League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention

The 1926 International Slavery Convention was part of an effort begun by colonial nations a century earlier to suppress slavery in all its forms.

Summary of Event

Slavery has been one of the most persistent institutions of human society, existing from the dawn of history into modern times. During the Middle Ages, under the influence of Christianity in Western Europe, there were notable periods when the practice of slavery and slave trade diminished substantially, but throughout most of the world and most of human history, slavery has been regarded as either a necessary evil or an ineradicable one. [kw]League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention (Sept. 25, 1926)
[kw]International Slavery Convention, League of Nations Adopts (Sept. 25, 1926)
[kw]Slavery Convention, League of Nations Adopts International (Sept. 25, 1926)
[kw]Convention, League of Nations Adopts International Slavery (Sept. 25, 1926)
League of Nations;International Slavery Convention
International Slavery Convention (1926)
[g]Switzerland;Sept. 25, 1926: League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention[06720]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 25, 1926: League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention[06720]
[c]Human rights;Sept. 25, 1926: League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention[06720]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 25, 1926: League of Nations Adopts International Slavery Convention[06720]
Hymans, Paul
Lugard, Lord (Frederick John Dealtry Lugard)
Stanley, Henry Morton

The reappearance of slavery in colonial lands discovered by Europeans saw a resurgence of the slave trade by European countries starting in the 1400’s. Although opposed officially by the Church, which issued proclamations of excommunication against those engaged in slave trade, the practice continued to gain momentum in subsequent centuries. The philosophers of the American and French revolutions did much to discredit slavery by condemning it for destroying the natural liberty of human beings, although the U.S. Constitution fell short of the ideal by treating slaves for purposes of taxation and representation as only three-fifths of a person, a flaw left unremedied until the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments in the wake of the American Civil War.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, at the Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna (1815) on February 8, 1815, the victorious nations declared their intention to suppress the slave trade. The powers with colonial possessions were advised of their obligation and duty to abolish the slave trade. However, the institution of slavery itself, in the form of plantation slavery in the British possessions and in the United States, was virtually untouched. None of the nations at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was willing to trespass on the sovereignty of other states to end any form of domestic slavery. Nevertheless, the Congress of Vienna was a major step toward engendering an agreement among European nations to work to abolish the international traffic in slaves, especially the transatlantic trade.

Colonialism could be justified, according to Sir Frederick Lugard, who had served for many years in Africa as a colonial administrator, only if it provided mutual advantages for the colonized “natives” and for the world. Colonialism was a “school” to Christianize and civilize “savage” peoples. In return, the colony would provide European capitalists with raw materials for their industries and markets for their manufacturers.

In 1884-1885, European nations held the African Conference at Berlin. Berlin Conference (1884-1885) That conference called for the suppression of slavery and specifically of “the Negro slave trade,” but the act passed by the conference applied only to the Congo basin. It was, however, an important development in creating a body of international law that was militantly opposed to slavery.

Explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley had discovered and publicized the existence of a vast area in Africa that was controlled by Arab slave raiders. Arab traders such as Tippu Tib Tippu Tib actually posed a military threat to the tribes of the region and even to the Belgian military. Strong military operations were necessary in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa to defeat combative slave traders. The parties to the African Conference, in an 1886 decree, provided for penal servitude for slave traders.

Slave caravans penetrated the interior of Africa from the shores of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. The traffic in slaves encompassed the modern countries of Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Burundi, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. Slaves brought to trading centers in northern and eastern Africa were sold for local use or, as was more often the case, were sent to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other eastern countries. Another decree in 1888 regarding labor contracts prohibited the enslavement of natives by nonnatives. The colonial powers were trying to abolish slavery indirectly by abolishing the slave trade.

There were difficulties connected with the outright abolition of domestic slavery (that is, slavery within a colony) and forced labor, and an international consensus did not yet exist for a frontal attack on slavery and its analogous forms. An impressive step was taken to suppress slavery at the Second Brussels Conference of 1890. The General Act of Brussels, General Act of Brussels (1890) signed on July 2, 1890, as a result of that conference, had more signatories than earlier international conventions on the suppression of slavery; it also had more enforcement requirements in its articles than did preceding conventions. The nations meeting at Brussels included all of the major European nations, as well as the United States, Turkey, Iran, and Zanzibar. The General Act of Brussels prescribed specific measures for the acceding nations to take against slave raiding and trading in the territory under European control.

The measures enacted by the antislavery alliance were designed to spur the parties to organize the administrative, judicial, and military services of government in their territories of Africa so that they could more effectively regulate the slave traffic. The General Act of Brussels required the establishment of military posts in the interior, where slave raiders collected slaves for overland transit to the coasts for shipment to eastern countries; an increase in the use of steamships manned by soldiers on navigable waterways and lakes, thus expanding the presence of the central government throughout the region; more operations by “flying columns” of soldiers to maintain contact between various military posts; and the installation of telegraphs as a means of linking isolated areas to the provincial capital to monitor movements of slave traders and to allow for a more rapid deployment of military forces.

The articles of the General Act of Brussels were meaningful in setting the foundation for more expansive efforts toward suppressing the slave trade, domestic slavery, and many of the forms of forced labor. Belgium employed military force against slave raiders to gain control of the interior and to suppress slavery. In time, with the use of native troops and modern weapons, the Belgians secured the interior from large-scale raids from outside the Congo basin, at a cost of considerable losses of Belgian soldiers. The problem of domestic slavery was left to languish. It was difficult to differentiate between slavery, according to many European apologists, as an acceptable social institution and slavery as a barbaric and cruel method of employment of individuals against their will. Domestic slavery was seen as inevitable but susceptible to gradual elimination through the “civilizing” of native peoples by European colonizers. Europeans considered the enslavement of natives by natives to be beyond the realm of their control, whereas slavery imposed by nonnatives on natives was strictly prohibited as odious to all civilized people and was punishable by law.

World War I interrupted the international efforts to stop slavery and the continuing endeavor at enforcement of the precepts of the General Act of Brussels. The victorious allies—Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan, Portugal, and the United States—signed a new compact at Saint-Germain-en-Laye on September 10, 1919. The new convention was formulated to complete the work started by the General Act of Brussels.

The Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention] was short-lived. It was superseded by antislavery activities of the newly founded League of Nations. The League of Nations confirmed the previous antislavery declarations and proclaimed its own intent to achieve the complete suppression of slavery “in all of its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea.”

In 1924, the League of Nations appointed a Temporary Slavery Commission Temporary Slavery Commission, League of Nations of eight experts to compile information on slavery, so-called domestic slavery, slave raiding, serfdom, purchase of girls as brides, simulated adoption of children for purposes of sexual exploitation, varied forms of indenture, and compulsory labor by state and private employers. Lugard, perhaps the most influential and respected member of the Temporary Slavery Commission, helped to craft the commission’s report to the Council of the League of Nations. His broad experience and practical approach to the suppression of slavery assured the report’s adoption by most of the member states of the League of Nations. His suggestions moved the members to moderate positions while retaining the goal of the eventual end of de facto slavery through a process of transition and the development of new modes of employment.

Paul Hymans, the Belgian delegate to the League of Nations in 1926, personified the efforts by Belgium to establish an unambiguous posture toward the suppression of the slave trade and nonnative enslavement of natives. He was reluctant, as were most members, to grapple with the question of forced labor and domestic slavery. The Belgians were, to a good extent, successful in suppressing the slave trade in the Congo basin.

The report of the Temporary Slavery Commission stated the objectives of the commission. It defined “enslavement,” made proposals for regulating and punishing persons engaged in slave raiding and the slave trade, and addressed “slave dealing” and the more controversial domestic slavery issue. In an auxiliary category, the report discussed the acquisition of girls by purchase, disguised as payment of dowry, and adoption of children “with a view to their virtual enslavement or the ultimate disposal of their persons.”

The Temporary Slavery Commission was shrewdly cautious on the question of forced labor: Its abolition was desirable but not achievable given the provisions of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which prohibited intervention by member states into the domestic affairs of any state. In addition, the commission recognized a need for compulsory native labor in an environment that was inhospitable to white workers. According to the Convention on Slavery adopted on September 25, 1926, signatories recognized the need for governments to use compulsory or forced labor for public projects but noted that such use should be transitional and should end as soon as possible. Signatories were allowed to accept all or only some of the provisions of the convention, which significantly weakened its impact. It was more moral suasion than enforceable law, but it represented a goal to be striven for by many members of the League of Nations.


The 1926 Slavery Convention defined 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.” The convention required the former colonies of Germany and the Ottoman Empire, now mandates of the League of Nations, to suppress slavery and to prepare the people of the mandates for active participation in their own political affairs.

Ethiopia was denied entry into the League of Nations until it formulated a definite plan to eliminate all forms of slavery, which it finally accomplished to a limited extent in the official abolition of slavery in 1942. Liberia, the other recalcitrant slave state, was pressured by the League of Nations to outlaw intertribal slavery and to abolish some other forms of servitude.

The most significant impacts of the 1926 Slavery Convention were on slave raiding and the de jure abolition of slavery in Ethiopia and Liberia. The mandate system also gave the League of Nations moral clout and some circumscribed political leverage in suppressing domestic slavery and specific forms of forced labor.

It was the transition from slavery to certain forms of servile labor, including debt bondage and contract labor, that undermined the effects of emancipation of slaves around the world. Two strategies emerged to replace de facto slavery. One was to entice new labor from other areas by means of indentures, or contracts to work for specific periods of time. This system often involved the accumulation of debts by the laborer. The other form, emerging in the aftermath of emancipation, was peasant bondage, which used former slaves on small landholdings and on large projects, such as road building and railroad construction. Peasant bondage was a form of virtual slavery in which workers were “paid” in the form of training or provisions. Both systems, in many variations, are indirect forms of slavery, or servitude. In the United States, servile labor took the form of sharecropping and share tenancy, in which workers paid part of their harvest as rent. In the Caribbean, it took the form of contracted labor from India and the Middle East.

The 1926 International Slavery Convention had an important impact in that it laid the foundation for continuing struggle against de jure slavery and international opposition to all forms of slavery. It did not, however, immediately end all forms of exploitative labor arrangements. League of Nations;International Slavery Convention
International Slavery Convention (1926)

Further Reading

  • Barnes, Anthony J. Captain Charles Stuart: Anglo-American Abolitionist. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986. Solid biography of a relatively obscure militant abolitionist. Stuart’s attack on gradualists in the movement convinced people such as William Lloyd Garrison to take a more militant stance.
  • Drescher, Seymour. Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Convincing account of black slavery in the Americas and in Africa. Presents a broad and powerfully written assessment of the historiography of slavery. Explains English law concerning slavery.
  • Drescher, Seymour, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Collection of essays by noted scholars presents information on the institution of slavery from ancient times to the end of the twentieth century. Includes index.
  • Ennew, Judith. Debt Bondage. London: Anti-Slavery Society, 1981. Survey of debt bondage throughout the world in the late twentieth century shows graphically the persistence of contract labor and how little progress has been made to end it.
  • Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. Of the several works written on free blacks owning slaves in the antebellum South, this is the first to show that free black masters behaved similarly to white slave owners, in that both exploited slaves for profit.
  • Ostrower, Gary B. The League of Nations from 1919 to 1929. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery, 1996. Interesting and readable volume covers the first ten years of the League of Nations. Includes illustrations, chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • Watson, Alan. Roman Slave Law. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Argues that in a strict sense there was scarcely any such thing as “Roman slave law”; rather, every category of the law was affected by the fact of an individual’s being a slave.

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