Digital History

The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery

Defining Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 3026



A slave is a person totally subject to her or his owners' will.

The 1926 Slavery Convention described slavery as "...the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised..." Therefore a slave is someone who cannot leave an owner, master, overseer, controller, or employer without explicit permission, and who will be returned if they stray or escape. They may be "legally" owned, or controlled to the same extent informally. (from Wikipedia)

How does slavery differ from other forms of exploitation such as serfdom, forced labor, or the subordination of women in patriarchal societies? The traditional definition of slavery was legal. Slaves were peoples' property and could be bought and sold, traded, leased, or mortgaged like a form of livestock.

Because they are under the personal dominion of an owner, slaves were always vulnerable to sexual exploitation and cruel punishment. In all cultures, slaves were symbolically dishonored. For example, they were branded, tattooed, or required to wear distinctive collars, clothing, or hairstyles.

Also, regardless of place and time period or the ethnicity of the slaves, societies have imposed certain common stereotypes on slaves - that they were licentious, childlike, lazy, irresponsible, dim-witted, and incapable of freedom.

Copyright 2016 Digital History