Slavery in Perspective: Past and Present

“Historical Saturday”

Slavery Throughout History

Egyptian Slavery

All ancient civilizations engaged in the horrific practice of slavery. The primary source of slaves was war captives. Chattel slavery was accepted throughout the world for over 10,000 years. It was not until the abolitionist movement in America and Europe in the 18th Century that slavery became broadly controversial.  (See: “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pre-Colonial Africa,” Dr. Akosua Perbi, Univ. of Illinois, 5 Apr. 2001; “Origins of Slavery,” “Short History of Slavery,” Wikipedia)

“The term ‘slave‘ has its origins in the word ‘slav.’ White Slavs in Eastern Europe, were taken as slaves by the Muslims during the Middle Ages.” (BBC)

Slavery In Africa

Slavery Was Widespread in Pre-Colonial Africa

“Slavery has historically been widespread in Africa…. Slavery in contemporary Africa is still practiced despite it being illegal.” “It is also estimated that in the intracontinental slave trade over 8 million people were enslaved within the African continent.” “African states played a key role in the slave trade, and slavery was a common practice among Sub Saharan Africans.” African kingdoms and tribes enslaved their enemies. ((Wikipedia; “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pre-Colonial Africa,” Dr. Akosua Perbi, Univ. of Illinois, 5 Apr. 2001)

Slavery Was Widespread in Pre-Columbian Latin America

Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs tortured, sacrificed, and enslaved captives taken in war. (Wikipedia)

Aztec Slavery and Human Sacrifice

Slavery Was Practiced in Pre-Columbian North America

“Many Native-American tribes practiced some form of slavery before the European introduction of African slavery into North America.” War captives were frequently enslaved and/or sold. (Wikipedia)

Slavery Was Widespread in the Middle East

“In the ancient Near East slavery was a common practice, dating back to the very earliest recorded civilizations.” Slavery was a prevalent in the ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian Empires. Since the 7th Century Muslim countries have enslaved up to 14 million people. (Wikipedia) 

African Slaves in Ancient China

Slavery Was Widespread in Asia

Slavery has existed all throughout Asia, and forms of slavery still exist today.” (Wikipedia) Prisoners of war were the main source of slaves.

Slavery Was Widespread in Europe

Slavery existed in Ancient Greece and RomeBarbarian tribes, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings all enslaved war captives.

Transatlantic Slave Trade (1500s-1800s)

Slave Market in Constantinople

The transatlantic slave trade was inhumane, barbaric, and monstrous. Its cruelty is incomprehensible.

“Current estimates are that about 12 million black Africans were shipped across the Atlantic over a span of 400 years. During that same period over 1 million white Europeans were captured and sold as slaves… It is also estimated that in the intracontinental slave trade over 8 million people were enslaved within the African continent.” (Wikipedia)

Abolition Began in the West in the 18th Century

“Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery … is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century. People of every race and color were enslaved – and enslaved others…. Everyone hated the idea of being a slave, but few had any qualms about enslaving others.” (Thomas Sowell)

Thomas Jefferson Planted the Seeds of Abolition

Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder in a slave society, planted the seeds of abolition. He was the first statesman in the world to advocate concrete measures for eradicating slavery. He publicly opposed the international slave trade throughout his life, and he took measures to end it.

Jefferson declared that slavery was contrary to “natural law”. He branded slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” He proclaimed that the institution of slavery forced “tyranny” and “depravity” on both master and slave alike. Jefferson’s anti-slavery views were considered radical at the time.

Middle Eastern Slave Market
  • In 1775, Jefferson submitted a draft for the Virginia Constitution containing the phrase, “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held within the same in slavery under any pretext whatever.” His proposal was rejected.
  • In 1776, Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence called the African slave trade an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberties.”  Abolitionists John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (first president of the Abolitionist Society) persuaded Jefferson to remove the anti-slavery language from the draft because the southern colonies would not join the revolution otherwise. However, Jefferson inspired the world by proclaiming that it is an inalienable natural right that “all men are created equal,” and are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • In 1778, Jefferson convinced the Virginia General Assembly to ban importing people to be used as slaves. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the slave trade.
  • In 1784, Jefferson proposed that the Continental Congress prohibit slavery in new states and territories in the west by 1800. The proposal was rejected.
  • In 1806, President Jefferson called for a law to make the exportation or importation of slaves a federal crime subject to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Congress complied.  (In 1823, slave trading became a capital crime.)
  • In 1807, on the very first day on which it was constitutionally permissible to do so Jefferson abolished the slave trade. This was Jefferson’s last year in office.

Jefferson argued that slavery was the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation.  He advocated a “gradual emancipation” believing that slaves and society were not ready for immediate freedom. The first step of his plan was to end the importation of slaves and slavery’s expansion into the western territories. He expected that the seeds of liberty and abolition he planted would be reaped by the next generations.

Modern critics condemn Jefferson as a “slave holding hypocrite.” Jefferson did own slaves.  He did make statements that can be interpreted as racist and pro-slavery.

However, Thomas Jefferson probably did more than any other person in the history of the world to inspire and influence the abolition of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln used Jefferson’s words in the monumental Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Martin Luther King used Jefferson’s words in his speech: “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.'”

Abolition in France

Inspired by Thomas Jefferson, his close friend and abolitionist, Marquis de Lafayette helped lead the French Revolution.  In consultation with Jefferson, Lafayette published the influential “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”  Like Jefferson, Lafayette argued that liberty was an inalienable natural and universal right.

In 1794, the French government abolished slavery. This was the first country in the world to abolish slavery.

Unfortunately, Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1804. In 1848, France re-abolished slavery and extended abolition to all its colonies.

Abolition in England

Unlike other countries, no legislation was ever passed in England that legalized slavery. However, slaves were openly bought and sold on commodities markets in Bristol, Liverpool, and London.

In the 1700’s, Quakers and other religious “non-conformists” started a grass roots campaign against the hideous practice of slavery. However, they were barred from holding public office. In 1807, William Wilberforce, a leading abolitionist, convinced Parliament to adopt the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade.  The abolitionists later persuaded Parliament to adopt the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.  

Spread of Abolition

First Jurisdictions to Abolish Slavery

  • 1780, Pennsylvania
  • 1783, New Hampshire and Massachusetts
  • 1784, Connecticut and Rhode Island
  • 1791, Vermont
  • 1799, New York
  • 1804, New Jersey

First and Last Nations to Abolish Slavery

  • 1794, France (Revolutionary Government, Reinstated by Napoleon in 1804)
  • 1804, Haiti declared independence from France and became the first country  in the Americas to abolish slavery.
  • 1807, the United States and the United Kingdom outlawed the international slave trade.
  • 1811, Spain abolished slavery in its colonies. (Cuba refused and continued to practice slavery.)
  • 1833, Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire.
  • 1848, France re-abolished slavery throughout its colonies.
  • 1858, Portugal abolished slavery in its colonies.
  • 1861, Netherlands abolished slavery in the Dutch Caribbean colonies.
  • 1865, the United States abolished slavery in every state with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
  • 1878, West Africa officially abolished slavery, but it continued unofficially until around 1915.
  • 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.
  • 1948, United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
  • 1962, Saudi Arabia and Yemen abolished slavery under pressure from Britain.,
  • 1970, Oman abolished slavery.
  • 2003, Niger officially abolished slavery, but about 8% of the population remains enslaved today.
  • 2007, Mauritania became the last country to abolish slavery, having previously “abolished” slavery in 1905 and 1981.

(See: “Abolitionism,” “Declaration of Independence’” “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” Wikipedia; Reuters, Chronology – Who Banned Slavery When? Mar 21, 2007)

Slavery Today: 40 Million

Research by the United Nations and other organizations conclude that 40 million people are trapped in horrid modern forms of slavery worldwide:

  • 50 percent in forced labor
  • 12.5 percent in sex slavery
  • 37.5 percent in forced marriage slavery

Countries with highest percentage living in modern slavery (Walk Free: Global Slavery Index 2018) (slaves per 1000)

  1. North Korea 104/1000 – 2.6 million total
  2. Eritrea 93/1000 – 451,000 total
  3. Central African Republic 22/1000 – 101,000 total
  4. Afghanistan 22/1000 – 749,000 total
  5. Mauritania 21/1000 – 90,000 total
  6. South Sudan 20/1000 – 243,000 total
  7. Iran 16/1000 – 1,200,000 total
  8. Pakistan 16/1000 – 3.1 million total
  9. Cambodia 16/1000 – 261,000 total
  10. Somalia 15/1000 – 216,000 total
  11. Mongolia 12/1000 – 37,000 total
  12. Papua New Guinea 10/1000 – 81,000 total

Africa Today

“Slavery has never been eradicated in Africa, and it commonly appears in African states, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, and Sudan, primarily in places where law and order have collapsed.” (“Slavery in Contemporary Africa,” Wikipedia)

Asia and the Pacific Today

“On any given day in 2016, an estimated 24.9 million men, women, and children were living in atrocious modern slavery in Asia and the Pacific. The region had the second highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world with 6.1 per 1,000 people….

“Within the region, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were the countries with the highest prevalence [percentage] of modern slavery. India [8 million], China [3.8 million], and Pakistan [3.1 million] had the highest absolute number of people living in modern slavery and accounted for 60 percent of the victims in the region. (“Global Slavery Index,” Walk Free, 2018)

China Today

“[O]n any given day in 2016 there were over 3.8 million people living in conditions of modern slavery in China, a prevalence of 2.8 victims for every thousand people in the country. This estimate does not include figures on organ trafficking.

“In 2016, cases of forced child labor were detected in a garment factory . . . where underage workers were forced to work overtime and beaten if they refused. They also had their passports and mobile phones confiscated if they attempted to run away.” (“Global Slavery Index,” Walk Free, 2018)

Concluding Remarks

Tragically, slavery has been part of the human condition for over 10,000 years.   The horrific practice of slavery existed in almost every culture. Unfortunately, we cannot erase that hideous black mark on humanity, nor can we change the past. But we can, and must, learn from it.  

Today, much time, energy, and resources are spent debating the issue of slavery in the past. That is good. But wouldn’t it be better if we devoted more time, energy, and resources fighting the inhumane slavery of today, where we can make a real difference.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

(Check Out: Tim Ballard’s “Operation Underground Railroad,” dedicated to locating and liberating sex slaves.)

(See: “Global Slavery Index, Walk Free, 2018; “The Real History of Slavery,” “Twisted History,” The Thomas Sowell Reader; “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pre-Colonial Africa,” Dr. Akosua Perbi, Univ. of Illinois, 5 Apr. 2001); “History of Slavery,” “Slavery in Africa,” “Aztec Slavery,” “Maya Slavery,” “Inca Empire,” “Slavery in Latin America,” “Atlantic Slave Trade,” “Slavery Among Native Americans in the U.S.,” “White Slavery,” “Abolitionism,” “Slave States and Free States,” “Slavery in Britain,” Wikipedia; “Declaration of Independence’” “Declaration of the Rights of Man;”)

See Previous Related Articles:

More Images of Modern Slave Labor

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