Legal Slavery Ends in Ethiopia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bowing to international pressure, first from the League of Nations and then from the Allied Powers during World War II, the Ethiopian government decided to abolish slavery. The proclamation outlawing slavery had little immediate effect, because it relied on local jurisdictions for enforcement, but over time slavery in Ethiopia began to disappear.

Summary of Event

The abolition of slavery by the imperial government of Ethiopia was a protracted and ambiguous process involving both domestic and international factors. The principal catalysts were the League of Nations, the Italian invasion and occupation of the country from 1935 to 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie I, and an oscillating Ethiopian political economy. [kw]Legal Slavery Ends in Ethiopia (Aug. 27, 1942) [kw]Slavery Ends in Ethiopia, Legal (Aug. 27, 1942) [kw]Ethiopia, Legal Slavery Ends in (Aug. 27, 1942) Slavery;Ethiopia Abolition, Ethiopian Human rights;slavery Slavery;Ethiopia Abolition, Ethiopian Human rights;slavery [g]Africa;Aug. 27, 1942: Legal Slavery Ends in Ethiopia[00590] [g]Ethiopia;Aug. 27, 1942: Legal Slavery Ends in Ethiopia[00590] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 27, 1942: Legal Slavery Ends in Ethiopia[00590] Haile Selassie I Halpert, Francis Edwin de Menelik II Mussolini, Benito

Ethiopia is a multiethnic, multilinguistic, multireligious nation. The diversity of its population has always influenced the practice of slavery in the region, as different races, language groups, and religions have been subjugated in hierarchies that favored other races, language groups, and religions. Slavery became a material representation of that subjugation, as well as a practice that maintained the social hierarchies.

Historically, Ethiopia’s emperors had only partial control over the country; the princes and nobles, or ras, were landowners who were able to exploit much of the land under a system called gabar, which was a form of serfdom. Gabar Gabar was a system both of rents and of tribute to landlords and local nobles. Slavery was an important component of Ethiopia’s social and economic life. It harmonized with a configuration of ancient traditions benefiting both the local aristocracy and small farmers. Those who owned land inevitably owned the human beings who worked the land—on large fruit and coffee plantations, in the gold mines in the Adowa region, and, especially in northern Ethiopia, in subsistence households producing cereals and pulses (various legumes) and raising livestock.

Ethiopian imperial officials wanted to create a centralized and modern state that could present itself to the world as a civilized country. Emperor Menelik II in particular had despised the slave trade, because it caused the rest of the world to see Ethiopia as a backward country. Menelik undertook to limit or abolish the slave trade through imperial decrees before 1907, but without measurable results. His opposition to the slave trade figured in civil strife experienced by the nation between 1907 and the emperor’s demise in 1913. The government’s position under Menelik was curious, however, because it refused to acknowledge or oppose slavery itself; it only opposed the trade in slaves. Such a contradictory stance was probably doomed to failure.

Ras Tafari, the future Emperor Haile Selassie, became head of the Ethiopian government in 1916, as regent of Empress Zauditu Zauditu , Menelik’s daughter. He did little to limit the growth either of the slave trade or of the institution of slavery. Slavery was a manifestation of local landlord prerogatives, and, therefore, any real effort by the central government to challenge slavery would quickly have encouraged the disintegration of the state.

Tafari was one of three regents who tried to gain Ethiopia admission to the League of Nations League of Nations . The United Kingdom, Italy, and other members of the league opposed Ethiopia’s entry, because the slave trade and slavery were still practiced in Ethiopia. The country’s slave raids were especially offensive to the British, since slave raiders crossed into British colonies. The United Kingdom’s long-standing opposition to the slave trade was a major reason for its interest in questioning the status of Ethiopia, although British territorial ambitions should not be discounted. The British government believed in the “white man’s burden” of “civilizing” what it perceived to be backward cultures. After many pledges to abolish the slave trade and slavery, Ethiopia was admitted to the League of Nations in 1923, with France as its main supporter.

The imperial government of Ethiopia passed a law in 1923 to satisfy the League of Nations’ insistence that it abolish slavery. The law merely prohibited slave raiding across international borders. Another imperial proclamation on March 31, 1924, declared that slaves born into slavery after the date of the proclamation should be freed upon the death of their master; however, supposedly freed former slaves were required to remain with the family that had owned them for seven years. This law and others were powerless effectively to liberate slaves.

The several proclamations were aimed at an international audience and international perceptions, rather than being designed to institute real reform. Ethiopia was trying to maintain its independence within a sea of European colonialism. It is therefore incorrect to claim that Ethiopia abolished slavery in 1924. It did not: It only made public gestures in that direction. The reality of attaining abolition would be arduous and protracted.

Haile Selassie became emperor in 1930 after the death of Zauditu. He began to transfer more political authority from local, hereditary potentates to the imperial government in Addis Ababa. Emperor Haile Selassie accepted as his adviser on slavery a Briton, Francis Edwin de Halpert. De Halpert directed the antislavery bureau and guided antislavery legislation. In 1931, an imperial edict required the registration of slaves and the manumission of slaves upon their masters’ deaths. Haile Selassie vowed that slavery would end in fifteen or twenty years. De Halpert did not believe that the emperor was truly committed to abolishing the slave trade or slavery; he resigned as adviser to the emperor on antislavery matters in 1933.

Meanwhile, the Italians began to represent themselves as civilizers and Ethiopians as slavers and barbarians. This representation was used to justify Italian aggression against the Ethiopian empire in 1935. Italy took control of Ethiopia in 1936 and announced the liberation of 400,000 slaves in areas under its military control. Italy;colonial possessions Despite the Italians’ claim, slavery continued to exist in areas under their control. The Italian government paid Ethiopian workers but did not pursue a consistent program to liberate slaves.

Italian occupation, however, did have a salutary effect on the political economy of Ethiopia. The gabar system of tenancy was at least damaged by allowing many tenant farmers to escape an oppressive serfdom that differed little from outright slavery. In short, although the Italians acted solely out of their desire to create an Italian empire and not for any altruistic motive, their occupation of Ethiopia undermined serfdom and weakened the institution of slavery, aiding the slaves in their quest for freedom. Moreover, while the Italians built roads and generally improved the infrastructure of their controlled areas, Ethiopia was never under complete Italian military control.

After the Allies invaded Ethiopia, liberating it from Italy, Haile Selassie had little choice but to reinforce his earlier attempts to abolish the slave trade and finally to end slavery itself. The British were not prepared to restore Haile Selassie to his throne unconditionally. The emperor had to prove to them that he was going to rid Ethiopia of slavery. Haile Selassie had consistently demonstrated his disdain for slavery but was timid in confronting the political risks involved with an outright assault on the practice.

On November 11, 1941, Haile Selassie abolished the gabar form of tenancy. This was an important step toward the abolition of slavery. The gabar system of tenancy was a kind of extortion, including a tithe to the emperor, forced requisitions of grain or firewood, porterage, and other forms of labor obligations.

On August 27, 1942, Emperor Haile Selassie issued the proclamation to abolish slavery in Ethiopia. It repeated the two main antislavery measures of the 1930’s. The proclamation accepted the 1926 convention’s definition of slavery as any form of servile labor against the will of the individual, and it called for the immediate abolition of the legal status of slavery. The weakness of the proclamation was that it placed the responsibility for enforcement of the law on local courts, courts that were controlled by slaveowners, the nobility, and smallholders. Transporting slaves and participating in the slave trade were made capital offenses. Alternative forms of punishment included forty lashes, a $10,000 fine, or a maximum of twenty years in a local jail.


The 1942 proclamation was a landmark in Ethiopian history. Its goals, however, took a long time to achieve in practice. Haile Selassie did not seriously alter the political economy of Ethiopia as it pertained to slavery or any other major component of the body politic. He did start a process that moved the country closer to protecting its citizens’ human rights. It is not too far-fetched to compare Haile Selassie’s accomplishments with those of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation was also ineffective in the short term. In time, the institutions of slavery and sharecropping were extinguished in both the United States and Ethiopia.

Reports of slave raiding in the 1950’s were plentiful. The annual report of the Anti-Slavery Society for 1954-1955 told of escaped slaves from Ethiopia fleeing to the Sudan, with their masters in hot pursuit. Ethiopians and Europeans were still engaged in a flourishing slave trade in the 1960’s between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. There was continued ambiguity in the socioeconomic situation in Ethiopia as it pertained to slavery. A raised consciousness about human rights and individual liberties in Africa gave some hope that countries might soon understand the significance of respecting the dignity and individual liberties of human beings. In the Ethiopian case, the 1942 proclamation was an incipient step taken toward abolishing slavery and morally challenging the legitimacy of it. Slavery;Ethiopia Abolition, Ethiopian Human rights;slavery

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bekele, Gaitachew. The Emperor’s Clothes: A Personal Viewpoint on Politics and Administration in the Imperial Ethiopian Government, 1941-1974. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993. The author, a former member of the Ethiopian government, describes his personal experiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Derrick, Jonathan. Africa’s Slaves Today. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. Examines the custom of human slavery in its various forms. This is both a fascinating and an exhaustive study. Slavery in twentieth century Africa is described as indistinct from other forms of labor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haile Selassie. My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, 1892-1937: The Autobiography of Haile Selassie I. Edited and translated by E. Ullendorff. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A worthwhile book, even though self-serving. Haile Selassie’s views clash with reality, but they also shaped reality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keller, Edmond J. Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People’s Republic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Supplemented with maps, tables, and footnotes, this book provides a well-researched description and analysis of the history of Ethiopian government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A contextual view of the various factors which helped shape the forms of the slave trade. African slaves were found in many unlikely places. The nineteenth century notion, carried into the twentieth century, that slavery was benign is powerfully debunked by the cruelty of the trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Provides a brief history of the complex nation. Illustrated with maps and photos, and includes a glossary and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Life and Times of Menelik II: 1844-1913. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Describes the expansion of Ethiopia to the south and east. These conquests drastically enlarged the supply of slaves and aided Ethiopia in maintaining itself as an independent state in the midst of European colonization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Callaghan, Sean. The Slave Trade Today. New York: Crown, 1961. An eyewitness account of slavery in Ethiopia and other African countries during the 1950’s. The author witnessed a slave auction in Saudi Arabia. This personal account is valuable for its passionate description of the brutal business of the slave trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, A. D., ed. The Cambridge History of Africa, 1905-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Gives a solid account of the domestic and foreign relations of Ethiopia. While the survey is rather sketchy, it reveals arcane bits and pieces of modern Ethiopian history. A good and quick background for any general reader interested in Ethiopia.

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Categories: History