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Modern Slavery In The Americas

Although slave societies have taken many different forms in terms of differences in the proportion of the population who were slaves, in the labor undertaken by slave laborers, and whether they were located in rural or urban areas, most impressions of the meaning of slavery are based upon what Moses Finley (1980) describes as the five major slave societies in world history—Greece and Rome (each with about 30 percent of the population being slaves) and the three New World slave powers—the British and French Caribbean (90 percent slaves), the U.S. South, and Brazil (each with about 30 percent slaves).

The New World slave powers imported slaves purchased in Africa; about 10 million Africans were taken to the Americas from the start of the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. Generally the number of males transported was greater than females (a proportion of about 60 to 40), due both to a New World desire for males and an internal African demand for females. There was also a large trade from southern Africa to North Africa and the Middle East, as well as a substantial internal slave trade within Africa. Most slaves in the transatlantic trade went to the Caribbean and to Brazil, with the United States receiving only a small part of this migration. The United States was unusual for a slave society because of its high fertility rate among slaves and rapid rate of natural increase, whereas the other areas suffered from a natural decrease, and the United States came to account for a large part of the New World slave population by the nineteenth century.

The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, although it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible.

SOURCE: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.

Slave labor was generally most important in producing crops, such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, rice, and coffee on plantations, for sale in European markets. Crops were grown on units larger than family farms—often, in the case of sugar, containing up to two hundred laborers—although most of the labor input on these plantations involved the growing of foodstuffs and the handling of livestock. Rising prices paid for slaves in Africa and in the Americas throughout this period are suggestive of the profits obtained from the use of slave labor. A few northern states in the United States ended slavery by the 1780s; with intellectual impetus from England and elsewhere in Europe, in the next century slavery was ended throughout the Americas due to slave rebellion in Haiti, legislated compensated emancipations by the British and French, the Civil War in the United States, and by legislation in Brazil in 1888.

Despite the ending of slavery in the New World, it continued into the twentieth century in Africa and Asia, with the final legislated ending in the Arabian peninsula in the 1960s, although variant forms of slavery continue to exist in parts of North Africa and sex slaves continue to be held in Asia and Arabia. The term slavery remains applied to conditions of low income and of a loss of control by individuals over their own lives, not just to the existence of slaves as a form of legal property, so that it is still argued that slavery persists in the world of the twenty-first century.

There is no use for slaves, where all disagreeable work can be, and is performed by the weaker sex; Australian and Melanesian women supply the place of slaves. On the other hand, where the women hold a high position, and the men are desirous of relieving them of a part of their task, slavery is likely to arise sooner than otherwise would be the case.

SOURCE: H. J. Nieboer, Slavery as an Industrial System.


Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Eltis, David, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, eds. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: Norton, 1989.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Nieboer, H. J. Slavery as an Industrial System: Ethnological Researches. 2nd, rev. ed. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1910.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Stanley L. Engerman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSlavery - Abolition, Modern Slavery In The Americas, Bibliography