World History 2 156 - 10.3.1 Slavery and Serfdom

By the end of the nineteenth century, chattel slavery, in which one human being is owned by another and can be bought or sold, lingered in only a few places on the globe. Some nations had already abolished slavery before the Second Industrial Revolution began. Japan officially did so in the sixteenth century. Britain abolished the slave trade and ended slavery completely in 1834. France banned slavery in 1848, freeing nearly all enslaved people in the Caribbean. In India, the Penal Code of 1861 punished those who attempted to enslave others. The Netherlands and the United States were among the last industrialized nations to end the practice, with the Dutch freeing enslaved people in the South American colony of Suriname in 1863 and the United States abolishing slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to its Constitution in 1865.

Most Latin American nations ended slavery following their wars of independence in the early nineteenth century. Brazil, however, with its primarily agricultural economy, long resisted reformers’ calls for emancipation. In 1850, the country finally bowed to pressure from its chief trading partner, Great Britain, which had assumed the moral duty of abolishing slavery around the world soon after it liberated its own enslaved people. Brazil ended its slave trade, and in 1871 it passed a law that freed all children born to enslaved women from that point forward. In 1885, it decreed that all enslaved people would be free when they reached their sixtieth birthdays. Finally, it completely abolished slavery in 1888.

Along with British pressure, other factors influenced Brazil’s decision. The battlefield performance of enslaved men during Brazil’s 1864–1870 war with Paraguay led many White soldiers to admire the Afro-Brazilian fighters, and they became reluctant to recapture runaways. Many White Brazilians also believed their nation could not become modern and industrialized if it possessed a large population of African ancestry. For them, getting rid of slavery was the first step on the path to creating a Brazil that was more White.

Serfdom also largely disappeared in the second half of the nineteenth century. Serfs were unfree peasants who were legally bound to work the land on which they lived, land that was owned by another. Russia held nearly all Europe’s remaining serfs. Approximately eleven million were owned by private citizens, and another twelve to thirteen million were owned by the state. Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861. This did not necessarily improve serfs’ lives, however. Though emancipated, they were required to serve their masters for two more years. They were then allowed to remain on the lands they had worked, but they had to purchase them, often at high prices. Domestic serfs, those who had been household servants, received no land. In some parts of the Russian empire, serfdom lingered on for a few more decades.

Link to Learning

This is a 2017 report on modern slavery in which many interesting and surprising facts can be found in the first few pages.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax