A Brief History of Slavery

By Tim Lambert

Slavery in the Ancient World

Slavery is the ownership of one human being by another. It has existed throughout history in many cultures and is by no means extinct today. In the distant past, people often slaughtered their enemies but sometimes they were taken prisoner and used as slaves.

In the Ancient World, slavery was common. The Ancient Egyptians kept slaves. So did the Greeks and the Romans. Some Roman slaves were household slaves who worked in their master’s homes. Others worked on farms and some were skilled craftsmen. Slaves who lived in mines probably had the harshest and most unpleasant lives. (Their lives were often short too).

Most slaves were probably reasonably treated just to keep them working efficiently. Some Roman slaves were freed when they were older and others managed to save up and buy their freedom.

Even so, there were several slave rebellions. Slaves in Sicily rebelled in 133 BC but the most famous slave rebellion was led by Spartacus in 73 BC. However, slave rebellions were eventually crushed and slavery went on.

Roman gladiators were often (but not always) slaves.

Slavery in the Middle Ages

In the 4th century, the Roman Empire split into two parts, east, and west. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the 5th century slavery continued in western Europe. (The word slave is derived from Slav because so many Slavs were enslaved in the Early Middle Ages.) The Vikings and other nations kept slaves and there were slave markets in towns like London, Dublin, and Rome.

In Saxon England, slaves were called thralls. They did the hardest and dirtiest work. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, there were still slaves in England. However slavery quickly declined and by the mid-12th century, it had vanished from England.

Slavery also existed in Central America before the Europeans arrived. The Mayans kept slaves who were forced to do all the hard work. The Aztecs too had slaves. Sometimes they were prisoners of war or criminals but sometimes people were forced to sell themselves or their children through extreme poverty. However, slavery was not hereditary. A slave’s children were free. Furthermore, slaves could buy their freedom and many of them did so. Surprisingly slaves could even own possessions. However, slaves who misbehaved or who ran away could be forced to wear wooden collars around their necks.

Slavery also existed in Asian countries. In Japan, slavery was abolished in 1590 (except as a punishment for a crime). However, in some Asian countries, slavery continued until the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

The Arab Slave Trade

From the 7th century to the 19th century the Arabs took vast numbers of slaves from Africa. Many were transported across the Sahara. From the 9th century to the 11th century the Arabs transported African slaves to China. Sadly many slaves died while they were being transported. However, in the 15th century the Arabs, who controlled the slave trade gained a rival.

Slavery from the 16th Century to the 19th Century

In the 15th century, the Portuguese began to explore the coast of Africa. They began to transport African slaves to Portugal and Spain. In the 16th century, Europeans began to transport African slaves across the Atlantic. Slavery was nothing new in Africa. For centuries Africans had sold other Africans to the Arabs as slaves. However, the trans-Atlantic slave trade grew until it was huge. Most African slaves were sent to Brazil or the West Indies. Some were sent to the British colonies in North America. (The first slaves arrived there in 1619).

In the 18th century, ships from Britain took manufactured goods to Africa. They took slaves from there to the West Indies and took sugar back to Britain. This was called the Triangular Trade. (Many other European countries were involved in the slave trade).

Some Africans were sold into slavery because they had committed a crime. However many slaves were captured in raids by other Africans. Europeans did not travel inland to find slaves. Instead, Africans brought slaves to the coast. Any slaves who were not sold were either killed or used as slaves by other Africans.

Slaves were crammed into ships where many died of disease. In the West Indies, the slaves were forced to work on sugar plantations. They were treated with appalling cruelty, often being whipped. Some were whipped or worked to death. Furthermore, some slave families were split up when they arrived in the West Indies. Many soon died of disease. Those who survived lived in simple huts with only a bed, a table and benches, and a few cooking utensils.

Slave quarters

In the 18th century, some slaves were skilled workers. Others were drivers who used whips to ‘drive’ their fellow slaves to work harder. Some slaves worked in their owner’s houses. Sometimes they were mulattos (people with a white father and a black mother).

European Slaves in North Africa

Meanwhile, from the 16th century to the 19th century there were many European slaves in North Africa. Pirates from North Africa captured Europeans sailing in the Mediterranean and made them slaves. But they also raided the coastal regions of Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Ireland, and southwest England for slaves. They even sailed as far as Iceland and took the inhabitants as slaves. The white slave trade finally ended in the 1830s when the French conquered the region.

Meanwhile, from the 15th century to the 18th century Crimean Tatars raided the Slavic lands to the north for slaves. A vast number of Slavs were captured and most were sold to the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The slave-raiding finally ended in 1783 when Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia captured Crimea.

The Abolition of Slavery

However, in the 18th century, public opinion in Europe began to turn against slavery. The first people to take action were the Quakers. In 1761 they decided to expel any members involved in the slave trade. In 1787 the Quakers formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and at the end of the 18th century, many petitions were presented to parliament demanding the end of the slave trade.

However, the first country to abolish the slave trade was Denmark. In 1792 the king decreed the trade must end (although the ban did not take effect until 1803). Britain followed in 1807. The USA abolished the slave trade in 1808. Other European countries followed. Sweden abolished the slave trade in 1813, The Netherlands in 1814, France in 1815, and Spain in 1820. Brazil ended the slave trade in 1851.

The British navy played a major role in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The West Africa Squadron was established in 1808 to patrol the sea off West Africa. The East African slave trade ended when the European powers colonized Africa at the end of the 19th century.

However actual slavery continued in European colonies for decades after the slave trade was abolished. In 1833 a law abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. (The new law came into effect in 1834). France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794. However, Napoleon restored it in 1802 and it was not finally abolished till 1848. The same year, 1848 Denmark abolished slavery in its West Indian colonies.

Sweden played a minor part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But there were many slaves in Saint Barthelemy, in the Caribbean (which was a Swedish colony after 1784). However, Sweden abolished slavery in 1847. The Netherlands abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies in 1863. Portugal abolished slavery in its colonies in 1869.

In North Africa, Tunisia abolished slavery in 1846.

Meanwhile, slavery was abolished in Latin America. Slavery was abolished in Chile in 1823 and in Mexico in 1829. Bolivia followed in 1831. Uruguay ended slavery in 1842. Argentina abolished slavery in 1853. In Ecuador, President Urbina abolished slavery by decree in 1851. Peru ended slavery in 1854. So did Venezuela.

Paraguay ended it in 1869. Slavery ended in Cuba in 1886. The last country in South America to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888.

When the US Constitution was written in 1787 many people hoped that slavery would die out of its own accord. In the northern states, slavery was abolished by 1804. However, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave slavery new importance in the southern states. In the northern states, slavery was gradually abolished and the USA became divided into ‘free states’ and ‘slave states’. The persistence of slavery was a major factor in causing the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

At first Abraham Lincoln was reluctant to abolish slavery in the south. However, he eventually changed his mind. On 23 September 1862, he made the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves would be made free in any states still in rebellion on 1 January 1863. However, this only applied to areas occupied by the Unionist army after that date it did not apply to areas already under Unionist control. However, the proclamation was followed by the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. It was ratified in December 1865.

Meanwhile, slavery ended in some other parts of the world. It was ended in Cambodia in 1884 and it was legally abolished in Korea in 1894. It was abolished in Egypt in 1895. In Turkey, slavery was gradually abolished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was banned by a new constitution in 1924.

In the 20th century, more Asian countries abolished slavery. Thailand abolished it in 1905. China abolished slavery in 1910. It was ended in Malaya In 1915. Afghanistan abolished slavery in 1923 and Nepal ended it in 1928. Iran abolished slavery in 1929.

In Ethiopia slavery was banned in 1942. Saudi Arabia ended slavery in 1962. Oman followed in 1970. Mauritania was the last country in the world to legally abolish slavery, in 1981.

Unfortunately, although slavery may be illegal it still exists under different names.

The Royal Navy and the Battle to End Slavery (BBC – History)

Modern Slavery

Last revised 2024