By Tim Lambert


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).

Under Roman law, there were limits to how cruelly slaves could be treated but it must have been difficult to enforce that. 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.


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.

Nevertheless, slavery quickly declined and by the mid-12th century, it had vanished from England. n Slavery also existed in Central America before the Europeans arrived. The Mayans kept slaves who did 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 a wooden collar around their necks.

Slavery also existed in Asian countries. In China and Korea, there was slavery from Ancient Times to the 20th century. Slavery also existed in India, Japan, Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia. n The Arab Slave Trade n From the 7th century to the 19th century the Arabs took vast numbers of slaves from Africa. They were transported across the Sahara or across the Indian Ocean. Many African slaves died en route. However, in the 15th century the Arabs, who controlled the slave trade gained a rival.


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 to 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.

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 owners 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 in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The slave-raiding finally ended in 1783 when Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia captured Crimea.


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.

Meanwhile in 1833 a law abolished 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.

Meanwhile, 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 ria Urbina abolished slavery by decree in 1851. Peru ended slavery in 1854. So did Venezuela. Meanwhile the Dutch ended slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles in 1863. 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 by December 1865.

In the 20th century, more countries abolished slavery. China abolished slavery in 1910 and Morocco abolished it in 1922. Afghanistan abolished slavery in 1923 and Iran ended it in 1928. Saudi Arabia ended slavery in 1962. Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981.

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

Last revised 2021