Before Columbus’s Atlantic crossing, slavery had long been practiced by every major culture and civilization in the world, with the likely exception of Australia. Virtually no individuals known to history challenged its morality, and no movements existed to oppose it.
West and east African kingdoms practiced slavery extensively, both for internal purposes and for external sale to Arabs, who for centuries had transported African slaves to Asia and Europe. East and south Asians had also practiced slavery extensively for millennia. Native Americans also had slaves and other forms of forced labor. Within Europe, slavery existed but had mostly been abolished, though forms of serfdom and indentured servitude remained.
The new trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 1500s was dominated initially by the Portuguese and Spanish. A few voices rose to attack it. Fernão de Oliveira, a widely traveled humanist and Renaissance man, in 1554 described it as an “evil trade,” primarily because African monarchs who sold their fellow Africans to the Europeans had acquired them by kidnapping or unjust wars. But few listened.
French, Dutch, German, and by the 1600s English slavers also entered the trade to the New World. But by the late 1600s, more voices began to challenge it. In 1676, a Quaker woman named Alice Curwen unambiguously denounce slavery. In 1688, the Germantown Protest became the first formal protest against slavery ever. In England in 1689, John Locke’s Two Treatises was published, with its doctrine of universal rights of life and liberty, and it became a strong influence in the American colonies. In New York in 1693, the first printed pamphlet denouncing slavery and the slave trade was published anonymously.
In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson wrote: “[The King of England] has waged a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere [and] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to retrain the execrable commerce.” In committee, the passage was cut.
The world’s first-ever society for eliminating slavery was founded in the USA in 1784: the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. In 1785 Benjamin Franklin was appointed its president. Shortly thereafter, anti-slavery societies were also founded in Britain (1787) and in France (1788).
In 1807 the British Parliament voted to abolish the trade in slaves, and in 1808 the British Royal Navy began to blockade the West African slave trade. By 1866, it had successfully stopped over 1500 ships and effectively ended the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. When the Civil War ended in 1865 the 13th Amendment was ratified: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery.
Prepared by Stephen Hicks, 2020.
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