History of slavery

The history of slavery spans many cultures, nationalities, and religions from ancient times to the present day. However the social, economic, and legal positions of slaves have differed vastly in different systems of slavery in different times and places.[1]

Slavery occurs relatively rarely among hunter-gatherer populations[2] because it develops under conditions of social stratification.[3] Slavery operated in the very first civilizations (such as Sumer in Mesopotamia,[4] which dates back as far as 3500 BCE). Slavery features in the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1860 BCE), which refers to it as an established institution.[5]Slavery became common within much of Europe during the Dark Ages and it continued into the Middle Ages. The Byzantine–Ottoman wars (1265–1479) and the Ottoman wars in Europe (14th to 20th centuries) resulted in the capture of large numbers of Christian slaves. The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Arabs and a number of West African kingdoms played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade, especially after 1600. David P. Forsythe[6] wrote: "The fact remained that at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom."[7] The Republic of Ragusa became the first European country to ban the slave trade – in 1416. In modern times Denmark-Norway abolished the trade in 1802.

Although slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world (with the exception of penal labour),[8] human trafficking remains an international problem and an estimated 25-40 million people were enslaved as of 2013, the majority in Asia.[9] During the 1983–2005 Second Sudanese Civil War people were taken into slavery.[10] Evidence emerged in the late 1990s of systematic child-slavery and -trafficking on cacao plantations in West Africa.[11] Slavery continues into the 21st century. Although Mauritania criminalized slavery in August 2007,[12] an estimated up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population of Mauritania, are currently enslaved, many of them used as bonded labor.[13] Slavery in 21st-century Islamism continues, and Islamist quasi-states such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Boko Haram have abducted and enslaved women and children (often to serve as sex slaves).[14][15]


Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures.[16] However, slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations.[17] Mass slavery requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Due to these factors, the practice of slavery would have only proliferated after the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution, about 11,000 years ago.[18]

Slavery was known in civilizations as old as Sumer, as well as in almost every other ancient civilization, including Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Babylonia, Ancient Iran, Ancient Greece, Ancient India, the Roman Empire, the Arab Islamic Caliphate and Sultanate, Nubia and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas.[19] Such institutions were a mixture of debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.[20]