Slavery has existed in human societies since the dawn of civilisation, with notable examples of civilisations that practised slavery being the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese and pre-Columbian societies in the Americas. In Africa, slavery had been going on for centuries before Europeans became involved. both the Arab slave trade across the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean and various tribes enslaving some of their neighbours.
Racism and slavery
While many slave-holding societies have got their slaves from other ethnic groups — often enemies defeated in war or neighbours raided for slaves — slavery of Africans in the Americas involved a conspicuous difference in skin color and some severely racist attitudes.
Roman slavery, for comparison, never had a racial component and it was understood that, at least in principle, any given person could be slave or slave owner depending on circumstances. Roman slaves or their descendants were also manumitted quite often for services rendered.
Early modern European slavery was justified in religious terms, but after many slaves converted to Christianity that excuse became less plausible. Later attempts to justify slavery often relied on pseudoscientific theories about the supposed inferiority of black people. Some slave-holding societies, most notably the US and her predecessor colonies, started encouraging slaves to have descendants to be kept in slavery indefinitely.
Not all slaves in the Americas were of African origin. The Spanish Empire and the Portuguese colony Brazil initially relied mainly on the "encomienda" system, using the natives for forced labor, and only later began importing African slaves. In the English-speaking regions indentured servitude, mainly of Irish or British convicts, was common from early colonial times in areas such as the Carolinas, Virginia and Jamaica, and later on indentured Chinese laborers did much of the work on transcontinental railroads in western parts of both the US and Canada. After slavery was abolished, the British would bring many indentured Indian laborers to their Caribbean colonies and Guyana to work on the plantations instead.
Nor were all slave-holders white, though a large majority were. There were cases of black people becoming slave owners themselves, and some Native American tribes bought African slaves. During the infamous Trail of Tears, the slave-owning tribes brought their black slaves with them, and these slaves were subject to even more brutal conditions than the Native Americans themselves.
However above all, it is the Atlantic Slave Trade that is best known, and played the biggest role in the modern history of the Western world. The system was incredibly brutal and. while some slaves were well-treated by the standards of the era, far more were treated quite harshly. In places like Haiti, half the slaves were dead within three years of arrival.
Although it is commonly thought that Europeans went to Africa and captured slaves, in fact nearly all slaves were people captured by other Africans and then sold to Europeans. Slavery was a very lucrative business for many African kingdoms, and some Africans grew immensely rich from it. The economies of several African kingdoms became heavily dependent on the slave trade, which would eventually result in their collapse following the abolition of slavery, and making them prone to takeover by the European colonial powers during the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century.
Slavery enabled an incredibly lucrative triangular trade between the Americas, Europe and Africa. European powers transported slaves from Africa to the Americas, where plantations depending on slave labor produced products like tobacco, cotton, coffee, indigo (used for dyes), rum, cigars or sugar for sale in Europe. The third side of the triangle brought European products like glass beads, cloth and tools to Africa, where they could be traded for slaves. The Europeans also traded weapons such as guns, which the Africans used to capture yet more slaves. While even contemporary Europe was a bit queasy at those directly involved with slavery, many of the nice burgher houses and other expressions of incredible wealth of early modern Europe, and in the slave-owning colonies, were built with money earned off the forced and unpaid labor of African slaves.
There are descendants of slaves throughout the Americas. The U.S. and Brazil in particular are home to many descendants of African slaves, and these people remained a large and distinct underclass for a long time even after slavery was legally abolished. The descendants of African slaves form the majority of the population throughout the English, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean and Belize, as well as significant minorities in many countries throughout the rest of the Americas. In the Caribbean, several ethnic groups have a mixture of African and indigenous ancestry, with late 20th and early 21st century genetic research showing a larger Amerindian component than was previously thought. In some groups there is no uncertainty about African descent, but there is significant debate whether the Africans in question arrived in the Americas free or in chains. The Garifuna of eastern Nicaragua largely maintain to have no enslaved people among their ancestors, but others doubt those claims.
During the late 18th century, abolitionism, a movement to abolish slavery, started gathering steam, with successes such as abolition in Britain in 1772, and in France in 1794, (though later rescinded by Napoleon Bonaparte and only permanently abolished in 1848). Northern US states began to ban slavery in 1777 and by 1804, they all had. There was a strong abolitionist component to the Latin American wars for independence in the early 19th century due to the personal commitment of leaders such as Simón Bolívar. However, the Southern US and Brazil held out clinging to slavery. After the US banned import of slaves in 1808, and even more when slavery was abolished throughout the entire British Empire in 1833, the Atlantic slave trade became illegal. However, it continued anyway; both the mainly British patrols near Africa and the mainly American patrols in the Caribbean were often circumvented.
Before the abolition of slavery in the United States — proclaimed by Lincoln in 1863 and finalized by the 13th Amendment in 1865 — many American slaves escaped to freedom in then British-ruled Canada, where slavery had already been abolished, via the Underground Railroad. It took the American Civil War to abolish slavery in the South, and Brazil clung to the institution until the 1880s.
Back to Africa
During the 19th century, some former slaves or their descendants moved back to Africa, mainly American blacks to Liberia (which for a time had a constitutional provision limiting citizenship to black people) and mainly British Empire blacks to Sierra Leone where the capital was named Freetown. In both cases the immigrants formed a distinct upper class that dominated local politics at the expense of native Africans already in the area.
Since the 1930s, the Rastafarian movement, which originated in Jamaica, has advocated an eventual return to Africa, specifically Ethiopia whose Christian king they believe is descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They draw parallels between blacks in the Americas and ancient Israelites transported to Babylon.
In the 19th century Europeans justified their colonization of Africa by claiming to be "fighting slavery" while hypocritically using local forced labor that was different from slavery only in the legal framework attached. The reign of Belgian monarch Leopold II over what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was particularly brutal and even the lowest estimates say hundreds of thousands perished.
In the Americas, the former slaves and their descendants would be subject to discriminatory laws for a long time even after the abolition of slavery, and continue to make up a distinct socio-economic underclass to this day. As slavery became more and more a question of race, free black and mixed people increasingly had their rights curtailed, culminating in the US in the infamous ruling Dred Scott v Sandford in which the Supreme Court said that black people had "No rights which the White Man was bound to respect" while dismissing the suit of a former slave to be freed due to having been brought by his master into a free state.
Slaves did not always take their fate passively and there is much evidence for slaves resisting either collectively or individually. Slaves often refused to do work or played dumb to avoid work, which in part explains racist stereotypes of laziness or lack of intelligence. Some slave ships had successful rebellions with the white overseers thrown overboard and the ship commandeered by the slaves. The most famous such case was perhaps the Amistad, an illegal slaver ship (importation of slaves into the US had been declared illegal by that point) which had a slave rebellion break out and ultimately ended up in the US. The successful defense of the former slaves in their freedom case by former president John Quincy Adams has been turned into a movie. Another common method of revolt was simply running away and indeed in the mountainous or forested interior of some colonies groups of free Black People lived and variously mixed with indigenous society. The most successful slave revolt however, was the the Haitian Revolution, which turned France's single most lucrative colony and one of the most brutal slaver societies in history into an independent black led state under former slaves like Toussaint L'Ouverture or Jean Jacques Dessalines.
Today, slavery is illegal in every country, except for prisoners, but several had to abolish the practice more than once, and in Mauritania in particular, which became the final country to abolish slavery when it did so in 1981, it seems hard to make it stick. In the oil-rich Gulf states in the Middle East, many migrant workers from South Asia and the Philippines toil under very harsh conditions with lax safety regulations, and often no legal recourse against employer abuse or unpaid wages, which has been described by many as akin to slavery. Illegal human trafficking is still rampant and its victims are often called "modern slaves".
Alex Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the TV adaptation Roots trace the author's ancestors through enslavement in Africa in the 1760s, transportation to Maryland, and several later generations in America. While Haley's genealogical conclusions have been doubted by some historians, the story Roots tells is still chilling and the story of countless African American families.
The novel Flash for Freedom has the anti-hero Harry Flashman (a much-decorated British officer who is actually a coward, cheat, drunkard and lecher) involved in both the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad. As usual in the Flashman Papers series the story is hilarious, the writing excellent, and the history mostly accurate.