Read this slavery timeline to see how the anti-slavery movement evolved through the ages.
Slavery's Roots: War and Economic Domination
1700 – 1900: The Age of Abolition Begins
- 6800 B.C. The world’s first city grows up in Mesopotamia. With the ownership of land and the beginnings of technology comes warfare in which enemies are captured and forced to work: slavery.
- 2575 B.C. Egyptians send expeditions down the Nile River to capture slaves. Temple art celebrates the capture of slaves in battle.
This painting on terra cotta depicts slaves in mines in ancient Greece, ca 5 B.C.
Image is in the public domain.
- 550 B.C. The mighty Greek city-state of Athens uses up to 30,000 slaves in the silver mines it controls.
- 120 Slaves are taken by the thousands in Roman military campaigns; some estimates put the population of Rome at more than half slave.
- 500 In England, the native Britons are enslaved after invasion by Anglo-Saxons.
- 1000 Slavery is normal practice in England’s rural economy, as destitute agricultural workers place themselves and their families in a form of debt bondage to landowners.
- 1380 In the aftermath of the Black Plague, Europe’s slave trade revives in response to the labor shortage. The slaves come from all over Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
- 1444 Portuguese traders bring the first large cargo of slaves from West Africa to Europe by sea, thus beginning the Atlantic slave trade.
- 1526 Spanish explorers bring the first African slaves to a Spanish settlement in what was to become the United States – these were the first African Americans. The same year, they mounted the first known slave revolt in the Americas.
- 1550 Renaissance art is peopled with slaves displayed as objects of conspicuous consumption.
- 1641 Massachusetts becomes the first British colony to legalize slavery.
1900 – 1950: Abolition Spreads Worldwide
- 1781 Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II abolishes serfdom in the Austrian Habsburg dominions.
- 1787 The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in Britain.
- 1789 On August 26th, during the French Revolution, the National Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man, one of the fundamental charters of human liberties. The first of 17 articles states: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
Toussaint Louvertur led a slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint Dominique in 1791. Image is in the public domain.
- 1791 Toussaint Louverture led a slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint Domingue. By 1804, the French were expelled from the colony and the island is declared independent under its original Arawak name, “Haiti.”
- 1803 Denmark-Norway becomes the first country in Europe to ban the African slave trade. A law passed in 1792 takes effect in 1803 to forbid trading in slaves by Danish subjects and to end the importation of slaves into Danish dominions.
- 1807 Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law, forbidding the importation of African slaves into the United States.
- 1807 After prolonged lobbying by abolitionists in Britain, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the British Parliament makes it illegal for British ships to transport slaves and for British colonies to import them.
- 1811 – 1867 Operating off the Atlantic coast of Africa, the British Navy’s Anti-Slavery Squadron liberates 160,000 slaves.
- 1813 Sweden, a nation that has never authorized slave traffic, consents to ban the African slave trade.
- 1814 The King of the Netherlands officially terminates Dutch participation in the African slave trade.
- 1814 During the Congress of Vienna, largely through the efforts of Britain, the assembled powers proclaim that the slave trade should be abolished as soon as possible. The Congress leaves the actual effective date of abolition to negotiation among the various nations.
- 1820 The government of Spain, pursuant to a treaty with Britain, abolishes the slave trade south of the Equator. Slave trade in Cuba continues until 1888.
- 1833 The British Parliament’s Factory Act of 1833 establishes a normal working day in textile manufacture. The act bans the employment of children under the age of 9 and limits the workday of children between the ages of 13 and 18 to 12 hours. The law also provides for government inspection of working conditions.
- 1834 In Britain the Abolition Act of 1833 abolishes slavery throughout the British Empire, including its colonies in North America. The bill emancipates the slaves in all British colonies and appropriates a sum equivalent to nearly $100 million to compensate slave owners for their losses.
- 1837 Thomas F. Buxton begins a campaign to abolish coolie labor in India. After the abolition of slavery, this type of labor has become a preferred source of cheap labor. Buxton argues that coolie labor amounts to slavery, with workers often kidnapped, transported to the Caribbean and forced to toil in appalling conditions.
- 1840 The new British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society calls the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London to mobilize reformers to monitor and assist abolition and post-emancipation efforts throughout the world. A group of abolitionists from the United States travels to London to attend the Convention, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, as well as several male supporters, leave the meeting in protest when women are excluded from seating on the convention floor.
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863. The emancipation did not apply to border states or areas that were already under control of the Union army. Image is in the public domain.
- 1845 Thirty-six British Navy ships are assigned to the Anti-Slavery Squadron, making it one of the largest fleets in the world.
- 1848 After the revolution of 1848 in France, the new government abolishes slavery in all French colonies.
- 1850 The government of Brazil adopts the Eusébio de Queirós Law, which ends the country’s participation in the slave trade. The law declares slave traffic to be a form of piracy and it prohibits Brazilian citizens from taking part in the trade.
- 1861 By decree Alexander II, czar of Russia, emancipates all Russian serfs, who number around 50 million. The act begins the time of the Great Reform in Russia and earns Alexander II the title of “Czar Liberator.”
- 1863 In the United States, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation takes effect, freeing all slaves in the United States except for those in states, or parts of states, that were no longer under Confederate control. The emancipation does not apply to the border states or to areas that are already under control of the Union army.
- 1863 The government of the Netherlands takes official action to abolish slavery in all Dutch colonies.
- 1888 Slavery ends in South America when the legislature of Brazil frees the country’s 725,000 slaves by enacting the Lei Aurea (Golden Law).
- 1865 – 1920 Following the Civil War in the United States, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans are re-enslaved in an abusive manipulation of the legal system called “peonage.” Across the Deep South, African-American men and women are falsely arrested and convicted of crimes, then “leased” to coal and iron mines, brick factories, plantations, and other dangerous types of work. The system begins to slow after the First World War, but doesn’t fully end until the 1940s.
1950 – 1999: Abolition in Recent Times
- 1909 The campaign of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) to end forced labor in the Congo Free State succeeds. Set up in Great Britain in 1904 by E.D. Morel, the CRA has as its main objective the end of forced labor in the Congo Free State (known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). King Leopold II of Belgium had undertaken personal administration of this huge territory and forced local people to produce rubber for sale in Europe, where an increasing number of cars and bicycles intensify demand for rubber tires. Workers who refused to labor for King Leopold’s officials had their hands cut off and their houses burnt and pillaged. The “Red Rubber” campaign has sought to bring justice to the Congo.
- 1910 The International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade, signed in Paris on May 4, is the first of its kind. The Convention obligates parties to punish anyone who recruits a woman below the age of majority into prostitution, even if she consents.
- 1913 Peoples’ petition to the British Parliament shuts down the Peruvian Amazon Company. In 1909, W.E. Hardenburg, an American civil engineer, had arrived in London with accounts of the inhuman exploitation of indigenous Indians in Peru by the Peruvian Amazon Company, a British entity. In the ensuing four years, the Indians have been trapped by debt and forced to work for the company, which exploited and tortured indigenous people: “they flog them inhumanely until their bones are laid bare…they torture them by means of fire, of water, and by tying them up, crucified head down” (The Truth, 1909). When journalists take up the story, there is a public outcry in Britain. The House of Commons mandates reports from both the company and the British Consul and establishes a Select Committee to investigate the allegations.
King Leopold II of Belgium took control of the area known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under his rule, local people were forced to produce rubber for sale in Europe. Those who refused had their hands cut off and houses burnt and pillaged. Image is in the public domain.
- 1915 The colonial government of Malaya officially abolishes slavery.
- 1918 The British governor of Hong Kong estimates that most households that can afford one keep a young child as a household slave.
- 1919 The League of Nations is founded. Its existence continues until the formation of the United Nations in 1946.
- 1919 The International Labor Organization (ILO) is founded to establish a code of international labor standards. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the ILO brings together government, labor, and management to solve problems and to make recommendations concerning pay, working conditions, trade union rights, safety, woman and child labor, and social security. The ILO will be brought into relationship with the United Nations in 1946.
- 1920 Buxton’s Campaign against coolie labor (see 1837) succeeds.
- 1923 British colonial government in Hong Kong passes a law banning the selling of little girls as domestic slaves.
- 1926 The League of Nations approves the Slavery Convention, and more than thirty governments sign the document, which defines slavery as “status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” The Convention charges member nations to work to suppress all forms of slavery.
- 1926 Burma abolishes legal slavery.
- 1927 Slavery is legally abolished in Sierra Leone, a country founded as a colony by the British in the 18th century to serve as a homeland for freed slaves.
- 1929 To achieve the abolition of slavery, Burma begins to compensate slaveholders for their “losses.”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is shown here holding up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations produced the document in 1948. Article 4 provides: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Image is in the public domain.
- 1930 The Forced Labor Convention is issued due to the combined efforts of the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization. The Convention seeks to protect the rights of colonial laborers.
- 1930 The U.S. Tariff Act of 1930, title 19, section 307, prohibits the importation of products made with “forced or indentured labor” into the U.S. In 1997, the Sanders Amendment clarified that this applies to products made with “forced or indentured child labor.”
- 1936 Pursuant to a treaty with Great Britain, Ibn Sa’ud, King of Saudi Arabia, issues a decree ending the importation of new slaves into his country, regulating the condition of existing slaves and providing for manumission under some conditions.
- 1938 The Japanese military establishes “Comfort Stations” (brothels) for Japanese troops. Thousands of Korean and Chinese women are forced into sexual slavery during the years of World War II as “military comfort women.”
- 1939 – 1945 The German Nazi government uses slave labor throughout the war in farming and industry. Up to nine million people are forced to work until they are worn out, at which time they are sent to concentration camps.
- 1941 The campaign to protect children in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from “adoption” succeeds with the passage of the Adoption of Children Ordinance Law, which ensures the registration of all children who are adopted and requires regular inspections to prevent adopted children from working as slaves.
- 1948 The United Nations produces the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 provides: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
- 1949 The Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others prohibits any person from procuring, enticing, or leading away another person, for the purposes of prostitution, even with the other person’s consent. The convention consolidates earlier laws and will form the legal basis for the international protection against traffic in people until the present day.
2000 – Present: Abolition in the 21st Century
- 1950 – 1989 During the Cold War much of the anti-slavery work in international bodies such as the U.N. and the International Labor Organization (ILO) slows as the Soviet block argues that slavery can only exist in capitalist societies, and the Western Block argues that all people living under communism are slaves. The result is that both new and traditional forms of slavery in the developing world receive little attention.
- 1954 China passes the State Regulation on Reform through Labor allowing prisoners to be used for labor in the laogai prison camps.
- 1956 The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery regulate practices involving the sale of wives, serfdom, debt bondage and child servitude.
- 1957 The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society changes its name to the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights. (In the 1990’s the name will be changed to Anti-Slavery International.)
- 1960 Harry Wu is sentenced to serve 19 years in the laogai slave labor camp system.
- 1962 Abolition of slavery in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
- 1964 The sixth World Muslim Congress pledges global support for all anti-slavery movements. The oldest Muslim organization, founded in 1926, the Congress has Consultative Status with the United Nations and observer status with the Organization of Islamic Countries.
- 1973 The U.N. General Assembly adopts the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The Convention outlaws a number of inhuman acts committed for the purposes of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group over another, including exploitation of the labor of members of a racial group or groups by submitting them to forced labor.
- 1974 Mauritania’s emancipated slaves form the “El Hor” (freedom) movement to oppose slavery. Leaders of El Hor insist that emancipation is impossible without realistic means of enforcing the anti-slavery laws and providing former slaves with the means of achieving economic independence. The movement demands land reform and encourages the formation of agricultural co-operatives. The influence of El Hor was strongest between 1978 and 1982, and the organization still exists today.
- 1975 The United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery is formed to collect information and make recommendations on slavery and slavery-like practices around the world.
India passed a law banning bonded labor in 1976. But the practice persists to this day. Find out more about Free the Slaves work in India here.
- 1976 India passes a law banning bonded labor.
- 1977 The ILO adopts a Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, a set of recommended standards with no means of enforcement.
- 1980 Slavery is abolished for the fourth time in the Islamic republic of Mauritania, but the situation is not fundamentally changed. Although the law decrees that “slavery” no longer exists, the ban does not address how masters are to be compensated or how slaves are to gain property.
- 1983 The civil war in Sudan breaks out again, pitting the Muslim north of the country against the Christian and Animist southern tribes.
- 1989 The National Islamic Front takes over the government of Sudan and begins to arm Baggara tribesmen to fight the Dinka and Nuer tribes in the south of the country. These new “militias” raid villages, capturing and enslaving the inhabitants.
- 1989 The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child seeks to promote the basic health care and education of the young, as well as their protection from abuse, exploitation or neglect, at home, at work, and in armed conflicts. All countries ratify the convention with the exception of Somalia (non-functional government) and the United States of America.
- 1992 The Pakistan National Assembly enacts the Bonded Labor Act, which abolishes indentured servitude and the peshgi (bonded money) system. Unfortunately, the government failed to provide for the implementation and enforcement of the law’s provisions.
- 1994 The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopts the Declaration and Decisions on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises. The document recommends that companies observe guidelines approved by the OECD that address investment policy and practice in non-industrialized countries. Trade unions note that these guidelines are not an alternative to obligations that all enterprises have under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises adopted by governments.
- 1995 The United States government issues the Model Business Principles, a voluntary model business code (apparently to pacify human rights and labor activists in the U.S. who protest the renewal of China’s trade status). The Principles urge all businesses to adopt and implement voluntary codes of conduct, including the avoidance of child and forced labor, as well as discrimination based on race, gender, national origin or religious beliefs. The Principles also promote respect for the right of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively.
- 1995 Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss based charity, begins the campaign to liberate slaves by buying them back in Southern Sudan. The policy ignites widespread controversy among international agencies, who cite that buying back slaves supports the market in human beings and feeds resources back to slaveholders.
- 1996 After anti-slavery activists testify before the US Congress about slavery in Mauritania, U.S. foreign aid to that country is cut.
- 1996 The International Organization of Employers, a subsidiary of the ILO, calls on employers and employers’ organizations immediately to end slave-like, bonded and dangerous forms of child labor and simultaneously to develop formal policies with a view toward the eventual elimination of child labor in all sectors. The resolution notes, however, that “attempts to link the issue of working children with international trade and to use it to impose trade sanctions on countries where the problem of child labor exists are counter-productive and jeopardize the welfare of children” (International Organization of Employers 1996).
- 1996 The Rugmark campaign is established in Germany to ensure that hand woven rugs were not made with illegal (slave) labor. The Rugmark seal guarantees that the entire production of the rug was made without slave or child labor. In 2010, RugMark changes its name to GoodWeave.
- 1996 The World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children is held.
- 1997 The United Nations establishes a commission of inquiry to investigate reports of widespread enslavement of people by the Burmese government.
- 1997 A bill entitled the “International Child Labor Elimination Act” (H.R. 267) is introduced in the United States House of Representatives to prohibit U.S. assistance, except for humanitarian aid, to countries that utilize child labor. It dies in committee.
- 1997 Imported goods made by child-bonded labors are banned by the United States.
(Find out more about how businesses can prevent slavery in their supply chains here.)
- 1998 The Burmese government refuses to allow the United Nations commission of inquiry to enter its borders.
This is the book that started it all. Inspired by Disposable People, Peggy Callahan and Jolene Smith joined forces with Kevin Bales to found Free the Slaves in 2000.
- 1998 The Global March against Child Labor is established. This organization plans and coordinates demonstrations against child labor worldwide. One aim is a new Convention in the U.N. on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.
- 1999 A consortium of non-governmental agencies calls for international aid and a cease-fire in Sudan to help end slavery there.
- 1999 Despite being barred from entering Burma (see 1998), the United Nations collects sufficient evidence to condemn government-sponsored slavery in Burma. The official report states that the Burmese government “treats the civilian population as an unlimited pool of unpaid forced laborers and servants at their disposal as part of a political system built on the use of force and intimidation to deny the people of Myanmar democracy and the rule of law” (International Labor Organization 1999, 35).
- 1999 The ILO passes the Convention against the Worst Forms of Child Labor. This convention establishes widely recognized international standards protecting children against forced or indentured labor, child prostitution/pornography, use of children in drug trafficking, and other work harmful to the health, safety, and morals of children.
- 1999 The first global analysis of contemporary slavery and its role in the global economy, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy is published by Kevin Bales, a professor based in London. After seven years of research he estimates that there are 27 million people in slavery globally.
- 1999 The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Woman and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime is signed with the purpose of combating trafficking in women and children, assisting trafficking victims, and promoting cooperation between countries for the purpose of accomplishing anti-trafficking goals.
Source: Adapted from New Slavery: A Reference Handbook by Kevin Bales, Second Edition, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004. pp. 55-68.
- 2000 Free the Slaves, the American sister-organization of Anti-Slavery International, is launched in the United States.
- 2000 The government of Nepal bans all forms of debt bondage after a lengthy campaign by human rights organizations and freed laborers.
- 2000 The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is passed by U.S. Congress for the purpose of combating the trafficking of persons as a form of modern slavery. This legislation increases penalties for traffickers, provides social services for trafficking victims and provides for victims to remain in the United States while trafficking cases are investigated.
- 2000 The U.N. General Assembly adopts the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, establishing eighteen as the minimum age for engagement in armed conflict or compulsory recruitment into armed groups. The Protocol enters into force in 2002.
- 2001 The documentary film Slavery: A Global Investigation (TrueVision)—the first major documentary film on contemporary slavery—is broadcast in the United States and Europe, breaking the story of slavery and forced child labor in the cocoa and chocolate industry leading to immediate action by large numbers of students, and receiving a Peabody Award and two Emmy Awards.
(Watch the film in full below. See more Free the Slaves documentaries here )
- 2002 The countries of the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) agree on an action plan to confront slavery and human trafficking in the region.
- 2002 Scientific American publishes a major feature article on modern slavery, legitimating a fact-based approach to abolition for the first time.
(Download the article as a PDF here.)
- 2002 The International Cocoa Initiative is established as a joint effort of anti-slavery groups and the major chocolate companies to address child and slave labor in cocoa production. It is the first time an entire industry has banded together to address slavery in its supply chain. By 2010 the companies have transferred around $20 million into the work in West Africa.
- 2002 The Optional Protocol on the Convention of the Rights of the Child is promulgated with specific attention paid to the sale of children and child prostitution.
- 2003 National Geographic magazine publishes a major article on contemporary slavery for the first time. The article becomes the most positively reviewed and commented on by its readership in the history of the magazine.
Slavery: A Global Investigation
- 2003 Pakistan assures the United Nations that “all bonded labor will stop” in their country. It does not.
- 2003 The U.S. Congress issues the Reauthorization Bill approving continued funding for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. This bill also enhanced the TVPA by facilitating closer contact between foreign governments on the topic and providing assistance for family members of victims of trafficking. It also enhances the tools used to protect children from sex offenders and sex traffickers, as well as strengthens laws punishing those who travel abroad as sex tourists exploiting children.
- 2004 Brazil launches the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor, which combines the efforts of civil organizations, businesses and the Brazilian government to get companies to commit to prevention and eradication of forced labor within their supply chains, as well as to be monitored and placed on a “dirty list” if the products they sell are tainted by slavery.
(Find out more about Free the Slaves frontline partners in Brazil here.)
- 2004 Government actions lead to the freeing of enslaved children and workers in Brazil and Bangladesh.
- 2004 The U.N. appoints a Special Rapporteur (Reporter) on Human Trafficking.
- 2005 The ILO publishes the Global Report on Forced Labor. The report puts the number in slavery worldwide at 12.3 million, but the estimate is hampered by India’s refusal to allow the millions thought to be held in debt bondage slavery to be included in the estimate.
- 2006 The work of Professor Kevin Bales and Free the Slaves is named one of “100 World Changing Discoveries” by the Association of British Universities.
- 2007 Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves is published. It is the first plan for the global eradication of slavery, estimating the total cost to end slavery worldwide at $10.8 billion over a 25 year period. It is highlighted by President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative.
- 2008 Forced marriage, clarified as a practice similar to slavery in the UN Supplementary Slavery Convention (see 1956), is judged to be a crime against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in a trial of three officers of the Revolutionary United Front. The forced marriage convictions are the first of their kind within an international criminal tribunal.
- 2008 Eight photographers of the famed Magnum Agency travel the world to produce a book on contemporary forms of slavery. The Vogue fashion photographer, Norman Jean Roy, publishes Traffik, a book exploring sex trafficking in Cambodia.
- 2008 The first Freedom Awards ceremony takes place in Los Angeles, 200 years after the law prohibiting the importation of slaves into the U.S. was enacted. Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivers the Frederick Douglass award to James Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who was enslaved as a child and now directs an organization that frees and rehabilitates child slaves.
- 2009 The first complete exploration of slavery in the United States, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, is published.
- 2010 Research by Free the Slaves demonstrates that there is a significant “freedom dividend” when slaves are liberated, thus opening a door to greater economic growth in the developing world.
- 2011 The U.S. California state legislature enacts the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, requiring retail sellers and manufacturers over a certain size to publicly disclose what efforts, if any, they are taking to eliminate forced labor and human trafficking from their supply chains.
- 2011 Research by Free the Slaves reveals that seven distinctly identifiable forms of modern slavery are still found in the mining zones of eastern DRC (see 1909), including forced labor enforced by armed groups, debt bondage, peonage, sexual slavery, forced marriage, the use of children by armed groups, and other forms of child slavery. Slavery continues in the Congo. (Read more about Free the Slaves work in Congo here.)