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Slavery in my story's world is common. Most don't see it as a good thing and slave-owners are rarely liked, but slaves are common enough nonetheless.

The royal family had personally stopped using slaves a few generations ago within their own employ, and instead have freed those slaves giving them the full rights of any other person.

That said, despite the royal family no longer using slaves, and instead only employing their workers, slavery still exists through the land. Typically, slaves are indicators of wealth, meaning you'd really only see slaves be owned by the upper and merchant classes. (So, basically, a minority of the population are slaveowners, not the majority.)

Question:

What could cause the royal family of a kingdom to personally abolish use of slaves, but be unable to outlaw the act altogether from within the kingdom? I'm not talking about making a world-wide decree that slavery is now illegal and enforcing it with brute strength. I am talking explicitly what could result in the fact the royal family can't even make their own merchants and middle-/upper-class obey a "no slavery"-policy.

The best answer explains why a royal family couldn't just outlaw the process altogether within its kingdom's borders, thus freeing the slaves.

If you think this question is still too story-based, please explain how so I can fix it. The previous piece of bolded text is the crux of what needs answered. Everything else is just the skin placed over the story.

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  • $\begingroup$ Worldbuilding (on-topic) is about systems or, said another way, the rules of your world. Storybuilding (off-topic) is about circumstances. This Q is too story-based because it depends too much on circumstances to justify its existence ("despite the royal familiy's disgust," etc.). Further, questions that deal heavily with the underlying plot of the story (like this one, the circumstances are potentially the reason people are reading your book) are too story-based. VTC OT:TSB. $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 18 '18 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ This is actually completely background information. The slave trade itself is a plot element and a driving factor for the two main characters, but the reasons why a kingdom would still have slavery despite the rulers not liking the practice would still play a role and influence the course of events despite not being the story itself. THAT SAID, I understand where you are coming from. I'm not able to edit right this moment, but I will comment when I do so that I can see if the edit is better fit for WB policy. $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Nov 18 '18 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I tried to make it seem less story-based. If there's something I can do to improve in that regard, please let me know. If I lost something important in the process, please let me know for that as well. $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Nov 19 '18 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ Much better. Now it reads that you're asking why the royal family (or a people, or any group of characters) can't overcome a system or rule of your world, and that's on-topic. $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 19 '18 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ Actually there is a historical example you can learn from, of a monarchy where the royal family was anti slavery but the powerful slave owning plantation owners were against abolishing slavery, the 19th century Empire of Brazil. The example of the US Civil War shows what can happen when the slave owners think that the new administration wants to limit the expaision of slavery and thus their profits from selling slaves. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Nov 19 '18 at 20:11
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In chattel slavery the slaves are considered personal property of their owners. From this follows:

  1. The royals are free to release their own slaves on a whim.

  2. All other slaves are personal property of other people. The King can not release them without essentially stealing from the owners.

What this means that the king cannot end slavery unless one of the following is true :

  1. He can convince large majority of slave owners to "move on with the times"
  2. He has an army large and loyal enough he does not need to care what people think
  3. He is rich enough to buy all the slaves at a reasonable price as compensation.

It is perfectly reasonable to think that none of the above is true in your case. So the king would be unable to end slavery outright. He would be taking steps to :

  1. End more people falling to slavery
  2. Convince other people slavery has become economically obsolete
  3. Gather a large and loyal army
  4. Improve his tax income
  5. Buy slaves in particularly bad situations from their owners

These would result in the number of slaves dropping over time and some future king few generations forward being able to end slavery if he chooses.

As nzaman mentioned in a comment, you can do the 4 and 5 above by linking taxation to slavery directly. You can increase tax income by taxing slave ownership and by slaves indirectly by giving tax credit for freeing slaves.

But it should be noted that moral and ethical reasons are generally not important here, Slavery ends when it no longer serves an economic purpose and people make a moral narrative to feel good about and accept that large change. Accepting people who used to be property as your equals is a big ask even when treating them as property no longer makes sense.

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  • $\begingroup$ I haven't had a chance to check the other questions (I just took a peek at this one so far), but woah. If all the answers are like this, that'd be helpful for any story involving the subject of slavery! $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Nov 18 '18 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ Also, since only the rich can afford slaves, arrange tax schemes based on slavery, i.e., the more slaves you own the more taxes you pay. Alternatively, accept slaves for payment of taxes, in lieu of cash; or require one slave for each amount of (let's say) 1,000 silver pieces of tax due, as wealth tax $\endgroup$ – nzaman Nov 18 '18 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @nzaman Yes, that is a good idea. Taxation is indeed the traditional way to guide people away from things you do not like. Unfortunately it is also very unpopular. But yeah, free slaves -> get tax credit, would probably work. Edited a mention to the answer. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 18 '18 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting, like with most slave-owning cultures, slave-owners are a minority here and most of the people are actually apathetic to slavery or outright against it. The only ones who'd really think it as a good thing are slavers/slave-owners and those who deeply admire the concept of wealth in this world. Of the answers given, this in combination of a couple others is the best. While I will accept this answer, your answer is only a part of the whole I feel. :) $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Nov 19 '18 at 23:30
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Not even "absolute" monarchies were absolute.

Quite obviously, a monarch cannot rule the kingdom directly. He or she depends on a vast number of henchmen and the belief of the population that the government should govern. Even if there is widespread dissatisfaction with the government, the kingdom will go on if bureaucrats, the nobles (if any) and the peasants all believe that rebellion is bad for them, personally, on the short term. The king's tax collectors could not possibly subdue a widespread peasant rebellion. They can probably get the first person to stand up and become a ringleader, and the second, and the third ...

The flip side of this coin is that the "absolute" monarchy will be toppled if enough people, in the right positions, say "No!" to the monarch. The royal dynasty will be aware of that and so will the merchants and nobles. The merchants should have a much better understanding of how the kingdom really works than the average peasant, after all.

The monarchs know just how far their subjects can be pushed, and how fast. They run a multi-generational campaign to discourage slavery, but they cannot ban it yet. Every couple of years, there might be a new law to better the position of slaves.


Follow-Up: I do not believe that serfdom could be characterized as slavery. A slave had no civil rights and (depending on the era) often had no human rights. Serfs had carefully spelled out rights and obligations. The obligations were heavy, but lords had to break or bend the law to impose additional ones.

As the middle ages came to an end, many lords found this framework increasingly awkward. The serf owed so many days on the lord's fields, bringing their own team of oxen, with a right to bread and ale while working, and so many days repairing the roads, and they had to use the lord's grain mill in exchange for a percentage of the harvest, and so on. This was a complex framework predicated on the manor agronomy. **The lord could not demand money, or ask a serf who owed fieldwork into a factory.

A merchant would want a readily available workforce who work for low wages. Hire and fire, there is always another one who might work for even less. The exact opposite of serfs with century-old, ironbound contracts.

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    $\begingroup$ The nobility is the most likely source of pushback over this, to my mind. Their power and position tend to be (this varies from monarchy to monarchy) dependent on their fortunes and their ability to raise troops, taxes, and material support for the king. They may very well be in a position where they can't afford to free their slaves. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Nov 18 '18 at 7:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence: The merchant classes, rather. They're the ones to gain most from free labour, followed by farmers and tradespeople. Both latter groups are far more likely to become slaves than own them. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Nov 18 '18 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @nzaman By "pushback" I meant against the king's decision. That is, the noble classes are fighting to keep slavery. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Nov 18 '18 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence: I got it. And that was exactly the point I was aiming for. Slaves are an economic utility, so it is far more likely that the merchants would want labour they didn't need to pay for, rather than the nobles, who are usually military. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Nov 18 '18 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ @nzam, I disagree because medieval wipe was full of slaves abs they were exclusivity owned by the nobility. (Anyone who thinks a sec is not a slave needs to look at how serfs were treated). Merchants do not have a great use for shaves as they make their money from skilled labor, something that airwaves are bad for. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Nov 19 '18 at 18:23
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You could copy the frame of the Early Roman Empire and make the slaves prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to slavery.

Those slaves work in the mines or work the huge fields wealthy nobles have and that provide food for the society.

The Monarchs don't want slaves, because they can be dangerous. But still, the kings can't outlaw slavery because someone has to work the fields and do other dangerous jobs and there will be always prisoners or criminals. Slavery takes the burden or keeping them alive from the government and places it in private hands.

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Pecunia non olet

Money doesn't smell, and when faced with economic reasons, even the most human royal family has to yield.

Slaves are a key part of the economic tissue, allowing the prosperity of the kingdom, ensuring cheap work force, flexible job market and cannon fodder when needed. And the royal family knows pretty well that prosperous and well fed subjects are way more loyal than starving and pocket empty ones.

Thus, while they can set the example by not directly using slaves, they secretly rely on slavery to secure their sit.

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    $\begingroup$ Dutch got a downvote but this is the right answer. Slavery is distasteful but an economic necessity in this particular kingdom - an analogy is the antebellum South of the US where slavery persisted long after it was considered distasteful by civilized people worldwide. Your kingdom has some comparable need for unskilled slave labor; probably agriculture or mines. Royals don't like to get hands dirty and so have distanced themselves from this unpleasant necessity. The persistence of household slaves is made possible by the necessary persistence of mass slave labor. $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 18 '18 at 17:46
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  1. "Why a royal family couldn't just outlaw the process altogether within its kingdom's borders, thus freeing the slaves?" Because slaves are expensive, and no king is rich enough to compensate the owners, not foolish enough to try to deprive their owners of their property.

    As they say, the quickest and surest way of losing one's authority is to give orders why one knows won't be followed. So slaves are both expensive and numerous; thus setting them free without compensation would induce massive economic loss; so who's going to pay for their freedom? Is the king rich enough?

  2. How many are those slaves, really? In the real European Middle Ages slavery was legal, slaves did exist, but they were mostly luxury items, not really numerous enough to represent a significant social problem. As long as the rich people in the kingdom don't have so many slaves that they could use them as private armies, what's the problem? The king is there to rule the country into peace and prosperity; antagonizing all the rich people in the kingdom is not conducive to peace and prosperity.

  3. You say "chattel" slavery. This term is usually associated with the modern American society in the 18th and 19th centuries -- most other legal systems don't even have a concept directly corresponding to the Anglo-American "chattels". (The closest you can come in European legal systems is "mobile goods".) Please do not think of the American South circa 1850 as in any way representative of historical slave-holding societies; it was an historical aberration, with the institution of slavery so alien to the rest of the society that it caused a massive civil war.

  4. Salaried work was quite uncommon in the real Middle Ages, and, where available, was not always a desirable station in life; by far the most numerous class of salaried employees were servants, a.k.a. "domestic help" if we are to used anachronistic terminology. How much is a servant paid in this society? Is there enough money in the economy to convert all slaves to salaried employees? Remember that when set free those people will be destitute -- they have no land, no position: how are they not going to transform from slaves into vagrants?

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  • $\begingroup$ 1. That'd work and especially true for a few subsets of slaves. There are a few cases (not listed in any iteration of the question) where one slave is actually worth more than any of the kingdoms on its own simply due to their race being what it is. 2. It's quite common within the upper-, merchant-, and noble-classes. 3. I use "chattel" in order to emphasize it's a trade of these people as property, not as people. I agree with your point, but it was the simplest term I could use to express my intent. 4. It depends on who you work for, but I understand your point. Good answer. +1 $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Nov 19 '18 at 22:57
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The characteristic of slavery IMO is that a slave can't (isn't free to) choose their master and their work conditions.

Perhaps the kingdom has some jobs that no free person would choose to accept -- work in a radioactive mine, for example; or, work in a brothel; or, work for "elves [who can be] more cruel than any human slaveowner" -- so that the only way to staff this work is with slaves.

Conversely of course the royalty have no problem finding people willing (even eager) to work as salaried employees.

Other possibilities -- the prevailing religion says that "might is right" rather than "blessed are the brotherly"; there's racism, nationalism, classism, etc., which let people see slaves as sub-human or non-human; the monarchs aren't "absolute" and there's no political movement/will to emancipate slaves.

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Because the Monarch would face a rebellion

Lets do a thought experiment.

There was a movement to make George Washington King of the United States. Lets just say that happens. He rules over a land divided into a pro- and anti-slavery fashion.

Now, King George I of America dies. Who will be heir? George has no children, he had only a nephew (who died with no children) and an eighteen year old step-grandson. Not much to hinge a dynastic claim on.

Lets say the Continental Assembly goes back to the well and gets a new king, John Adams, who was the natural successor. Now John I did have a son, John II, or John Quincy Adams. John II would have been king from the 1820s to the 1840s. John Quincy Adams is also remembered as a fierce abolitionist.

What do you suppose would have happened if King John II had tried to abolish slavery? Or perhaps his son, Charles Francis Adams, King Charles I, if he had tried to abolish slavery in, say, 1861?

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  • $\begingroup$ Presumably the same thing that happened to his namesake, for a similar reason. Then again, Americans are fond of their guns $\endgroup$ – nzaman Nov 18 '18 at 14:18
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There's an excellent scene from Tamora Pierce's Squire which explains exactly why practices that the royal family abhors might still be around.

"It's not right," [the king] told Kel, to her profound shock. "Only a fool would say that it was. I am called many things," he admitted with a crooked smile, "but 'fool' isn't one. What do you want?"
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"Change the law, sire."

"Change the law," the king repeated. "Squire, what do you think her majesty and I have done ever since we took the thrones? No, don't answer - I dread to think what you might have the courage to say. We have been trying to change laws - not this particular one, but many like it." He smiled bitterly. "The problem is that monarchs who wish to live until their grandchildren are born do not hand down any law they like. We must treat with our nobles, who are equipped to go to war against us; we must compromise with them. We must treat and compromise with merchants, who give loans for pet projects such as dredging Port Legann's harbor. We compromise and treat with farmers, who feed us, and street people, who can burn a city down. There are priests and priestesses, who can tell people the gods have turned their faces from the Crown, so they need not obey us. And the mages - I'll leave it to your imagination what mages will do when angered. Any law Thayet and I propose offends someone. We must balance opposing forces. Our successes vary."

Kings generally have more power than anyone they rule over. But they do not have more power than everyone they rule over. There's a limit to how heavily they can rule from above.

From actual history, the Magna Carta was signed after a group of barons got tired of the monarch's rule through force.

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A History of Slavery

In the old days, slavery was actually the norm in your kingdom. It was in fact the entire basis of your kingdom's economy; a huge chunk of the market was the buying and selling of slaves, and the other sectors made heavy use of them. In other words slaves were literally the lifeblood of the system. It's likely that the royal family of the past took a much less negative view of slavery, but in more recent times they changed for the better(possibly because another dynasty took the throne).

Even though the newer royals want to outlaw slavery, they can't just do it right away. That would invite the kingdom's total collapse, a civil war and possibly a hostile takeover by a not-so-friendly neighbour. They have to slowly wean the nation as a whole away from slavery while gradually reducing the ground within which slavers have to operate, so that's what they've been doing over several generations.

In the meantime, while slavery is not totally abolished and slave owners/traders still exist, folks of all races who are(or think themselves to be)truly destitute would be "recruited" or throw themselves at the slavers in hopes of having food and lodging provided for them. This would contribute to the negative view most people would have of slavers; they'd be seen as bottom feeders who prey on the most vulnerable.

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  • $\begingroup$ "entire basis" would be wrong for this kingdom, but it is true for a couple of the human kingdoms. While I disagree with the beginning part of this answer, I'd say it's a good enough answer to work with when put in combination with other stated answers. $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Nov 19 '18 at 23:00

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