A Brief History of Abolition and Anti-Human Trafficking Efforts

For this last day of Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month, I’m going to do another brief history that will follow the same format as my post on slavery.

Ancient History of anti-slavery Sentiments

As I mentioned in my previous post, an established system of slavery operated widely among ancient civilizations and religions.

Even though widely practiced and defended, there were restrictions and regulations around treatment of slaves and their ability to gain freedom.


Late in the 4th-century BCE records show that some Athenian Greeks opposed slavery. The popular rhetorician in the 4th century, Alcidamas, held the sentiment that “God has left all men free; nature has made no man a slave”.  


During the First Persian Empire (the Achaemenid Persians), founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, banned most slavery of non-combatants within the empire. It is interesting to note, the labourers who build Persepolis, the ceremonial capital, were paid for their labour.

Middle Ages

In the areas of Europe where Christianity was the dominating force, slavery existed and there is no evidence the Church attempted to abolish slavery or serfdom. In fact, the Church approved.

There were letters of emancipation throughout this time written by church officials, such as Pope Gregory I in the 6th century CE, and an abbot of the abbey of St. Pere in Chartres, France in the 11th century. Despite the theological argument of prominent church leaders, it had little effect on the opinion of the majority who were too invested in the vast economic influence of slavery. Despite discussion and decrees on treatment of slaves in the Christian world, the owning of slaves abounded, even in the church.


In 1315, Louis X published a decree stating that as France symbolized freedom, any slaves were to be freed, except in the colonies.

Under Louis XIV, the Code Noir (1685) regulated the slave trade in the colonies and gave unprecedented rights to slaves in the colonies.

Age of Enlightenment

On the heels of the Renaissance (15th & 16th centuries) and the Scientific Revolution (end of the 16th century through the 18th century) an intellectual and philosophical movement with roots in the intellectual and scholarly interests in science and humanism, dominated European society. It was called the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

Many of the ideas of the enlightenment–reason, evidence of the senses, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity and separation of church and state–undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church.

With the rise of Christianity and belief in the authority of the scriptures, there have been many arguments for and against slavery using a scriptural context. As a strong Christian believer, a lover of Jesus, I find it interesting that genuine progress in the abolishment of slavery came when the absolute authority of the Catholic Church was challenged.

Great Britain and its Empire:

Having “never been officially established”, was the basis upon which an English court in 1569 ruled that English law did not recognize slavery. The Lord Chief Justice upheld this ruling – despite societal developments to the contrary in 1700, when he ruled a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England.

These anti-slavery laws were challenged and many radical groups used the ‘threat to personal freedom’ argument in defence of holding slaves or servants in law courts.

The Abolition movement to end the Atlantic Slave Trade started in the late 18th century, among Quakers in England and North America who had questioned the morality of slavery. It gained momentum, albeit gradually, and the cause was taken up by social reformers with strong roots in the Church of England and who held offices of state. One of these social reformers, and arguably the most well-known, was William Wilberforce. In 1772, a legal case (the Somerset Case) helped launch the British movement to abolish slavery. 

In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in London. It took 20 years, but in 1807, the United States and the United Kingdom (including Ireland) outlawed the international slave trade.

In Britain, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery across the British Empire, except for India.

Europe and Russian Empire


It wasn’t until 1794 that slavery was abolished in law in Revolutionary France and its colonies.

Then, in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery in the colonies under pressure from his slave holder family.

In 1848, the French colonies re-abolished slavery.

Eastern Europe:

In the historical territories we now know as Romania and the Republic of Moldova, enslavement of the Romani people–a traditionally nomadic ethnic group–was the target of abolition groups.


A legal reform under the rule of Emperor Alexander II of Russia, – The Emancipation Reform of 1861 – abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire.



Formerly known as Saint-Domingue, a former French colony declared independence from France in 1804, unconditionally abolished slavery. The first sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere to do so in the modern era.

The United States:

One of the key political issues in the United States during the 19th century was the practice of slavery and was the principal cause of the Civil War (12 April 1861 to 9 May 1865). With his Emancipation Proclamation, 1 January 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared an end to slavery. Following the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the U.S Constitution – abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, with the exception as punishment for a crime – was passed by Congress on 31 January 1865, then ratified on 6 December 1865 under the new U.S. President, Andrew Johnson. With the advancement of Union forces south, emancipation without compensation occurred. The final U.S. State reached by the Union forces was Texas, and on 19 June 1865, General Gordon Granger proclaimed the war and slavery were over.


The Atlantic province of Nova Scotia (Latin for “New Scotland”) was a destination for black slave refugees from the U.S. During the American Revolution, many of the blacks were free, but not all. Some arrived as property of White American Loyalists. A legal case in Scotland (Knight v Wedderburn, 1774) in which a slave sued his owner for his freedom after being brought from Jamaica as a slave. It took 3 years and two appeals for Knight to win his case and, as a result, Scots law did not recognize slavery. This decision, in turn, influenced the colony of Nova Scotia. In 1788, the first anti-slavery literature published in Canada was by abolitionist James Drummond MacGregor, who also began purchasing slaves’ freedom. Despite attempts in 1787, 1789 and 1808, the Nova Scotian legislature refused to legalize slavery and by 1812, there were few slaves left in Nova Scotia.

Canada passed the first legislation against slavery in the British Empire. The last slaves in Canada gained their freedom in 1833, when slavery was abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act in the British Empire.

Latin America:

Slavery expanded through the U.S., Cuba and Brazil. So too did the abolition movement.

Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, did so in 1888.



Tunisia completely abolished slavery in 1846.

Modern Era

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under which it declared slavery illegal.

Mauritania, in 1981, was the last country to abolish slavery by presidential decree.

Child and adult slavery and forced labour are illegal in almost all countries under international law, yet human trafficking for sexual and labour enslavement still exists.

As a result, modern day anti-human trafficking organizations carry forward the cry of freedom that has echoed down through the ages.

The United Nations

In November 2000, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) took place in Palermo, Sicily. One of three protocols adopted at that convention is The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. “This protocol is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat human trafficking. It is the first legally binding instrument with an internationally recognized definition of human trafficking. This definition provides a vital tool for the identification of victims, whether men, women, or children, and for the detection of all forms of exploitation that make up human trafficking. Countries that ratify this treaty must criminalize human trafficking and develop anti-trafficking laws in line with the Protocol’s legal provisions. They must provide protection and assistance to victims of human trafficking and ensure that their rights are fully respected.” (Quoted from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

All nations who have ratified the Protocol use the 3P framework of the Protocol.

The 3 P’s are:

Prevention (article 9)–to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children
Protection (article 6)–to protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights
Prosecution (article 5)–each state shall adopt such legislation and other measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences the conduct set forth in article 3 of this Protocol, when committed intentionally. (see full pdf of Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.)

A fourth P was adopted in 2009:
Partnership–working in partnership with others both domestically and internationally, to prevent trafficking in persons, protect victims of trafficking and prosecute those who engage in trafficking of persons are held accountable.

On February 22nd and 25th, I will publish a new blog post that highlights a few organizations in partnership to end human trafficking. Those partnership organizations will also become part of my resources page in due course.


(header image photo by Kate Oseen on Upsplash)

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