The History of Slavery and Contemporary Society


Slavery is one of the most harmful concepts devised by humans. It strips people of their identity and uses them as property, rather than human beings. Throughout history, this practice took many forms. From the earliest recorded examples in Mesopotamia to modern examples of human trafficking and dictatorial rule. Nevertheless, this practice does not exist anymore in most societies. However, its effects have had a lasting effect on the modern world. Racial and economic inequality, prejudice, and other issues can be seen as aftershocks of slavery. This paper will provide an overview of the history of slavery, as well as the effects it has on modern society.

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History of Slavery

The earliest record of slavery dates back to 2100 BC Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu. It is the oldest surviving tablet that contained codes of law, including laws that concerned slavery. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi from 1700 BC also contains laws that define slavery, free people, and how slaves can be legally freed. Likely, such laws date even earlier, but no concrete documents have been found so far. The text of the tablets suggests that it was possible for slaves to not only legally regain freedom, but also escape into neighboring kingdoms that would not consider the person a slave. Slavery was practiced as a punishment for crime, the inability to pay off debt or enslavement of people during and after wars (Craig, 2014). This led some civilizations to rely on a conquest to gain more slaves and therefore a larger workforce.

One such civilization in Ancient Egypt were prisoners of war and peasants made up the majority of the slave labor. Egypt had a relatively positive outlook on slavery, with a great variety of tasks that slaves could be assigned to outside of manual labor. Due to the difficulty of agriculture in the area, peasants often lived in worse conditions than slaves who often caused them to sell themselves into slavery as the only means of survival. Those who possessed certain skills such as writing could achieve a higher status in a managerial position. Slaves were often used in domestic jobs and were only rarely traded internationally. In later years of Ancient Egypt, slave contracts even required the consent of the slave to be sold off. Nevertheless, slaves were looked down upon. Harsh punishments and poor working conditions were common.

Slavery continued to be practiced in countries of medieval Europe such as the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and Portugal. Slavery was mostly driven by conquest at the time, which led to more situations where people of one culture were enslaved by people of another. The practice did not change in the modern era, as technological advances, wars, and the discovery of new regions created new markets and demand for slavery. Perhaps the most famous example of the modern era slavery comes from the transatlantic slave trade which brought slaves from Africa to the American Colonies. The trade began in 1526, as the first transatlantic Portuguese voyage came to the shores of Brazil to trade slaves. Slaves were used to working on plantations, gather ore in mines, work the rice fields, construct buildings, cut lumber, and as domestic servants. The difference in appearance served to create a divide between slaves and free people of the country, which made the treatment of slaves in America especially harsh. In Western Europe, slavery was almost completely gone by the 1500s. However, European colonies and Americas utilized forced labor until the 1800s. America abolished slavery in 1865 after the American Civil War (Miller, 2014).

America was not the last country to abolish slavery as Cuba and Brazil abolished it only in the 1880s and some countries in Africa still practiced it until foreign pressure forced them to abolish it. Forced labor is still utilized in some countries as a measure of punishment for criminals. Another type of slavery still exists in a semi-legal form, as North Korean citizens are sent out to work through shell companies in Europe. They are not free to leave the premises they stay outside of work, and if someone attempts to escape, their family is sent to labor camps or is in danger of execution. The illegal slave trade also exists in the form of human trafficking (Miller, 2014).

Effects on Contemporary Society

In modern society, the effects of slavery can be seen especially strongly in racial discrimination. In the United States, even though slavery was abolished, racial inequality and segregation continued to persist for decades to come. People of color were treated worse, especially in the south of the country (Nathans, 2017). Interracial relationships were looked down upon, and some businesses refused to serve people of color. Children of African Americans were not allowed to study in the same schools as white children in some regions and worst cases, people were lynched by angry mobs of people. Often such events caused deaths of multiple innocent people, including those who opposed them. With time, racial discrimination lessened, however. Segregation was disallowed, people could not refuse to hire a person based on their race, and interracial couples were not persecuted anymore.

Nevertheless, discrimination is still common. In recent years, a large number of cases where police shot at black people, including unarmed and non-resisting individuals have gained public attention. Aside from fatal incidents, police in regions such as New York are tasked with stopping and “patting down” people of color. They do not need a provocation to do so and resisting such acts could lead to arrests. Even if white people do not associate people of color with slavery, they are still informed by ideas and opinions that were formed not long after slavery was abolished. Any crime committed by a person of color is seen as a confirmation that they are a dangerous group of people that need to be overseen (Reich, 2017).

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The way the international economy works not dissimilar to slavery, as international companies often outsource their labor to countries where the cost of labor is lower. While this is a basic tactic of capitalism, it perpetuates low labor standards in those countries. People often work too many hours in poor working conditions. They are paid much less than a worker would be paid domestically. Companies like Nike and Apple have gotten a lot of negative attention for using such practices, but many organizations still outsource their labor.


Slavery is a terrible practice. It has dominated the world for centuries and caused many cultures to suffer. Its effects can still be felt today in the way through racial discrimination persists and how the international economy exploits the low working standards of developing countries.


Craig, G. (2014). Modern slavery in the UK: The contribution of research. Journal of Poverty & Social Justice, 22(2), 159-164.

Nathans, H. S. (2017). Crooked histories: Re-presenting race, slavery, and Alexander Hamilton onstage. Journal of the Early Republic, 37(2), 271-278.

Reich, M. (2017). Racial inequality: A political-economic analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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