Slavery has been a condition of the human world since ancient times and occurred in nearly every culture all across the globe.

This is a painting of an ancient slave market in Rome. Roman slaves were captured in battle or lost their freedom when they couldn’t pay their taxes. Sometimes parents sold their children into slavery because they could not afford to keep them.  Painting by Gustave Boulanger, 1886, public domain.
This is a slave market in Cairo, Egypt in 1848. These women are being sold into harems or to work as servants. Public domain.
People are most familiar with American slavery. This is a family of slaves in Georgia in about 1850. Public domain.

Until one man changed not only the law, but the whole of human understanding.  His name was William Wilberforce. He was a member of Parliament in England and for more than 20 years tried to get slavery, and in particular the slave trade, outlawed in England and in all English holdings.

William Wilberforce

Today when we think of slavery we usually think of the slaves in the American South. Slavery, however, was a problem all over the world, but particularly all over the western hemisphere, where it had been introduced by the English, the French, the Dutch, and the Spanish.

Africans were the target slaves for several reasons.

  1. They were not Christians and therefore fair game, in the minds of the people of the time.
  2. They were inexpensive, bought cheaply from other Africans or captured in raids by the Europeans.
  3. Ships crossing the Atlantic from the East to the West would otherwise have no cargo in many cases.
  4. Africa was relatively close to the Americas, as opposed to Asia or the Pacific Isles.
  5. Africans were more hardy, able to work in hot climates better than the native Indian tribes or white indentured servants.
  6. Their dark skin and unfamiliar traditions made them easy to classify as sub-human and therefore eased the consciences of the Europeans.
  7. Africa was a conglomerate of scattered tribes rather than consisting of powerful nation states and the tribes did not have the power to protect their own people from the slavers. In other words, they were easy pickin’s for the Europeans.

Until Wilberforce, very few questioned the morality of slavery. Americans had begun questioning slavery during the time of the founders, but there was not enough sympathy or understanding among the majority of the people to outlaw slavery, though they did manage to stop the importation of new slaves from Africa.

A tobacco plantation in a British colony

From 1777 to 1804 slavery was outlawed in the northern states of America, but it persisted in the South, with its economy built on slave labor, until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.

This is a painting depicting the British abolitionist society of 1840. Public domain.

Meanwhile in Britain Wilberforce was changing the whole way slavery was viewed. Africans were finally being seen as full human beings with all the rights and dignities accorded to human beings. In 1807 the slave trade was banned by England. Other nations followed England’s example and the last full scale sale of human flesh was banished forever.

Library List

For more information about slavery read:

  • Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas. Story of William Wilberforce and fight to end slavery. See also DVD version.
  • Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Story of a young African prince who was taken captive and brought to America as a slave. For junior high and above
  • Amistad by David Pesci. Story of a revolt on a slave ship. For high school and above. See also DVD and younger kids versions.
  • Narrative of the Life of Federick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Written by an ex-slave from America. For high school and above. Great book to discuss in a group.
  • Books about Toussaint l’Ouverture, ex-slave and first president of Haiti.
  • Books by and about Sojourner Truth, ex-slave and activist.
  • Books about Harriet Tubman, ex-slave, hero of the underground railroad and activist.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This is the book that woke up the conscience of America to do something about the slave problem once and for all, greatly contributing to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. For high school and above. Look also for kids story versions.


After doing some reading, discuss with your kids the moral issues of slavery. Why is it wrong? Who says it’s wrong? Read the Declaration of Independence, which declares that “all men are created equal”. What reason does the Declaration of Independence give for these “self-evident rights” of all mankind? What does your own religious tradition teach about how we should treat others and the value of humans?

American Southerners were devoutly Christian, which religion teaches expressly against such things as slavery. How did they justify what they were doing? What did the breaking of this moral law do to the characters and the souls of those who engaged in it? (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass particularly deal with this issue.)

Additional Layers

  • Research more about what the American founders thought about slavery.
  • Is there still slavery in the world today? See if you can find out.
  • Learn more about lives of slaves in the south. What was it like? Why did Southerners want slaves so badly?
  • Slavery ended not because of government, but because of the opinion of the people in various nations. Discuss how the people have power to change things when they don’t like how it’s going.
  • Make a map showing the slave trade routes and the routes supporting slavery. The British East India company brought tea and spices to Africa where they were sold for slaves and the slaves in turn were brought to the Americas where they were sold for raw goods, such as cotton, tobacco, sugar and indigo. These goods were taken to England where they were refined or processed and then sold all over Europe and the Americas. (Tea and spices were also sold in Europe and the Americas. The tea spilled in Boston Harbor in 1773 was from India and the sale of it supported the British East India Company, which owned the majority of the slave ships.) The British Empire was literally run on slavery. You can see why it was so hard to change the laws in England, especially when you realize that most members of parliament were part owners of the British East India Company.

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