gave them food, shelter and clothing to keep them in reasonable good health.

Thanks to the otherwise tiring work regime, they were generally of robust health except for the seasonal afflictions or the unforeseen epidemics. In plantations or estates with absentee landlords, the overseers were not so well disposed to the slaves and often worked them to death. Most of the slave mineworkers were males. They worked in the salt mines to extract salt, a predominant commodity of trade in the 19th century. In ancient times, chattel slaves were trained to fight in their nation’s army and other military services. Such slaves were also trained as artisans in workshops for commercial and industrial purposes.  Generally, the men worked as metalworkers while the females were engaged in textile trades or did household work. Very rarely did the owners paid the chattels for their work excepting free board, room and clothing. 

It was a long established practice of Arab traders to abduct women slaves from Africa, and to sell them into prostitution or concubinage in Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms. Normally, women slaves were sold at a price lower tha the males. The exceptions were Irish women captured by the Vikings during their raids in the north and sold in the Middle East during 800-1200 CE.

Slavery  in  the  distant  past

Slavery was practiced in the Sumerian civilization, one of the most ancient cultures. It was also prevalent in ancient Egypt, Akkadia, Assyria, Greece, Roman Empire and the following Islamic Caliphate. Slavery in its usual sense was not practiced in ancient Egypt. Prisoners of war, people under debt or convicted criminals were turned into slaves. Actually, some of the slaves lived better than free men, a reason for which impoverished people sold themselves to slavery ostensibly to pay off debts. Regarded as property, slaves could be sold, inherited or bequeathed as gifts: but there was no bar on them from getting educated, achieving greater social rank, purchasing property or negotiating other contracts. There is a papyrus from the New Kingdom recording masters being testified against by slave witnesses. Another document from the 18th dynasty limiting the use of slave children for strenuous work indicates that there was some kind of authoritative protection for them. It is also said that as per common belief (and the stories in the Bible) slave labour was not used to build the pyramids. The pyramids were built by citizens who had no work due to floods in the Nile.

As in Egypt, the ranks of the slaves elsewhere were also made up of slave children born of parents in slavery, victims of unpaid debt, abandoned children, convicted criminals and prisoners taken in wars. It would appear that nearly 25% of the population of the Roman empire before its explosive expansions were slaves. The Greek city states owed quite a lot for their developments to slave labour, and records of slave keeping are extant from Mycenaean Greece.  In the neigbouring city state of Sparta, an entire population of some other country was held as slaves, and were called Helots. Greeks were believed to have been somewhat harsh in their treatment of slaves, who constituted as much as 30% of the population of the ancient city of Athens.

With the expansion of the Roman empire, more and more countries were subjugated, leading to a plethora of slaves captured from Mediterrnean and Europe. Oppressive controls exercised by an elite minority over such a vast mass of people often gave rise to slave revolts, the most furiously waged and notably bloody of which was the Third Servile War under the leadership of the slave Spartacus. The slave population consisting of Arabs, Jews, Africans, Germans, Thracians, Gauls and Celts and many more were not only used for works but also for amusement in gladiatorial combats and sexual slavery. More and more and particularly in the late Republican period, the slaves became an important economic tool for the creation of wealth in Rome. They were kept under close watch, and runaway slaves were invariably crucified to serve as a warning to others. With a strict citizenship law in force, qualifying only native-born adult males, there was a time when slaves in Rome far outnumbered the citizens.

Norsemen  slave  traders

Between the 6th and 13th centuries, Norsemen or the Vikings hit upon the idea of slave trade as a profitable means to acquire wealth along with, of course, their usual vocation of raid, plunder and piracy. This branch of their activity reached a peak in the 8th-9th century  when they indiscriminately raided, captured and enslaved people weaker than them and sold them as slaves. A persian merchant, Ibn Rustah narrated how the Swedish Vikings, also known as the Varangians and Rus Khaganate terrorized entire Slavic viillages and took the entire population into slavery, whom they called Thralls (Old Norse). The thralls were captured mostly from western Europe and had Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Germans and peoples of Baltic, Slavic and south European origins among them. This Viking slave trade admittedly introduced a different kind of pigmentation in the otherwise black-skinned slaves who were in a majority.       

It was to the credit of the Catholic Church to bring the practice to an end when Catholicism became the main religion in Scandinavia and followed the injunction that a Christian could not morally own another Christian. Subsequently,  in 1350 the thrall system was entirely abolished. Presumably, due to the harsh wintry conditions and the sparsely populated nature of the land, there was never ever any need to introduce serfdom in the countries of Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Slavery  in  Europe  in  the  Middle  Ages

Unsettled conditions and endemic foreign invasions contributed to taking of slaves in Europe in the early Middle Ages almost a regular practice. It would appear St. Patrick himself  was captured and sold as a slave, and in his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus protested against  enslavement of newly baptized Christians. In France under the Carolingian European Dynasty, slaves formed approximately 20% of the entire population. It was so prevalent in early medieval Europe that the Roman Catholic Church took measures  repeatedly prohibiting it and ensured that at least the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands was stopped.  The matter was thorougly discussed in the Council of Koblenz in 922, in the Council of London in 1102, and in the Council of Aramagh in 1171. Likewise, export of English slaves was stopped by William the Conqueror. Slave trade in the early medieval period was generally carried out in the east where the markets were in the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim World and the supplies came from

pagan Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and the Tartary. The slave merchants were collectively known as Radhanites and were composed of Viking (Scandinavian), Arab, Greek and Jewish nationals. The brunt of the attack was on the Slavs – so many of them were enslaved over so many centuries that the word Slav came to mean slaves not only in English but also in Arabic and other European languages.           

Genoese and Venetian merchants and cartels took over the slave trade during the late Middle Ages and operated in the area known as Golden Horde, which was the name a Mongol and later Turkicised Khandom in the parts of present day Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus after the dissolution of the Mongol Empire in the 1240s. It would appear that some 10,000 eastern European slaves were sold in Venice in the decade 1414-1423 while Genoese traders organized the slave trade from the Crimea to Mamluk Egypt. The Mamluks were slaves converted to Islam who served in the army of the Caliphs. Haci I Giray in 1441 separated from the Golden Horde and created the Crimean Khanate. The khanate was a massive supplier of slaves to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East until the early eighteenth century by a process called the “harvesting of the steppe”, in which they enslaved many Slavic peasants. Consequently, in Crimea nearly 75 percent of the population were slaves. The Islamic World gained a lot of Christian slaves during the Byzantium-Ottoman wars and the other wars Ottomans fought in Europe.       

The Christians were also not beyond selling Muslim slaves captured in wars. In Malta, the Knights of the realm attacked Muslim and pirate ships and took the sailors as slaves. Malta became a centre for selling captured North African and Turkish slaves, and continued to do so upto the late 18th century CE. Those slaves were used as galley slaves, and normally a ship would require a thousand pairs of such hands. In the 15th century, slavery was banned in Poland while Lithuania abolished it with a decree in 1588.  Russians retained slavery as a major institution upto 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Those known as agricultural slaves were named agricultural serfs in 1679.    

Slavery  in  Europe  before  Industrialization 

European colonialism beginning with 15th century Portuguese exploration of the African coast brought in its wake slave trade, a major prop of colonialism till the late eighteenth century. Afonso V of  Portugal was ordained by Pope Nicholas V to bring into hereditary slavery “Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers” under the papal bull  Dom Diversas issued in 1452. Confirmed by his Romanus Pontiflex bull of 1454, these papal decrees provided a sort of legitimacy to European colonialism and slave trade. However, for a short period after 1462, Pope Pius II declared slavery as “a great crime”.  Anyway, Mercado de Escarvos, the first slave market in Europe for impoprted African slaves was opened in 1444 in the Portuguese maritime town of Lagos, a site even now shown to tourists. The famous Prince Henry the Navigator was a major sponsor of Portuguese expeditions and received 20% of the profits from slave trade. Subsequently, European slave trade diverted the slaves to newly established colonies in America, which for Portugal was Brazil. Nonetheless, it was the custom of the Meditteranean countries to use condemned criminals as rowers or galley slaves in their war ships or galleys. Although the sentences were for a specified number of years, most of the rowers died due to the harsh conditions even if they were lucky to survive shipwreck or torture and death at the hands of the enemies or pirates. It was also the practice of victorious navies to use “infidel” prisoners of war as rowers, a fate suffered by historical figures like the Ottoman navy chief  Turgut Reis.      

During that time in Austria, Hungary, Poland, Prussia and Russia, second serfdom was introduced, giving nobility the power to put a serf to death. It was in effect in Poland upto 1768,  and in most of Russia until 19 February 1861. In fact, some clans of the Roma people in Romania were held under slavery for over five centuries and were relieved only in 1864. The famous warrior Timur Lame conquered Armenia and Georgia in 1400 introducing “devsirme”, also known as blood tax or child collection. Through this numerous Balkan and Turkic males  along with Circassian males from the Caucasus mountains as also the Black Sea regions were captured from their homes and forcibly enlisted in the Ottoman army. They were called Janisseries in the Balkans and Mamluks in Egypt. The first became an important element in the court intrigues of Istanbul while the second defended Egypt against the Crusaders and the Mongols. Moulay Ismail, known as the Bloodthirsty Sultan (1672-1727) brought Morocco under his domination through his 150,000 strong army of slaves called the Black Guards.As a consequence (of such slave acquisitions), many regions of Armenia were depoulated and over 60,000 people were captured from the Caucasus. The Poland-Lithuanian region were subjected to the depredations of the Tatars from !569, who looted, pillaged and captured people to sell them into slavery. Actually, the eastern borderland of the area was under a state of semi-permanent warfare upto the 18th century. It is estimated that more than three million Poles, Russians and Circassians were held as slaves in the Crimean Khanate, and it ended with the abolition of slavery in the 1780s after the Russians overran Crimea. Slavery was prevailing in the Otomman empire in early twentieth century. About 20 percent of the population of Istanbul were slaves, and as late as 1908 women were sold there.

Arabian  &  African  slave  trade

The Arabian world was engaged in trading in slaves for over a millennium, which apparently began with transporting slaves from Sub-Saharan regions. Merchants from Arabia, India and nearby regions captured people and after crossing the Sahara Desert  sold them as slaves in  Middle East, Indian Ocean region and Indian sub-continent. The coastal cities of Dar Es Salam, Mombasa and Zanzibar were the centres of their activities, where African and Arabian traders usually dominated. It is estimated that in the period between 650 and the early years of the twentieth century 11 to 17 million slaves were transported across Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Sahara Desert. The Moors from North Africa and Spain joined their ranks in the 8th century and came to be known as Barbary pirates. They captured people from Europe in the 15th and 16th century and exported the captives as slaves to North Africa. It is said that over 1 million Europeans were sold by the Barbary Pirates in the Ottoman empire and North Africa. Due to their raids on coastal villages and towns in Italy and Mediterranean islands, Italians and Spaniards fled from their homes leaving long stretches of seashore uninhabited. From 1600 onwards, the Barbary pirates began to foray into the Atlantic going as far as Iceland. Their commander Turgut Reis, known as Drugut in Europe, took the entire 5,000 to 6,000 residents of the Maltese island Gozo in 1551 for slavery in Libya. Due to their frequent raids, seashore watchtowers were constructed and churches fortified in the Balearic islands, and the island of Formentera was deserted. They continued to attack ships on the high seas upto the !9th century taking as slaves  the entire crew. When the United States became independent and began to trade with Europe, Barbary pirates raided American ships if they refused to pay ransom.        

Not much difference existed in African societies between free peasants and those who were vassals of some feudal lord. For instance, vassals in the Songhay Muslim empire did labour for their masters and offered crops as a tribute but their freedom was somewhat restricted.  They were more or less working class people. However, vassals in the Kanem Bornu empire were three rungs below the nobles and intermarriages between them were common, thus blurring the divisions. According to French historian Fernand Braudel, various forms of slavery permeated African Society and were parts of the social structure. “Slavery came in different disguises in different societies: there were court slaves, slaves incorporated into princely armies, domestic and household slaves, slaves working on the land, in industry, as couriers and intermediaries, even as traders” (Braudel 1984 p. 435).  Zanzibar was the leading port in African slave trade where African, Arab, Indian and European traders gathered to do business. Unlike  the Europeans, the Arabs carried out the raiding expeditions themselves often going deep inside the territories to capture slaves and preferred females over males. When the Europeans became their rivals in the eastern coast of Africa, the Arabs drove the captured slaves overland across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. In 1870, a German explorer (Gustav Nachtigal) witnessed slave caravans departing from Kukawa in Bornu to destinations in Libya (Tripoli) and Egypt. In fact, upto 1898 slave trade was the major revenue earner for the state of Bornu.

Crossing the Atlantic to reach the Americas known as the Middle Passage was one part of the triangular slave trade carried out by Portuguese, French, Dutch and British in which slaves were transported in holds of ships under suffocating conditions. After dropping the slaves in Carbbean islands, the ships would take cargoes like sugar, coffee, indigo, cotton, etc. and sail for Lisbon, Amsterdam, Liverpool or Nantes. On the voyage to West Africa from those ports, they would carry trinkets, pots & pans made of copper and tin alloys, cotton piecegoods (some imported from India), copper bangles & ornaments, alcohol, gunpowder, firearms and iron bars. Great profits were made on every unloading. Slave trade reached its maximum during the late eighteenth century when large numbers of people were captured by raids in the interior regions of Africa. Usually, such raids were mounted by African  kingdoms located in the coasts like the Oyo and Dahomey empires. They entered into regular contracts with the Europeans, who also used raiding parties by paying them bounties. Those captured people ended up as slaves in colonies of the Americas, and the British got the monopoly of supplying slaves to the Spanish colonies after the Spanish War of Succession. It is a reasonable guess that over hundreds of years, some 12 to 15 million people were taken as slaves by Europeans and nearly 15 percent of them were dead before  reaching the journey’s end.  Most of them were taken to the Americas, and the rest to Europe or South Africa. As late as the nineteenth century, such raids carried out from Sudan depopulated the eastern parts of the present day Central African Republic, where the population density is still abysmally low. In the opinion of some historians, the total loss of life during the long march with the slave caravans and during the raids far exceeded the number of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa when this overt commerce became covert. Others contend that the traders were themselves interested in keeping their captives alive and that availability of new types of food like cassava and maize form the Americas staved off the reduction in the numbers of people to some extent. This was particularly noticeable in western Africa during 1760-1810, and in Mozambique and surrounding areas half a century later. About the very large presence of males among the captives, obviously that was due to their ability to do hard manual work. Nonetheless, women were also rounded up during the raids so as to act as “brides” for the captives and their protectors or husbands were regarded as subsidiary catch for export. With the beginning of the labour-intensive harvesting (tapping) of rubber in late 19th and early 20th century, there were increasing frontier raids and to meet the demands of a booming slave trade in Africa. For instance, in the personal estate of  Belgian king Leopold II ((Belgian Congo) there was mass murder and enslavement of people forcing them to work in rubber plantations.  

European slave trade started getting bigger than the Arabian from the 16th century when export of slaves to the Americas commenced. In their colony in South Africa, the Dutch imported indentured labourers from Asia. With the enactment of Slave Trade Act of 1807, Britain banned slavery in its large number of colonies in Africa.

Slavery  in  the  Americas

Before Columbus discovered America, slavery in the inhabited parts of the continent like Central Mexico, Mississipi, Costa Rica, etc. (called Mesoamerica) also followed the practice of enslaving prisoners of war, indebted people and so on. The victims of human sacrifices carried out as rituals and religious ceremonies there were generally prisoners of war and slaves. According to an Aztec chronicle, in 1487 about 84,000 people were sacrificed in a temple inauguration. Slavery there was not hereditary, children of slaves were born free. The Incas were required to work free for the state’s purposes by a system known as mita. Extended     families or Ayllus would decide which member was to be deputed for this, and it is not clear if that was a form of slavery. Societies and tribesowning slaves in pre-Columbian America included the fishermen living along the coast of Alaska to California, the Comanche of Texas, the Tehuelche of Patagonia, the Caribs of Dominica, the Tupinamba of Brazil and so on. The Haidas of Pacific Nothwest (British Columbia) were fierce warriors and raided as far as California to capture slaves. About a quarter of the population of these tribes were slaves.


When Brazil became a Portuguese colony, slavery turned out to be the main prop of its economy. Nearly 37 percent or about 3 million of all exported African slaves were sent there to work in the mines and to raise sugar cane. Initially, the Portuguese colonialists forced the native Tupi tribal people to work for them. But Tupis started dying, and from around 1550 imported African slaves were used. Slavery was abolished in Portugal in 1761, but continued in her colonies for long for its advantages. Firstly, the Africans were somewhat immune to tropical diseases. Secondly, their costs were a tiny fraction of the profits the colonialists reaped. Due to harsh working conditions, the slaves did not survive long, and on an average 15 percent of them died each year. To fill in the diminishing numbers of slaves, Bandierantas or bandits of mixed Portuguese and native parentage began raiding countries in the south along the Amazon river for native American Indians. Their attacks were so violent that a French traveller reported in 1740 of “…hundreds of miles of river banks with no sign of human life and once-thriving villages that were devastated and empty.”  To defend the tribals, Jesuit missionaries present in some areas of Amazon basin, notably among the Guranis of  southern Brazil and Paraguay, formed corps of fighters along military lines. Even then, numerous Amerindians were taken as slaves between mid and late nineteenth century to work in the rubber plantations.  Slaves naturally tried to escape and often succeeded. They came to be known as Maroon people, and played important roles in social formartion of Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Suriname and Jamaica. The Maroon villages in Brazil were known as Quilombos, and the villagers lived by agriculture and hunting. They also attacked the plantations, burning crops, killing the slaveowners and inviting the slaves there to join them. The French painter Jean Baptiste Debret, commissioned to portray the Brazilian Royal family, depicted the harsh conditions of the slaves vividly in his works evoking concern in Europe and Brazil itself. There was concern in England as well because Brazilian sugar sold at a lesser price (slave labour was cheap) than that produced in the British colonies in the West Indies. Besides, the evangelical group known as Clapham Sect exerted pressure on the British government to persuade Brazil to end this practice. It took several years to do so, the first step for which was to ban foreign slave trade in 1850. Children of slaves were freed in 1871, and slaves aged over 60 in 1885. During the Paraguyan war, more slaves earned freedom by joining the military. There was a drought in 1877-78 when plantation owners tried to sell of their slaves, and in the ensuing starvation and turmoil many emancipation groups were formed leading to a ban on slavery in Ceara province in 1884 to be followed by the Golden Law of 1888 ending slavery all over Brazil. Slavery in colonial Brazil, the last nation in western hemisphere to end this practice, was not exactly a racial conditoin. It was more like a social condition with respected public figures like the writer Machado de Assis and engineer Andre Reboucas descending from black ancestors.

United  States

The colonization of North Carolina attempted by Lucas Vasquez de Aylon in 1526 may be regarded as the first instance of Europeans making use of slaves. It, however, ended in failure: the slaves ran away in the forests and took shelter with the Cofitachiqui Creek people. In 1528, a Moroccan slave Estevanico was taken as a guide for the Narvaez expedition, which found Quivira and CAbola in 1539. Eighty years later (1619), a Dutch soldier sold twenty Africans as indentured servants in Jamestown, Virginia. The first reference to slavery was in a Virginia law of 1661 meant for Caucasian servants who ran away with a black servant. The African- Americans were branded as slaves with the Slave Codes of 1705, a fate they suffered for the next 160 years. It continued until the end of the American Civil War when the 13th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in December 1865.  Slave trade in North America, however, was slow to expand. It was completely abolished in Mexico around 1810. Following the Slave Trade Act of 1807, Canada as a British colony was subject to this legislation and slave ownership was banned there in 1833. Slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River (in the United States) was banned in 1787, and importation of slaves into the country in January 1808.  There was, however, no restriction on internal slave trade nor participation in it elsewhere in the world. Consequently, there was a massive political, cultural and economic divide between the slave-free states in the north and the states in the south where slavery continued. In 1860, nearly 25% of the families in the south held one or more slaves. Since ninety percent of the slaves lived in the south, emancipation was more a concern there than in the north. Abolitionist public figures formed the Republican Party in 1860, and made Lincoln the president by the election held that year. The southern states did not vote for him, his name was not in the ballot papers in most of them. They lost control in the centre after decades in power, and separated from the union to form the Confederate States of America.  The northern states did not like a new state dominating the Mississipi River and regions south of it, and civil war broke out. Contrary to the common belief, the civil war was not on the issue of abolition of slavery.  Actually, Lincoln’s declaration of freeing the slaves in 1863 in the confederacy was a reluctant gesture. It did not liberate the slaves in the rest of the union , nor in the strategically situated border states. Anyway, after the declaration, abolition of slavery became the war goal and slaves were liberated as the union took over the confederate states. Many of them just walked out of their bondage to work as labourers or to fight as soldiers. Officially, slavery was  outlawed by the 13th Amendment of 1865 but blacks were treated generally as second class citizens until the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s.

Asia  –  the  Indian  Subcontinent

In his book Indica, the Greek historian Arrian stated:

“This also is remarkable in India, that all Indians are free, and no Indian at all is a slave. In this the Indians agree with the Lacedaemonians. Yet the Lacedaemonians have Helot for slaves, who perform the duties of slaves; but the Indians have no slaves at all, much less is any Indian a slave.”

There was no slave trade (as commonly understood) in the region but there was in different forms unfree labour for centuries in the Medieval ages. Debt bondage was quite common during the Mughal period, and money lenders made slaves of peasants who failed to repay loans. This became hereditary in practice and sons were liable for the loans taken by fathers. Slaves from Africa were sold in western India by Arab traders since the first century CE. The Delhi Sultanate, ruling over parts of central and north India was founded by Qutubuddin Aibak, a slave of the Turkish warrior Muhammad Ghori who conquered and subjugated the area. For nearly hundred years (1206 – 90) Aibak’s descendants, commonly known as the slave dynasty, continued to rule. A member of the viceroy’s council said that there were eight to nine million slaves in India in 1841, mostly in the Malabar region. The Indian Slavery Act of 1843 banned slavery in the subcontinent to be followed by the Indian Penal Code of 1861 making enslavement of people a criminal offence.

Korea,  Japan  and  China

There were indigenous slaves in Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) and nearly forty  percent of the population were slaves. People were taken into slavery as a punishment, which continued for generations. Peasants during times of famine volunteered to become slaves so as to survive. There were privately- and state-owned slaves. Slaves belonging to the state were at times assigned to upper class people. The Gabo Act of 1894 officially abolished slavery in Korea.

Slavery in Japan was also indigenous, and slaves were called seiko in Japanese meaning “living mouth”. There is a third century Chinese document recording the export of a slave from Japan but the nature of the trade is not known. A series of laws on slavery were passed in the 8th century and one out of every  hundred people in the modern Ibaraki province was a slave. In western parts of the country the proportion was still higher. Slavery became out of fashion during the Sengoku period (1467-1615) and slave trade was abolished by Hideoshi Toyotomi in 1588. Japan abolished slavery in the countries  it conquered during the 19th century but forced the prisoners of war it captured in the second world war to work under harsh conditions. 


In China , the practice of slavery was sporadic. There was no dearth of cheap labour due to its large population, still there was a kind of serfdom. During the rule of the Han dynasty (ca 206 BCE to 220 CE) nearly five percent of the people were slaves. The practice of keeping serfs (or slaves) continued till 1910, when it was abolished finally.

Other  Regions  of  Asia

In the Khmer empire (modern Cambodia) slaves were engaged to do the hard labour in the construction of monuments and temples in Angkor Vat. Generally, they were people captured during raids on mountain tribes. Debtors unable to pay back were also used as slaves. In Burma and Thailand, about a third of the population in some areas were slaves during the period between 17th and early 20th centuries. The Toraja tribe of Indonesia kept chattel slaves. It was also the practice among Torajans to opt for slavery to pay off a debt. Prisoners of war were regarded as slaves and were sold in Java and Siam or Thailand. Slaves were not permitted to wear gold or silver, nor to decorate their residences. The Dutch colonial government banned slavery in Indonesia in 1909.  Around 1870, Russians invaded the central Asian Islamic khanates of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara and ended slavery there.  The infamous slave market in Khiva opened in 17th century was closed and Russians and Persians held in captivity by Turkoman raiders were liberated.

Polynesia  and  New Zealand

The whaling fleet operating in the Pacific Ocean started raiding Polynesian islands for slaves to work as labourers in early 19th century. Then Peruvians began to raid South Sea islands to get slave labour for their guano industry. The Maoris of New Zealand traditionally held their prisoners of war in slavery and continued to do so till the annexation of New Zealand  by Britain in 1840. When administration was extended to the entire country in !860, slavery finally came to an end.         

Efforts  to  Abolish  Slavery

An established fact of history, humans have been keeping slaves in some form or the other over the ages. And slaves have been trying to break free from bondage ever since. The Book of Exodus in the Bible narrating the flight of the Israelites from ancient Egypt under the leadership of Moses is regarded as probably the first exhaustive story of  the efforts of the slaves to free themselves. However, that was an account of  the success of a particular group of slaves  to become free, and was different from what is called abolition of all kinds of slavery. The Persians were the first society to ban slavery, and their monarch Cyrus the Great (died 530 BCE) enshrined this in a passage in his charter of citizen’s rights which can be seen in the British Museum:         

“… And until I am the monarch, I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation. Until I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labor. To day, I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other’s rights. No one could be penalized for his or her relatives’ faults. I prevent slavery and my governors and subordinates are obliged to prohibit exchanging men and women as slaves within their own ruling domains. Such traditions should be exterminated the world over. …”

Removal of a slave from England against his will was the subject matter of a lawsuit concerning James Somersett in Britain in 1772, and was ruled as an illegal act. Similarly, in the matter of Joseph Knight, slavery was declared against the Laws of Scotland in 1777. The Act for the Abolition of Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament in 1807, and became a law the next year due to the efforts of protesters against slavery. In order to make the entire Atlantic slave trade illegal all over the British empire, it imposed a fine of 100 pounds for every slave if and when found in a British ship. The subsequent Slavery Abolition Act outlawed slavery itself in all the British colonies, and all slaves were eventually freed in 1838. In France slavery was prevalent, but not authorized. It was, however, important for its colonies in the Caribbean; more so in Saint-Domingue, where the slaves rose in revolt in August 1791. Unable to control the uprising (known as the Haitian Revolution), slavery was abolished in all French colonies by the Revolutionary Commissioners in Paris in 1794. Napoleon, on becoming emperor, tried to revive it by sending troops to Guadeloupe. They succeeded there, but were defeated by the former slaves of  Saint-Domingue who declared independence. That was how the first black republic of Haiti came to exist on 1st January, 1804. A French Law passed in 2001 proclaimed slavery as a crime against humanity.    

“Underground Railroad” was the route taken by many escaped slaves from the United States to Canada. In 1865, slavery was abolished in the United States by the thirteenth amendment of that country’s constitution. Prominent American abolitionists who wanted slaves to be sent back to Africa, joined hands with American Colonization Society, and selected a site negotiating with the local tribal chiefs on the west coast of the continent. There the first settlements of freed American slaves were established in 1822, which was named Liberia in 1824 and became the oldest independent republic in Africa in 1847. The blacks in America, however, preferred to stay back even though there was opposition from white wage earners and later on from trade unions. Liberia’s next door neighbour, Sierra Leone was the country set up by the British for the same purpose for their former slaves in Africa.

In 1926, under the auspices of the League of Nations, a Slavery Convention was arranged, considered to be the first significant move towards the banning of slavery world over. Slavery was banned explicitly under Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. This was followed by the United Nations 1956  Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery to outlaw and ban slavery worldwide,  including child slavery. Again, in December 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery in its Article 8. Having been ratified by 35 nations, this international treaty came into force in March  1976. By November 2003, it had been ratified by 104 nations.                        

Paradoxically, according to Kevin Bales of the advocacy group “Free the Slaves”, there are more people under slavery today than has ever been in the past. However, percentage-wise they are the smallest ever of the total human population. The group states further that a young, adult, male slave in Mali costs 40 US dollars while a HIV-free young female in Thailand (for prostitution) sells for a thousand. Usually, this is the price paid to the procurer or the parents. Paradoxically, again, this price-range is the lowest ever that has been paid for slaves historically in basic labour terms. For instance, a male slave in America of the 1850s would have cost 1000 dollars in those days (which equals 38,000 dollars now). So, slaves are now 1/38th in cost than what they were over 150 years ago in America. This has made slavery a very profitable business averaging 8 times returns of money invested.

In the opinon of the advocacy group, slavery is still very active but carried out in secret. People, mostly women and children abducted from poor countries in Africa, Asia and South America, are shipped to a foreign country (usually the Middle East or Asia) to be sold into slavery. The men and male children work as labourers while the women and girls become unwilling domestic slaves and prostitutes.           

From Wikipedia and other sources


About chepeyja

chartered engineer(India), B.Sc., risk management consultant, blogger and layabout!
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