Definition of Slavery

As the leading scholar of slavery, David Davis observed “The more we learn about slavery, the more difficulty we have defining it”. A clear definition of slavery has indeed proven very hard to find. As the leading scholar of ottoman slavery has remarked “It is difficult to treat slavery as one definable phenomenon just in the Ottoman Empire, let alone globally”. Another scholar has observed about slavery in Istanbul that it was so diverse just in Istanbul, that it does not make to talk about slavery as a unified phenomenon in just one city, let alone the entire world.

Dr Jonathan Brown has pointed out that definitions in slavery have tended to revolve around three notions. A slave as a man who is an outsider, a slave as property and a slave as an object of violence. But for the definitions to fit into all thing that people today commonly associate with slavery, this definition has to be so vague that it is almost useless.

So slavery according to one person is the forced labor of one group by another. Others have suggested that slavery is an outcast. Some scholars have proposed more specific definitions. The most influential definition comes from Orlando Patterson who defines slavery as always exhibiting three features. First, slavery involves perpetual domination, ultimately enforced by violence. Second, slavery involves natal alienation, which means you are unable to pass on anything, you are cut off from your ancestors. Third, slavery is defined by dishonor.

Where Patterson’s definition fails to apply in many instances which we would otherwise refer to as slavery. According to Dr Jonathan Brown Slavery, sometimes there were who dominated free people as in the case of Turkish slave soldiers of the ambassador in the 9 and 10 centuries. Egypt and Syria were literally ruled by the slave dynasty from 1250 to 1617. The Turkish warlords reproduced itself generation after generation by importing new slave soldier into the military elite that defined itself by its military slave experience.


Slavery hence, cannot be defined or enveloped into a single definition, it is more a perception than a reality.