The Destruction of Humanity

A Closer Look at History's Unfree Labor Systems


From the beginning of recorded history, almost every culture has participated in some form of unfree labor. Yet, many people do not know that unfree labor or slavery, is still widely practiced in the world today. This will introduce different forms of unfree labor from around the world, in attempt to expose these awful practices and the way in which the lives of the captured are effected throughout history. Although there are many varying types and degrees of unfree labor, they all have the same cruel and dehumanizing commonalities.

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"Enslaved Africans in Hold of Slave Ship 1827"

This is a good example of the way slaves were transported through the middle passage into their unfortunate new lives. Notice there is suckling babies headed for slavery as well.

How Unfree Labor Starts

People became trapped in the system of unfree labor in various ways. When the British began to settle the colonies, during the first half of the 16th century, in what is now known as the United States of America, they were lacking a labor force to establish themselves in this new land. One way they chose to do this was through convict labor. London had a surplus of street children whom they deemed vagrants, and began rounding them up and putting them on a boat to the colonies. The convicts they rounded up were not only children, but also adult convicts from the streets and in the prison system. In total between 50,000 to 70,000 people were transported, not just to the colonies, but to various places in the Americas. Indentured servants were another common type of unfree labor used in the foundation of the United States. Men and women would offer to work for families in the colonies, if the families would pay for their transportation there. In Mexico it was very common to take debt laborers. Men who could not pay their debts were forced to work unpaid, until the debt was paid off. During war time it was very common to capture people from the opposing side and use them as unfree labor. POW labor was often practiced in Africa, Asia, and many European nations, as well as, Native Americans. Many Africans were taken as slaves by warring tribes, and either sold to others, likely becoming chattel slaves, or kept as laborers for a duration. During World War II from 1942-1945, many different countries captured POW's, however the most notorious for using unfree labor were the Japanese.

The photo above is of an "Iron Collar and Chains Used by Slave Traders in the 19th Century" This collar and chains was used by slave traders to attach slaves to each other.


Faits relatifs a la traite des noirs (published by the Société de la morale Chrétienne. Comité pour l'abolition de la traite des noirs; Paris, 1826), p. 15. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

What life was like

Life for these unfree laborers was as varied as the people who were in control of them. Convict laborers from London, that came to work in the colonies, were kids off the streets, ranging from 8 to 16, or convicts in the jails. They were forced to work long hours, with little food in harsh conditions. Unbelievably, Japanese convict laborers had much worse conditions. During WWII the Japanese took 250,000 convicts from their prisons, and over 100,000 Japanese died building the railroad in Burma. These convicts were treated worse by their own people, then the POWs in Japan. It was normal for Prisoners of War, to work on continuing the war effort for the apposing side. However, one particular group of POWs in Japan, who worked on the 258 mile railroad through Thailand and Burma suffered vary extreme treatment and conditions. These POWs lived on a 600 calorie diet of mostly rice and small pieces of vegetables and worked 16 hr days. Punishments for noncompliance was extremely harsh. They slept in bamboo huts, were constantly wet, because of the jungle conditions and wore rags for clothing as they received no replacements. As a result of this treatment almost 30% of them died. A similar group of unfree laborers were the debt laborers of Mexico. These laborers lived in little huts made out of corn stalks, which held up to 200 people at a time, were given very little to eat and abuse and harsh physical treatment was not uncommon. While working to pay off their debts, years were added on sometimes as punishments and often they would never be released from there bondage. As a result, many debt laborers tried to run away to the United States. Ironically, Chattel slaves from the U.S. attempted to escape to Mexico, from their harsh treatment. Chattel slaves were slaves with a life long obligation to one master. These slaves were found all over the world, however the most widely known would be the plantation slaves. Most plantation slaves came from Africa, and were dispersed to places like Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. These slaves could be treated very harshly and struggled to negotiate their needs and desires while living under the oppressive thumb of their master. They were separated from their families, treated much like animals and most never saw freedom. Unlike chattel slaves, indentured servants had a slightly better chance at freedom. Men, women and children from the British isles and western Europe, usually traded between three and seven years of unpaid contractual labor, for a ticket to the colonies. Like many unpaid laborers, they had a tendency to be treated harshly, often sleeping in out building and receiving only enough food to get by. Punishments consisted of whippings, their ears being nailed to boards or more often extra years added on to their contract. As all of these decisions, were at the owners discretion, many were never released from indentured servitude.

"Domestic Slave With Planters Family, Virginia, ca. 1859-64"

The picture above is a planter family with their black nursemaid. Notice how young she is.

Photograph by unidentified photographer, published in Ellen Dugan, ed., Picturing the South, 1860 to the Present (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1996), p. 32; the photograph is held by a private collector.


So why has this happened? The bottom line is, these people were tortured and kidnapped for; religious freedom, a chance at a better life, fighting for their countries or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The English saw picking up children off the streets and sending them to the colonies as a way to simultaneously clean up the city and provide workers for their new tobacco fields. The Japanese thought using soldiers from other countries, who in their eyes, disgraced themselves by surrendering, was a good use of disposable humans. The Spanish, Dutch, and French slave traders, were thinking only about the amount of money they were making. Unfortunately in the case of the Indentured Servants, they volunteered. These are not the only types of unfree labor or the only countries that have participated, but it displays a good overview. Not all those who have owned or been in control of others lives have been cruel, however the idea of unfree labor in itself, gives that opportunity.

"House Slave Fanning European Woman, Brazil, 1821

In the picture above an African Slave is fanning a woman who is probably, the masters wife.

James Henderson, A History of the Brazil. . . (London, 1821), facing p. 346. (Copy in The Newberry Library, Chicago)


From as far back as Greek and Roman times, to the present day, man has enslaved their own people, taken others for their own personal gain, and ruined possible peace with other cultures, for their own selfish schemes and desires. Slavery has been an on going battle because of religious tensions, racism, and hate of those who are deemed inferior. Though it seems like there are many different types and level of unfree labor, and there are, they all relate back to a common aspect, one man taking control of another.


Bergad, Laird W. , The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba and the Caribbean. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Davis, David Brion, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006.

Jordan, Don. And Michael Walsh, White Cargo: The forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in Americas. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Klein, Herbert S. and Ben Vinson, III, African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

La Forte, Robert S. and Ronald E. Marcello, Building the Death Railway: The Ordeal of American POWs in Burma, 1942-1945.Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc. 1993.

MacArthur, Brian, Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, 1942-45. New York: Random House, 2005.

Nichols, James David. “The Line of Liberty: Runaway Slaves and Fugitive Peons in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands.” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol 44. No 4 (2013). pp. 413-433.