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Investigate the history of slavery and discuss the ways in which this history impacts contemporary society


No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 1948). This is the fourth article from the Declaration of Human Rights, signed at the United Nations HQ in 1948. This fundamental step-forward in the history of men has been long coming, as slavery has a long story behind it.

Slavery is a social phenomenon that consist in the acquisition of the right of property over other people (Brace, 2004). The origin and the impacts of this phenomenon are both complex issues.

This essay will investigate both the history of slavery and the impacts on contemporary society. The first section is based on the history, looking firstly at the history of slavery until 1688, which could be seen as the year in which the abolition movement started, then looking at the abolitionist movement and the American Civil War, and lastly giving a brief description on slavery in this century.

The second section will deal with the impacts on contemporary society, firstly describing those as four different aspects, and later linking them as the discussion progresses: the under-developing of certain nations, the fact that many of ex-slaves descendants still live with limited economic resources, and the social inequity. I will also briefly describe what could be seen as a positive impact, such as a base to multiculturalism. Then, I will be heading to the conclusion, synthesizing my findings.

The methodology I will use, is to examine the literature, such as books, studies and credible websites.

The point I will try to prove is that slavery has many impacts on contemporary society, mostly negative of course but also positive as, while it is true that slavery is definitely a bad thing, it is possible to find some insights that it is necessary to keep in mind even today.

History of slavery

It is possible to trace back the use of slavery since the Neolithic and the agriculture revolution. Before that, the hunter-gathered societies, that constituted the majority of the population, did not present any proofs of the use of slavery, probably because they didn’t have the concept of property, and, as societies, they did present a profile that was more oriented to equality, as Marija Gimbutas proved in her studies  (1965). Since then, for many century slavery was considered normal and acceptable in many cultures, such as the Romans, the Greeks, and more lately in the European culture, born from the ashes of the Roman Empire. It is possible to see evidence of the use of slavery even in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments (The Holy Bible, 1986), as well as in many books that were passed down generation to generation.

With the discovery of new territories, like the Americas but also Africa, slaves began to arrive from such continents, and their use was encouraged in the colonies as well as in the mother-countries. Such presence is testified by numerous historical chronicles (Blake, 1869), as well as many written books and operas that still make an appearance in today’s theatres, like The Tempest by William Shakespeare with the character of Caliban (Frey, 1979).

Until the so-called scientific revolution, and the philosophical progress that followed, it seems like there was no improvement possible for the slave situation.

One of the first complaints against slavery come in 1688 from Quakers and Germans (Binder-Johnson, 1941), as in their opinion the people who were slaves were not inferior to them in any ways, and so it was wrong to enslave them (Binder-Johnson, 1941). In the age of Enlightenment, the debate continued, until England banned slavery in 1772, followed by other countries, as France gave free citizenship to free people of color in 1792 and later, in 1794, it banned slavery from France and its colonies (Dubois, 2000), and in 1795 the Constitution stated that the institution of slavery was abolished (Dubois, 2000). The ban continued in France, but not in colonies, where slavery was definitely abolished only in 1905 (Klein, 1998).

As for the colonies in the recent-born United States, the situation was different, as slavery was tolerated inside the colonies, and in fact many of the Founding Father were themselves slave owners, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (Chernow, 2004). However, there was an intense debates even in the early days of the United States about slavery, and many tried to regulate or abolish the institution of slavery without success. In the new continent, slaves were used with particular intensity in the Southern States, while in the North some states provided themselves for the lack of direction about slavery in the Constitution, abolish it in their territories, like Vermont and Pennsylvania. But it was necessary to wait some time before the debate about slavery became even bigger, creating more division inside the United States.

After the events of the American Civil War, slavery was officially abolished from the United States. A specific Amendment, the 13th, was made in 1863, which stated that slavery and involuntary servitude was banished, expect as a punishment for a crime (“13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress)”, 2018).  Despise this, discriminations and general inequity were still showed towards people that were slaves, or even free people that, traditionally, were seen as slave. The Jim Crow law was a clear example of this, resulting in an extended poverty that continues to exist to some degree, even today.

After that, slavery was substantially banned all across Europe and in the United States, even though it persisted in other regions on the planet . However, in 1948 a great threshold was crossed, as on December 10th, 1948, the Declaration of Human Rights were signed at the United Nations general Assembly. The Declaration has in its fourth article an explicit ban on every form of servitude and slavery, that in theory every nation under the United Nation should follow, as the Declaration constitutes an international law that extends its validity at all the nations members of the United Nations (Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 1948).

Nowadays, slavery could be described in various ways: the common sense, the one that most people associate it with the word, is perhaps the less used in our time (McCarthy, 2017), where other forms such as forced labor, sex slaves and child labor are the most predominant forms of slavery of our days. Right now, we are in a time and place where, virtually, slavery is banished; this is true for most country’s legislations, even if slaves markets are still open in some places (McCarthy, 2017). Though there are some interesting recent developments on this topic, as in 2014 the leaders of the most followed religions in the world signed a shared commitment in order to eliminate slavery and the slave market (Belardelli, 2014).

As for the commitment for the future, it is interesting to notice that there are still many associations that fight against slavery and slave market. The United Nations is continuing to work on this issue, as it is testified by the SDG – Sustainable Development Goals – which are a series of objectives that the United Nations want to reach by 2030. One of the Goals of this declaration of intents, number 8, states in one of its section (8.7) that measures will be taken in order to end child labor by 2025, and also to eradicate all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking(“Goal 8 .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform”, 2018).

Impacts of slavery on contemporary society

Despite the fact that the Western Countries tend to see slavery as something from the past, while it is proven it is not, there is no way of denying the impact of such harmful practice on the people and nations subject to it in the past.

One of the most important impacts that slavery has on contemporary society is the underdevelopment of  certain regions of the world, e.g. all Africa and in particular, the Sub-Saharan part of the continent (Nunn, 2008). This impact is a direct cause of the necessities of the European countries, which had several colonies in Africa which only very recently became free, to transform  the native population in a European-dependent state. The colonies were not free to develop as scientific and technological progresses were made, as the purpose of having a colony in the first place was to extract natural resources; before the abolishment of slavery, those natural resources included also people that were sold as slaves (Nunn, 2008).

Slavery contributes to the underdevelopment of multiple countries in several ways. The slavery trade  brought in Europe and in the United States many men in their 20s and 30s, who were forced to leave their villages when they could contribute the most to the economy of the community. The slave trade began a circle of violence, as people needed weapons to defends themselves from raids made to acquire slaves, and they were told to give slaves to the Europeans, in exchange for firearms. The corruption was at peak level, as it was possible to enslave someone in response to a suspected crime. All of these and many other factors could be seen as elements in the issue of underdeveloped countries (Rodney, 1972).

Another impact of slavery was that, once the practice was officially banned, millions of people who were totally dependent from an owner were suddenly free. This led to multiple people unable to provide for themselves and in poverty, as the new acquired freedom brought with itself the need to get a paid job. For many, getting a paid job was not possible at all, as discriminations and difficulties from the bureaucracy made this almost impossible. For others, it was possible to gain something, but still it was not enough to provide for themselves or their families. This led many ex-slaves to dedicate themselves to criminality, as it was almost the only choice possible in order to live (Gouda, 2013).

While in modern days things should be better, that is not the reality for many communities, where the past is still a burden on the population and it is difficult to find a well-paid job, even more now as the economical crisis led to the loss of several millions of jobs all over the globe, mostly the one that employed people for very low wages. While it is true that there are also several stories of success and economical improvement from all around the world, it is possible to argue that those are the minorities and not the common reality for many people who are descendants from ex-slaves (Bales, 2000).

Those precedent two impacts, derive from the same root, as it is social inequity what drives both the underdevelopment of countries subjected to slavery, and also what could be seen behind the social discriminations that many descendants from ex-slaves has to face even today. The social inequity could be seen as a cause for slavery, as many slaves lost their freedom because they were seen as less in comparison to other human beings, and as a consequence, now that slavery is illegal in most countries, those social discriminations persist and makes it difficult to emerge from the underdevelopment or from poverty (Fredrickson, 1989).

The impact on contemporary society of social inequity is clearly under our eyes as many people still have to face discriminations and suspicion. While there is a certain degree of progress, this still is an issue that is very much alive in many European countries and in the United States, as it is possible to see every day in the news. The road towards a world where minorities are accepted is still long, as the current social and political environment almost seems to look at the past as a motive of pride and not as a reason to shame when it comes to how Western Countries treated them (Dorling et al. 2015).

While it is not possible to say that slavery had good impacts on people, it is possible to find at least one good outcome on modern societies. It is important in this context to note that the rejection of the principle behind slavery should be clear. I’m not saying that slavery has a good impact, especially when it comes to the slave trade that takes away from their mother countries millions of people. What I want to say is that, with the situation present now in the United States and in the rest of the world, it is possible to find something that has the potential to be good, and that something is multiculturalism (Dorling et al. 2015).

Multiculturalism is  a relatively modern term that literally means diverse cultures. The term is used in refer to cultures that have experienced an enrichment caused by the mixing with other societies and cultures, thus creating a variety and differences that are good for society in general, as this phenomenon brings people with different background together, working together, and is helping to create a world where everyone has something to share with the other because every person brings something unique. In this sense, slavery, while still completely negative, and still active in some parts of the world, made possible a neutral impact (Multiculturalism, 1994).

There is still a lot of work to do, in order to ban slavery once and for all from the entire planet, and also to ensure that a phenomenon so brutal and inhuman could become only a memory of our past. A memory that should be not forgotten, but remembered and healed. Maybe, this would be possible in the future (Multiculturalism, 1994).


This essay describes and analyzes the history of slavery and its consequences on contemporary society.  In the first part of the essay, a brief history of the phenomenon of slavery is given, focusing firstly on the period starting from the Agricultural Revolution to 1688. This year is considered the moment where the abolition movement has started, giving some results in the late XVIII century in France and England, and later, after the American Civil War, in the United States. In recent years, the biggest accomplishment towards an end of slavery could be found in the Declaration of the Human Rights in 1948 and in 2014 when multiple religious leaders signed an agreement to end all forms of slavery. There is also a plan to end all forms of slavery in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

As for the impacts, the essay considers four major impacts which are the underdevelopment of the country that suffered from the Slave Trade, the discrimination that the descendants of the slaves have to face even today, the social inequity that still is perpetuated in all Western Country. I have listed multiculturalism as the last impact, giving some context about why I am choosing this aspect, as we enter in a future that may seem that it turns its back to the past, where it is possible to go forward and make slavery a thing from the past, as “we’ll never be free until we end slavery!” (Yorktown, Miranda, 2015).

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