The Human Truth Foundation

The Historical Slave Trade and Modern Slavery

By Vexen Crabtree 2018


#abolition #burundi #eritrea #france #human_rights #indonesia #slavery

Slavery (2018)1
Pos.Lower is better
% Victims1
5New Zealand0.06
164Central African Rep.2.23
167N. Korea10.46

The taking of slaves has been an unwholesome feature of Human cultures since prehistory2. Private households and national endeavours have frequently been augmented with the use of slaves. The Egyptian and Roman empires both thrived on them for both purposes. Aside from labourers they are often abused sexually by their owners and their owners' friends3. The era of colonialism and the beginnings of globalisation changed nothing: the imprisonment and forced movements of labour continued to destroy many lives except that new justifications were invented based on Christian doctrine and the effort to convert non-Christians. By 1786 over 12 million slaves had been extracted from Africa and sent to colonial labour camps, with a truly atrocious condition of life4. But they were not the only ones to blame; in Africa internal nations such as the Asantes sold and bought tens of thousands of slaves5.

The abolition of the slave trade was a long and slow process. Until a relatively modern time, even philosophers, religious leaders and those concerned with ethics justified, or ignored, the problem of slavery6. The first abolitionists were always the slaves themselves. Their protests and rebellions caused the industry to become too expensive to continue. After that, it was the economic costs of maintain slave colonies that led the British to reject and then oppose the slave trade globally. Finally, the enlightenment-era thinkers of France encouraged moral and ethical thinking including the declaration of the inherent value of human life and human dignity7. A long-overdue wave of compassionate and conscientious movements swept across the West, eliminating public support for slavery, until the industries and churches that supported it had no choice but to back down.

'Modern slavery' includes forced labour (often of the under-age), debt bondage (especially generational), sexual slavery, chattel slavery and other forms of abuse, some of which can be surprisingly difficult to detect, but often target those fleeing from warzones and the vulnerable.8. Some industries (diamond, clothing, coal) from some countries (Burundi1, Eritrea1, Indonesia9) are a particular concern. The Walk Free Foundation, say that in 2016, 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery10.

1. Slavery in the Ancient World

#buddhism #christianity #egypt #greece #italy #judaism #sudan

In most of ancient history slavery has been widespread and a customary practice during war. Slaves were routinely taken by all communities big enough to control them. The larger the communities the greater the number of slaves kept. They were obtained from capturing enemy land or from surrendered enemy forces. War and slavery danced hand in hand; at its worst war was waged partially to obtain slaves, at its best slaves were kept out of compassion because the unlucky survivors had nowhere else to go.

Slavery became most famous as an institutional part of central governance through the Egyptians mass use of slaves, using them as forced labour to build monuments2. Pharaoh Seneferu (2613-2590 BCE) brought back 7,000 slaves from Sudan11; their treatment was infamously terrible. Some slaves were buried-alive alongside their masters. But this kind of nation-wide abuse "became standard procedure throughout the ancient world and slavery persisted for about forty-eight centuries in most parts of the world"2.

Slavery was part of the culture of the entire Mesopotamian area (from which Judaism and Christianity arose). That area's principal city, Babylon, in the era of 1800 BCE, made injury to slaves punishable by a fine12, making slaves there better off than in the surrounding areas. This marked the beginning of an era of increased conscientiousness over how slaves are treated.

Slavery was very common in the Roman world. "It is estimated that in the time of Julius Caesar there were two to three million slaves in Italy, about a third of the population"13. For example, Jews were known for circumcising their slaves14, although this was forbidden in the 2nd century (as part of a range of anti-Jewish edicts passed by the new Christian emperor)15. Later, he also forbade any Jew to have a Christian as a slave and his son increased the punishment to death for any Jew who broke those laws. Clearly, many of the battles around slave-laws at that time was one of power-games, and not always one of morals.

The mood sometimes changed. The earliest articulate institutional anti-slavery thinkers were those found amongst the pagan Zeno's Stoics (342-270BCE, Greece). And the Buddhist Emperor Wang Mang (born 45BCE) was "probably the first recorded ruler to abolish the slave trade"16. But more rounds of slave-gathering were yet to ensue.

2. The Slave Trade from the 14th Century

#christianity #cyprus #ghana #islam #portugal #senegal #spain #turkey

The globalized era of human trafficking is now called The Slave Trade. Its greatest victim peoples were first the Slavs in the early Middle Ages2 (which is where we get the very word, 'slave'), who were enslaved by the Muslims of Spain. The Venetians by 1300 took black slaves to Cyprus to work on sugar plantations, and 100 years later they were buying and selling 1,000 slaves every year, on average17. This began the second wave of the globalized slave trade: the large scale abuse of black Africans in the 15th to 18th centuries2, mostly enslaved and kept by Christian and Muslim communities. Turkey had a hefty interest in the African slave trade, as did Portugal from 1441 onwards after raiding Senegal17.

It isn't difficult to understand why one historian says that the escalation of the slave trade was the 16th century's most immoral feature.

John Hawkins (1532-95) in 1562 conducted the pioneering slave expedition which developed into a business. By 1786 this had extracted some eleven or twelve million Africans from their homelands and shipped them westwards, a cruelly high percentage of them dying in great misery en route. It must rank as one of the most callous periods of exploitation and partial genocide in civilised history [and] involved the systematic degradation of slaves.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)4

But do not think that this was always a case of Christian and Muslim empires abusing the poor natives of Africa: they also expended a lot of time enslaving each other. In modern-day Ghana the Asante people only started to flourish when they used slaves to clear and tend the land (and extract gold) - and to that end a 'vast' number of slaves was imported18. So many slaves were captured through war that they had a surplus, and turned them into valuable export commodities19. Trading slaves with Christian merchants on the southern coasts and the Muslim merchants on routes connected to the trans-Saharan routes, the Asante empire bought and sold uncountable slaves; "historians believe that many tens of thousands were put to work clearing the forest"5. In the 19th century when the slave trade became opposed in the world, the Asante Empire's economy floundered20. In Ghana today at Cape Coast Castle, the "slave dungeons" can still be seen - dank and pitch-black21.

3. Forces of Abolition of the Historical Slave Trade

#history #slavery

3.1. Slaves Were the First Abolitionists

#france #haiti #spain

Although various cultures and societies preached against the owning of slaves, one common strand has predated all of them: The slaves themselves were the biggest anti-slavery activists.

Despite the brutality and inhumanity involved, the morality of the slave trade and slavery did not begin to be questioned by substantial numbers of Europeans and people of European descent until the end of the eighteenth century. With the enslaved people themselves this was a different matter, of course, and there had been many rebellions and revolts, as well as other smaller scale, more frequent acts of resistance, since the sixteenth century. Although white abolitionists were important in the various campaigns that eventually resulted in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery during the nineteenth century, the role of people of African descent cannot be underestimated. Equiano's narrative (1789), for instance, was an anti-slavery bestseller, and its account of the horrors involved furthered the campaign of those who sought to end the slave trade and slavery.

"A Demanding World" by Barnett, Robinson and Rose (2006)22

Eventually, slave action was to make the entire slave trade untenable, as the cost of keeping slaves under control became greater than any potential commercial benefit. As famous revolts inspired further revolts and protests, in an age where international communication allowed slaves to hear rumours of other rebellions, a snowball effect was feared by rulers.

Book CoverThe slaves themselves had begun to play an obvious and undeniable role in the debate about their own future. This proved to be the turning point in the story of British abolition.

"Britain's Slave Empire" by James Walvin (2000)23

The most famous revolt of them all:

A freed slave called Toussaint L'Ouverture (1746-1803) in the French Caribbean colony of St. Domingue. In 1800 he and his followers rebelled, conquering the Spanish half of the island of Hispaniola. He declared himself governor of the whole island. A large force dispatched by Napoleon Bonaparte failed to suppress the revolt, and in 1804 the new republic of Haiti was recognized... the world was astonished by a successful slave revolt, and the example hastened the end of the slave trade.

"Ideas that Shaped Our World" by Robert Stewart (1997)24

3.2. The Role of Voodoo

#haiti #judaism #slavery #voodoo

Voodoo priests organized the first successful and influential slave revolts, inspiring others to dream of freedom across the world. Underground Voodoo networks facilitated the escape of many slaves, just like the underground Jewish and humanitarian networks of Europe helped Jews during the Holocaust. Voodoo is associated most strongly with Haiti, a place where American anti-slave campaigners also visited.

"Religion and Abolition of the Historical Slave Trade: 5. The Role of Voodoo in Abolition" by Vexen Crabtree (2003)

3.3. Economic Interests then British Opposition

#denmark #france #south_africa #sweden

The economic costs of keeping, shipping and securing slaves were astronomical. Slave revolts were uncontrollable and random expenses, as was the continual need to replace slaves lost to injury, wasting and death. The increasing success and strength of such revolts made keeping large populations of slaves under control economically unviable. Adam Smith's study in economics, "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, "concluded that slavery was uneconomic due to the costs involved in keeping slaves under control"25.

Once the British had come to appreciate the human costs of the slave trade and abandoned the practice, it became in their interest to also prevent others from acquiring cheap labour. Of all the effective and authoritively commanding oppositions to the slave trade, the British campaign was most effective. "The French abolitionist movement, although 'socially more substantial', remained politically less effective than the British one"26. "Britain was not the first to ban the slave trade - Denmark had done so in 1803 - and although the U.S., Sweden and Holland soon followed suit, Britain's campaign [...] was by far the most widespread"27.

This remarkable story raises a simple but crucial question: why did the British turn against slavery and the slave trade? Part of the reason is undoubtedly the rise of compassionate humanitarianism, particularly amongst an increasingly leisured middle class. Scholars also point to the influence of Nonconformist religion, on the one hand, and Evangelical Protestantism, on the other. But of greater significance was a shift in economic thought.

Dr John Oldfield28

For example, when the British took over the Cape Colony (South Africa) and abolished slavery there in 1833, the Boers (Dutch settlers) demanded compensation, and eventually gave up and travelled Northwards rather than give up their slaves29.

3.4. Compassion


The "Slave trade came under only occasional attack before the second half of the 18th century from a few enlightened clerics, philosophers, poets and novelists. [...] Abolition as a planned campaign dates from 1765, with Granville Sharp, a 30 year old civil servant who came to look after a wounded slave, and was moved to defend him and other slaves legally".

Of the many individuals who took up the case of slaves, their personal morals and human compassion were the motivator. People looked to their religions in order to find support, but official organisations supported and fed off the slave trade, with "the society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, Bishops, Members of Parliament, Mayors, Aldermen and Peers all jostling for a corner of the lucrative market". Most people had to step outside of their religious institutions in order to help slaves.

As the enlightenment thinkers of Locke, Diderot, Rousseau became influential, it was France that finally supplied the enduring and final statement on slavery, as the value of human life and human dignity was proclaimed7 as an inherent right and a fundamental freedom.

4. Religion and the Slave Trade

#abolition #buddhism #china #christianity #history #india #islam #judaism #monotheism #religious_morals #slavery #UK #voodoo

Christian institutions put large sums of money into the slave trade, and became the biggest slave-owners30, boosting a trade that would have otherwise collapsed. Behind this stood biblical arguments for slavery. Conservative Christians hung on to their slaves for the longest and the American South was only forced to relent when legislators went against Churches and public opinion31. The UK's Archbishop of Canterbury "apologized unreservedly" for the Church of England's role in the slave trade32. The Qur'an was even clearer in its institutionalization of slavery, and the conservative Muslim world debated bitterly for the keeping of slaves. Surprisingly for a nation of people with a shared mythology involving escaping from slave-masters, Jewish merchants also ran slave routes33 and even owned slaves directly for hundreds of years around the beginning of the first millennium14.

Non-monotheistic and non-mainstream religion had a much better track record on slavery. The liberal Buddhist emperor Ashoka abolished the slave trade in India in the 3rd century BCE34, and another Buddhist Emperor, Wang Mang (born 45BCE), done the same in China35. In the West, the earliest institutional anti-slavery thinkers were those found amongst the pagan Zeno's Stoics (342-270BCE).

The most successful religious campaigns against slavery were those under the rule of Voodoo priests and practitioners. Such leaders showed the world that anti-slavery was valid, inspiring hope and valiant anti-slavery efforts, all relying upon the slaves' own will to free themselves. Later on, the Quakers (a non-mainstream Christian sect in America) were effective in pushing for abolition there, eventually leading half of Christendom into opposition of slavery. But in the end it was economic interests that turned the world against slavery.

"Religion and Abolition of the Historical Slave Trade" by Vexen Crabtree (2003)

5. Modern Slavery: Forced Labour, Debt Bondage, Forced Marriages and Sexual Abuse

#afghanistan #china #EU #europe #germany #india #indonesia #philippines #slavery #USA

In the modern world there have been new, disguised forms of slavery to avoid the international abhorrence [of traditional slavery]: debt bondage in India, chattel slavery in North Africa, sham adoption of children for labour purposes in the Middle East, marriage as a form of enslavement in Islamic countries and new forms of slavery in areas like Afghanistan.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)8

The corporate world of profit-maximizing global trade means that some large companies' drives to reduce costs results in widespread abuse of the workforce. Somewhere inbetween "minimum liveable wage" there is a line, and the other side of the line is slavery. It can be hard to describe the inhumanity of some corporate practices without using the word 'slavery'. Naomi Klein's "No Logo" (2004)9 shocked the West with its detailed (and horrible) investigations into workforce conditions. One focus was special "zones" that allowed companies to have much greater control and freedom that they would ordinarily get; Indonesia was once famous for such places. "The Cavite Zone, for example, is under the sole jurisdiction of the Philippines' federal Department of Trade and Industry: the local people and municipal government have no right even to cross the threshold"36.

Book CoverLabour groups agree that a living wage for an assembly-line worker in China would be approximately US87 cents an hour. In the United States and Germany, where multinationals have closed down hundreds of domestic textile factories to move to zone production, garment workers are paid an average of US$10 and $18.50 an hour, respectively. [...]. A 1998 study of brand-name manufacturing in the Chinese special economic zones found that Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Espirit, Liz Claiborne, Kmart, Nike, Adidas, J.C. Penny and the Limited were only paying a fraction of that miserable 87 cents - some were paying as little as 13 cents an hour.

"No Logo" by Naomi Klein (2004)37

The Global Slavery Index was published for the first time in 2013 amidst ongoing concern that child marriage, human trafficking, exclusive economic bondage to landlords, forced unpaid work and other abusive practices constitute forms of 'modern slavery'. Its publishers, the Walk Free Foundation, say that in 2016, 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery. They didn't include the types of abuse orchestrated by the companies that Naomi Klein highlighted - it's not clear that it is slavery, even though it is very inhumane.

Modern slavery is a destructive, personal crime and an abuse of human rights. It is a widespread and profitable criminal industry but despite this it is largely invisible, in part because it disproportionately affects the most marginalised. [There are] two major external drivers - highly repressive regimes, in which populations are put to work to prop up the government, and conflict situations which result in the breakdown of rule of law, social structures, and existing systems of protection.

"Global Slavery Index" by Walk Free Foundation (2018)10

Combatting modern slavery is complex, as the globalized world of indirect economic effects means that it is often difficult (especially for consumers) to detect which products involve slavery and forced labour, and therefore, many consumers are directly contributing to the profits of human rights abusers.

5.1. The Statistics of Modern Slavery: The Best and Worst Places in the World

#human_rights #slavery

AreaSlavery (2018)
Lower is better

% Victims1
Middle East...0.41
North America0.28
South America0.22

The European Union in particular has been the most effective, and sets the best examples, of the kind of joined-up and co-ordinated approach required to reduce and eliminate slavery. The Walk Free Foundation state that "the European Union's proactive approach to tackling modern slavery means that Europe leads the way in engaging with business as well as taking steps to investigate public procurement"38.

Here are the country-by-country statistics (excepting the very worst countries, which are listed in the next section):

Slavery (2018)1
Pos.Lower is better
% Victims1
111Ivory Coast0.59
118Equatorial Guinea0.64
136Timor-Leste (E. Timor)0.77
142Congo, (Brazzaville)0.80
147Papua New Guinea1.03
150Myanmar (Burma)1.10
Slavery (2018)1
Pos.Lower is better
% Victims1
58S. Africa0.28
64Trinidad & Tobago0.30
68Bosnia & Herzegovina0.34
80Dominican Rep.0.40
82Cape Verde0.41
92Burkina Faso0.45
98Sierra Leone0.50
Slavery (2018)1
Pos.Lower is better
% Victims1
5New Zealand0.06
9Costa Rica0.13
12Hong Kong0.14
29Saudi Arabia0.19
31S. Korea0.19
39Sri Lanka0.21
48El Salvador0.25

5.2. The 40 Worst Countries for Slavery

#belarus #cambodia #conscription #eritrea #human_rights #mauritania #mongolia #north_korea #slavery

Slavery (2018)1
Pos.Higher is worse
% Victims1
167N. Korea10.46
164Central African Rep.2.23
161S. Sudan2.05
156Congo, DR1.37
150Myanmar (Burma)1.10
147Papua New Guinea1.03
142Congo, (Brazzaville)0.80
136Timor-Leste (E. Timor)0.77

The table on the right shows the 40 worst countries according to their position in the Global Slavery Index.

5.3. Forced Marriages

#human_rights #marriage #slavery

Forced marriages are where one partner has no choice at all and are an insult to human rights and human dignity. At worst, it is slavery and it often involves sexual abuse. Due to its violation of Human rights, forced marriages are outlawed in Europe and in many countries that respect human rights. "The Council of Europe has condemned forced marriages in Resolution 1468 (2005) on Forced Marriages and child marriages proposing specific measures to be taken by its Member States to eradicate this practice"52. Europe has the lowest prevalence of forced marriages in the world53.

Forced marriages contravene Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights54 ("Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person") and Article 4 ("No one shall be held in slavery or servitude"). But most of all it directly contradicts Article 16.2:

Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights54 Article 16.2

According to statistics from the Walk Free Foundation's Global Slavery Index, rates of forced marriages per 1000 people vary by region55:

Current edition: 2018 Aug 21
Parent page: Human Rights

All #tags used on this page - click for more:

#abolition #afghanistan #belarus #buddhism #burundi #cambodia #china #christianity #conscription #cyprus #denmark #egypt #eritrea #EU #europe #france #germany #ghana #greece #haiti #history #human_rights #india #indonesia #islam #italy #judaism #marriage #mauritania #mongolia #monotheism #north_korea #philippines #portugal #religious_morals #senegal #slavery #south_africa #spain #sudan #sweden #turkey #UK #USA #voodoo

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References: (What's this?)

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(1948) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations website has a full copy of this document here: (accessed 2014 May 14).

(1990) Factbook of History. Originally published 1977. Current version published by Rainbow Books. A hardback book.

Agarwal, M. K.
The Vedic Core of Human History.

Barnett, Robinson & Rose
(2006, Eds.) A Demanding World. Published by The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Casely-Hayford, Gus
(2012) The Lost Kingdoms of Africa. Published by Bantram Press. A hardback book.

EUMC. Published by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Vienna, Austria.
(2006) Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia. A paperback book.

Everette, Susanne
(1997) History of Slavery, the. 1997 print. Published by Grange Books. A hardback book.

Human Rights Watch
(2018) World Report 2018. Covering the events of 2017.

Klein, Naomi
(2004) No Logo. Originally published 2000, HarperCollins, London, UK. A paperback book.

Malik, Kenan
(2007 Apr 29) I'm So Sorry. Part of BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme.

McCall, Andrew
(1979) The Medieval Underworld. 2004 edition. Published by Sutton Publishing. A paperback book.

Sand, Shlomo
(2009) The Invention of the Jewish People. English edition. Originally published 2008 as Matai ve'ekh humtza ha'am hayehudi?. Current version published by Verso, London, UK. A hardback book.

Stewart, Robert
(1997, Ed.) Ideas that Shaped Our World. Marshall Editions edition. A hardback book.

Thomson, Oliver
(1993) A History of Sin. Published by Canongate Press. A hardback book.

Walk Free Foundation
(2018) Global Slavery Index. Published on

Walvin, James
(2000) Britain's Slave Empire. Published by Tempus Publishing Ltd. James Walvin is the professor of history at the University of York. A hardback book.

Zakaria, Fareed
(2003) The Future of Freedom. Subtitled: "Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad". Published by W.W. Norton & Company, New York, USA. A hardback book.


  1. Walk Free Foundation (2018) .^^^
  2. Thomson (1993). p28.^^^
  3. McCall (1979). p180.^
  4. Thomson (1993). p166.^^
  5. Casely-Hayford (2012). p253.^^
  6. Thomson (1993). p31.^
  7. Thomson (1993). p199.^^
  8. Thomson (1993). p28-29.^^
  9. Klein (2004) .^^
  10. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p2.^^^
  11. Thomson (1993). p66.^
  12. Thomson (1993). p70.^
  13. Thomson (1993). p100.^
  14. Sand (2009). p177:Invisible.^^
  15. Sand (2009). p177.^
  16. Thomson (1993) .^
  17. Thomson (1993). p155.^
  18. Casely-Hayford (2012). p252.^
  19. Casely-Hayford (2012). p266.^
  20. Casely-Hayford (2012). p273.^
  21. Casely-Hayford (2012). p267.^
  22. Barnett, Robinson & Rose (2006). p304.^
  23. Walvin (2000). p71.^
  24. Stewart (1997) .^
  25. Everette (1997). p135.^
  26. Everette (1997). p141.^
  27. Everette (1997). p145.^
  28. Dr John Oldfield "British Anti-slavery" on the BBC History website, accessed 2003.^
  29. Factbook of History (1990). p170.^
  30. Thomson (1993). p203.^
  31. Zakaria (2003). Chapter "Introduction" p21.^
  32. Malik (2007 Apr 29) .^
  33. McCall (1979). p266.^
  34. Agarwal. p91.^
  35. Thomson (1993). p117.^
  36. Klein (2004). p207.^
  37. Klein (2004). p212.^
  38. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p98.^
  39. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p4.^
  40. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p34-38.^
  41. "Human Rights and Freedom in Korea, North" by Vexen Crabtree (2019)^
  42. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p3.^
  43. Human Rights Watch (2018). p201-205.^
  44. "Human Rights and Freedom in Eritrea" by Vexen Crabtree (2018)^
  45. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p29.^
  46. "Mauritania (Islamic Republic of Mauritania)" by Vexen Crabtree (2013)^
  47. "Human Rights and Freedom in Cambodia" by Vexen Crabtree (2018)^
  48. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p44.^
  49. "Mongolia" by Vexen Crabtree (2013)^
  50. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p43.^
  51. "Human Rights, Equality and Freedom in Belarus" by Vexen Crabtree (2018)^
  52. EUMC (2006). p39.^
  53. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p93.^
  54. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) .^
  55. Walk Free Foundation (2018). p63.^

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