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The real history of slavery

By Tadios Asefa

Why do most people associate slavery with black and white people only? Did slavery exist before the 16th century? Does slavery exist today?

The word “slave” comes from the Old Slavonic word “slovo” meaning “word” or “speech” which then evolved into “slawa” meaning “person who belongs to someone else” or “property” and then into “slave”. The word was used in medieval Europe to refer to the people of Slavic origin who were captured and enslaved by various European powers, particularly during the period of the 9th to the 12th century. The word was later used to describe the people of other ethnicities who were also captured and enslaved, including the people of Africa taken into the transatlantic slave trade.

It’s worth noting that the word “slave” has been used to describe a wide range of types of unfree labour throughout history, not only the transatlantic trade of enslaved people of African descent. The concept of slavery is not unique to one culture, society or era, and the term has been used to describe a variety of forms of servitude, from ancient times to present day. The word slave is also used in a variety of languages; it’s not unique to English. Different languages have different etymology for the word.

Who has been taken as slaves and by whom?

The simple and short answer is ‘Everyone by Everyone’, throughout thousands of years. The longer version would be: Throughout history, many different ethnic groups and races have been taken as slaves and taken slaves as well.

Some of the most notable examples include:

The transatlantic slave trade: The transatlantic slave trade was the forced transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas to work as slaves on plantations, mines, and as domestic servants. The majority of enslaved people were captured by European traders, particularly the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British, and transported to the Americas. The majority of enslaved people came from West, Central and parts of East Africa.

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire: The Ottoman Empire, which existed from the 14th to the 20th century, also had a system of slavery. Slaves were taken from various parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and were used for a variety of purposes, including as soldiers, administrators, and domestic servants. The majority of enslaved people were taken from the Circassia and Georgian regions of the Caucasus and Balkans.

Slavery in ancient Greece and Rome: Slavery was an integral part of ancient Greek and Roman societies. Slaves were taken from various parts of the Mediterranean and Europe, and were used for a variety of purposes, including as agricultural workers, miners, and domestic servants.

Slavery in China and Japan: Slavery existed in China and Japan throughout history, and slaves were taken from various parts of Asia, including Korea and Vietnam.

Slavery in the Americas: Indigenous populations of the Americas were enslaved by European colonizers and by other indigenous groups prior to and after the arrival of Europeans.

Slavery In pre-colonial Africa, slavery existed in many different forms and was a part of the continent’s history. The institution of slavery varied widely across the continent and different societies had different practices, laws, and customs related to slavery. Some African societies had systems of slavery that were similar to those in the Americas and other parts of the world, where enslaved people were used for labour and as property.

In some African societies, slavery was based on debt, where people would become enslaved as a form of punishment for not being able to repay a debt or for committing a crime. In others, slavery was based on wars, where prisoners of war were taken as slaves. There are many historical records and accounts from European explorers, traders, and travellers that document the existence of slavery in pre-colonial Africa. For example, accounts from the Arabic and European traders in the trans-Saharan trade, which existed for centuries, describe the existence of enslaved people in West Africa. The Arab historian, Al-Bakri, wrote about the existence of enslaved people in West Africa in the 11th century.

Slavery in the Arab world: Slavery has existed in the Arab world for centuries, and it has taken many forms throughout history. Historically the Arab world was involved in the trans-Saharan slave trade, which existed for centuries and involved the enslavement and transportation of people across the Sahara Desert. Slaves were used for labour and as soldiers in the Arab world. The trans-Saharan slave trade was abolished in the 19th century as a result of European colonial expansion in Africa.

Does Slavery exist today?

Slavery exists in many parts of the world today, including in developed and developing countries despite being abolished in almost all countries. A UN report in 2021 stated that there are now more slaves in the world than at the peak of slave trade period. Granted there are more people now in the world than before, still that is a very frightening thing to hear or read. The forms of slavery that exist today include forced labour, debt bondage, and human trafficking.

Forced labour, also known as modern slavery, refers to situations in which people are forced to work against their will, often under threat of violence or other forms of punishment. This can include people who are forced to work in factories, on farms, in mines, or in domestic service. Forced labour can also include people who are forced to work in the sex industry or in other forms of exploitation.

Debt bondage, also known as bonded labour, refers to situations in which people are forced to work to pay off a debt. This can include people who are forced to work to pay off a loan that they or their family members have taken, or people who are forced to work to pay off a debt that they have incurred as a result of a criminal conviction.

Human trafficking refers to the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat, use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.


Slavery has been a longstanding practice throughout history and it has been practised by various cultures, societies, and empires. It’s important to note that the enslavement of people has been based on different criteria, such as ethnicity, religion, social status, warfare, debt, and criminal justice: it’s not unique to one race.

So in conclusion slavery existed from the beginning of human society and millions of people have been impacted by slavery throughout history. It is an oppressive practice which violates fundamental human rights and has left enslaved people of all races and their descendants traumatised and in great pain.

People have been held in slavery for a variety of reasons, including their colour, religion, social standing, military service, debt and criminal record. In order to make progress toward a more just and equitable society, it is critical to recognise and address the legacy of slavery, which continues to have an impact on numerous individuals and communities today.

Slavery is a human tragedy, not a racial one, and should be denounced and fought against by everyone.

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