Slavery: Country Trends

Figure 1.--Americans are most familar with their slavery history. A very small portion of the Atlantic slave trade delivered captive Africans to the 13 English North American colnies. And only two decades after the Constitution was ratified, the United States allowed the African slave trade (1807). The great bulk of the captive Africans were delivered to the deadly sugar plantations of Brazil and he Caribbean. The best chance of survival was to become a household slave. Here we see a slave nanny and her charge in Brazil. Notice how well she is dressed.

Slavery is a very common social institution. We find a histort of slavery in most countries over different time periods. Our discussion of slavery follows a generally chronological/regional thread. This works for most countries, but some countries which have undergone massive social changes over time are mote difficult to follow with this approach. Countries of more modern origins can be better studies with the alphaberical country index. More borders are cnot the same as ancient brders, complicating an assessment of slavery based on modern states. A good example here is Egypt where in addition top Phronic times, we have Roman and Arab period which both fostered slavery. Cairo for many years was an important slave market. This we will create general country pages here so readers interested in a specific country can follow the country information we have compiled. Much of our informtion on slvery comes from Africa and the Americas, but we have begun to acquire some information from Asia as well.



Ghana was involved in both the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade and the European Atlantic slave trade. There are modern reports of children at Adape being forced into dangerous and phyically deanding lbor in Adape and prevented from going to school. This is a photographic evidence of the children prevented from going to school and forced to work in the fishing (in the foreground we can see some nets). The first boy does not have any clothese because he is required to dive. We are not sure if this should be classified child labor or slavery. Notice the nane of the canoe, 'No Play'.


We know nothing about the early involvemnent of Liberia in the Arab Trans-Saharan slave trade. Most of the coast of Africa was an embarcation pont for captive Africans tranported to the Americas in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Liberia is of course a modern concept. The area of thecoast corresponding to modern Liberia was the Pepper (melegueta pepper) Coast or Windward Coast. It also includes Ivory Coast. Of all the African coastal areas, this was the least important source od captive Africans in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Less than 2 percent of the Aftrians tranported to the Americas came from the Pepper Coast. As a result, Liberia's involvement with the history of slavery is primarily concerned with the African colonization effort of the American Colonisation Society. Liberia is thus a creation of the American Abolitionist movement. Returning American slaves to Africa was never more than a chimera. The value of American slaves was an astromical sum. The first group of freed slaves arrived (1820). Monrovia also became a point where the U.S. Navy on West Africa Station could off load captive Africans taken from slavers. (There was no way of retruning them to their homes.) The British did the same in Sierra Leon (Freetown) with far more freed captives from their ships on the West African Station. Independence under American diplomatic tutelage was achieved (1847). The local population did not like the idea or the newcomers and proved hostile. They harassed and attacked them throughout the 19th century. It soon became evudent even before the Americam Civil WArand Empancipation that few free blacks wanted to return to Afric. As Liberia became established, the country became dominated by the black colonists (Americo-Liberians) and their descendantswho were in fact only amall minority. Man of the returned Africans were in fact mulattoes, mixed race individuals. The spoke English and tended to marry within their own community. They established plantations and businesses and were much more affluent than the indigenous people. They controlled the country. And there are charges that they reduced the local population to slave conditions. Slavery was outlawed in the consitution, but variants like forced labor did exist.


Niger is a Saharan state of modern creation. The slave trade began centuries before Niger was created and trade routes through Niger wre very important. Niger was part of several different empires which dominated different regions of West Africa over time. The French abolishd slavery, but did not aggressively pursue abolition. The Taureg were the tribe that most resisted the French and the tribe most committed to slavery. Niger becane independent (1960). The country abolished slavery upon independence, but made not effort to criminalize slave keeping or punish violations. Many personal testimonies report that slavery continued in Niger. Criminal penalties were added to the penal code (2003). The Niger Government refuses to enforce the law and claims that slavery does not exist. The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) found Niger guilty of failing to protect its people from slavery (2008).

Sierra Leone

An important aspect of Sierra Leone history is slavery. As the history of slavery spans centuries, in requires a special treatment outside of our basiccally chronological discussion of Sierra Leone history. During ancient times, the vast Sierra Desert isolated African settlements along the Guinea Coast from the Mediterranen slave trade. The Phoecians are known to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar and traded along the African cost along the Guina coast. This trade included slaves, but the numbers would have been very small given the nature of the trade and level of commerce. Slavery was an insitution in traditional African society, although very little is known about it. The Romans introduced camels in the later era of the Empire which made possible trans-Saharan commece. One of the major trade items were slaves, although the numbers of slaves involved is not know with any certainty. What is now Sierra Leone was on the southern edge of the great Empire of Mali and thus involved in thE Empire's slave trade (13th-15th centuries). The Portuguese moving south along the African coast to open maritime trade with the East first reached Sierra Leone (1462). The Portugues and other Europeans made no effort to settle the region and move inland, but did establish trading posts. And slaves from the beginning were a trade item. Sierra Leone thus became as a trading point for captives brought from the interior by Arab slave catchers. Gradually the Triangular Trade devloped. The Spanish began colonizing the Caribbean and the Portuguese Brazil after Columbus' voyages. Initially Spanish settlers planned to use Native Americans as slave labor. This proved to be impossible. As a result of mistreatment and European diseases, Native Americans on the Caribbean islands began dieing off in alarming numbers. In Brazil they also had the opportunity to escape into the interior. The English helped to establish the trade when Sir John Hawkins transported 300 captive Africans which he described as being acquired 'by the sword and partly by other means' to the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. Trade with the English was strictly prohibited, but such was the need for labor that this trade became common place. The number of captive Africansas relatively small until sugar became established first in Brazil and then in the Caribbean (17th centuries). The growth of highly profitable sugar plantations created a huge demand for slaves. The British did not control the area of modern Sierra Leone until until they began to dominate the slave trade along the coast of West Africa (18th century). The situation did not begin to change until the Americn Revolution (1776-83). Two developments led to a dramatic shift in British policy and the Royal Navy being used to end the slave trade and Freetown becoming a haven for freed slaves. Captive Mende s from Sierra Leoone became a major force generating support for abolitionists in America--the Amistad Affair (1839). Domestic slavery, however, continued in the interior into the 20th century. Sierra Leone was a Muslim majority colony. And Muslim tribal chiefs and Islamic clerics in the interior insisted that slavery was legitimized by the Koran.


The slave trade in the Sudan has ancient origins. There is until the 19th century, however, only limited information on the dimensions of the slave trade. Geography was an important factor. The Sudan is composed of two different regions. The largely African, equitorial south and a Saharan north. The Blue and White Niles join in Sudan to provide a water route north to the Mediterannean. This is the only watrer route through the vast Sahara Desert. It is importsant because it provided a route through which where African captives taken in the south could be readily marketed. Egypt itself was not a slave society, in part because the peasanty were basically serfs tied to the land. There were slaves in Egypt and other anient civilizations such as Greece and Rome. Unlike Egypt, these weee salave societies. And references to Nubians suggest that they enslaved in the Sudan or through Cushite slave markets. Some believe that Aesop was a Nubian. We certainly knew Nubian slaves. There are many references to Nubians in Roman manucripts. It must be remembered, however, thar slsavery in the ancient world was not a racial matter and thus Nubian did not equate with slave. Another complication is that most Africans in Rome were called Nubians, including those with no connection to Cush. We are not sure just how important Nubian slaves were to Rome. Give the ditance from Rome and the fact that Rome never occupied Cush/Nubia militarily, we suspect that Nubians made up a basically small proportion of the Roman slave population. Perhaps mpdern DNA studies will shed some light on this. The slave trade continued into the Christian era and then into the Muslim era. We know this because of the 652 treaty between the Kushites and Arab invaders under which Kush would pay an annual tribute. This may sound like a small number, but this was just the tribute and does not address the trade between Kush/Nubia and Egypt which was probably many time the number of Africans delivered as tribute. Unfortunately the historical record is very limited until the arrival of the British and efforts to wipe out the slave trade (19th century). The British certsainly sharply reduced the slave trade, but did not end it. Even after independence (1956), the slave trade comtinued. And it became a factor in the civil war following independence. Press reports of the slasve trade in Sudan continue to this day.


Trade contacts between the Middle East, India, and East Africa date back to antiquity. Trade with Africa was for slaves, gold, ivory, and wood. After the Arab expansion (7th century AD), armed Arab merchants set up bases in Indian Ocean islands for security reasons. Zanzibar became the most important (10th century). It was not only a secure base for trade with East Africa, but it also was a source for spices, a particularly valuable trade commodity. They called Africa Zenj (black in Arabic) or Azania. The more important island bases became independent Muslim sultanates. On islands the Arab merchants were not ethnically swamped by the African population of the mainland. They developed mixed Arab-African populations. The early history of Zanzibar and the Arab presence is largely unknown. The oldest surviving edifice on Zanzibar is a mosque at Kizimkazi (1107). The dimensions of the slave trade in the early Arab period is unknown. Trade expanded and eventually attracted Indians who settled on Zanzibar as as shopkeepers, traders, and artisans. The Portuguese briefly ruled Zanzibar in the 16th century. When the British after the Napoleonic Wars began their campain to end the slave trade, it was apparent from an early point that the Sultan of Oman/Zanzibar was the key to ending the Arab slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The slave trade was largely overseen by the Sultan and allied African tribes. Zanzibar developed into the most important source of cloves as well as the largest slave trading center on the East African coast. The Sultan and other Omanis organised caravans into the interior of the East African mainland. It was not an entirely Omani Arab activity. The descdents of ethnic Indians living in Zanzibar, often working for for Bombay interests helped finance the slaving and other East African trade activities. The spice trade related to the slace trade, African slaves were used to grow and harvest cloves. And both were shipped to ports all along the Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Slaves were usually shipped Bagamoyo on the mainland to Zanzibar. The peak of East African slave trading through Zanzibar was probably reached with the development sugar and clove plantations on Mauritius and Reunion (18th century). The British began using diplomacy even before he Royal Navy had an effective presence in the Indian Ocean. They largely imposed the the Moresby Treaty (1822) and the Hamerton Treaty (1845) on the Sultan to limit the slave trade. These treaties were, however, only partially effecive. The British consul on Zanzibar took the lead in the anti-slave-trade movement in East Africa.


Discussions of slavery in the New World too often focus on just the United States. In fact only a small prtion of the slaves trasported to the New World came to the United States and the 13 colonies before indepndence. The great bulk of captive Africans wre transported to the Caribbean and Brazil. There the slave system was unbelievably cruel and brutal to the point of genocide. So many slaves there perished that constant shipments of newly captive Africans were required to maintain the hugely profitable sugar plantations. The United States received only a small portioned of the captive Africans transported. And although cruel and inhuman, it was not genocidal. Our discussion on this page is a chronolgically based thematic history of slavery in the Americas. Often these developments included broad trends that affected more than one of the modern countries. Readers interested in the history of slavery in a specific countries can click here. We are developing individual country histories. We have several country slave pages and are gradually adding more as our site expands. For many Latin American countries we have pages that deal with aspects of slavery, but not one central slavery page. We invite readers from these countries to participate in this process of developing more detailed information on slavery.



All of the great early river valley civilizations developed in contact with each other, except for China. Even so we see many of the same human instititions developing in China and the other great civilizations from earliest times. One of those institutions is slavery. Slavery seems similar in China and the other great river valley civilizations Mesopotamia and Egypt). It was a relatively minor institution in these early civilizations , in part because the rural peasantry, the great bulk of the population, was reduced to a status close to slavery, often working land thedy id not own. Slavery may have been more important in China, but only marginally so. This vaied somewhat from dynasty to dynasty. It certainly was much less important than in the classical Western societies like Greece and Rome. It never took a racial turn as in the ante-Bellum South in America or a religious turn as in the Islamic world. The nature and extent of slavery has varied over time through the various dynasties. Chinese slaves came to be viewed as objects, kind of 'half-man, half-thing' (半人, 半物). [Hallet] Slavery in China dates back at least to the Shang dynasty in China (18th-12th century BC). One estimate suggests that about 5 percent of Shang China's population was enslaved. This relatively small proprtion appears to have been the case is subsequent Chinese civilizations. People became slaves through the same mechanisms as in the West, through slave raiding and military captives and debtors. Impoverished individuals could sell themselves or their wives and children into debt. China never develop into a slave society largely because of its large population which offered ampel labor which could be exploited through serfdom. Affluent Chinese families may have slaves to do menial labor, both field work and house servants. The Emperor and his nobels would the largest slave holders. The Emperor's slaves might be castrated to become court eunuchs. The Republic of China abolished slavery (March 10, 1910). The practice, however, continued in China, especially in remote areas. We note captives being turned into slaves by Lolo tribesmen. Slavery was repeatedly abolished as a legally-established. An abolition law was passed (1909) and fully enacted (1910), The practice continued on aimited scale until the Communist Revolution (1949). While the Communists ended traditional slavery, they initiated a slave system of their own, setting up slave labor camps. Even after the free market reforms (1980s), forced labor has been reported in modern China, both in prison camps and emplyers paying bribes to local officials.



An ancient practice throughout Asia is slavery. This included Thailand the rest of Southeast Asia. Not a lot is known about slavery in ancient Thialand. And this is complicated by changng boundaries and migrations. Much of modern Thaoland was once pat of the Great Kymer Empire. Slavery was an important economic institutin in the Kymer Empire. Historians report a substantal slave class in the Khmer Empire. It is believed that slaves did much of the work in building the mny Kymer monuments like Angkor Wat. hey are believed to have done much of the heavy work. Less clear is who were the artusans that carved the beutiful relief sculptures. The source of the slaves is not known with any certainty, but raids of the mountain tribes are likely. The same is true of war captives. More recent information is available on modern Thailand (Siam). Indivduals unable to pay back debts might be tken as slaves, or they might sell their children depending on the size of the debts. One source suggests that this was the fate of those owing dbts to the ruling class. We are not sure just low the laws were applied to different classes. Nor or we sure these invididual became slave or indentured servants. Since ancient days it was quite common for peasant families to sell off some of their children in difficult times or to pay off debts. More information becomes abilable in modern times. One historian reports that between one-quarter to one-third of the population in some areas of Thailand and Burma were slaves (17th-early 20th century). Siam war captives became the personal property of the king. One source reports that during the reign of Rama III (1824–51) there were an estimated 46,000 war-caoptive slaves. These may have been primarily eneny sldiers, but it is likely that civilians were also taken captive. Several sources report that the Siamese intensly targeted the Hill Tribes. They were considered primtive people and also raided Thai villages. One historian reports, that the Thais and the other advanced kingdoms raided the villages of hill tribes along the borderlands, writing that they were "hunted incessantly and carried off as slaves by the Siamese, the Anamites, and the Cambodians." [Colquhoun, p. 53.] Many widely quoted sources suggest that both war captives and debt slaves were treated relatively well. One historian suggests that Thai slavery needs to be reassessed. {Bowie, p. 41.] European colonial powers attempted to end this practice in the 19th century. Thailand was, however, never colonized. King Rama V abolished slavery in 1905. He did not, however, change the economic conditions that led to this practice.


Slavery in Christian Europe largely died out afterthe fall of Rome and the rise of the feudal system. Feudal serfdom was not far removed from slavery, but sefs did have some rights. And slavery did not entirely disappear. As Muslims took Christian slaves, some Christian states held Muslims in slavery. The perpetuation os slavery and the legal and historical framework varied from country to country. Slavery, however, after the European discovery of the America became largely race based and mosly restructed to the New World, especially the Caribbean, Brazil, and the southern colonies of North America. It was most important in the major colonial powers (England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain). The history of slavery , its economic importance, and the campaign for abolition varied greatly in each European country.

Middle East and North Africa

Western histroigraphy on slavery has focused on classical slavery and the Atlatic slave trade. Interestingly, classical Greece which invented the idea of freedom also had an economy which relied on slavery to a greater extent than the Middle Eastern socities of Mesopotamia and Egypt where civilization was developed. Much is made of this, but often not pointed out is that the peasantry, the great bulk of the population, lived in a state of near slavery meaning tht slavery was notbneeded to exploit their productiv energies and labor. Many modern works on slavery are written as if the European Atlantic slve trade was the only important modern manifestation of slavery. Some authors report that the slavery was more widespread and brutal than the counterpart in the Americas. Historians have taken to calling slavery as 'America’s original sin' which has some validity. What does not have historival validity is the widespread ignoring od slavery in the Middle East, especially after the Islamuc outburst and creation of the caliphate. One historian writes that, "American slavery was benign compared to the much more extensive, vastly crueler practice of slavery in the Middle East." [Farron] This is not immrdiately apparent becausde there are relatively few people in the region with Agrican features. This suggests that relatively few cative Africans were nought into the region and condemned to slavery. This is simply not the case and here we wabt to look at slavery in the various countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Not only have historianns largely ignored slavery in the Middle East and North Africa, but so have journlists and the mostly Muslim authoriris in these countries.



Farron, Steven. "Black slavery in the Middle East," American Renaissance website (February 24, 2017).


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Created: May 25, 2002
Last updated: 3:52 PM 6/15/2017