Types of Enslavement in Africa and the World Today

black hands bound in heavy, rusty chains

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Whether systemic enslavement existed within sub-Saharan African societies before the arrival of Europeans is a hotly contested point between Afrocentric and Eurocentric academics. What is certain is that Africans, like other people throughout the world, have been subjected to several forms of enslavement over the centuries under both the Muslims with the trans-Saharan slave trade and Europeans through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Even after the trading of enslaved people in Africa was abolished, colonial powers continued to use forced labor, such as in King Leopold's Congo Free State (which was operated as a massive labor camp) or as libertos on the Portuguese plantations of Cape Verde or Sao Tome.

Major Types of Enslavement

It can be argued that all of the following qualify as enslavement—the United Nations defines "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" and "slave" as "a person in such condition or status."

Enslavement existed long before European imperialism, but the scholarly emphasis on the African transatlantic trade of enslaved people led to a neglect of contemporary forms of enslavement until the 21st century.

Chattel Enslavement

Chattel slavery is the most familiar type of enslavement, although people enslaved in this way make up a comparatively small proportion of enslaved people in the world today. This form involves one human being, an enslaved person, being treated as the complete property of another, their enslaver. These enslaved individuals may have been captured, enslaved from birth, or sold into permanent servitude; their children are normally also treated as property. Enslaved people in these situations are considered property and are traded as such. They have no rights and are forced to perform labor and other acts at the command of their enslaver. This is the form of enslavement that was carried out in the Americas as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

There are reports that chattel enslavement still exists in Islamic North Africa, in such countries as Mauritania and Sudan (despite both countries being participants in the 1956 UN enslavement convention). One example is that of Francis Bok, who was taken into bondage during a raid on his village in southern Sudan in 1986 at the age of seven and spent ten years as an enslaved person in the north of Sudan before escaping. The Sudanese government denies the continued existence of enslavement in its country.

Debt Bondage

The most common form of enslavement in the world today is debt bondage, known as bonded labor, or peonage, a type of enslavement resulting from a debt owed to a moneylender, usually in the form of forced agricultural labor: in essence, people are used as collateral against their debts. Labor is provided by the person who owes the debt or a relative (typically a child): the borrower's labor pays off the interest on the loan, but not the original debt itself. It is unusual for a bonded laborer to ever escape their indebtedness since further costs would accrue during the period of bondage (food, clothing, shelter), and it is not unknown for the debt to be inherited across several generations.

Faulty accounting and huge interest rates, sometimes as much as 60 or 100%, are used in extreme cases. In the Americas, peonage was extended to include criminal peonage, where prisoners sentenced to hard labor were 'farmed out' to private or governmental groups.

Africa has its own unique version of debt bondage called "pawnship." Afrocentric academics claim that this was a much milder form of debt bondage compared to that experienced elsewhere since it would occur on a family or community basis where social ties existed between debtor and creditor.

Forced Labor or Contract Enslavement

Contract enslavement originates when an enslaver guarantees employment, luring job seekers to remote locations. Once a worker arrives at the place of promised employment, he or she is violently coerced into labor without pay. Otherwise known as 'unfree' labor, forced labor, as the name implies, is based on the threat of violence against the laborer (or his or her family). Laborers contracted for a specific period would find themselves unable to escape enforced servitude, and the contracts are then used to mask the enslavement as a legitimate work arrangement. This was used to an overwhelming extent in King Leopold's Congo Free State and on Portuguese plantations of Cape Verde and Sao Tome.

Minor Types

Several less common types of enslavement are found throughout the world and account for a small number of the total number of enslaved people. Most of these types tend to be restricted to specific geographic locations.

State Enslavement or War Enslavement

State enslavement is government-sponsored, where the state and army capture and force their own citizens to work, often as laborers or bearers in military campaigns against indigenous populations or for government construction projects. State enslavement is practiced in Myanmar and North Korea.

Religious Enslavement

Religious enslavement is when religious institutions are used to maintain enslavement. One common scenario is when young girls are given to local priests to atone for the sins of their family members, which is thought to appease the gods for the crimes committed by relatives. Poor families will in effect sacrifice a daughter by having her marry a priest or a god, and end up often working as a prostitute.

Domestic Servitude

This type of enslavement is when women and children are forced to serve as domestic workers in a household, held at force, isolated from the outside world and never allowed outside.


A term usually restricted to medieval Europe, serfdom is when a tenant farmer is bound to a section of land and was thus under the control of a landlord. The serf can feed themselves by working on their lord's land but is liable for the provision of other services, such as working on other sections of land or military service. A serf was tied to the land, and could not leave without his lord's permission; they often required permission to marry, to sell goods, or to change their occupation. Any legal redress lay with the lord.

Although this is considered a European practice, the circumstances of servitude are not unlike those experienced under several African kingdoms, such as that of the Zulu in the early nineteenth century.

Enslavement Around the World

The number of people who today are enslaved to a degree depends on how one defines the term. There are at least 27 million people in the world who are permanently or temporarily under the complete control of some other person, business or state, who maintains that control by violence or the threat of violence. They live in nearly every country in the world, although the majority are believed to be concentrated in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Enslavement is also endemic in southeast Asia, Northern and Western Africa, and South America; and there are pockets in the United States, Japan, and many European countries.


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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Types of Enslavement in Africa and the World Today." ThoughtCo, Sep. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/types-of-slavery-in-africa-44542. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, September 11). Types of Enslavement in Africa and the World Today. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-slavery-in-africa-44542 Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Types of Enslavement in Africa and the World Today." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-slavery-in-africa-44542 (accessed June 7, 2023).