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Slavery, practice found at different times in most parts of the world, now condemned in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Slavery generally means enforced servitude, along with society's recognition that the master has ownership rights over the slave and his or her labor. Some elements of slavery can be found in serfdom, as practiced during the Middle Ages and in Russia up to 1861; in debt bondage and peonage, both forms of enforced labor for the payment of debts; and in forced labor itself, exacted for punishment or for political or military reasons (examples being the “slave” labor used by the Nazis in World War II and the Soviet labor camps). In some places a form of slavery, or bondage, is still practiced today, under the guise of exacting a bride price, or the “adoption” of poor children by wealthier families for labor purposes. While peonage is still rampant in South America, actual slavery is reputed to exist in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Tibet, and elsewhere. Slavery in Saudi Arabia was officially abolished only in 1962.

Warfare was the main source of slaves in ancient times, along with enslavement for debt or as punishment and the selling of children. But there was not necessarily a distinction in race or color between master and slave. Manumission (the granting of freedom) was commonplace, and in Greece and Rome many slaves or freedmen rose to influential posts. A slave dynasty, the Mamelukes, ruled Egypt (1250–1517). Germans enslaved many Slavic people (hence slave) in the Dark Ages. By the 13th century feudal serfdom was widespread in Europe. Slavery increased when the Portuguese, exploring the coast of Africa, began to import slaves in 1433. With the European discovery of the Americas and the development of plantations, the need for cheap, abundant labor encouraged slave trade. The British abolished its own slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833. By constitutional provision, the U.S. slave trade ended in 1808, but not the practice. The abolition issue ignited the U.S. Civil War in 1861. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863) took full effect with the end of the war in 1865.

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