Slavery is the social and/or legal designation of specific persons as property, without the right to refuse work or receive payment. Where slavery is a legal practice, slaves may be held under the control of another person, group, organization, or state. Many cultures in history used slaves, often putting them to work in service of the rich, allowing them to live lives of luxury, or in service to the larger society by constructing roads, buildings, and so forth or working in the fields to grow and harvest crops for food. Many of the great civilizations and empires of the past could not have developed as they did without their slaves.

Most societies outlaw slavery, and authorities consider persons held in such conditions to be victims of unlawful imprisonment. While the practice has technically been abolished around the world, it continues to exist in various degrees despite its immorality and (for the most part) illegality. It today's society, however, although a slave trade still continues, selling innocent women and children into prostitution and sexual abuse, human consciousness has been raised to recognize that all people have basic human rights. The 1926 Slavery Convention, an initiative of the League of Nations, was a turning point in banning global slavery and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly, explicitly banned slavery.

Beyond recognizing that slavery is wrong, there are attempts to make apologies and reparations to those who were enslaved. While their suffering cannot be erased, and should not be forgotten, reconciliation is a desirable goal, together with a united agreement never to treat people in this way again.


Slavery is the social and legal designation of specific persons as property, without the right to refuse work or receive payment.

The word slave in the English language originates from the Scottish sclave, which comes from the Old French esclave, which in turn comes from the Medieval welsh sclavus, which originates from the early Greek sklabos, from sklabenoi Slavs, of Slavic origin; akin to Old Russian Slovene, an East Slavic tribe.1 2 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 like chickens.

Slavery in Brazil by Debret

The 1926 Slavery Convention described slavery as "the status or/and 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 social and/or economic influence.

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 labor, aside from the food, water, clothing, and shelter needed for basic subsistence. The International Labour Organization defines "forced labor" 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: military service, prison sentences, emergencies, and minor community service.3 The ILO asserts that "child labor" amounts to forced labor in which the child's work is exacted from the family as a whole.

In some historical contexts, compulsory labor to repay debts by adults (such as indentured servitude) has been regarded as slavery, depending upon the rights held by such individuals. The current usage of the word serfdom is not usually synonymous with slavery because Medieval serfs were considered to have some (though limited) rights.

Mandatory military service (conscription, colloquially called a "draft" in some places) in liberal democracies is a controversial subject occasionally equated with slavery by those on the political left.4 By extension, acceptance of conscription is seen by some as a sign of chauvinist, ultra-nationalist, and/or fascist ideologies, justified by philosophies such as the Hegelian notion of nations having rights which supercede those of individuals.

Chattel slavery

Chattel slavery is the absolute 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 object. The product of a chattel slave's labor becomes the owner's legal property as well.

Chattel slaves were considered movable property in most countries at one point or another, although the practice has been banned in most places (enforcement of such bans may be another matter). Although those in more developed countries tend to believe that this form of slavery is nonexistent, in actuality, chattel slavery appears to be thriving in other countries.5 Most of today's slaves are present in Africa, Asia, and to a lesser extent Latin America.

In some parts of Africa, a person can become the property of another person for life, "bought and sold like property and bred like farm animals."6 According to UNICEF, 200,000 children from West and Central Africa are sold into slavery each year.7

History of Slavery

See also: Slave tradeGustave Boulanger's painting The Slave Market.

No clear or formal timeline delineates the formation of slavery. The earliest records show evidence of slavery: The Code of Hammurabi refers to slavery as an already established institution. By modern standards, the exploitation of women in some ancient cultures might also be considered slavery. Slavery, in this case, refers to the systematic exploitation of labor for work (which can include sexual services).

Slavery in the ancient world was closely tied to warfare; Greek and Roman sources are replete with references thereof. Captors frequently forced their prisoners of war into slavery, often as manual laborers in military, civil engineering, or agricultural projects, or sometimes as household servants.

In ancient Greco-Roman times, slavery was related to the practice of infanticide. Unwanted infants were exposed to nature to die; slave traders often found abandoned infants and brought them up in an atmosphere of slavery and prostitution. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr condemned the abandonment of infants because the child might die and, most importantly, they might fall into the wrong hands:

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.8

The Arab or Middle Eastern slave trade is thought to have originated with trans-Saharan slavery, though it soon became centered around settlements and ports in East Africa. It is one of the oldest slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by hundreds of years. Male slaves were employed as servants, soldiers, or laborers by their owners. Arab, Indian, and Oriental traders sent female slaves-mostly from Africa-to Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms to work as female servants or as sexual slaves. Slave traders captured and transported slaves northward across the Sahara Desert and the Indian Ocean region into Arabia and the Middle East, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent. African slaves may have crossed the Sahara Desert, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean in as large of numbers as crossed the Atlantic, perhaps more; some sources estimate that between 11 and 17 million slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert from 650 to 1900, compared to 11.6 million across the Atlantic from 1500 to the late 1860s. The Arab or Middle Eastern slave trade continued into the early 1900s.9

Slaves being transported in Africa, 19th century engraving

In Africa, slaves were often taken by other Africans by means of capture in warfare. The captors frequently assigned their slaves to manual labor or traded them for goods or services from other African kingdoms.

The European or Transatlantic slave trade originated around 1500, during the early period of European discovery and settlement in West Africa and the Atlantic. Slaves were often captured in raids or purchased outright from other African kingdoms. Many slaves were originally captured as prisoners of war.9 A large number of slaves were transported from what is now Guinea, the Congo, and Angola. Over 11 million men and women were transported in ships across the Atlantic to various ports in the New World. Far from accepting their imprisonment, many transported Africans actively resisted the brutality of their captors. African slaves engaged in at least 250 shipboard rebellions during the period of the translantic crossings.9

How people became slaves

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

Historically, people entered slavery through capture. Warfare often resulted in slavery for prisoners who could not pay ransom. Slavery originally may have been a more humane replacement for execution, but its increased use in warfare led to widespread enslavement of those of other groups; these sometimes differed in ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race but often were the same. The dominant group in an area might have taken slaves with little fear of suffering the same fate, but the possibility might have been present from reversals of fortune as when, at the height of the Roman Empire, Seneca warned:

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?

When various powerful nations fought among themselves, as with the Atlantic slave trade, anyone might have found himself enslaved. Brief raids or kidnapping could lead to the enslavement of those secure from warfare. St. Patrick recounted being kidnapped by pirates in his Confession, and the Biblical figure Joseph was sold into slavery by his own 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 most slaves 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 B.C.E.) 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.


Manumission is the act of freeing a slave, done at the will of the owner.


The term is Middle English and is derived from the Latin manumittere, literally "to send off by hand," referring to the Roman ceremony of manumission where the master liberated the slave with a symbolic slap.

Processes for, and traditions of, manumitting slaves have been regular elements of many systems of slavery and do not form a systematic rejection of slavery (though many individuals opposed to slavery have exercised their rights of manumission). In some cases the introduction of manumission into the institution of slavery may have helped maintain the system by making it more palatable to one or both parties for social or economic reasons. In this respect, it differs from emancipation, the wholesale freeing of slaves by an act of government, such as the freeing of American slaves after the Civil War in the nineteenth century.

The act of manumission dates back to ancient Rome. During the Middle Ages serfs were freed through a form of manumission. The process differed from time to time and from lord to lord. High productivity, loyal service, or even buying their way out of service were all reasons for which slaves or serfs received their freedom under manumission.

Manumission was not necessarily absolute. In ancient Rome, freed slaves were not "freeborn" and still had service obligations (operae) to their former masters. Failure to perform these obligations could lead to re-enslavement. During the Middle Ages, serfs who had obtained their freedom would often give up their land in troubled times in exchange for the protection of their former feudal masters. In times of bad harvest, serfs could find themselves, once again, attached to the land of a noble for lack of any other means of survival.


Slave owners had complex motivations to manumit their slaves. The following examples relate particularly to classical Greek and Roman forms of manumission.

Firstly, manumission may present itself as a sentimental and benevolent gesture. One typical scenario was the freeing in the master's will of a devoted servant after long years of service. This kind of manumission generally was restricted to slaves who had some degree of intimacy with their masters, such as those serving as personal attendants, household servants, secretaries, and the like. In some cases, master and slave had engaged in a long-term sexual relationship, perhaps with tenderness felt on one or both sides. Some manumitted slaves were the offspring of such sexual encounters. While a trusted bailiff might be manumitted as a gesture of gratitude, for those working as agricultural laborers or in workshops there was little likelihood of being so noticed.

Such feelings of benevolence may have been of value to slave owners themselves as it allowed them to focus on a 'humane component' in the human traffic of slavery. A cynical view of testamentary manumission might also add that the slave was only freed once the master could no longer make use of them. In general it was also much more common for old slaves to be given freedom, that is to say once they have reached the age where they are beginning to be less useful. Legislation under the early Roman empire puts limits on the number of slaves that could be freed in wills (Fufio-Caninian law 2 B.C.E.), suggesting a pronounced enthusiasm for the practice.

At the same time freeing slaves could also serve the pragmatic interests of the owner. The prospect of manumission worked as an incentive for slaves to be industrious and compliant, the light at the end of the tunnel. Roman slaves were paid a wage (peculium) with which they could save up to, in effect, buy themselves. Or to put it from the master's point of view, they are providing the money to buy a fresh and probably younger version of themselves. (In this light, the peculium becomes an early example of a "sinking fund.") Manumission contracts found in some abundance at Delphi specify in detail the prerequisites for liberation. For instance, a female slave will be freed once she has produced three children over the age of two. That is to say, the slave is freed after having replaced herself.

Status after manumission

Greek slaves generally became metics upon being manumitted. That is, they became resident aliens, non-citizens in the city where they lived. The freedom they attained, however, was not absolute. In Athens, freeborn metics were required to nominate a sponsor or patron (prostates): In the case of freed slaves this was automatically their former master. This relationship entailed some degree of continuing duty to the master. Failure to perform this could lead to prosecution at law and re-enslavement. Continuing duties specified for freed slaves in manumission agreements became more common into the Hellenistic era, but it may be that these were customary earlier. Sometimes extra payments were specified by which a freed slave could liberate themselves from these residual duties. One standard requirement was that the freed person continue to live nearby their old master (paramone). Ex-slaves failing to perform these duties might be subject to beatings. All this considered, it is a wonder such people were called free at all. However, ex-slaves were able to own property outright and their children were free of all constraint, whereas those of slaves were the property of the master.

In Rome, former slaves became freedmen (liberti), usually taking the family name of their former master as their own, and though they were no longer seen as an object in the eyes of the law, they still did not gain all the rights of a Roman citizen. Freedmen could not follow the Roman political career or cursus honorum; however, a freedman could become a wealthy tradesman or a member of the priesthood of the emperor-a highly respected position. A successful freedman could become an advisor to the emperor himself, a tradition started by Augustus and fostered by his successors.

In Greek and Roman societies, ex-slaves required the permission of their former master to marry.

Religion and slavery

The relationship between religion and slavery is a complex area of historical and theological debate. Although the practice of slavery seems antithetical to the statutes of any religion, people have used religion to condemn and support slavery throughout history.


The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, does not condemn the existing practice of slavery.10 It also explicitly states that slavery is morally acceptable under certain circumstances (Leviticus 25:44-46; Exodus 21:7-11). 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), yet also tells slaves not to accept their slavery (1 Corinthians 7:21-23, NIV). The prophets and apostles urged kindness to slaves, but the Bible states that slave owners may not be punished for beating their slaves, as long as they are not beaten to death (Exodus 21:20-21). Protestant churches have differently interpreted these passages to be either anti- or pro-slavery.

The early Catholic Church endorsed slavery, but the position of the Church became firmly anti-slavery in later years. 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 Plurimis (On the Abolition of Slavery), exhorting them to banish the remnants of slavery from their country.11


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.12 The Qur'an considers emancipation of a slave a meritorious deed, yet nationwide emancipation did not occur in Muslim lands until after World War II, with pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France to secularize. 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, exploitation for labor), but ownership sets it apart. Hindus and scholars debate whether the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism sanctioned by the scriptures or an outdated social custom.13 The most ancient scriptures place little importance on caste and indicate social mobility (Rig Veda 9.112.3), while later scriptures such as Bhagavad Gita and Manusmriti state that the four varnas are created by God, implying immutability. Manusmriti, (dated between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E.), contains laws that codify the caste system, reducing the flexibility of social mobility and excluding the untouchables from society, yet this system was originally non-inheritable (ManuSmriti X:65). It is uncertain when the caste system became inheritable and akin to slavery. The Indian Constitution criminalized discrimination based on caste, including "untouchability" against the so-called low castes.

Types of slave work

The most common types of slave work are domestic service, agriculture, mineral extraction, army make-up, industry, and commerce.14 In the twenty-first century, domestic services are required in a wealthier household 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.

Many slaves have been used in agriculture and cultivation. The strong, young men are forced to work long days in the fields, with little or no breaks for re-hydration or food. There have been efforts by developed countries to discourage trade with countries where such servitude is legal, however.

In mineral extraction, the majority of the work is done by the men. They provide the salt that is used during extensive trade, not as much in this day and time, but this was especially true in the nineteenth century.15 Many of the men that are bought into chattel slavery are trained to fight in their nation's army and other military services. This is where a great deal of slave trading amongst wealthy officers takes place. Different military leaders can see the strength of a young slave, and make trades to get the young chattel on his side.

Chattel slaves are trained in artisan workshops for industry and commerce.16 The men are in metalworking, while the females work in textiles. They are sometimes employed as agents and assistants in commerce, even though they go without benefits or breaks. The majority of the time, the slave owners do not pay the chattels for their services.

Female slaves, mostly from Africa, were long traded to the Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab traders, and sold into sexual slavery.

Effects of slavery

Baton Rouge, La., April 21863, slave named Peter

Economic effects

Slavery has had a significant role in the economic development of the United States: slaves helped build the roads upon which they were transported; the cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane harvested by slaves became important exports for the United States and the Caribbean countries.

Slavery in the United States had important political implications. During the westward expansion of slavery during the early and mid-1800s, many Northerners feared that the South would gain control of Congress if the Western territories entered the Union as slave states. Attempts by the North to exclude slavery from these territories angered the South and helped bring on the American Civil War in 1861.

Slaves provided a cheap source of labor. As European managers came to understand the vulnerability of workers in the tropics, they gave more attention to the diets of their slave laborers to reduce the death rate from scurvy, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, and so forth. With lower death rates came higher birth rates, and children born into slavery were considered particularly economical because they did not have to be purchased.

Social effects

The "three-fifths compromise" in the United States counted southerners' slaves as three-fifths of a human for the sake of population count (thus guaranteeing white slaveholders more votes in congressional and presidential elections). This statute furthered the dehumanizing effect of chattel slavery in two ways. Firstly, it literally considered a slave less than a complete person. Secondly, it allowed slaveholders more sway in Congress while still disenfranchising black people throughout the United States.

Slaveholders also often denied slaves the human right of marriage. While slaves formed families and held their own matrimonial ceremonies (often referred to as "jumping the broom"), they endured the constant threat of separation because their unions held no legal or social recognition outside the slave communities. With slaves and slaveholders living in such close quarters, miscegenation became a widespread social "problem."

In the antebellum South, slaves outnumbered white people in some communities, arousing fear of insurgency among the slaveholding population.17 Separating family members from each other served as one method of preventing rebellion, revolt, and resistance. In The Negro, African American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois discussed the devastating effects of slavery on family and community life: "The greatest social effect of American slavery was to substitute for the polygamous Negro home a new polygamy less guarded, less effective, and less civilized." However, Du Bois also stated that the plantation system had little impact on African roots in religion and medicine, identifying the black church as the "first distinctively Negro American social institution."18

Abolitionist movements

Main article: Abolitionism

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, throughout the whole of human history; so, too, have movements to free large or distinct groups of slaves. However, Abolitionism should be distinguished from efforts to restrict one practice of slavery, such as the slave trade. According to the Biblical Book of Exodus, Moses led Israelite slaves from ancient Egypt. Later, Jewish laws in Halacha prevented slaves from being sold out of the Land of Israel and allowed a slave to move to Israel if he so desired.

Progress came incrementally in most areas of the world. For instance, in 1772, a legal case concerning James Somersett made it illegal to remove a slave from England against his will. A similar case-that of Joseph Knight-took place in Scotland five years later and further ruled slavery to be contrary to national law. At the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, slaves in the United States were in a state of limbo, able to live semi-freely in states where slavery was illegal; however, as the case of Dred Scott ruled, many slaves in this category were still considered property and, therefore, could be re-enslaved.

Proclamation of the abolition of slavery by Victor Hughes in the Guadeloupe, the 1st 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 reestablish slavery. They succeeded in Guadeloupe, 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.

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

Around this time, slaves in other parts of the world, aided by abolitionists, also began their struggle for independence. Slaves in the United States, who escaped ownership would often make their way to the northern part of the country or Canada through what became known as the "Underground Railroad." Former slaves and abolitionists assisted in this northward movement to freedom. Famous abolitionists of the United States include Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. Following the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in the United States in 1865.

After Abolition in the United States and UK, the question arose 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 black people (notably throughout parts of the Harlem Renaissance) embraced repatriation, other motives existed; for instance, trade unions did not want the cheap labor of former slaves around, and racism (solving the problem by removi