History of Slavery: Here’s The Simple Explanation



Slavery was a condition where a human being is owned by another and is by law, the property of another. Slaves were deprived of all human rights ordinarily held by free individuals. Slaves were not separate legal entities. Thus in most societies, they could not sign contracts or be legally accountable for their actions. The origins of slavery are unknown to mankind but ever since ancient human civilization; there has been a human need for domination over communities they have conquered. So slaves were often seen as war spoils. Most ancient civilizations had some form of slavery. Slaves were generated in many ways, the most frequent being capture in war which acted as an incentive for warriors and a way to establish the supremacy of a civilization over another. Others became a slave by being kidnapped in slave-raiding or piracy expeditions. Some were born to slaves so they became a slave by birth. Some were enslaved as a punishment for a crime or unpaid debt while others were sold into slavery by their parents to satisfy the debt or escape starvation.

Slavery in Ancient Civilizations

Babylon (18th century BC)

There isn’t much information on early slave societies except the legal status of the slaves as the owners’ valuable property. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon (18 century BC) gives a record of the rewards and penalties for surgeons operating on free men and slaves. However, Babylonian slaves were allowed to own property.

Greece (7th century BC)

Both the leading states of Greece- Sparta and Athens depended entirely on forced labour. Greeks preferred women and children for domestic work. Men were seen as the rebellious so they were often employed in extreme conditions such as mines or agricultural manual work. However, some slaves who work in the police force or had secretarial and managerial responsibilities also acquired prestige. By the 5th century BC, they were more slaves in Athens then free citizens.

Rome (2nd century BC)

Slave trading with big business in the Roman Empire and slaves finance a lot of its economy. Slaves were often worked to death in the gold and silver mines of the Empire. Most families owned slaves for domestic work. Special slaves, called Gladiators were trained to fight to the death for the entertainment of the people. Roman Emperors had thousands of slaves to cater to all their whims. Plantation slavery was also widespread. The extreme oppression led to many slave revolts, with the most famous being the one led by Spartacus.


Slavery is said to have existed as early as the 18th – 12th century during the Shang dynasty in China. Slavery continued to be a feature of Chinese society until the 20th century. While the oppression existed, many slaves were also accommodated into the family and were appointed as heirs when no natural offspring existed.

About a third to half of the Korean society consisted of slaves until the mid 18th century. However, most slaves were locals.

Slavery in India has been recorded in the Sanskrit Laws of Manu in the 1st century BC. In Hindu society, slaves were primarily owned for prestige. Slavery increased during the medieval period under Islamic rule in India. But slaves were often treated as extended kin and even inherited the throne which led to the Slave Dynasty in India.

Slavery has been widespread in many other Asian societies such as Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia, Japan, and Nepal during the last two millennia.

Middle ages

The slave trade thrived during the middle ages, especially around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. During the 10th century Germans captured so many Slavs that their racial name became the generic words ‘slave’. Slavery was an expected part of life in Arabia but slaves were treated better than their European counterparts. However, the most disastrous chapter of slavery began with the arrival of Portuguese on the West African shore in the 15th century.

Trans-Atlantic trade (15 century onwards)

The Portuguese inaugurated the Atlantic slave trade and soon Christopher Columbus found the New World virtually wiping out the indigenous Caribbean culture. Portuguese expeditions brought European ships in close contact with sub-Saharan Africa. Portuguese settlers moved into Cape Verde islands around 1460 and made it a flourishing trade port for captive Africans. The area came to be known as Portuguese Guinea or Slave Coast. The European colonies in the Caribbean, Americas and Brazil earlier employed the indigenous population in their plantations. But with the indigenous population dying out, they were soon replaced by the African slaves. Around 900,000 slaves had landed in the Americas by 1600 to work in sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. Though started by the Portuguese, the British soon mastered the art of slave trade and created the Triangular Trade which fuelled most of the British economy before industrialisation.

Triangular Trade

The ship that left Europe made three separate journeys before returning to Europe and each part of the triangular trade was profitable. They took goods such as firearms, alcohol (especially Rum), cotton goods, metal trinkets, beads, etc. to the African ports from Britain where traders awaited them with slaves. These slaves work crammed into vessels, shackled, badly fed and terrified. It is estimated that about 12 million slaves embarked on the journey during the slave trade and about one in six slaves died during the journey. Slaves were exchanged for goods from the plantations especially sugar and molasses, which was taken to England and transformed into rum and thus the triangular trade continued.

Abolitionist Movements

Horrors of the slave trade could not be ignored for long. In America, the constitutional Congress had agreed in 1787 to not pass any law on slavery for 20 years under pressure from the southern states. On 1st January 1808, America outlawed the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament too made the slave trade illegal. However by then, there were enough slaves and their children to continue slavery in these regions. Abolitionists realised that the only way to get rid of the menace was to completely get rid of slavery. Danes were the first to abolish slavery in 1802. British abolished slavery throughout its Empire (except India) through “The Slavery Abolition Act, 1833”. The French finally abolished it in 1848. America had a long and violent struggle for the abolition. In America, most of the abolitionists were located in the north since 95% of all slaves in America were in the southern states and were the prime contributor to prosperity in these states. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the presidency and the southern states seceded from the union. The American Civil War from 1861- 1865 sought to reunify the Union and bring an end to slavery. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed “The Emancipation Proclamation” which declared that “all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are, and henceforth shall be free”. Slaves from the South tried to escape into the North under the cover of the night. The routes that they took became known as the “Underground Railroad”. At the end of the Civil War, America abolished slavery through the 13th Amendment in 1865. Slavery has since been outlawed in all parts of the world.

Modern slavery

Although slavery has been criminalizing in all parts of the world, it still persists, especially in Asia and Africa, in many forms of forced labour, human trafficking, bonded labour, child slavery, etc. 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery. One in four of them are children. Almost three fourth (71%) of them are girls and women. Modern slavery manifests itself in many forms-

  1. Human Trafficking: People are trapped through violence, deception or coercion and then sold through illegal networks to work in mines, as drug peddlers, sex slaves, for begging, domestic servitude, marriage or organ removal.
  2. Forced Labour: According to ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930, “Forced or compulsory labour is all work or service which is extracted from any person under the threat of a penalty or for which the person has not offered herself for himself voluntarily”. Over a million workers are forced to pick cotton by their own governments in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan every year.
  3. Bonded Labour: Bonded labour is a result of debt bondage where people are forced to work to pay of a debt. Often the entire family is forced to work to pay off a debt taken by one person. They are kept in sub-human conditions and not paid for their work. Bonded labour is widespread in South Asian countries like India and Pakistan.
  4. Child Slavery: Often children from disadvantage background are vulnerable to various forms of child exploitation. These include-
  • prostitution, pornography and other forms of sexual exploitation
  • begging, petty crimes or drug trade
  • forced labour
  • In armed conflicts, children are used as child soldiers or suicide bomber. Girls are taken as wives for soldiers or militia members
  • Child marriage.
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Astha is an opinionated Gen Z and a dedicated bibliophile who is currently pursuing Political Science and Economics at Miranda House. She is an ambivert and finds discussions on politics and international affairs to be her favorite icebreakers. She is a proud feminist.