Modern Slavery and Slave Owning Societies in the Past: Why Slavery Still Exists?

Fire is the most remarkable discovery in the history of humankind, and agriculture is another milestone in the human development. However, between these two great events there is a tremendous gap. Beginning of agriculture-age, twelve thousand years ago, was the first step towards civilization, and apparently, it was the beginning of exploitation and suppression of humankind, for people were made slaves by reducing their status to that of domesticated animals.

Anthropologists and historians also believe that slavery began because of the belief that it was more profitable to employ people, captured in wars, to work for them rather than kill. Whatever the reason for slavery was, slavery continued for thousands of years and later altered into miseries of serfdom, which was abolished in many parts of Europe by the end of 19th century and which is still evident in some parts of Asia and Africa.
By the end of 19th century, slavery was abolished in most of the Asian, European, American and African countries, however, slavery, in a modern form, continues to exist.

Modern Slavery

The definition of modern slaves includes forced labor, forced marriage, human trafficking and bonded laborers. International Labor Organization states that about 21 million people are forced to do manual labor. According to another report published recently, there are over 29 million modern slaves in the world. The Global Slavery Index 2013 reports that these modern slaves are concentrated in African and Asian nations. Australian Human Rights Organization Walk Free Foundation helped to bring out the Global Slavery Index 2013. The report is based on the study conducted in 162 countries.

According to the Global Slavery Index (GSI) 2013, India tops the list of maximum number of modern slaves with about 14 million slaves, followed by China (2.6 million) and Pakistan (2.1 million). Based on the percentage of total population, GSI states that Mauritania (African country ruled by Military government in Western Sahara) has the highest numbers of slaves. About 4 percent of Mauritanians are slaves. According to GSI, slavery in Mauritania is because of the ancient tradition, and India tops the list with highest numbers of slaves due to suppression and poverty.

Slavery was prevalent in most of the Asian countries. China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia were slave owning societies. Slavery was also widely practiced in Central Asia (Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan), Persian Empire, (which is now modern Iran), and Ottoman Empire (which is now Turkey).

Top 10 Countries With Maximum Number of Modern Slaves

  1. India: 13956000
  2. China: 2649243
  3. Pakistan: 2127132
  4. Nigeria: 701032
  5. Ethiopia: 651110
  6. Russia: 516217
  7. Thailand: 472811
  8. D. R. Congo: 462327
  9. Myanmar: 384037
  10. Bangladesh: 343192

Source: Global Slavery Index, 2013

Slave-Owning Societies in Asia


Existence of slavery in China has been found as early as 18th century BC, which continued until the middle of 20th century. Slaves consisted of about 5 percent of the total population during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 25). Chinese slaves included people captured in wars, relatives of executed criminals, bankrupt debtors, kidnapped people, and the women and children sold to clear debts. In China, some slave owners established family-like relation with their slaves, sometimes male slaves also became the heir of their masters when there were no children. Slaves were employed as the domestic help, farm laborer and workforce in the mines.
India tops the list in Global Slavery Index with about 14 million modern slaves .
India tops the list in Global Slavery Index with about 14 million modern slaves . | Source


Slavery has been mentioned in the Hindu scriptures such as the Laws of Manu, composed in c. first century BC. The British rulers in India recorded that there were about 9 million slaves in 1841. Most of the slaves in India were farm-slaves and household-slaves. Farm-slaves were generated from the repressed communities, belonging to low caste origin, whereas household-slaves consisted of people of higher caste origin. The slaves were sold by the slave trader, or father to clear debt and earn a living. Self-sale to stave off hunger also existed in India. The number of slaves owned also accounted for the richness of a person.


Slavery existed in Korea during the entire first millennium and continued to exist until the middle of 18th century. Slaves in ancient Korea consisted of third (or half) of the population. Most of the slaves in Korea were natives.

Thailand and Myanmar

In the 17th through the 19th centuries, it is estimated that, between one-fourth to one-third population in Thailand and Burma consisted of slaves. Slavery in Thailand and Burma continued to exist until the 20th century.

In the Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), the Callinago of Dominica and the Aztecs of Mexico owned slaves. Slaves were used as porters as well as laborers. People were made slaves through capture, kidnapping or self-sale. Slaves could also buy their freedom.

In the lower hemisphere, the Tupinambá of Brazil, the Inca of the Andes, the Tehuelche of Patagonia, the region between the Andes and the South Atlantic, and the Mayan, who lived in Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala were also slave-owning societies. Slave-sacrifice and cannibalism was prevalent in the South America.

Slave-Owning Societies in New World

Slavery was prevalent in the New World (Western Hemisphere). Amerindians – people living in South and North America before the arrival of Europeans – were slave-owning societies.

In the upper hemisphere, using slaves as gifts, or killing them, during the potlatches was widely practiced. Sometimes slaves were also used as games and then consumed. Slave-owning societies in the North America are:

The Creek, who lived in Georgia and Alabama
The Klamath, who were settled in Oregon and northern California
The Pawnee, who were settled in Nebraska and Kansas
The Yurok, who settled from Alaska to California
The Comanche, who lived between Wyoming and the Mexican border

Since the beginning of recorded African history, slave-owning societies and large-scale slave societies existed in Africa. After the rise of Islam in Africa, in 8th century, Africans were hunted, captured and exported as slaves in the Islamic world. It is estimated that the Arabs traded about 18 million African slaves between 650 and 1905.

The Europeans reached Africa in the second half of 15th century. By 1867, they had shipped 7-10 million Africans as slaves in the New World.

Slave-Owning Societies in Europe

Slavery existed in most of the European societies such as Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Poland, Scandinavian Peninsula (now Norway and Sweden) and Russia. In 1086, about 10 percent of the people living in England were recorded as slaves.

Slavery was institutionalized in Russia until the beginning of 18th century. In 1720s, Russian Empire tried to end slavery by converting household slaves into house serfs. Slavery ended in Russia only in 1861, when Tsar Alexander II freed house serfs. However, it is said the Soviets introduced state slavery in the Gulag camps.

The Vikings in the Scandinavia carried slave raids and sold slaves in the home and international markets (800–1050). Russia is believed to have been founded, in the 9th century, during the slave raids by the Viking while they were passing from Scandinavia into Byzantium.

Slave-Owning Societies in the Middle East and the Islamic World

Slaves were owned in the Middle East since the beginning of written history. In the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC), Hammurabi, the King of Babylon, glorified slavery as a prominent institution. Slavery features prominently in the ancient texts in Palestine and surrounding areas of Arabian Peninsula.

A brutal form of slavery was practiced in ancient Egypt. Slaves not only constructed the pyramids but also had to accompany their dead masters in the afterlife inside the pyramid. Some scholars believe pyramids were built by the farmers when they were free from farming.

Islamic societies from North Africa to Arabia, and the areas in the modern day Pakistan and Indonesia were all slave-owning societies. Slavery was prevalent in the Islamic tribes such as Khans of Crimea, in Ukrainian peninsula, Khans of Mongolia, and Islamic countries such as Ottoman Empire.

Slavery in the United States

Slavery existed in North America before the arrival of Europeans, however, the magnitude of slavery rocketed when Europeans were settled properly. Slavery continued to exist even after the formation of the United States of America until Abraham Lincoln officially ended slavery in 1863.

The first batch of African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619. They were shipped from the Caribbean. In the beginning, the English relied on laborers from their home country; however, soon African slaves replaced English laborers. Over the years, as the number of African slaves grew, the laws of slave ownerships were created.

Slaves were initially employed in the tobacco plantations. Later, as the cotton plantations outgrew, it demanded a large workforce. To supply the workforce demand of cotton plantations, Africans were hunted, captured and sold to the plantation owners. In the 1850s, about 40 percent people in the South were black slaves. In 1720, black slaves consisted of 64 percent of South Carolina population. Slave trade was very profitable until the war between the states started.

Slavery in Athens and Rome

In the beginning, wealthy Athenians employed poor people from their own country and the citizen in bondage, usually because of debt, to work for them. However, they began to rely on slaves from outside Athens when citizen slavery was abolished in c. 594 BC. Athenians bought slaves from non-Greek traders. They also enslaved people who were captured in wars. In 5th through 3rd BC, about one-third of Athenian population consisted of slaves. Slaves were employed in household, farms and mines. Athens prospered under slavery. Athenian slave society was destroyed when Athenian statesman Lycurgus (c. 390 – 324 BC) freed most of the slaves.

Rome was a polity of farmers, until the rulers began to dream of an empire. During the process of creating empire, the ruling class confiscated land from the farmers and enslaved them. The war with the neighboring states, between 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, also gave them an opportunity to enslave the captives. Between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD, Rome was basically a slave society, slaves constituted 30 percent of the population. Slaves were the main tool for the commodity production and development of infrastructure. When the slaves were converted into serfs, Roman slave society ended. The world’s first slave rebellion took place in Rome. Spartacus was the leader of the failed rebellion (73-71 BC).


Encyclopedia Britannica

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