Slavery is the idea that a human is someone’s property, that he/she can be bought, sold and owned; and forced to work without being paid. This concept has been around for thousands of years.



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No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. Slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all its forms.
Article 4; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.(The United Nations)

What does slavery mean?

Slavery is the idea that a human is someone’s property, that he/she can be bought, sold and owned; and forced to work without being paid. This concept has been around for thousands of years and all major civilizations used slaves at some point. They were used in many different positions, such as; labourers, soldiers, servants, farmers. Although the word slavery makes us think of the transatlantic slave trade (from Africa to the Americas), slavery was not specific to one part of the world. The Romans, Russians, Aztecs and Egyptians all kept slaves; the word slave actually comes from ‘slav’ - many Slavic people from Eastern Europe were taken as slaves during conflicts. As well as being captured in wars, people could be born as slaves, sold into slavery, or sold to pay a debt.

Is it right to buy and sell people?

In the past there were different concepts about human-rights and what was moral or immoral. It is only in the last 300 years that these ideas have begun to change. Most people accepted that types of people were born to be slaves; or that if you won a war you could sell your captured enemies. The Koran and the Bible both mention slavery as a fact, without criticizing it.

The life of a slave, although difficult, was not always the end of a person’s life. It was possible for a slave to buy his freedom, for a slave soldier to become a general, or for a freed slave to become an important member of society. The Transatlantic Slave Trade ended this possibility.

What was the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

Slavery was as common in Africa as in other countries; but in the 15th Century, traders began to export large numbers of slaves to the Middle-East. European countries followed this, exporting Africans to work on plantations in the Caribbean, North and South America. A massive number of people were needed, as demand for new products such as sugar, coffee and tobacco was very high. In 400 years, an estimated 12 million people were removed from Africa to work as slaves in the Americas or European colonies.

Slaves in this system had no opportunity for advancement or release; even if they were freed they had few legal rights. In the past owning slaves in many countries had been a status symbol, and owners were usually fair. In this new system, profit was the most important aspect. As a result, conditions of work and living were also very tough. Millions died because of mistreatment and difficult working conditions. Some African slave traders, learning of these conditions, started to oppose the trade.

When did people’s ideas begin to change?

A number of African countries (such as the Congo) made the trade illegal not for moral but practical reasons – its population was being reduced greatly by the trade. But it was moral reasons that forced a greater change. A movement in Britain led by the Quakers and the MP William Wilberforce pushed parliament to abolish slavery. In 1807 the slave trade was abolished and in 1833 slavery was abolished in all British colonies.

In the USA on the other hand, there was great argument over slavery. Many industries in the South were dependant on slaves for production (such as cotton) and if freed, the number of slaves would be almost 50% of the population in some areas. Again, religious groups were pushing for change. Unfortunately, the civil war between the North and South came before political change. Slavery was an important issue in this conflict, and was abolished (through the 13th amendment to the Constitution) at the end of the Civil war in 1865.

What were the ideas behind abolition?

In the 19th Century, newer political ideals of freedom and equality were anti-slavery. It is ironic that the two countries at the time associated with freedom and equality; USA and France; still permitted slavery. France didn’t abolish slavery until 1848, and there were still slaves working in the White House in the same year. The humanitarian ideal, the idea that all people are brothers, was also important. As this idea was taken from Christianity, Christians; especially those from newer branches e.g. Quakers, Methodists; were at the centre of movements all over the world. Christian missionaries were often funded by anti-slavery groups.

Dr. David Livingstone was the most famous British missionary in Africa until 1873, and pushed for the end to the local slave trade. Unfortunately, he believed it could only be stopped by foreign countries taking control of African states – mass colonialism. This led to many other problems.

Does slavery still exist?

Legally, Nigeria was the last country to abolish slavery in 1936. However, in many parts of the world today, millions of people are working as slaves. Children fighting in the army, or working for no pay; women moved from their own countries to work in the sex industry, or in people’s houses; people working for many years to pay back a small loan. These are all types of modern slavery. Groups such as the United Nations or Anti-Slavery International are fighting against this problem – but the world must first accept that there still is a problem.


abolish (v.): to officially end something, especially a law or system.

advancement (n.): development or improvement.

capture (v.): to catch someone and make them your prisoner.

colony (n.): a country or area controlled in an official, political way by a more powerful country.

debt (n.): an amount of money that you owe someone.

export (v.): to send goods to another country in order to sell them there.

free (v.): to allow someone to leave a prison or place where they have been kept.

immoral (adj.): opposite of moral.

labourer (n.): a worker who uses a lot of physical effort in their job.

missionaries (n.): someone who travels to another country to teach people about the Christian religion.

mistreat (v.): to treat a person or animal badly, cruelly or unfairly.

moral (adj.): behaving in a way that most people think is correct and honest.

plantation (n.): an area of land in a hot country where a crop is grown.

prohibit (v.): to officially forbid something.

push (v.): make someone do something that they do not want to do.

Quaker (n.): a member of a Christian group called the Society of Friends.

servitude (n.): the state of being under the control of someone else and of having no freedom.

trader (n.): a person who buys and sells things.

transatlantic (adj.): crossing the Atlantic




I like the article

but i hope you be more accurate about koran and slavery

this is a short example :-

Bilal, an African slave who had converted to Islam. Bilal was chosen as the first muezzin of Islam because of his beautiful voice. A muezzin is the person who calls the community to the daily prayers, and is a position of great prominence and responsibility

there something called Zakat mention several time in koran,
Zakat (charity - the third Pillar of Islam) was often used by the state to free slaves

could you read more about slaves in islam?

Do we use the word 'slave' only for a person who is owned by another person and is forced to work for them... or, can this word be used for 'someone who is sincerely devoted to someone'.... 'A' believes 'B' to be his master and is sincerely devoted to 'B', can 'A' say? I am a slave of B. Note that A isn't employed by B. A only loves B and follows him with heart and soul.

Hello Zeeshan,

Yes, I'm sure that the word has been used that way by some people. I would recommend you be careful using it that way, however, as some people might object to it.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

that's good one, thank you British council :0

Slavery is now forbbiden in almost all the world, but that doesn't mean this inhuman activity isn't happening anymore, and it's so sad because no one should be treaten that way, and people who do this are heartless people, selfish and ambitious people that want to make big quantities of money at the expense of other people.
Many years ago, slavery was an act of cowardice, because black people are genetically stronger, and they wanted to feel superior than them, and the only way that they found, was hurting them and violating their human rights,

Qurqan (Muslim's holy book) talk about slavery or servitude as a fact in that era but on the other hand it incited the community to get rid of it in several and indirect ways
and I think the same Bible(Christian's holy book) did

It's very good article. I reckon any person in this world in any time or age, must free himself first, and reject all forms of slavery, before waiting and relying on other's efforts to give him his freedom.

i love this worksheet.

Great Text! Very Useful!