Books Slavery and Servitude
The years of slavery since
~3500 BC - 1619 - Present

Slavery is a practice in which people own other people. A slave is the property of his or her owner and works without pay. The owner, who is called a master or mistress, provides the slave with food, shelter, and clothing.

Slavery began in prehistoric times and has been practiced ever since. The slavery of ancient times reached its peak in Greece and the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, slavery declined. Then, during the 1500's and 1600's, the colonization of the New World by Europeans resulted in a great expansion of slavery. Changing moral attitudes about slavery helped cause its decline during the 1800's. The United States abolished slavery in 1865. Today, slavery is illegal in almost every country in the world. But slavery still exists in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. Congress, using powers granted by Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution banned importation of slaves in 1808 but this did not effect those already in the United States nor those yet to be born.

The start of slavery probably followed the development of farming about 10,000 years ago. Farming gave people an opportunity to put their prisoners of war to work for them. People captured in war continued to be the chief source of slaves in the earliest civilizations. Other slaves were criminals or people who could not pay their debts.

The first known slaves formed the lowest class in the civilization developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (now mostly Iraq) about 3500 B.C. Slavery also existed in Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, and other ancient societies of the Middle East. In addition, it was practiced in ancient China and India and among the early blacks of Africa and the Indians of America.

Slavery expanded as commerce and industry increased. This growth of trade created a demand for a disciplined labor force that could produce goods for export. As a result of this demand, ancient slavery reached its fullest development during the great empires of Greece and Rome.

~400 BC

Slaves did most of the work in these societies. Many labored in handicraft industries, in mines, or on plantations. Others worked as household servants, and some even became doctors or poets. During the 400's B.C., slaves may have made up a third of the population of Athens. In Rome, slavery became so widespread that even common people owned slaves. Most people of the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life that could befall anyone at any time. Few writers or other influential individuals viewed slavery as evil or unjust.

The treatment of slaves varied greatly, but almost no slaves could legally marry, have a family, testify in court, or own property. In ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, slaves who worked in large gangs in mines or on plantations served long hours and suffered harsh punishment. However, many of those who worked as household servants were treated as well as any member of the owner's family.

A slave's chief hope was manumission (formal release from slavery by the owner). Most ancient slaveholding societies allowed manumission, and many owners guaranteed it in their will as a reward for loyal service.

~400 AD

After the Roman Empire broke up in the A.D. 400's, international trade fell sharply. The loss of markets for goods that slaves might have produced led to a decline in the need for slaves. In Europe, slavery slowly changed into serfdom (somewhat like share-cropping which evolved in the United States after the Civil War).

But slavery continued in the areas around the Mediterranean Sea. Most of it resulted from fighting between two religious groups, Christians and Muslims. During the A.D. 600's and early 700's, Arab Muslims conquered the Middle East, North Africa, and almost all of Spain. Christians and Muslims fought each other in these areas for hundreds of years, and both groups enslaved their prisoners. Some of the fighting occurred during the Crusades -- the Christian attempts to recapture Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Crusades began during the 1000's.

In the Holy Land, the crusaders tasted sugar for the first time. Many of them then created a demand for sugar after returning to Europe. As a result, Italian merchants established sugar plantations on several Mediterranean islands. The production of sugar required large numbers of laborers, and so the Europeans imported slaves from Russia and other parts of Europe. By 1300, a few African blacks had begun to replace Russian slaves on Italian plantations. These blacks were bought or captured from North African Arabs, who had enslaved them for years.

African slaves

During the 1400's, Portuguese sailors started to explore the coast of West Africa and to ship African blacks to Europe as slaves. The Portuguese also enslaved blacks on sugar plantations that they established on islands off the coast of West Africa.

Throughout the Middle Ages, various peoples in Africa and Asia continued to enslave prisoners of war. During this period, slavery was widely practiced among three groups of Indians. These Indians lived on islands of the Caribbean Sea and also inhabited what are now the Northwest Coast and Eastern Woodlands of the United States. Most slaves in the Indian societies worked as farmers or domestic servants. They generally suffered less hardship than the slaves who toiled on European sugar plantations.

The establishment of European colonies in the New World during the 1500's brought an expansion of slavery. The Spaniards developed sugar plantations in Cuba and on other Caribbean islands that became known as the West Indies. The Spaniards also needed large numbers of laborers to mine gold and other metals. Portuguese colonists started huge sugar plantations in Brazil. These Europeans enslaved thousands of Indians. But most of the Indians died from European diseases and harsh treatment. The Spaniards and the Portuguese then began to import blacks from West Africa as slaves. Other African blacks helped capture most of the enslaved Africans.

During the 1600's, France, England, and the Netherlands established colonies in the West Indies and greatly increased the African slave trade. Soon, the Europeans enslaved only blacks. Sugar became the main export of the European colonies, though the settlers also developed profitable coffee, cotton, and tobacco plantations.

The rising European demand for sugar helped create fierce competition for slaves and for new sugar colonies. From the 1500's to the mid-1800's, the Europeans shipped about 12 million black slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 2 million of these slaves died on the way. About 65 percent of the slaves were brought to Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Saint Domingue (now Haiti), and other sugar colonies. Brazil alone received about 38 percent. About 5 percent were brought to what is now the United States.

Laws in the European colonies of Latin America showed considerable concern for the welfare of slaves. These laws allowed slaves to marry, to seek relief from a cruel owner, and even to buy their freedom. Such laws were rarely enforced, however. Partly for this reason, slavery was as cruel in Latin America as it was, later, in the United States. But slaves in the United States generally ate better, lived longer, received better medical care, and had a more secure family life than those in most other countries.

The continual shipment of large numbers of Africans to Latin America gave slaves there certain advantages over blacks brought to the United States. For example, African customs could be retained more easily in Latin America.

Slaves in Brazil and the West Indies had less need to adjust to white culture than did blacks in the United States. Blacks greatly outnumbered whites in parts of Brazil and in most West Indies colonies, but the Southern United States had twice as many whites as blacks. The greater number of slaves than whites in those Latin American areas also made slave revolts more common there than in the United States. The biggest slave revolt in history broke out in Saint Domingue in 1791. Nearly 500,000 slaves rebelled against their French owners and took over the country.

African slaves in American colonies

Some scholars believe that the first blacks in America came with the expeditions led by Christopher Columbus, starting in 1492. Black slaves traveled to North and South America with French, Portuguese, and Spanish explorers throughout the 1500's.

The best-known black to take part in the early explorations of North America was a slave named Estevanico. In 1539, he crossed what are now Arizona and New Mexico on an expedition sent by Antonio de Mendoza, ruler of Spain's colony in America.

The first blacks in the American Colonies were brought in, like many lower-class whites, as indentured servants. Most indentured servants had a contract to work without wages for a master for four to seven years, after which they became free. Blacks brought in as slaves, however, had no right to eventual freedom. The first black indentured servants arrived in Jamestown in the colony of Virginia in 1619. They had been captured in Africa and were sold at auction in Jamestown. After completing their service, some black indentured servants bought property. But racial prejudice among white colonists forced most free blacks to remain in the lowest level of colonial society.

Slave sale The first black African slaves in the American Colonies also arrived during the early 1600's. The slave population increased rapidly during the 1700's as newly established colonies in the South created a great demand for plantation workers.

By 1750, about 200,000 slaves lived in the colonies. The majority lived in the South, where the warm climate and fertile soil encouraged the development of plantations that grew rice, tobacco, sugar cane, and later cotton. Most plantation slaves worked in the fields. Others were craft-workers, messengers, and servants.

Only 12 percent of slave-owners operated plantations that had 20 or more slaves. But more than half of all the country's slaves worked on these plantations. Most of the other slave-owners had small farms and only a few slaves each. Under arrangements with their masters, some slaves could hire themselves out to work for other whites on farms or in city jobs. Such arrangements brought income to both the slaves and the masters.

The cooler climate and rocky soil of the Northern and Middle colonies made it hard for most farmers there to earn large profits. Many slaves in those colonies worked as skilled and unskilled laborers in factories, homes, and shipyards and on fishing and trading ships.

During the mid-1600's, the colonies began to pass laws called slave codes. In general, these codes prohibited slaves from owning weapons, receiving an education, meeting one another or moving about without the permission of their masters, and testifying against white people in court. Slaves received harsher punishments for some crimes than white people. A master usually received less punishment for killing a slave than for killing a free person for the same reason. Slaves on small farms probably had more freedom than plantation slaves, and slaves in urban areas had fewer restrictions in many cases than slaves in rural areas.

By 1770, there may have been 40,000 or more free blacks in the American Colonies. They included runaway slaves, descendants of early indentured servants, and black immigrants from the West Indies. Many free blacks opposed British rule. One of the best-known African American patriots was Crispus Attucks, who died in the Boston Massacre of 1770 while mocking the presence of British soldiers.

During the Revolutionary War in America (1775-1783), most blacks probably favored the British. They believed that a British victory would offer them their earliest or best chance for freedom. But about 5,000 blacks fought on the side of the colonists. Most of them were free blacks or slaves from the Northern and Middle colonies. Black heroes of the war included Peter Salem and Salem Poor of Massachusetts, who distinguished themselves in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.

By the early 1800's, more than 700,000 slaves lived in the South. They accounted for about a third of the region's people. Slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina and made up over half the population in both Maryland and Virginia.

Slavery began to develop even deeper roots in the South after Eli Whitney of Massachusetts invented his cotton gin in 1793. This machine removed the seeds from cotton as fast as 50 people working by hand and probably contributed more to the growth of slavery than any other development. Whitney's gin enabled farmers to meet the rapidly rising demand for cotton. As a result, the Southern cotton industry expanded, and cotton became the chief crop in the region. The planters needed more and more workers to pick and bale the cotton, which led to large increases in the slave population. The thriving sugar cane plantations of Louisiana also used many slaves during the first half of the 1800's. By 1860, about 4 million slaves lived in the South.

Numerous slaves protested against their condition. They used such day-to-day forms of rebellion as destroying property, running away, pretending illness, and disobeying orders. Major slave protests included armed revolts and mutinies. The most famous of about 200 such revolts was led by Nat Turner, a slave and preacher. The revolt broke out in 1831 in Southampton County in Virginia. The rebels killed about 60 white people before being captured. The best-known slave mutiny occurred in 1839 aboard the Amistad, off the coast of Cuba. A group of Africans, led by Cinque, brought the vessel to Long Island in New York. The slaves were given their freedom soon afterward.

Slaves received beatings or other physical punishment for refusing to work, attempting to run away, or participating in plots or rebellions against their owners. Some slaves were executed for rebelling.

The Revolutionary War helped lead to new attitudes about slavery, especially among whites in the North. The war inspired a spirit of liberty and an appreciation for the service of the black soldiers. Partly for this reason, some Northern legislatures adopted laws during the late 1700's that provided for the immediate or gradual end of slavery. Another reason for such laws was simply that slaves had no essential role in the main economic activities of the North.

The census of 1790 revealed that the nation had about 59,000 free blacks, including about 27,000 in the North. By the early 1800's, most Northern states had taken steps to end slavery. Besides former slaves freed by law, free blacks included those who had been freed by their masters, who had bought their freedom, or who had been born of free parents.

After the Revolutionary War, numerous free blacks found jobs in tobacco plants, textile mills, and other factories. Some worked in shipyards, on ships, and later in railroad construction. Many free blacks became skilled in carpentry and other trades. Some became merchants and editors. The best-known editors were Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, who helped start the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, in 1827.

Most whites treated free blacks as inferiors. Many hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public places barred them. Few states gave free blacks the right to vote. The children of most free blacks had to attend separate schools. Some colleges and universities, such as Bowdoin and Oberlin, admitted black students. But the limited number of admissions led to the opening of black colleges, including Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1854 and Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856.

In both the North and the South, churches either banned blacks or required them to sit apart from white people. As a result, some blacks set up their own churches. In 1816, Richard Allen, a black Philadelphia minister, helped set up the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black denomination in the country.

The rising number of free blacks alarmed many whites and led to further restrictions on their activities. In parts of New England, free blacks could not visit any town without a pass. They also needed permission to entertain slaves in their homes. In the South, free blacks could be enslaved if caught without proof that they were free. Fears that free blacks would lead slave revolts encouraged almost all states to pass laws severely limiting the right of free blacks to own weapons.

Increasing concern over the large number of free blacks led to the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816. The society was sponsored by well-known supporters of slavery, including U.S. Representatives John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Their plan was to lessen "the race problem" by transporting free blacks on a voluntary basis to Africa. In 1822, the society established the black American colony of Liberia on the continent's west coast. In 1847, Liberia became the first self-governing black republic in Africa. Although free blacks suffered from discrimination, most felt that the United States was their home. As a result, only about 12,000 of them had volunteered to settle in Liberia by 1850.

In spite of their inferior position, a number of free blacks won wide recognition during the late 1700's and early 1800's. For example, Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley gained fame for their poetry. Newport Gardner distinguished himself in music. Benjamin Banneker, a mathematician, published outstanding almanacs. Notable black ministers included Absalom Jones in the North and George Liele and Andrew Bryan in the South. Paul Cuffe and James Forten gained great wealth in business. Tom Molineaux became known for his boxing skills.

By 1860, the nation had about 490,000 free blacks. But most of them faced such severe discrimination that they were little better off than the slaves.

Many white Americans, particularly Northerners, felt that slavery was wicked and violated the ideals of democratic government. However, plantation owners and other supporters of slavery regarded it as natural to the Southern way of life. They also argued that Southern culture introduced the slaves to Christianity and helped them become "civilized." Most white Southerners held such beliefs by 1860, though less than 5 percent of them owned slaves and only about half the slave-owners had more than five slaves. In addition, Southern farmers insisted that they could not make money growing cotton without cheap slave labor.

The Southern States hoped to expand slavery as new states were admitted to the Union. However, the Northern States feared they would lose power in Congress permanently if more states that permitted slavery were admitted. The North and the South thereby became increasingly divided over the spread of slavery.


The slavery issue created heated debate in Congress after the Territory of Missouri applied for statehood in 1818. At the time, there were 11 slave states, in which slavery was allowed, and 11 free states, in which it was prohibited. Most Missourians supported slavery, but many Northern members of Congress did not want Missouri to become a slave state. In 1820, Congress reached a settlement known as the Missouri Compromise. This measure admitted Missouri as a slave state, but it also called for Maine to enter the Union as a free state. Congress thus preserved the balance between free and slave states at 12 each.

New, aggressive opponents of slavery began to spring up in the North during the 1830's. Their leaders included William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Dwight Weld. During the 1830's and 1840's, these white abolitionists were joined by many free blacks, including such former slaves as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.

Most of the abolitionist leaders attacked slavery in writings and public speeches. Garrison began to publish an anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831. Douglass, the most influential black leader of the time, started an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star in 1847. Tubman and many other abolitionists helped Southern slaves escape to the free states and Canada. Tubman returned to the South 19 times and personally led about 300 slaves to freedom. She and others used a network of routes and housing to assist the fleeing blacks. This network became known as the underground railroad.

After 1848, Congress had to deal with the question of whether to permit slavery in the territories that the United States gained from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War (1846-1848). The territories covered what are now California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of four other states. Following angry debates among the members of Congress, Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts helped work out a series of measures that became known as the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise allowed slavery to continue but prohibited the slave trade in Washington, D.C. A key measure in the Compromise admitted California to the Union as a free state. Another agreement gave the residents in the other newly acquired areas the right to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. The Compromise included a federal fugitive slave law that was designed to help slave-owners get back runaway slaves.

The Compromise of 1850 briefly ended the heated arguments in Congress over the slavery issue. However, the abolitionist movement and the hostility between the North and the South continued. The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-1852) greatly increased the tensions between Northerners and Southerners. In addition, attempts by Northerners to stop enforcement of the fugitive slave law further angered Southerners.

The quarrel over slavery flared again in Congress in 1854, when it passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law created two federal territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and provided that the people of each territory could decide whether to permit slavery. Most Nebraskans opposed slavery. However, bitter, bloody conflicts broke out between supporters and opponents of slavery in Kansas. In 1856, for example, the militant abolitionist John Brown led a raid against supporters of slavery in a small settlement on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. Brown's group killed five men and focused the nation's attention on the conflict in the territory, which became known as "Bleeding Kansas." In the end, Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861.

Supporters of slavery won a major victory in 1857, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. In the Dred Scott Decision, the court denied the claim of Scott, a slave, that his residence in a free state and territory for a time made him free. The court also declared that no black -- free or slave -- could be a U.S. citizen. In addition, it stated that Congress had no power to ban the spread of slavery.

Tension in the South increased again in 1859, when John Brown led another abolitionist group in seizing the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia). Federal troops quickly captured Brown, and he was executed later that year. But his raid helped convince many Southerners that the slavery issue would lead to fighting between the North and the South.

See also: Alexander Falconbridge's Account of the Slave Trade
Contributor: Alton Hornsby, Jr., Ph.D., Chairman, Department of History, Morehouse College.

Additional resources

Level I

Bullard, Sara. Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle. Oxford, 1993.

Haskins, James. Freedom Rides. Hyperion, 1995.

Mack-Williams, Kibibi. Food and Our History. Rourke, 1995.

Payton, Shelia. African Americans. Cavendish, 1995.

Sullivan, Charles, ed. Children of Promise: African-American Literature and Art for Young People. Abrams, 1991.

Level II

African American Biography. 4 vols. Gale Research, 1994.

Halliburton, Warren J., comp. Historic Speeches of African Americans. Watts, 1993.

Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas. The African American Family Album. Oxford, 1995.

Hornsby, Alton, and Straub, D. G. African American Chronology. 2 vols. Gale Research, 1993.

Jackson, Kennell. America Is Me. HarperCollins, 1996.

Potter, Joan, and Claytor, Constance. African-American Firsts. Pinto Pr., 1994.

IBM 1999 WORLD BOOK [excerpts from "Slavery"]

Use Browser « Back Button To Return To Last Page Visited
Copyright (1998 - 2000): Concord Learning Systems, Concord, NC.
All rights reserved. For details and contact information:
See License Agreement, Copyright Notice.