A Brief History of Slavery

As part of January’s Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month, I thought it would be fitting to discuss slavery in history and how it has evolved to modern-day human trafficking. This post is not designed to take a deep dive into the history but is designed as a stone skipping across the surface to touch on aspects that lead to modern concepts of slavery.

Ancient History of Slavery

Slavery has crossed time, cultures, religions, and borders. Depending on what period of history we examine, slavery existed in the earliest recorded civilizations up to today. The legal rights of slaves also varied depending on the different social and economic systems, time periods, and geographic location.

The exploitation of human life for financial gain existed in every society, which had social and economic layers. Whenever and wherever a civilization developed, so did slavery. For every layer of life in a civilized social context, there exists a place or job to exploit human labour and services.

An established system of slavery operated widely among Ancient civilizations and religions. The Roman empire gained slaves by conquering foreign lands and transporting them home. They were a vital part of trade, and the economy became dependent on the slaves who did most of the work, on the land, in trades, military service, temple prostitution, and sacrifice. Even highly educated captured slaves held positions of trust as traders, business managers, accountants, and intermediaries. Enslavement could result from enemy capture, criminal punishment, debt, abandonment of children, and children born to slaves.


In the Early Middle Ages, established slavery institutions in Europe decreased but not completely in some regions.

During the centuries of Mediterranean warfare, Christians and Muslims captured each other as slaves.

Even though colonialism has existed since ancient history, our modern-day idea of colonialism finds its basis in the European Colonial period from the 15th century to the mid-19th century. Slave practices developed during the European Colonial period dominate modern concepts of slavery.  But most continents have pre-European colonial slave trade practices. Here are some examples:


Islamic or Arab slavery was practiced in Asia, Africa, India, and Europe from the 7th to 20th centuries.

The Trans-Saharan slave trade operated within Africa, transporting slaves from Sub-Saharan regions across the Sahara to North African slave markets, where they passed into the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern slave markets. Written records show this slave trade existed as far back as the 5th century into the 21st century.

Indian Ocean slave trade, also known as East Africa or Arab slave trade, took slaves from Africa to the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Indian continent, and even to the Americas. It has existed as far back as 2500 BCE through the Muslim period (9th century to 20th century) and the European period (16th century to the 19th century).

In some African cultures, they still practice slavery today.

Middle East:

In the Middle East, slavery practices of the Ancient Near East. They differed depending on political and social circumstances and influences from the Islamic Slave Trade. Under Islamic law, only non-Muslims could become slaves. The increase in converts from the slave population resulted in a market for slaves from outside Muslim lands.


In North America, indigenous tribes held captives through warfare as slaves before and during the European Colonial period. When colonists arrived, indigenous peoples became part of the slave economy along with the African slaves. Sometimes, where indigenous peoples adapted to white culture, some tribes even owned African slaves.

Slavery in Latin America existed within indigenous civilizations, including the Maya and Aztec.


Since the European Colonial System began, Europeans dominated the international slave trade by surpassing the Arab world in slave traffic to the Americas.

 The Atlantic Slave trade which transported African people to the Americas existed from the 16th to 19th century.

In Australia, Aboriginal peoples lived a semi-nomadic life and did not have a system of slavery. However, since colonization began in 1788, slavery has existed in many forms. European settlement was based heavily on convicts from Britain and Ireland. Alongside the convict population, many Aboriginal Australians were forced into slave labour. Additionally, Australia also brought in unpaid labourers (another word for slaves) from the surrounding Pacific Islands, China, and India.

The 21st Century Slave Trade

As mentioned earlier in this article, some cultures still consider slavery legal and part of their cultural practice. For example, jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, and the Islamic State of Iraq, and the Levant (ISIL aka ISIS) have taken women and children into slavery. In 2015, the Islamic State posted a price list for women and children.

Too often in our Western mindset, we view slavery as a thing of the past. In too many cultures and countries, the practice of selling humans for financial gain is flourishing. Therefore, we cannot, and should not, consider for a moment that our country/culture/religion can point a finger to another country/culture/religion. Although it may not be obvious, but it still exists.

Slavery Today AKA Human Trafficking

The conversation around slavery today most often uses the term human trafficking, although some organizations use the term modern slavery. Because the result for those trafficked is enslavement.

Some definitions from Merriam-Webster Dictionary for comparison

Slavery – noun

  1. A: the practice of slave holding

B: the state of a person who is held in forced servitude

C: a situation or practice in which people are entrapped (as by debt) and exploited

Human Trafficking – noun

  1. Organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited (as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labour)

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Men, women, and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world. The traffickers often use violence or fraudulent employment agencies and fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims.

In my next post, I will discuss abolition and modern-day anti-human trafficking efforts.

Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

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