Cruelty Of Slavery Essay Title

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: American Slave Narrators

Lucinda MacKethan
Alumni Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, North Carolina State University
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

Frederick Douglass

During the last three decades of legal slavery in America, from the early 1830s to the end of the Civil War in 1865, African American writers perfected one of the nation’s first truly indigenous genres of written literature: the North American slave narrative. The genre achieves its most eloquent expression in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Like all slave narratives, Jacobs’s and Douglass’s works embody the tension between the conflicting motives that generated autobiographies of slave life. An ironic factor in the production of these accounts can be noted in the generic title “Fugitive Slave Narrative” often given to such works. The need to accomplish the form’s most important goal—an end to slavery—took narrators back to the world that had enslaved them, as they were called upon to provide accurate reproductions of both the places and the experiences of the past they had fled. White abolitionists urged slave writers to follow well-defined conventions and formulas to produce what they saw as one of the most potent propaganda weapons in their arsenal. They also insisted on adding their own authenticating endorsements to the slaves’ narrations through prefaces and introductions. Yet for the writers themselves, the opportunity to tell their stories constituted something more personal: a means to write an identity within a country that legally denied their right to exist as human beings. Working cautiously within the genre expectations developed by and for their white audiences, highly articulate African American writers such as Douglass and Jacobs found ways to individualize their narratives and to speak in their own voices in a quest for selfhood that had to be balanced against the aims and values of their audiences. (See also "How to Read a Slave Narrative" in Freedom's Story.)

Harriet Jacobs

A comparison of the narratives of Douglass and Jacobs demonstrates the full range of demands and situations that slaves could experience. Some of the similarities in the two accounts are a result of the prescribed formats that governed the publication of their narratives. The fugitive or freed or “ex” slave narrators were expected to give accurate details of their experiences within bondage, emphasizing their sufferings under cruel masters and the strength of their will to free themselves. One of the most important elements that developed within the narratives was a “literacy” scene in which the narrator explained how he or she came to be able to do something that proslavery writers often declared was impossible: to read and write. Authenticity was paramount, but readers also looked for excitement, usually provided through dramatic details of how the slave managed to escape from his/her owners. Slave narrators also needed to present their credentials as good Christians while testifying to the hypocrisy of their supposedly pious owners. Both Douglass and Jacobs included some version of all these required elements yet also injected personalized nuances that transformed the formulas for their own purposes.

Some of the differences in the readership and reception of Jacobs’s 1861 narrative and Douglass’s first, 1845 autobiography (he wrote two more, in 1855 and 1881, the latter expanded in 1892) reflect simply the differing literary and political circumstances that prevailed at the Prescribed formats governed the publication of slave narratives. time of their construction and publication. When Douglass published his Narrative of the Life, the Abolitionist movement was beginning to gain political force, while the long-delayed publication of Jacobs’s Incidents in 1861 was overshadowed by the start of the Civil War. Douglass was a publicly acclaimed figure from almost the earliest days of his career as a speaker and then a writer. Harriet Jacobs, on the other hand, was never well-known. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl disappeared from notice soon after its publication, without a large sale, while Douglass’s first book went through nine editions in its first two years and eventually became the standard against which all other slave narratives—even his own later ones—are measured.

Douglass’s 1845 narrative grew out of the story of enslavement that he honed as a speaker for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. “Discovered” and hired to lecture on the abolitionist circuit by William Lloyd Garrison in 1841, three years after he had made his escape from Baltimore, Douglass developed rhetorical devices common to sermons and orations and carried these over to his narrative, which abounds with examples of repetition, antithesis, and other classical persuasive strategies. His narrative was the culmination of Douglass based his narrative on the sermon. his speech-making career, reflecting his mastery of a powerful preaching style along with the rhythms and imagery of biblical texts that were familiar to his audiences. Douglass also reflected the Emersonian idealism so prominent in the 1840s, as he cast himself in the role of struggling hero asserting his individual moral principles in order to bring conscience to bear against the nation’s greatest evil. In addition, his story could be read as a classic male “initiation” myth, a tale which traced a youth’s growth from innocence to experience and from boyhood into successful manhood; for Douglass, the testing and journey motifs of this genre were revised to highlight the slave’s will to transform himself from human chattel into a free American citizen.

Harriet Jacobs, on the other hand, began her narrative around 1853, after she had lived as a fugitive slave in the North for ten years. She began working privately on her narrative not long after Cornelia Grinnell Willis purchased her freedom and gave her secure employment as a Jacobs modeled her narrative on the sentimental or domestic novel.domestic servant in New York City. Jacobs’s manuscript, finished around four years later but not published for four more, reflects in part the style, tone, and plot of what has been called the sentimental or domestic novel, popular fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, written by and for women, that stressed home, family, womanly modesty, and marriage. In adapting her life story to this genre, Jacobs drew on women writers who were contemporaries and even friends, including well-known writers Lydia Maria Child and Fanny Fern (her employer’s sister in law), but she was also influenced by the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in 1851.

Stowe’s genius lay in her ability to harness the romantic melodrama of the sentimental novel to a carefully orchestrated rhetorical attack against slavery, and no abolitionist writer in her wake could steer clear of the impact of her performance. Jacobs, and also Frederick Douglass in his second autobiography of 1855, took advantage of Stowe’s successful production of a work of fiction that could still lay claim to the authority of truth. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl did not fictionalize or even sensationalize any of the facts of Jacobs’s experience, yet its author, using pseudonyms for all of her “characters,” did create what William Andrews has called a “novelistic” discourse,1 including large segments of dialogue among characters. Jacobs used the devices of sentimental fiction to target the same white, female, middle-class, northern audiences who had been spellbound by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet her narrative also shows that she was unwilling to follow, and often subverted, the genre’s promotion of “true womanhood,” a code of behavior demanding that women remain virtuous, meek, and submissive, no matter what the personal cost.

Gender considerations account not only for many of the differences in style and genre that we see in Douglass’s and Jacobs’s narratives, but also for the versions of slavery that they endured and the versions of authorship that they were able to shape for themselves in freedom. Douglass was a public speaker who could boldly self-fashion himself as hero of his own adventure. In his first narrative, he combined and equated the achievement of selfhood, manhood, freedom, and voice. The resulting lead character of his autobiography is a boy, and then a young man, who is robbed of family and community and who gains an identity not only through his escape from Baltimore to Massachusetts but through his Douglass focuses on the struggle to achieve manhood and freedom. Jacob focuses on sexual exploitation.ability to create himself through telling his story. Harriet Jacobs, on the other hand, was enmeshed in all the trappings of community, family, and domesticity. She was literally a “domestic” in her northern employment, as well as a slave mother with children to protect, and one from whom subservience was expected, whether slave or free. As Jacobs pointedly put it, "Slavery is bad for men, but it is far more terrible for women." The overriding concern of Jacobs’s narrative was one that made her story especially problematic both for herself as author and for the women readers of her time. Because the major crisis of her life involved her master’s unrelenting, forced sexual attentions, the focus of Jacobs’s narrative is the sexual exploitation that she, as well as many other slave women, had to endure. For her, the question of how to address this “unmentionable” subject dominates the choices she delineates in her narrative—as woman slave and as woman author.

Like Douglass, Jacobs was determined to fight to the death for her freedom. Yet while Douglass could show “how a slave became a man” in a physical fight with an overseer, Jacobs’s gender determined a different course. Pregnant with the child of a white lover of her own choosing, fifteen year old Jacobs reasoned (erroneously) that her condition would spur her licentious master to sell her and her child. Once she was a mother, with “ties to life,” as she called them, her concern for her children had to take precedence over her own self-interest. Thus throughout her narrative, Jacobs is looking not only for freedom but also for a secure home for her children. She might also long for a husband, but her shameful early liaison, resulting in two children born “out of wedlock,” meant, as she notes with perhaps a dose of sarcasm, that her story ends “not, in the usual way, with marriage,” but “with freedom.” In this finale, she still mourns (even though her children were now grown) that she does not have “a home of my own.” Douglass’s 1845 narrative, conversely, ends with his standing as a speaker before an eager audience and feeling an exhilarating “degree of freedom.” While Douglass’s and Jacobs’s lives might seem to have moved in different directions, it is nevertheless important not to miss the common will that their narratives proclaim. They never lost their determination to gain not only freedom from enslavement but also respect for their individual humanity and that of other bondsmen and women.

Guiding Student Discussion

A fruitful place to begin a comparison of these two classic narratives is their title pages. What appears there reveals much about their authors’ strategies and visions. Douglass’s title is front and center, announcing his “Life” as an “American Slave.” Given his clear affinity for “antithesis” (the juxtaposition and balancing of contrasting words and ideas), the words “Slave” and “American” placed up against one another dramatize his untenable position in the “home of the free.” Jacobs’s title immediately offers a contrast. It announces that this will be not the story of one person’s full life, but a selection of “incidents.” Students can think about what this selectivity on the part of the author might mean, with its intimation that she reserves the right to withhold as well as reveal information. Their titles alone can show students that both writers are making highly conscious decisions about self-presentation and narrative strategy. What do they make of the fact that Jacobs refers in her title to a “slave girl,” not an “American slave,” even though the voice that will be telling the story is unquestionably that of a woman who has survived a horrifying girlhood and identifies herself most often as a slave mother. Finally, one of the most important questions that both title pages raise concerns the claim “written by himself” and “written by herself.” Many of the narratives attest to the slave’s authorship in this way, but why was such an announcement necessary? Is it believable, given all the prefatory matter by white sponsors that accompanies the narratives? What power does the claim of being the “Writer” of one’s own story give to a slave author?
Jacobs’s title page contains other references that raise the issue of gender contrast in relation to Douglass: she includes two quotations, one by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, in which he exhorts “women to rise up and hear his voice. The speaker of the second quotation is identified only as “A Woman of North Carolina,” who asserts that slavery is not only about “perpetual bondage” but about “degradation” (Jacobs’s italics). What might students make of these remarks, especially if they know that the author (who is not going to reveal her true name or identity anywhere in the narrative) is herself “a woman of North Carolina? The fact that the title page singles out “women” to be the hearers of a prophetic voice, and that just such a voice, identified as a woman’s, precedes Isaiah’s words, can help students see Jacobs manipulating her position through concealment and secrecy, as she will throughout her narrative. Students can begin to think about what “degradation” means, and whether it means different things for a man than for a woman who have been enslaved; they can also address matters of speaking, having a voice, and being forced into silence as these issues relate to men and women—in the mid-nineteenth century as well as in their own time.

A particularly interesting gender comparison can be made of Douglass and Jacobs through examining the identical disguises that they wore as they maneuvered their way to freedom in southern port cities that were their homes (Baltimore and Edenton, NC, respectively). They each appeared in their city’s streets wearing the outfit of a merchant seaman. This costume enabled Douglass to board a boat and sail away to freedom. In Compare disguises. his first narrative, Douglass actually refused to give any details of his escape, insisting on his power, as narrator, to withhold or reveal information as he saw fit, so his sailor disguise emerged only in later versions of his story.2 Jacobs, her face “blackened” with charcoal, wore her costume only long enough to walk through her town unrecognized on her way to her free grandmother’s house, where she was to spend seven years of hiding in a crawl space over a storage shed. Jacobs’s brief gender transformation through cross-dressing, followed by her long “retreat” into total physical concealment, is telling evidence of how differently an enslaved man and an enslaved woman responded to the challenges of their lives as slaves as well as autobiographers.

By bringing together other specific scenes from each text, students can follow, for a time, what Anne G. Jones calls in her article (sited below) “the forking path of gendered binary oppositions.” Do Douglass and Jacobs, in their lives and in the stylistic features of their writing, conform to our stereotypical expectations regarding how men and women respond, speak, and act? Jacobs is of necessity much more deeply concerned with her own family, with the community that surrounded her as a “town” slave, with the wellbeing of the children and grandmother who depended on her. Like most other women of her time, her life was more private, her sphere of action more limited to the home, her relationships with others more interdependent, less autonomous, than men’s. Douglass’s circumstances were as different as his gender; he had few family contacts, he lived on remote plantations as well as in a town, he was of a different “class” as well as gender from Jacobs. So which of the two slaves’ opportunities were related to gender, and which to time, place, class, or other forces?

Beyond gender and circumstances, students can see the narratives of Jacobs and Douglass as remarkable works of both literature and history. In these arenas, what do the narratives show us when compared to other works of their time? Slave narratives and students.What do they tell us about life in our own time? Has an understanding of slavery from the perspective of the slave him/herself become irrelevant? Another way to study the narratives fruitfully is to see the many different expressive purposes they embody. They functioned in their own time as propaganda as well as autobiography, as Jeremiad as well as melodrama. In our time, can they bring the past alive in ways that invigorate students’ understanding of history? Can they show students how to imagine their own selfhood and circumstances through writing personal stories that takes them, through trials and struggles, on a journey to freedom and fulfillment? Can the slave narratives show students how to argue forcefully for what they believe in, how to attack major problems in their society? Few writers illustrate better, through more powerful voices, the threat to as well as the promise of the American dream of freedom. This is perhaps the most important legacy they have left for students to ponder.

Changing Approaches to the Study of the Narratives

After the Civil War ended, the narratives written by fugitive slaves inevitably lost much of their attraction for most readers. As historians began to study the institution of slavery in the early twentieth century, they unfortunately tended to dismiss the slaves’ life writings as unreliable propaganda or as too heavily edited to be considered valid testimony from the slaves themselves. The most important of these early historians, Ulrich B. Phillips, indicated in his authoritative American Negro Slavery (1918) that the slaves’ narratives as sources were untrustworthy, biased accounts, and assessments such as his helped to keep them in relative obscurity until the 1950s. In 1948 Benjamin Quarles published the first modern biography of Douglass, which was followed in 1950 by the first volume of what was ultimately a 5 volume work from Phillip Foner: Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. These texts were part of the new consciousness that began the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, and the black studies programs that followed in the 1960s and 70s brought about more re-evaluations asserting the centrality of the slave narratives to American literary history. In this new era, Douglass’s 1845 narrative, given its first full, modern publication in 1960, was considered the classic example of the genre.3

Among historical studies, works such as John Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in Antebellum South used the fugitive slave narratives, Douglass’s works prominent among them, to provide much needed credibility for the slaves’ perspective on bondage and freedom. Ironically, Blassingame spurned Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents as unreliable primarily because he found it to be too “melodramatic,” and he voiced suspicions that the narrative was the work of Jacobs’s friend and editor, Lydia Maria Child. In this dismissal of Jacobs’s authorship he ignored the fact that Child, in her introduction to Jacobs’s work, stressed that she had made only the most “trifling” editorial changes and that “both ideas and the language” were Jacobs’s own. Incidents began receiving new interest with a 1973 edition (published by Harcourt Brace). However, its complete recovery of as an authentic slave-authored account was not accomplished until historian Jean Fagin Yellin, through extensive archival research published in a 1981 article, proved the truth of Jacobs’s story as well as the painstaking process involved in her struggle to write and publish her book.4 Yellin has continued to lead in the reclamation of Jacobs’s work, publishing her own Harvard University Press in 1987.

Beginning in the late 1970s, book-length studies began to stress the importance of the fugitive slave narratives, including prominently both Douglass’s and Jacobs’s, as literary works valuable not only as historical evidence but as life writing that employed a wide range of rhetorical and literary devices. Frances Smith Foster's Witnessing Slavery (1979), Robert B. Stepto's From Behind the Veil (1979), and two collections of essays—The Art of the Slave Narrative (edited by John Sekora and Darwin Turner in 1982) and The Slave's Narrative (edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1985)—provided the critical groundwork for bringing the slaves’ texts into the American literary canon. William S. McFeely’s 1991 definitive biography assured Douglass’s status as a major historical figure, as did Yellin’s biography of Jacobs, published in 2004.

William L. Andrews's definitive To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (1987) marked a significant new stage in the study of the written antebellum slave narrative. In a single, comprehensive book he traced the development of and changes in the form from its eighteenth century beginnings, offering closely detailed readings of individual texts, including particularly innovative analyses of Douglass’s first two autobiographies and Jacobs’s Incidents. By the late 1980s, as well, feminist critics following Jean Fagin Yellin’s lead, began to stress the value of Jacobs’s work in expressing the specific problems of women’s voice and experience, often contrasting her narrative’s structure and style, as well as her story, against Douglass’s masculinist vision in the 1845 Narrative.5 Important articles continue to appear, some of them gathered into collections such as Deborah Garfield and Rafia Zafar, eds., Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays (1996), Eric Sundquist’s Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays (1990), Andrews’s Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass (1991), and The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass (2009) edited by Maurice S. Lee.


1 See William Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1986): 271. Andrews points out that Frederick Douglass's 1855 autobiography also "novelizes," unlike the 1845 narrative, arguing that both Jacobs and Douglass's works exhibit "the deliberate fictionalizing of texts in the 1850s and 1860s, notably through the use of reconstructed dialogue."

2 This article, "My Escape from Slavery,"The Century Illustrated Magazine 23, n.s. 1 (Nov. 1881), 125-131 is available online. Douglass chastised fugitive slave writers who told how they escaped, as he believed it gave away secrets that slave catchers could use.

3Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, edited by Benjamin Quarles, was published by Harvard University Press in 1960.

4 In 1981, Yellin's invaluable article, "Written By Herself: Harriet Jacobs' Slave Narrative" (published in American Literature 53.3: 379-486), opened the door to all the extensive critical work on Jacobs that has followed.

5 Three articles focus sharply on gender differences between Douglass and Jacobs: Winifred Morgan's "Gender-Related Difference in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass" in American Studies 35 (1994). Anne B. Warner's " Santa Claus Aint a Real Man:" Anne G. Jones's "Engendered in the South: Blood and Irony in Douglass and Jacobs," both of which appear in Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (U Va Press, 1997).

Lucinda MacKethan is Alumni Distinguished Professor of English Emerita at NC State University, where she taught Southern and African American Literature for 37 years and also served as Director of the teaching major in English. A Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1984-85, she served as faculty for three Summer Institutes for High School Teachers. At NC State she won the Board of Governors Teaching Award twice and received the university's highest teaching honor, the Holladay Medal. She is author of two books in southern studies and editor of three plantation memoirs, as well as co-editor of The Companion to Southern Literature, which received the National Library Association's best reference award in 2002. She is also a senior consultant for the NEH award winning website, and is an NC Humanities Council Road Scholar.

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To cite this essay:
MacKethan, Lucinda. “Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: American Slave Narrators.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.


"Slave" and "Slaves" redirect here. For the 1969 film, see Slaves (film). For other uses, see Slave (disambiguation).

Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property.[1] A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and works without remuneration. Many scholars now use the term chattel slavery to refer to this specific sense of legalised, de jure slavery. In a broader sense, however, the word slavery may also refer to any situation in which an individual is de facto forced to work against their own will. Scholars also use the more generic terms such as unfree labour or forced labour to refer to such situations.[2] However, and especially under slavery in broader senses of the word, slaves may have some rights and protections according to laws or customs.

Slavery began to exist before written history, in many cultures.[3] A person could become enslaved from the time of their birth, capture, or purchase.

While slavery was institutionally recognized by most societies, it has now been outlawed in all recognized countries,[4][5] the last being Mauritania in 2007. Nevertheless, there are an estimated 45.8 million people subject to some form of modern slavery worldwide.[6] The most common form of the slave trade is now commonly referred to as human trafficking. Chattel slavery is also still practiced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In other areas, slavery (or unfree labour) continues through practices such as debt bondage, the most widespread form of slavery today,[2]serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, certain adoptions in which children are forced to work as slaves, child soldiers, and forced marriage.[7]


The English word slave comes from Old Frenchsclave, from the Medieval Latinsclavus, from the Byzantine Greek σκλάβος, which, in turn, comes from the ethnonym Slav, because in some early Medieval wars many Slavs were captured and enslaved.[8][9] An older interpretation connected it to the Greek verb skyleúo 'to strip a slain enemy'.[10]

There is a dispute among historians about whether terms such as "unfree labourer" or "enslaved person", rather than "slave", should be used when describing the victims of slavery. According to those proposing a change in terminology, "slave" perpetuates the crime of slavery in language, by reducing its victims to a nonhuman noun instead of, according to Andi Cumbo-Floyd, "carry[ing] them forward as people, not the property that they were". Other historians prefer "slave" because the term is familiar and shorter, or because it accurately reflects the inhumanity of slavery, with "person" implying a degree of autonomy that slavery does not allow for.[11]


Bonded labour

Main article: Debt bondage

Indenture, otherwise known as bonded labour or debt bondage, is a form of unfree labour under which a person pledges himself or herself against a loan.[12] The services required to repay the debt, and their duration, may be undefined.[12] Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation, with children required to pay off their progenitors' debt.[12] It is the most widespread form of slavery today.[2] Debt bondage is most prevalent in South Asia.[13]

Chattel slavery

Chattel slavery, also called traditional slavery, is so named because people are treated as the chattel (personal property) of the owner and are bought and sold as commodities. Typically, under the chattel slave system, slave status was imposed on children of the enslaved at birth.[14] Although it dominated many societies in the past, this form of slavery has been formally abolished and is very rare today. Even when it can be said to survive, it is not upheld by the legal system of any internationally recognized government.[15]

Forced labour

Main article: Unfree labour

See also: Human trafficking, Child labour, Military use of children, and Sexual slavery

Forced labour, or unfree labour, is sometimes used to refer to when an individual is forced to work against their own will, under threat of violence or other punishment, but the generic term unfree labour is also used to describe chattel slavery, as well as any other situation in which a person is obliged to work against their own will and a person's ability to work productively is under the complete control of another person.[2] This may also include institutions not commonly classified as slavery, such as serfdom, conscription and penal labour. While some unfree labourers, such as serfs, have substantive, de jure legal or traditional rights, they also have no ability to terminate the arrangements under which they work, and are frequently subject to forms of coercion, violence, and restrictions on their activities and movement outside their place of work.

Human trafficking primarily involves women and children forced into prostitution and is the fastest growing form of forced labour, with Thailand, Cambodia, India, Brazil and Mexico having been identified as leading hotspots of commercial sexual exploitation of children.[2][16][17] Examples of sexual slavery, often in military contexts, include detention in "rape camps" or "comfort stations," "comfort women", forced "marriages" to soldiers and other practices involving the treatment of women or men as chattel and, as such, violations of the peremptory norm prohibiting slavery.[18][19][20][21]

In 2007, Human Rights Watch estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 children served as soldiers in current conflicts.[22]

Forced marriage

Main article: Forced marriage

See also: Marriage by abduction and Child marriage

Forced marriages or early marriages are often considered types of slavery. Forced marriage continues to be practiced in parts of the world including some parts of Asia and Africa. Forced marriages may also occur in immigrant communities in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.[23][24][25][26]Ritual servitude where girls and women are pledged to priests or those of higher castes is a practice sometimes found in West Africa.[2]Marriage by abduction occurs in many places in the world today, with a national average of 69% of marriages in Ethiopia being through abduction.[27]


"Slavery" has also been used to refer to a legal state of dependency to somebody else.[28][29] For example, in Persia, the situations and lives of such slaves could be better than those of common citizens.[30]



Economists have attempted to model the circumstances under which slavery (and variants such as serfdom) appear and disappear. One observation is that slavery becomes more desirable for landowners where land is abundant but labour is scarce, such that rent is depressed and paid workers can demand high wages. If the opposite holds true, then it becomes more costly for landowners to have guards for the slaves than to employ paid workers who can only demand low wages due to the amount of competition.[31] Thus, first slavery and then serfdom gradually decreased in Europe as the population grew, but were reintroduced in the Americas and in Russia as large areas of new land with few people became available.[32]

Slavery is more common when the labor done is relatively simple and thus easy to supervise, such as large-scale growing of a single crop, like sugar and cotton, in which output was based on economies of scale. This enables such systems of labor, such as the gang system in The United States, to become prominent on large plantations where field hands were monitored and worked with factory-like precision.

For example, each work gang was based on an internal division of labour that not only assigned every member of the gang to a precise task, but also simultaneously made their own performance dependent on the actions of the others. The hoe hands chopped out the weeds that surrounded the cotton plants as well as excessive sprouts. The plow gangs followed behind, stirring the soil near the rows of cotton plants and tossing it back around the plants. Thus, the gang system worked like an assembly line.[33]

Since the 18th century, critics have argued that slavery tends to retard technological advancement because the focus is on increasing the number of slaves doing simple tasks rather than upgrading the efficiency of labour. For example, it is sometime argued that, because of this narrow focus, theoretical knowledge and learning in Greece – and later in Rome — was not applied to ease physical labour or improve manufacturing.[34]

Adam Smith made the argument that free labour was economically better than slave labour, and that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in a free, democratic, or republican form of government since many of its legislators, or political figures were slave owners, and would not punish themselves. He further argued that slaves would be better able to gain their freedom when there was centralized government, or a central authority like a king or the church.[35][36]

Similar arguments appear later in the works of Auguste Comte, especially when it comes to Adam Smith's belief in the separation of powers, or what Comte called the "separation of the spiritual and the temporal" during the Middle Ages and the end of slavery, and Smith's criticism of masters, past and present. As Smith stated in the Lectures on Jurisprudence, "The great power of the clergy thus concurring with that of the king set the slaves at liberty. But it was absolutely necessary both that the authority of the king and of the clergy should be great. Where ever any one of these was wanting, slavery still continues..."

Slaves can be an attractive investment because the slave-owner only needs to pay for sustenance and enforcement. This is sometimes lower than the wage-cost of free laborers because free workers earn more than sustenance, resulting in slaves having a positive price. When the cost of sustenance and enforcement exceeds the wage rate, slave-owning would no longer be profitable, and owners would simply release their slaves. Slaves are thus a more attractive investment in high-wage, cheap-enforcement environments, and less attractive in low-wage-rate, expensive-enforcement environments.[37]

Free workers also earn compensating differentials, whereby they are paid more for doing unpleasant work. However, since neither sustenance nor enforcement costs rise with the unpleasantness of the work, the cost of slaves do not rise by the same amount. As such, slaves are more attractive for unpleasant work, and less attractive for pleasant work. Because the unpleasantness of the work is not internalised, being born by the slave rather than the owner, it is a negative externality and leads to over-use of slaves in these situations.[37]

Currently, the weighted average global sales price of a slave is calculated to be approximately $340, with a high of $1,895 for the average trafficked sex slave, and a low of $40 to $50 for debt bondage slaves in part of Asia and Africa.[38]

Worldwide slavery is a criminal offense but slave owners can get very high returns for their risk. According to researcher Siddharth Kara, the profits generated worldwide by all forms of slavery in 2007 were $91.2 billion. That is second only to drug trafficking, in terms of global criminal enterprises. The weighted average annual profits generated by a slave in 2007 was $3,175, with a low of an average $950 for bonded labor and $29,210 for a trafficked sex slave.[38] Approximately 40% of slave profits each year are generated by trafficked sex slaves, representing slightly more than 4% of the world's 29 million slaves.[38]

Robert E. Wright has developed a model, based on economic conditions, that helps to predict when firms (individuals, companies) will be more likely to use slaves rather than wage workers, indentured servants, family members, or other types of labourers.[39]


Throughout history, slaves were clothed in a distinctive fashion, particularly with respect to footwear, or rather the lack thereof. This was due to economic reasons, as well as a distinguishing feature, especially in South Africa and South America. For example, the Cape Town slave code stated that "Slaves must go barefoot and must carry passes."[40]

This was the case in the majority of states that abolished slavery later in history, as most images from the respective historical period suggest that slaves were barefoot.[41] To quote Brother Riemer (1779): "[the slaves] are, even in their most beautiful suit, obliged to go barefoot. Slaves were forbidden to wear shoes. This was a prime mark of distinction between the free and the bonded and no exceptions were permitted."[42]

As shoes have been considered badges of freedom since biblical times "But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put [it] on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on [his] feet (Luke 15:22)" this aspect has been an informal law wherever slavery existed. A barefoot person could therefore be clearly identified as a slave upon first sight.

In certain societies this rule is valid to this day, as with the Tuareg slavery which is still unofficially practiced, and their slaves have to go barefoot.[43]

Early history

Main article: History of slavery

Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures.[3] Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations because it requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Thus, although it has existed among unusually resource-rich hunter gatherers, such as the American Indian peoples of the salmon-rich rivers of the Pacific Northwest Coast, slavery became widespread only with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution about 11,000 years ago.[44]

In the earliest known records, slavery is treated as an established institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), for example, prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive.[45] The Biblementions slavery as an established institution.[3]

Slavery was known in almost every ancient civilization and society including Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Carolingian Europe, the Roman Empire, the Hebrew kingdoms of the ancient Levant, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas.[3] Such institutions included debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.[46]

Classical antiquity



Slavery in Korea existed since before the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, approximately 2,000 years ago, and has been described as "very important in medieval Korea, probably more important than in any other East Asian country".[47][48][49] Slavery went into decline around the 10th century, but came back in the late Goryeo period when Korea also experienced a number of slave rebellions.[47]


Ancient Greece

Main articles: Slavery in ancient Greece and Slavery in ancient Rome

Records of slavery in Ancient Greece date as far back as Mycenaean Greece. It is certain that Classical Athens had the largest slave population, with as many as 80,000 in the 6th and 5th centuries BC;[50] two- to four-fifths of the population were slaves.[51] As the Roman Republic expanded outward, entire populations were enslaved, thus creating an ample supply from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Greeks, Illyrians, Berbers, Germans, Britons, Thracians, Gauls, Jews, Arabs, and many more were slaves used not only for labour, but also for amusement (e.g. gladiators and sex slaves). This oppression, by an elite minority, eventually led to slave revolts (see Roman Servile Wars); the Third Servile War, led by Spartacus, (a Thracian) being the most famous.

By the late Republican era, slavery had become a vital economic pillar in the wealth of Rome, as well as a very significant part of Roman society.[52] It is estimated that 25% or more of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved, although the actual percentage is debated by scholars, and varied from region to region.[53][54] Slaves represented 15–25% of Italy's population,[55] mostly captives in war,[55] especially from Gaul[56] and Epirus. Estimates of the number of slaves in the Roman Empire suggest that the majority of slaves were scattered throughout the provinces outside of Italy.[55] Generally, slaves in Italy were indigenous Italians,[57] with a minority of foreigners (including both slaves and freedmen) born outside of Italy estimated at 5% of the total in the capital at its peak, where their number was largest. Those from outside of Europe were predominantly of Greek descent, while the Jewish ones never fully assimilated into Roman society, remaining an identifiable minority. These slaves (especially the foreigners) had higher death rates and lower birth rates than natives, and were sometimes even subjected to mass expulsions.[58] The average recorded age at death for the slaves of the city of Rome was extraordinarily low: seventeen and a half years (17.2 for males; 17.9 for females).[59][page needed]

Middle Ages


Slavery was also widespread in Africa, with both internal and external slave trade.[60]

Arab slave trade

Main article: Arab slave trade

The Arab slave trade, across the Sahara desert and across the Indian Ocean, began after MuslimArab and Swahili traders won control of the Swahili Coast and sea routes during the 9th century (see Sultanate of Zanzibar). These traders captured Bantu peoples (Zanj) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania and brought them to the coast.[62][63] There, the slaves gradually assimilated in the rural areas, particularly on the Unguja and Pemba islands.[64]



Slavery in Mexico can be traced back to the Aztecs.[65] Other Amerindians, such as the Inca of the Andes, the Tupinambá of Brazil, the Creek of Georgia, and the Comanche of Texas, also owned slaves.[3]



Many Han Chinese were enslaved in the process of the Mongols invasion of China proper.[66] According to Japanese historian Sugiyama Masaaki (杉山正明) and Funada Yoshiyuki (舩田善之), there were also certain number of Mongolian slaves owned by Han Chinese during the Yuan dynasty. Moreover, there is no evidence that Han Chinese, who were considered people of the bottom of Yuan society by some research, were suffered a particularly cruel abuse.[67][68]


In the Joseon

Sale and inspection of slave
Slaves working in a mine, Ancient Greece
Slaves in chains, at Smyrna (present day İzmir), 200 AD
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