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"I came here in peace, seeking gold and slaves."
- – Jack Handey, What I'd Say to the Martians
Slavery is the institution of owning other humans (as well as other sapient beings by extrapolation) as property. As slaves are bound to their owners, they were prevented from leaving or refusing to work under threat of immediate violence for disobedience. When two groups would fight, it was not uncommon for the victor to capture some of the defeated along with the goods or territory and put them to work. Later on, as long-distance trade improved, they also began selling said captives to other cultures. The children of slaves usually were slaves themselves, though this was not universal.
In other cases, people would be put into slavery as a punishment, e.g. for failure to pay their debts, or voluntarily such as an alternative to paying for something. Some systems of slavery even offered opportunities for, like the Devshirmeh system in Ottoman Empire, where boys taken from among Christian vassals who were bright enough could actually end up as Grand Vizier of the Empire (with a few caveats; they had to be smart and all of them had to be converted to Islam willingly or not... either way they weren't allowed to stay Christian).
In addition to the practice of owning human beings as chattel, there are other contemporary and historical arrangements so similar to slavery that they are referred to as slavery informally or at that point in history. A few of these include serfdom (serfs were not owned, but they were bound to the land owned by nobles and are required to work the noble's land 2-3 days per week for free and keep what else they could grow-keep-trade), indentured servitude in colonial America (in exchange for passage to the new world being paid, criminal fines or to discharge a debt, someone would be indentured to a contract holder and have to work off their debt over a number of years such as British criminals and Irish people too poor to pay for the trip), impressment and shanghaiing (where people were kidnapped from ports or ships and forced to serve as sailors with said debt not being hereditary), the various forced labor programs used by the Nazis and other despotic regimes and the victims of human trafficking which is still ongoing today.
Presently it's generally acknowledged that humans cannot be considered real assets, although there remain locations where this is not an absolute, and only the most extreme activists consider this to be a universal right that should be extended to other organisms. And there are very few countries that have addressed the more tricky issues of conscription, prison labor, and non-dischargeable debt.
Economically slavery is... tricky. At the first glance it looks like free labour, meaning easy way of getting rich without paying your workers. But slavery have lots of hidden expenses, most notably on security and overseeing work, making it not nearly as free as it looks. Furthermore, most slaves are unfit for any sophisticated work, being way worse motivated in the result of their labour than hired workers. That's not to say you can't have slave engineers, teachers or other high-intelligence jobs, but historically it only worked by giving said highly skilled slaves so much freedom and privilege they end up more like contracted workers with no way of getting out of the contracts, and not much (if any) cheaper than free people doing the same job, so the only upside is that they don't run away from you and tell your secrets to your enemies. For this reason in most cultures for the overwhelming length of history slaves were a luxury, not really a means of creating wealth, unless you happen to have highly profitable industry with very low skill requirement, like strip mining in antiquity (deep mining required way more skill), cotton farming in new age or textile sweatshops in modern times. Even then it have another hidden detriment: slaves don't consume as much as free people, so they put a giant handbrake on the economy, hampering the circulation of the capital and generally making everyone, including even slave owners, poorer compared to the same economy running on hired labour instead of slavery. In short, slavery excells at making nobles or their equivalents in society richer than plebs, but not at making them richer than "nobles" of other societies that don't run on slavery. One of the reasons modern slavery only survived in 3-d world countries is that they're 3-d world partly because they still use slavery.
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The oldest surviving codex of laws yet discovered in the world, the "Code of Ur-Nammu" dating back to at least 2050 BC, has multiple references to slaves, so slavery has been with humanity for a very long time. Slavery was practiced in virtually every culture at some point throughout their history; as soon as a people progressed from a hunter-gathering and nomadic culture to an agrarian one it became more convenient to look for ways to increase productivity and lower expenses. Before the advent of modern machinery, that way was some flavor of slave workforce since you generally had to spend less resources on a slave than you would on your fellow clan member.
In the ancient world, basically all civilizations made use of slavery to some degree or another. Prisoners of war were taken as slaves and made to ply their trade for their conquerors, or were sold abroad for goods. Since civilizations would wax and wane from time to time, the enslavers of one generation might end up enslaved in the next. The Ancient Egyptians made use of slaves in various ways though even there there was something of a hierarchy among slaves, although contrary to popular beliefs pyramids weren't built by slaves but by free people (paid in fresh crops grown on the most fertile and irrigated lands in Egypt owned directly by king and worked by king's personal slaves as well as good amounts of meat). The Greeks made heavier-than-usual use of slaves, and the Romans even more so. The Persians did not use slavery themselves and tried to limit it, but slavery did exist in their Empire among their conquered vassals. Slaves worked in every field from miners (who were quickly worked to death) to farmers, to factory workers and skilled craftsmen. Other examples range from the Grimdark examples of sex slaves or fodder for human sacrifice (the latter being something the Aztecs were notorious for), to non dark examples such as entertainers, teachers and doctors (particularly Greeks who could buy their freedom in a year, or even less if skilled) and even up to high ranking government officials in the Empire. Ancient Romans used to grumble about all these slaves coming in stealing people's jobs (this sentence is not a joke).
Slavery existed in Medieval Europe, but declined after the year 1,000 AD in a lot of places, especially the north. The Domesday Book (a census carried out by William the Conqueror in 1086) stipulated that about 10% of the population of England was slaves. The Vikings practiced slavery, acquiring them primarily on expeditions or raids in Eastern Europe and the British Isles. They could also obtain Viking slaves at home, as crimes like murder and thievery were punished with slavery or through doing business with the Arab Slave Trade. The basis for the modern English word slave gets its roots here, as the Slavic races were so often put upon that the ordeal was named after them, also providing the first example of race-based slavery. When Arabs, and later the Europeans, discovered the continent of Africa, there was much contact between local tribes and foreigners on this subject. Many nations would take slaves from the peoples of Africa abetted at times by local slavery systems among African people themselves (see below). In Brazil and most of the Caribbean between 1600 and 1800, the slave population never was able to achieve natural replacement rates due to a high death rate from overwork and abuse by their masters. The American system of slavery (aka "the peculiar institution") would arguably require an entire article of its own, but since we'd rather not try to poke that hornet's nest, suffice to say it was little different from the Caribbean experience and was only abolished by President Abraham Lincoln after the American Civil War (and was one of the reasons Lincoln was assassinated).
During this aforementioned time, the idea of racial slavery was raised. In the Classical World (for example, Ancient Rome), slaves were basically from everywhere in the Empire and many places beyond and the children of freed slaves (Libertus) in Rome became more Romans, and Rome being Rome, they even had the manumission (freeing) a religious/bureaucratic ritual onto itself. While if Slavic people are considered a race, they were the first case of racial slavery due to being popular choices of slaves. Ideas raised in attempts to justify the idea arose between the Arab Slave Trade and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Slavery is not a nice thing even at the best of times, but racial slavery adds to it the conception that an enslaved race is inferior, doomed to servitude forever, and that people from it are unfit for anything else. Those caught up in it had little hope of ever elevating themselves from a state of being a form of livestock with the hands for manual labor. Slave ships sailed from the Middle East and Europe to Africa loaded with manufactured goods, textiles and weapons which they traded for prisoners of war, criminals and existing slaves. They were packed in like sardines to be shipped back to the countries of their slavers.
Africa has had slavery between its various tribes and kingdoms for millennia, even to the present day. Between this and many foreign civilizations making extensive use of African slaves, the history of slavery in Africa is complicated and violent. In Africa, even prior to the Arab slave trade or the Atlantic/European slave trade, slavery happened in all forms from ancient times. This was enacted between many of the various tribes and nations of Africa; however, in many African societies where slavery was prevalent, the enslaved people were not treated as chattel slaves and had certain rights in a system similar to indentured servitude elsewhere in the world. When the Arab slave trade - and centuries later, the Atlantic slave trade - began, many of the local slave systems began supplying captives for slave markets outside Africa. They also supplied local criminals and captives from rival tribes or nations to the Arab, European or American slave trades. This means African slave traders unwittingly helped fan the flames of the issue of racial slavery, unaware of the dehumanization these buyers would subject them to - and that's before the Scramble for Africa caused many of them to become slaves themselves.
In the Ottoman Empire, whose system can arguably be seen as similar to the Eastern Roman Empire, the system was more or less the same, but with a small possibility of moving up if you were a Christian (or claiming to be one) because Christians (and Jews) are considered "people of the Book", meaning the worthiest of non-Muslim people according to Islam. It had three sources of slaves: The first was Africa, with the usual Grimdark fate for blacks brought by the thousands, many castrated and dying during transport, females ending up as house slaves and non-castrated males working agriculture in Egypt and Anatolia as fellahin. The second was the slave-port of Caffa, the most underreported and forgotten white slavery port which took millions of white slaves from Ukraine, males killed and women sold as sex slaves(you don't get to hear much about it because they are not black). Devshirmeh is the name for the system of taking one boy out of 40 houses from the population of Christian vassals in the Ottoman Empire; this mostly meant Balkan Christians, with the inclusion of Bosniak Muslims while Armenians, Romani and Jews were explicitly excluded. The taken boys were converted to Islam one way or another, then made into elite monastic troops called Janissaries (new soldiers). If they proved intelligent, they were sent to the Imperial Academy in Enderun to become bureaucrats. Being slaves, they had no habeas corpus and could be executed at any time - in theory. In practice, while the threat hanging over their heads was very real, they could also push back against this by working their way into military ranks, marrying Ottoman princesses, engineering palace coups to kill off sultans who didn't pay them enough, or even investing back in their native countries such as Bosnia (the reason Bosniaks mourned the fall of the Janissary institution while EVERYONE ELSE celebrated it). The dangers of the devshirmeh system didn't stop some families from actively sending their kids there in desperation, often to the point of bribing the Janissary Aghas.
Female slaves in the Ottoman Empire didn't get as many opportunities, with the "best" option allowed to them being to end up as palace concubines. But this contained more backstabbing than a Tzeentchian party, and few died peacefully. Ironically, many concubines who ended up marrying Viziers or military officers ended up in better positions than concubines who were gunning for the top spot. With the advent of nationalism, the French Revolution, Russia conquering Ukraine and destroying the Muslim-Tatar slavery business (If only to preserve their white serf population) and the growing need for military reforms bitterly opposed by the Janissaries, the system's flaws burst like rotting cysts, and Ottoman-style slavery went the way of the Dodo in 1847 thanks to Abdulmajid's reforms. The harem was numerous enough by then, and the freed whites went on with their lives while the black population settled in Western Turkey as free farmers. Slavery didn't completely end until Atatürk did the final house-cleaning around the 1930's.
Eurasia, particularly Ukraine, was the hotbed of slavery for the Ottoman Empire, with the port city of Caffa being the continent's major slave ports. The Russians liberated it from the Crimean Khanate, whose major income was thousands of taken women and children from villages, supplying the Ottoman Empire's need for European/white women. Evliya Çelebi even wrote about the despair and cries of women separated from their children and then sold separately.
But the problem was particularly acute in Russia. Tzar Alexander II officially ended serfdom in Russia via two edicts in 1861 and 1866, liberating roughly 33 million people (23 million private serfs and at least 9 million state serfs) from obligations. But this was achieved by simply taxing all of them and paying the tax to their former lords. While this tax was intended to expire, ultimately the hardship this caused combined the Great War and other factors would lead to the abdication of the Tzar and the Russian Revolution.
In contrast to the above, slavery is virtually never mentioned in east Asian-inspired settings. This has some basis in history in certain areas: The Mongols' nomadic lifestyle was not conductive to widespread slavery, though they did take some captives as slaves (Genghis Khan himself was briefly a slave in his youth), and during the Mongol Empire's runs on conquering China people were often little better than slaves anyway. The Chinese themselves went through several periods of loosening and then making stricter laws surrounding slavery, usually rallying around who was in charge following their frequent wars to unify, only to break apart once more. The question of working conditions in China and comparisons to slavery along with "prison camps" came up during and after Mao Zedong's rise to power, but rather than poke that hornet's nest suffice to say these stories have more than a grain of truth to them (there's a reason for the stereotype of the Chinese sweatshop worker). The inhabitants of the Ryukyu islands "would die over" slavery rather than participate. Slavery in Asia was probably most prolific on the Korean peninsula, who had a caste system, but population growth, a few slave revolts and modernization eventually rendered it less than palatable.
The earliest European reports of Japan mention that, though it existed there, slavery was rare and primarily inflicted on debtors and prisoners of war. The main recorded examples are the maids/concubines of the rich, and those brought by Europeans themselves. One European held slave's physical stature impressed Oda Nobunaga so much that he purchased him, freed him and elevated him to samurai status (making him potentially the first and only non japanese Samuraï). This man would be known as Yasuke, the only black samurai. During the Sengoku a not-insignificant of Japanese prisoners of war were sold to the Europeans for foreign trade until 1587/1595, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned it. HOWEVER... the Japanese were one of the last countries to give up serfdom; the feudal land system disappeared along with the Samurai who oversaw it during the Meiji Restoration.
Slavery in Fantasy
Because slavery is viewed as such a moral repugnance throughout the modern world, it is an easy way for lazy GMs to get a reaction from players. Slavery being one of the common features of a setting's bad guys makes for an easy way to establish that civilization or organization is evil. A bunch of armed guys attack a peaceful village with chains and whips to catch its residents, bind them, and take them to their dwelling, where they're treated worse than how we treat livestock and forced to: toil, be beaten, probably raped, and made to fight to the death in arenas for the amusement and benefit of some sick bastards? That is more than enough reason to establish "these guys are bad, go kill their asses" regardless of alignment; even Evil characters can simply indulge their drive to kill by offing slavers, and exploit the freed villagers and their families for more favors - particularly Lawful Evil ones.
However, this is not always the case; both the perceived "good" and "bad" factions can also engage in slavery, although how they do it usually defines who's good and who's bad (regardless of how minute the difference is). Take Araby and the Dark Elves in the Warhammer Fantasy setting, for example. Both factions engage in wanton slavery and have no qualms about it being a common thing everywhere. However, what sort of defines each of them is how they see their slaves. In Araby, slaves have several rights, the children of slaves are guaranteed by law to not be slaves, and particularly cruel mistreatment of slaves will result in punishment to the masters and the mistreated becoming free. The Dark Elves consider all non-Dark Elves to be beneath them and will torture and maim their slaves, just because they think it is fun.
Though it is found in both, slavery is more common in fantasy settings than in science fiction. In your typical Tolkien knockoff, the way you go about digging rocks, harvesting lumber, tilling fields and raising buildings is normally with strong backs. In most sci-fi worlds, why have a bunch of slaves working in an irradiated asteroid space mine when you could have a bunch of robots who don't need slave drivers, don't require food or air, won't plot escape/rebellion (hopefully), and are stronger and easier to repair if damaged?
Ancient Nehekharan's society mostly have their labor powered by slaves that were either prisoners of war or captured from oversea raid (like their Egypt counterpart). Most slaves would overworked themselves and die under the whips of architects (or soon to be necrotect) while building a pyramid (which would cost the lives of one million slaves in 25 years to completed it. Settra's pyramid only took 20 years and cost over 2000 slaves). This does not mean Nehekharan are mostly cruel tyrants, for few kind or wise rulers would grant boon to talented slaves by giving them a place in their hierarchy, allowing some of them to even become a vizier (second most powerful man in a great city besides a priest king). Females would be used as a servant instead for labor just because they are good looking.
Then there's that guy named Nagash. Oh boy, the greatest tyrant of all. HE believed everyone but him are either his slaves, slave soldiers, his magic energy source or his enemies that should die. Being an evil necromancer, he harvest soul to either replenish energy for his dark magic or turn them into undead so they could serve him for eternity. Necromancy is literary the answer to his endless needs for free labors. He made the construction of his black pyramid with more casualties than his predecessor simply because he couldn't wait for 200 to 250 years for it to complete (even telling the slaves to carve with not actual tools, but human bones from died slaves). Not to mentioned he slit the throat of his architect once the pyramid as if he has outlived his usefulness. He treat and view woman as nothing but breeding cattle for human reproduction. Even those talented generals serves under him suffered many mistreatment from him as if their inferiority is equal to a slave. Due to how he could just raised back the dead, he simply has no regards or feelings to his important generals (even Arkhan), for he could just raise them back again and again. No one in the setting treats a slave like Nagash, NO ONE, except the Skavens, perhaps.
Skaven mainly enslave their own kind, the slave rats, which is also the bottom tier of their society. Unless a Skaven is a special rat of black, grey, white fur color, they are destined to be slaves. The life of a Skaven slave is expected, incredibly shitty and short lived. They were given little amount of leftover or rotten food which the slaves had to fight for it, and the winner takes the food AND cannibalize its dead rival's remain. The job of a Skaven slave is as dangerous as it is sound. One day they could be used as target practice by either a warlock engineer's warmachine or as a test subject by master moulders' flesh crafting experiments. They are well known on the battlefield, field in masses by the Skaven Warlord, design to tired out their enemy since they can't fight for shit (they same could say about clan rats and most of the skaven combatant when compare to other race), so imagine them as Bretonnian peasants, but with even shittier stats and leaderships. Skaven do take slaves from other races (just very rarely since non-skaven captive are preferably eaten and Skaven are not like Slaanesh followers, they do not have sexual attractions towards other species and thus has no desires to keep a female no-furs as trophy). Humans that were enslaved by the Skaven were driven mad to the point of insanity (due to them still believing Skaven does not exist) which their dellusion will continue until they are actually turned into a Skaven from mutations, or so the rumor says.
Warhammer 40,000 actually justifies having slaves fairly well in that, in the Imperium, such automation is considered techno-heresy (or simply decayed like spaceship artillery loaders) due to a robot rebellion happening in the past and the risk of Chaos corruption for the machines. In order to access free labors without the fear from Abominable Intelligence, they created Servitors, cyborgs made out of human criminals or vat clones.
The Dark Eldar are sick bastards who need to consume souls of psychically susceptible species (human youngsters are prime specimens, while Tau souls taste bland and weak) and get their rocks off at making others miserable.
And the Orks... well, the Orks simply believe might makes right is an axiom (A WOT?!). It's the natural order that the big and tough can and ought push around the small and puny. There's no universal right, only the power you possess.
A Digression About the Economics of Slavery
For serious worldbuilders who have it, you need to consider what economics already considers a long-standing question: Is slavery profitable in the long term, and if so where?
The consensus answer among economic historians to the first one is that yes, slavery can be profitable, but only in those situations where technology does not offer a faster/cheaper/safer solution. Indeed, most ancient Empires (Egyptian, Greek, Roman) had some form of institutionalized slavery that allowed them to endure. This being said, the very concept of slavery has some serious downsides (that have nothing to do with morality) dooming it in the long run. The short answer to the "where" question is "cash crops and other agriculture, unskilled labor, and a bit of mining", in roughly that order of profitability.
The practical downsides that doom slavery include, but are not limited to:
- First of all, in any area where sabotage is a serious concern slavery is usually a non-starter. For a recent example, look at the Nazis using forced labor to build their weapons later in the war, and the quality of said weapons. That rules out most semi-modern mining, as well as just about any industry with any degree of mechanization and a surprising amount of agriculture.
- Despite mining being the stereotypical use of slaves in fiction, mining past a certain depth is sufficiently deadly and expensive that semi-skilled labor is absolutely required, and a slave has a nice way to commit suicide AND hurt his master's profits at the same time. While other exploitative practices may be used, the training required means actual slavery-based mining is very much a no-go save for tasks such as the very basic work of breaking surface mineral seams, as well as open-pit mining, where "getting stuck" is not an issue and carrying loads to processing stations a la South American silver mining done by Spanish or simple stone quarries where all one needs doing is to hit a stone with a pick and carry the resulting ore chunks to the storage.
- Second, unless reproduction is heavily encouraged (and ties down the female slaves to light labor), slave populations have a tendency to drop over time, especially compared to relatively free populations (even ignoring manumission, buying freedom in better societies and escapes), and five seconds of thought on slaves' living conditions should lead to a few obvious conclusions as to why. So if you want to keep up, you need to constantly raid (or trade with raiders) for more slaves. Last time this was done beyond the 16th century, the United States wrecked the entire Barbary coast with artillery and freed slaves. So any "sustainable" raiding *will* attract military threats that will make sure any slave taken will eventually be more expensive than a free worker who is A) already available and willing, B) lives within the empire and C) has many motivations, such as family, welfare and hopes for a good future).
- Third, slave-holding societies are usually economically out-competed by non-slave-holding societies once military considerations are either removed or temporarily equalized. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the big ones are the twin spectres of Incentives (which align more closely in non-slave societies) and Efficiency (effort you expend on keeping slaves from escaping or rebelling could usually be more productively used elsewhere, and that's just to start, saying nothing of potentially intelligent slaves wasted in labor they are not optimal for rather than being educated and made into scientists).
- Fourth, if slaves are owned in large numbers they start to displace the local non-slaves. This is not a simple case of "DEY TOOK AHR JERBS", as the Romans can attest: when large numbers of slaves started to displace local farmers who were forced to sell their land for some reason or the other, said ex-farmers were driven to the cities, where there were not a lot of jobs either. This bred poverty, and from poverty rose a class dissatisfied with their lot in life as they starve while the rich grow fat. And from this rose political and civilian unrest, which is never good for any state. In the case of the Romans, this gave birth to a populist dictator, Julius Caesar and his adoptive son Octavian, which created a major precedent for all modern dictatorships and bread-and-circuses states.
- Lastly, having a large slave population essentially constituted a permanent fifth column presence. Every empire that employed slavery was compelled to maintain a large armed presence in its home territory to suppress revolts. This tended to limit the size that a state could grow to territorially, with only a few superpowers managing to consolidate enough territory with reliable regional governors to sustain a permanent campaigning military while retaining enough force at home to prevent rebellion. Serfdom policed by religion was more effective at maintaining civil order, with serfs tending to rebel only in the case of famine and excessive taxation.
Slavery in worldbuilding is not confined strictly to historical settings; it is also a valid consideration in near future science fiction. The time and cost of moving individuals to other bodies in the solar system by conventional means, combined with the work to be done and the scarcity of hands will mean that people on such ventures will NOT have the luxury to quit. Space colonization under these circumstances will inevitably require a return to the ancient naval tradition that a captain at sea must be an absolute despot for the good of all aboard; "keeping everyone alive" and "avoiding everyone dying" are not synonymous, and many hazards of space make the distinction very important. Activity in space today is achieved as a pseudo-military expedition with carefully selected teams trained to cooperate, but larger scale operations WILL necessitate an organization divide between labor and operations and that will result in social friction. In some settings, colonization is achieved by using convicted prisoners as labor to sidestep the moral questions of compulsory work and sacrificing some to save all.
- Besides the pair that allows us to explain that there's a sliding scale of evilness associated with slave-holding societies