Slavery can be dated right back to the establishment of any form human civilization. In fact, this practice had become so common that the people of that time had accepted it as a truth of life. This attitude was broken down only when great Enlightenment thinkers like, John Locke and Voltaire brought into picture the idea of freedom of the individual, and his thoughts and that, to keep another person in bondage is wrong.
In the ancient times, people mostly acquired their slaves from the wars and conquests. These slaves worked as agricultural or domestic servants. This practice had become so common amongst the people that, in Rome and Greece, human trafficking had become a huge and profitable industry. It is said that half the population of such places were in bondage. By imperial times Rome had grown to be a huge city. Since most of the work was done by slaves, Claudius built the huge harbour at Ostia, where grain, wild beasts and slaves were constantly being unloaded to feed the stomachs and jaded palates of the people. Even though Roman thinkers like, Pliny and Cicero did their best to convince the masters to treat their slaves with compassion and dignity, their pleas were largely ignored. They were treated with extreme cruelty, sometimes even leading to severe flogging and crucification. Even if a few slaves tried to protest they were suppressed and ignored.
Later on, when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate and slowly be replaced by the authoritarian powers of the church, slaves became serfs or peasants, who were forced to stay on the local lord’s land and were not allowed to leave without their permission. Even outside of Rome, there were Arab, North-America, India and various other places all around the world where slavery was extremely common. In fact, in the Hindu caste system there were millions of people who were held in bondage behind the culture of the so-called religious practices.
It wasn’t until the 15th Century that slavery became global, with explorers discovering new territories, and the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English establishing their colonies all over the world. Initially, only the indigenous people of the bonded country particiapted in the labor force but, as demand for servants increased with increased economic output, slaves were imported from other countries, starting the tradition of moving slaves from one region to another. The Atlantic slave trade is a good example of cultures, like the Portuguese, Spanish and English, exploiting the people groups of West Africa and forcing them into service in new colonies in the Western Hemisphere. A base was established on the coast as early as 1448, from which relatively small numbers of slaves were shipped back to Portugal. Heavy field work, however proved alien to these new American Indian slaves. Many died, often by suicide, when forced to work on European plantations. European labour was also brought in, both by the forcible transportation of convicts and by independent labour schemes under which immigrants were bound to their masters for a number of years. Again, however, expectations of life was short. Portuguese ships then began to take slaves direct to their colony of Brazil. In 1562 John Hawkins began the English slave trade between West Africa and the Caribbean. Dutch, French, Danes and later sailors from the North and South America joined in the business. European nations established forts on the West African coast to protect the interests of their slave traders.
It is estimated that some eight to ten million slaves were carried across the Middle Passage to America. The economies of European cities, such as Nantes, Bristol and later Liverpool, were based on slaving, and the business was accepted as a part of the national commercial interest. The individual suffering of slaves would ultimately receive wide publicity; the impact the trade had on African society is harder to quantify. European sailors rarely penetrated inland to find their own captives. Domestic slavery already existed on the continent, and Africans initially sold their own slaves to purchase European goods. In time, however, demand outstripped this source of supply. Military confederacies such as Dahomey and Ashanti grew up to fulfil the double function of protecting their own members and feeding slaves to the European forts. When Europeans later penetrated the continent, they discovered that these states often acted with a savagery atypical of African society farther inland. The demand for slaves created an endemic state of war that penetrated inland, far beyond any direct European contact. The resulting depopulation appears, however, to have been largely balanced by improvements in the African diet as a result of the importation of American crops. Even though various changes in the pattern of slavery had come about, the treatment that they were subject to was still the same. Brutal punishments, crushing work and a harsh life was the word of the day. Yet, still Spain and Portugal did show some sort of relaxation in their labour laws, like, allowing them to marry or even sue a cruel owner.
In the 1770s, a transformation began to occur in attitudes towards the social issues. For centuries, Europeans had been shipping Africans to slavery with no apparent compunction. Now powerful antislavery movements made themselves heard in France, Denmark, England and other countries. Movements for the reform of vicious penal systems, the abolition of the ‘hanging codes’ and for the humane treatment of the insane can be dated to the same time. Credit for this new mood of social reforms has been given to the pen of Voltaire, the preachings of Wesley and the ideals of Rousseau. In the 1800s we see that many of the independent nations of Spanish America outlawed slavery as soon as they aachieved their independence. The British Empire also outlawed the practice in 1833 although some sort of de facto slavery did continue in India and some other parts of the world. France even freed its bonded labour in its colonies in 1848. In the U.S. too the Civil War did finally lead the way up to the freedom for its slaves.
Today, slavery and human trafficking is banned all over the world. Even the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery completely. It says that, “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Yet this idea of a completely free world with no form of slavery in practice still requires much effort to be achieved.