Slavery is a form of involuntary servitude. Slavery as an institution can exist in many different forms, making it difficult to precisely define the term. In many times and places the practice of one person being chattel property of another person was the most usual form of slavery. Historically, the victims of slavery were often those of a different ethnicity, nationality or religion, and less often, of a different race.
Societies that were persistently victimized by slavery generally exhibited political fragmentation that prevented the society from organizing to protect itself. They also tended to be characterized by poverty, population pressures, and cultural and technological backwardness. Examples include the Slavs and various African societies, such as the Ibo of Nigeria.
For centuries, the Slavic people of Eastern Europe were the primary source of slaves for Europe and the Islamic world. Because of this, the word for slave in numerous European languages, as well as in Arabic, is derived from the word for Slavs - the English word being a clear example.
- 1 Slavery in the Mediterranean World
- 2 Slavery in the Islamic World
- 3 Slavery in Africa
- 4 Slavery in Medieval Europe
- 5 Slavery in the Americas
- 6 International Abolitionist Movements
Slavery in the Mediterranean World
Slavery in the ancient Mediterranean cultures was a mixture of debt-slavery and the enslavement of prisoners of war. Undoubtedly a majority of slaves were condemned to agricultural labor and lived hard lives.
Greek and Roman urban slaves, as opposed to agricultural slaves, seem to have had some chance at manumission. There was a large class of freedmen and freedwomen in Roman society at all periods. Freed people suffered some minor legal disabilities that show how otherwise open the society was to them - they could not hold certain high offices and they could not marry in the senatorial classes. Their children, however, had no prohibitions.
The Latin poet Horace, son of a freedman, served as a military officer in the army of Brutus and seemed headed for a political career before the defeat of Brutus by Octavian and Antony. Though Horace may have been an exceptional case, freedmen were an important part of Roman administrative functions. Freedmen of the Imperial families often were the main functionaries in the Imperial administration.
The beginnings of Christianity did not seriously change slavery. Though the Christian leaders often called for good treatment for slaves and condemned the enslavement of Christians, the institution itself was not questioned. The shift from chattel slavery to serfdom in medieval Europe is otherwise an economic rather than a moral issue.
Slavery in the Islamic World
The institution of slavery pre-existed Islam in the Arab world, and was permitted under the laws of Islam. Manumission was encouraged, though not required. Only the children of slaves or non-Muslim prisoners of war could be slaves.
Race is a difficult subject to sort out for the consideration of Islamic slavery. Because of the prohibition on the enslavement of Muslims, Islamic powers made a custom of enslaving those from beyond its borders. Mere conversion did not require manumission, either. As those peoples - notably the Turks - became Muslims their use as slaves did not end immediately.
Slavery in Africa
Slavery was common and widespread throughout Africa until abolished by the British in the late 19th century. The end of the slave trade and the decline of slavery was imposed upon Africa by its conquerors, in what would now be called an instance of Cultural imperialism.
The nature of the slave societies differed greatly across the continent. There were large plantations worked by slaves in Egypt, the Sudan, and Zanzibar, but this was not a typical use of slaves for Africa as a whole. In some slave societies, slaves were protected and almost incorporated into the slaveowning family. In others, slaves were brutally abused, and even used for human sacrifices. Despite the large numbers of slaves exported from Africa, it is thought that the majority of African slaves remained in Africa, remaining slaves in the regions where they were first captured.
Prior to the 16th century, the bulk of slaves exported from Africa were shipped from East Africa to the Islamic world. Zanzibar became a leading port based on this trade, exporting at its mid-19th century peak an estimated 10-20,000 slaves every year. Arab slave raiders differed from European traders in that they would capture slaves themselves, often penetrating deep into the continent; they also tended to capture more women then men, again unlike the Europeans.
The African slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured in West Africa and shipped to the colonies of the New World. It is estimated that over the centuries, at least eleven million people were shipped as slaves to the Americas, of whom some 15 per cent died during the terrible voyage (though shipboard mortality appears mercifully to have declined somewhat over the period). Estimates of the number removed to Muslim lands range from around three to fourteen million.
The demographic impact of the slave trade on Africa is an important question around which consensus remains difficult. Some historians conclude that the total loss - persons removed, those who died on the arduous march to coastal slave marts and those killed in slave raids - far exceeded the 65-75 million inhabitants remaining in Sub-Saharan Africa at the trade's end. Others believe that slavers had a vested interest in capturing trather than killing, and in keeping their captives alive; and that this coupled with the disproportionate removal of males and the introduction of new crops from the Americas (cassava, maize) would have limited general population decline to particular regions at particular times - western Africa around 1760-1810 and Mozambique and neighbouring areas half a century later.
Slavery has persisted in Africa into the present. Mauritania abolished slavery only in 1980, though it is thought the practice continues there. The trading of children has been reported in modern Nigeria and Benin. In parts of Ghana, a family may be punished for an offense by having to turn over a virgin female to serve as a sex slave within the offended family. The slave trade in the Sudan has grown as a tool for persecuting the Christian minority during the present civil war.
Slavery in Medieval Europe
Slavery in the Americas
Slavery in the Americas may represent the first systematic differentiation of slave and free populations on the basis of race, though in some parts of the Americas large free populations made up of all races undercut even that distinction. Slavery under European rule began with enslavement of local aborigines in the Caribbean but was replaced with imported Africans as the native populations declined through disease. Most slaves brought to the Americas ended up in the Carribean or South America where tropical diseases took a larger toll on their population and required large numbers of replacements.
Slavery among indiginous people of the Americas
Slavery in the Spanish New World Colonies
Slavery in the Non-Spanish New World Colonies
Slavery in Brazil
Slavery in North America
The first slaves brought to the English colonies on the continent were landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Slavery in the United States ended irregularly. Slavery was legal in most of the 13 colonies, and was ended in many of the states later called "Free States" only after the turn of the 19th century. For instance, slavery was not abolished in New York state until 1827, and even then only absolutely abolished for those born before 1799. Those born between 1799 and the passage of the law were under conditional slavery.
In 1806 the United States passed legislation that banned the importation of slaves, but not the internal slave trade, and the involvement in the international slave trade or the outfitting of ships for that trade by U.S. citizens. Though there were certainly violations of this law, slavery in America became more or less self-sustaining.
The 1860s saw the end of slavery in America. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not end slavery but only proclaimed freedom for slaves in the territory of the seceeding states. Slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained enslaved until the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865, 8 months after the cessation of hostilities in the Civil War.
International Abolitionist Movements
The anti-slavery movement began in England in 1787. It had support from Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and reached out for support from the new industrial workers. After 1838, when slavery and slavery commuted to apprentiship was outlawed in England, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society worked to outlaw slavery overseas and to pressure the government to help enforce the suppression of the slave trade by declaring slave traders pirates and pursuing them. This organization continues today as Anti-Slavery International.
Slaves in the United States who escaped ownership would often make their way north to Canada via the Underground railroad. The Underground Railroad was a grassroots organization, loosely and informally organized.