World context of U.S. slavery, in maps

African slavery was a shameful part of American history.  The purpose of these maps is not to excuse slavery or deny its importance, but to provide context for understanding it.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, slavery was legal in every transatlantic European colony in the New World from Quebec to Argentina.   Slavery was the most intense in the sugar and coffee plantations of Brazil, the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the tobacco plantations of British North America.

African Slave Trade, 1400-1900.  Source: Wikipedia.

The first abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was by the Republic of Vermont, in 1777.   By 1804, slavery had been abolished throughout the northern United States—New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the territory of the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan—and still existed everywhere else.

In some states, though, abolition was gradual and did not take full effect until decades later.  Also, emancipated slaves were seldom granted full civil rights.

The year 1804 saw the successful revolt of the enslaved people of Haiti, the first nation ruled by former slaves.  Then slavery was abolished in the newly-liberated nations of Spanish America, and in the British, French and Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.  

By 1860, slavery in the Western Hemisphere existed only in Brazil, Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico and the American South.  Slavery had taken on a new life in the USA because of the invention of the cotton gin, which increased the profitability of cotton plantations, and the USA was by far the most powerful slaveholding nation.  

The United States was one of the last Western Hemisphere nations to abolish slavery and the only one that had to fight an internal Civil War to bring it about.

On a worldwide basis, abolition of slavery took longer.

Dates of abolition of slavery worldwide. Source: Wikipedia

Slavery is a technical term.  Abolition of slavery did not mean abolition of serfdom or peonage.  It did not mean abolition of forced labor in European colonies in Africa and Asia, nor in the Nazi and Soviet forced labor camps.

Slavery, although outlawed, persists in the world today.  Enslavement and indentured servitude for non-payment of debts are ancient forms of slavery, and they still exists.

If, as in the maps below, you broaden the definition to include forced marriages, sex trafficking and forced labor of all kinds, you find there are tens of millions of slaves in the world today.


Chattel slavery was part of a global system.  It wasn’t something uniquely American.  The USA wasn’t the one evil nation in a righteous and just world.  Of course that doesn’t make American slavery any less of a crime.

If you feel guilt about your country’s past history of slavery, I think the best way to atone is to fight slavery and other forms of oppression in the present.


Present-Day Slavery

One in 200 people is a slave | Why? by Kate Hodal for The Guardian.

Slavery Today – Different Types of Human Trafficking on the End Slavery Now website.

What Is Modern Slavery? by Anti-Slavery International.

Historical Perspective.

Timeline of Abolition of Slavery and Serfdom on Wikipedia.

Chronology: Who Banned Slavery When? by Reuters.

Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean by

[Minor revisions 2022/2/13]

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One Response to “World context of U.S. slavery, in maps”

  1. Bill Harvey Says:

    Wow, Phil. As Steve has said to me a few times, “How does Phil do it?”

    You have put together a tremendous tool here. I’m going to start a little side project of buzzing thru it once a day for a week, as I just did, to try to fix more of this in my mind.

    Thanks much,


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