A brief history of slavery, from the
19th century to the present time:
Topics in this essay:
Abolition in the British Empire during the 19th century:
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. 15 He was a member of the British Parliament from 1780 to 1825. After a series of delays caused by his health problems, stonewalling in the House of
Lords, and the war with France, a limited British anti-slavery bill was finally passed in 1806. It prohibited the
sale of slaves by the British into other countries, and prohibited the importation of
additional slaves into the new British colonies in the Caribbean. A second bill was passed
in 1807 in which "all manner of dealing and trading in slaves...[was] utterly
abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful." A final bill in 1811 made
slave trading punishable by execution or exile! By this time, about 2.8 million slaves had
been transported by the British widely throughout the world.
Although the British slave trade had now ended, slavery itself continued in various
British colonies. An Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. It was
successful in forcing the British government to pass laws to improve the treatment of slaves.
After some slave revolts and mass executions, outraged public opinion in Britain forced
passage of a Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in 1833. This ended slavery in
Britain and all of its colonies, including Canada, on 1834-AUG-01.
August 01 is now observed in Canada as "Civic Holiday." There is an active movement in the country to delare it Emancipation Day and make it a national holiday.
An "Underground Railroad" was organized duirng the 19th century in the U.S. by a group of abolitionists who were mainly based in Philadlphia, PA. It was not an actual railroad with trains and tracks. Rather it was a covert network of people and safe houses. It brought about 35,000 to freedom in British North America (now called Canada).
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:
"It was a complex, clandestine network of people and safe houses that helped persons enslaved in Southern plantations reach freedom in the North. The network was maintained by abolitionists who were committed to human rights and equality. They offered help to fleeing slaves. Their ranks included free Blacks, fellow enslaved persons, White and indigenous sympathizers, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, inhabitants of urban centre and farmers, men and women. Americans and Canadians." 16
Through a series of treaties and the capture
of over 1,000 slave ships, the slave trade was finally snuffed out by 1865, the same year that the U.S. civil war ended.
In 2008, The province of Ontario in Canada dedicated AUG-01 as Emancipation Day to observe the end of slavery in Upper Canada, as Ontario was called at the time.
On 2018-OCT-17, Bill S-255: "An Act proclaiming Emancipation Day" received its first reading. It would declare August 1 to be "Emancipation Day" across Canada to commenorate the abolition of slavery in the country. 17 It has not proceeded, apparently because of lack of interest by the ruling Liberal Party and other members of Parliament.
Abolition in the U.S. during the 19th century:
Anti-slave activity in the U.S. lagged significantly behind that of Britain, Canada,
and other British colonies. Some milestones were:
|1800: By this time, slavery was economically marginal in the Northeast
states. An act of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (now OH, MI, IN, IL
& WI). States north of Delaware also did not allow slavery. Most of the southern states
retained slavery until 1865. The industrialized North and agricultural
South had long been divided on economic grounds. This was intensified by a "growing
sense of a moral and social divide based on attitudes towards slavery." 1|
|1807: A federal ban was placed on the importation of new slaves into
|1810: A census was held; the black population was
found to be 1,377,080.|
|1819: The "Missouri Compromise" is reached in
Congress. It allowed each new state to be admitted to the Union with its slavery laws
intact. However slavery was prohibited in that area of the Louisiana Purchase territory
north of latitude 36' 30".|
|1820's: The "Underground Railroad" began as
an informal network of safe houses which helped runaway slaves escape to freedom It
was mainly organized by The Society of Friends (Quakers) and Mennonites. 2 "It
existed rather openly in the North and just beneath the surface of daily life in the upper
South and certain Southern cities. The Underground Railroad, where it existed, offered
local service to runaway slaves, assisting them from one point to another." 3 Harriet Tubman (circa 1820 - 1913), a black abolitionist, walked to freedom. Then
she returned 19 times into slave territory and led over 300 individuals, including her
family and relatives, out of slavery. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker abolitionist who
harbored runaways slaves in her Philadelphia home. |
Not all traffic was northbound.
There were also two escape routes to Spanish held territories: via Florida and Mexico.
About 1,000 slaves successfully escaped to the North each year. Many more were caught and
returned to a horrendous fate.
|1833: Over 1,000 regional, state and city groups joined together to
found the American Anti-Slavery Society.|
|1840's: By this time, the slavery issue had emerged
in the U.S. as a
major conflict. In the northern states, "a small but articulate group of
abolitionists developed. In the South, white spokesmen rallied around slavery as the
bedrock of Southern society." 4 The issue of slavery
became so volatile that Congress debated whether it could even be discussed. Between 1836
and 1844, the House of Representatives argued over their "gag rule". It
prohibited any discussion of slavery and whether the right of petition should include the
petitioning against human bondage. The gag rule angered many Americans who were anxious to
preserve their freedom of political expression. The overall effect was to add support to
the Abolitionist cause.|
|1850: The "Compromise of 1850" is approved by
Congress. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia. California was admitted to
the union as a free state. Slavery was permitted in the new territories of New Mexico and
|1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an author and the daughter
of a Christian minister. She became one of the first women to earn a living by writing. She published the best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin. It publicized the evils of slavery to
the general public.|
|1857: Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dred
Scott decision. It stated that the US Congress could not prohibit slavery in any
state; that an African-American could not be an American citizen; and that
slaves were not
considered persons. Thus, a runaway slave only became safe and free if she or he escaped from the U.S. 2|
Benjamin Drew, an American abolitionist working with the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society,
visited towns in what is now Ontario, Canada in the mid 1850's. He interviewed refugees
who had successfully fled to Canada, and recorded their stories. 6 Slavery was becoming more widespread at this time, and starting to become entrenched in some territories
to the West of the Mississippi river.
|1861: The slave population totaled about 4 million. The Civil War
began on APR-12 with an southern attack on Fort Sumter, SC. 180,000 African-Americans served
as soldiers; 25,000 as sailors. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian, wrote The Battle Hymn to inspire Union soldiers.|
|1863: President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation
Proclamation on 1863-JAN-1. 7 It applied only to the
"rebellious states" and stated "that all persons held as
slaves are, and henceforward shall be free." It allowed African-Americans to join
the Union Army and Navy. Unfortunately, the Proclamation did not free a single slave: |
||The loyal border states who did not secede from the Union were still allowed to keep
||Persons in the south that had already come under Northern control were also able to
retain their slaves.
||The remaining Southern states ignored the Proclamation.
1865: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ended slavery on 1865-JAN-31. It states:
"Neither slavery nor involuntary
servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly
convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their
The cost in human suffering and lives:
||As many as 17 million slaves were exported to North Africa, the
Middle East and countries on the coast of the Indian Ocean.
||At least 5 million African slaves were exported via the Red Sea,
East Africa to other parts of the world.
||At least 12 million slaves were exported from Africa to North
America, South American and the West Indies.
||Perhaps 4 million Africans died in wars that were caused by the
slave trade and in forced marches.
According to a "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism:"
"It is estimated that some five percent died in Africa on the
way to the coast, another thirteen percent in transit to the West Indies,
and still another thirty percent during the three-month seasoning period
in the West Indies. This meant that about fifty percent of those
originally captured in Africa died either in transit or while being
prepared for servitude." 7
In the American colonies, "a slave was chattel -- an article of
property that could be bought, punished, sold, loaned, used as collateral,
or willed to another at an owner's whim. Slaves were not recognized as
persons in the eyes of the law; thus they had no legal rights. Slaves
could not legally marry, own property, vote, serve as witnesses, serve on
juries, or make contracts. The offspring of female slaves also belonged to
their owners, regardless of whom their fathers were." 7
Slavery in North America was closely connected to race. P.E. Lovejoy writes:
"Although there were
black, mulatto and American - born slave owners in some colonies in the Americas, and many
whites did not own slaves, chattel slavery was fundamentally different in the Americas
from other parts of the world because of the racial dimension." 8
in the world, slaves were often of the same race and same or similar culture as the slave
owners. An ex-slave could mix freely into society. A generation later, their former slave
status would be forgotten. This is not so in North America. The effects of slavery lived
on in the form of racial segregation and racial intolerance; both are still plaguing the nation today.
An estimated 30% of the population of Brazil and the United States were descended from
slaves, as of 1950. In Cuba and the West Indies, it is estimated to be 15%. 1
Slavery was abolished in most of the world during the 19th century. It has been
outlawed by a number of international conventions: 9
||The Slavery Convention of 1927-MAR-9.
||The Forced Labour Convention of 1930, and Protocol amending the Slavery Convention of 1953-DEC-7. Signed by Canada in
1953; ratified by the U.S. in 1956.
||The U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and
Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, of 1957-APR-30. 9 Ratified
by Canada in 1963, and by the U.S. in 1967.
||The U.N. Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the
Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others of 1951-JUL-25.
In 1962, Saudi Arabia became the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery.
However, forms of slavery continue today in a few countries:
||"According to the United Nations, the United States and a number of human
rights groups," slavery continues in the Sudan 10 (The Sudanese government vigorously denies that the practice exists.) In 1999-JAN, Christian
Solidarity International announced that it had released 5,066 Sudanese people from
slavery in the previous four years by buying their freedom. It is not clear whether they
were actually slaves who were purchased. They might have been prisoners of war being
redeemed, or kidnap victims being ransomed. 11 The Muslims in
the north of Sudan are engaged in a long-standing civil war with the Animists and
Christians in the south.
||Four human rights activists in Mauritania, North West Africa, gave an interview to a
French TV crew in early 1998 about the continued slavery in their country. They were
||Trafficking in children and women for purposes of prostitution continues in many
countries. Child labor is common. People are still trapped in indentured servanthood which
differs little from actual slavery. Women are often forced to marry against their will.
Slavery is still advocated in North America by some Reconstructionist
Christians and a few racist fringe groups within the Christian
2017: Current levels of human slavery in the world:
An estimate by the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Walk Free Foundation issued a joint report on slavery. It is called: "The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery." 12,13
They define modern slavery as:
"... situations of exploitation that a person can't refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion or deception. [This] ... includes forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage and human trafficking."
The report estimates that there were a total of:
- 10 million child slaves, and
- 30 million adult slaves in the world during 2016.
That is about 20% more than the total population of Canada.
Of these, across the entire world:
- 16 million are the victims of forced labor exploration,
- 15.4 million are in forced marriages,
- 4.8 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation,
- 4.1 million are victims of state-imposed forced labor.
Fiona David, the executive director of global research for Walk Free Foundation, said:
"We know that if there are 40 million people in modern slavery, only tens of thousands of victims are being helped, assisted and supported, whether through the criminal justice system or through victim support systems. It's a massive gap that we have to close."
The website www.theclever.com contains an article called: "15 Countries Where Slavery Is Still Legal." Actually, the title is misleading because various forms of slavery has been outlawed in India and in some of the other countries listed. "15 Countries Where Forms of Slavery Are Still Practiced" would be a more accurate heading.
Listed below are the main countries where slavery continues. 14 Included are the estimated total number of slaves, and percentage of the total population who are enslaved. They are listed In order of decreasing percentage of slaves in the total population, they are:
North Korea: 1.1 million; 4.3%
Uzbekistan: 1.2 million; 4.0%
India: 18.3 million; 1.4% (Forcing a person to perform labor or services as security for the repayment of a debt or other obligation slavery became illegal there in 1976, but is still widely practiced.)
Pakistan: 2.1 million; 1.1%
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 0.9 million; 1.1%
Sudan: 0.5 million; 1.1%
Iraq: 0.4 million; 1.1%
Yemen: 0.3 million; 1.1%
Dominican Republic: 0.1 million; 1.0%
Guatemala: 0.1 million; 0.8%
Russia: 1.0 million; 0.7%
Nigeria: 0.9 million; 0.5%
Philippines: 0.4 million; 0.4%
China: 3.4 million; 0.3%
Indonesia: 0.7 million; 0.3%
An earlier article by the Walk Free Foundation, published in 2013 estimated that there were a total of about 60,000 slaves (0.02%) in the U.S. In Canada, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the number of enslaved persons was fewer than 5,000 per country.
Duncan Clarke, "History of American slavery," PRC Publishing, (1998)
William Still, "The Underground Railway," Ayer Co. The book may be
ordered at: http://www.scry.com/
"Aboard the Underground Railroad" at: http://www.cr.nps
"Slavery in the United States," Encarta Concise Encyclopedia at: http://encarta.msn.com/
Benjamin Drew (ed.), "The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves, Boston, MA, (1856). Selections at: http://history.cc.ukans.edu/ (site no longer available)
The National Archives and Records Administration has the text and images of the
Emancipation Proclamation at: http://www.nara.gov/
"Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/
P.E. Lovejoy, "The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity,
Culture and Religion under Slavery," at: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/
"Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices", University of Minnesota, Human
Rights Library at: http://www1.umn.edu/
C. Hunter-Gault, "Shackled Youth," PBS Online Backgrounder,
1996-AUG-19. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/
"Help fight slavery," News item; source unidentified; Globe and Mail,
Mark Tutton, "40 million slaves in the world, finds new report," CNN, 2017-SEP-20, at: http://edition.cnn.com/
"The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery," Target 8.7, at: http://www.alliance87.org/
Angie Harvey, "15 Countries Where Slavery Is Still Legal," The Clever, 2017-JUN-11, at: http://www.theclever.com/
"William Wilberforce," Wikipedia, as on 2020-AUG-01, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
"Underground Railroad," The Canadian Encycopedia, at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/
"Bill S-255," Senate of Canada," 2019-OCT-17, at: https://www.parl.ca/
Copyright © 1999 to 2020 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally written: 1999-JAN-18
Latest update: 2020-AUG-02
Author: B.A. Robinson