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Modern Slavery and Slave-Owning Societies

Updated on October 29, 2013

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.
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. | Source

Top 10 Countries With Maximum Number of Modern Slaves

Modern Slaves
D. R. Congo
Source: Global Slavery Index, 3013

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).

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 Burma (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

Africans in the cellar of a slave boat
Africans in the cellar of a slave boat | Source

Slavery in Africa

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.

A 19th-century engraving depicting an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara.
A 19th-century engraving depicting an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara. | Source

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.

Slave market in in Atlanta, Georgia (1864)
Slave market in in Atlanta, Georgia (1864) | Source
 Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton
Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton | Source

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.

Site of largest slave market in Athens.
Site of largest slave market in Athens. | Source

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

© 2013 Vinaya Ghimire


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    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 

      4 years ago from New Delhi , India

      Vinaya, it is really painful to read about the plight of people. Though exploitation of one kind or the other is prevalent in some societies, it is not fair to lump all such things together in the category of slavery. The Global Slavery Index 2013 reproduced by you shows such bewildering data. I don't know about the method how they collect and prepare such data ? Nonetheless, seeing one's country on the top of such list gives one a very unpleasant feeling. However, without going into all facts and figures, nothing can be said of it. Your hub, however, is very informative about this sensitive subject and well written.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      4 years ago

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention, one would think it is a thing of the past. The history is of slavery, as you have posted, represents the horrible mistreatment of humans by other humans and should never happen. Good article.

    • adithgeorge profile image

      Adith Varghese George 

      4 years ago from Kochi,Kerala

      Thanks for the article.I think this may be an eye opener.Slavery yet abolished is still practiced all over the world, and India is one of the prominent countries.Bonded labour and slavery can be seen in streets, and villages and we have to stop this practice.

    • rohanfelix profile image

      Rohan Rinaldo Felix 

      4 years ago from Chennai, India

      A very meaningful article... A lot of people don't even realize that slavery still exists.

    • carlarmes profile image


      4 years ago from Bournemouth, England

      It is very sad to see slavery still exists around the world in the form of a bonded work force. Debt is slavery, so we are all in a form of slavery in one way or another, our governments have sold us for the sake of the Barons of the Banks. debt to be past from one generation to the next. the only difference is we have a choice of who our masters are.

    • JG11Bravo profile image


      4 years ago

      Rather interesting. Well done.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      4 years ago from USA

      You article was interesting and very informative. I had no idea that so many countries still condone slavery, or of the number of slaves that still exist. Voted up and shared.

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      4 years ago from London

      That's an excellent and informative article about a sad but existing phenomenon such as slavery. Thanks for this enlightening hub Vinaya.

    • Dancing Water profile image

      Dancing Water 

      4 years ago

      Thank you for your enlightening article on modern slavery and slavery in the past. You give the information objectively, which is so very powerful and heart breaking in and of itself.

      I cannot fathom enslaving any human__or animal. I makes my heart sick.

      I will spread the word with the compelling statistics you have provided.

      God bless you!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Another interesting and informative article. I had no idea there was so much modern slavery going on in the world. It is so sad to realize this. I knew of the history of slavery, but for it to continue into the 21st century is barbaric and inhumane. And, it seems to be growing rather than dissipating. Thanks for sharing this information with us.

    • Osome Sabri profile image

      Sabri BenChaabane 

      4 years ago

      Its sad to know that every great civilasation was built by tortured slaves. Sometimes the human history sickens me... Great hub, voted up

    • AvineshP profile image

      Avinesh Prahladi 

      4 years ago from Chandigarh

      I am ashamed to see my country at #1 and it is certainly a dark side of our modern society.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      4 years ago from San Francisco

      I was shocked to come in contact with Philippine slavery. Thank you for this.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      my goodness in today's world to read your compelling stats sickens me a great share nevertheless :)

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      4 years ago from southern USA

      Very comprehensive hub here once again, Vinaya! Important one too. It just boggles my mind how anyone can think of owning another person and then able to sleep at night! Throughout history, it is evident the selfish and evil hearts of men indeed to fulfill their own personal gain, greed and needs at the high price of another human life.

      Up and more and sharing

      God bless you,

      Faith Reaper

    • ExpectGreatThings profile image


      4 years ago from Illinois

      The numbers in your chart are appalling. It sickens me that we can treat people as if they only exist for our own selfish benefit. Very informative hub and a topic that is important to know the truth on. - Ginger

    • Indian Chef profile image

      Indian Chef 

      4 years ago from New Delhi India

      I think they need to change the definition of slavery or make it better. What you call forced marriage we call it arranged marriage, but there is no slavery in that. Also Slaves exist in USA and western Europe too. Few years back about 4 or 5 years it was widely reported how an American company hired people from here and took their passports and made them work for far less amount than promised and not allowed to leave premises . This is slavery too. On the whole a very nicely written hub.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 

      4 years ago from USA

      I'd guess that slavery was caused by greed more than anything. Humankind can be evil. You did a nice job on this.

    • CampbellLena2013 profile image

      Lena Campbell 

      4 years ago from Maryland

      That's so sad. It makes me feel bad that some people live their whole lives like that. :-(

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Good overall history of slavery.There is however a modern slavery as well as the ones enumerated here. Slavery to, unjust laws that are not voted on by the majority.Vote fixing. Slavery to low wages.Slavery to inflation as a result of interest payments on money or what passes for money.The labor relations board is suspect when it comes to fairness to workers. Slavery to Income taxes that increase due to Inflation alone.Putting you into a higher tax bracket. Tax brackets are not adjusted for Inflation. One year you may be in a lower tax bracket and the next year be in a higher tax bracket and still make the exact same amount of money than last year.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      It shows how engrained this mentality is that it even exists today in places. So very sad. It is also very world wide. Some of slavery has ended, but not all, unfortunately. Great article.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I believe if you asked the average person in the United States if slavery exists in the world, they would say no. The reality is much different, as you have pointed out so well. Excellent informational article.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Modern Slavery and Slave-Owning Societies interesting about this part of slavery and for most to still go through such horrendous lives, even in this century. Informative and useful,

    • Chris Neal profile image

      Chris Neal 

      4 years ago from Fishers, IN

      Pretty good basic overview. Well written.


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