Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
Unit Home
Unit Content Overview
References & Sources
Unit Audio Glossary
Related Units

UNIT 14: Land and Labor Relationships



In the pre-industrial world, the relationship between land and people formed the basis of the economy, and so determined access to wealth, power, comfort, and security. How different societies constructed this relationship was shaped both by the physical environments people inhabited and by differing political, social, and cultural traditions.

As a result, societies around the world developed a wide variety of systems with which to deal with problems of land and labor, including serfdom, corvée labor, wage labor, and slavery. Many complex societies depended heavily on unpaid labor in one form or another to build roads, for agricultural enterprises, or to produce goods. Frequently, power was determined by how much labor the leaders of societies could mobilize and control.

This unit explores some of the diverse systems of land and labor that existed before 1500, and contrasts them with the increasingly globalized system of forced labor that resulted from the European conquest of the Americas. Indeed, even though slavery did not endure in most parts of Europe, capitalist impulses there encouraged and even thrived on such forms of exploitation elsewhere.

Abundant land and limited labor in the post-1500 Americas led Europeans to look outward to other continents, and embellish existing forms of forced labor for their own capitalist purposes. Transatlantic slavery and forced labor on a massive scale thus came to characterize the period between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For some, this traffic in humans brought wealth and power; for others, it brought misery. For everyone, it served to reinforce perceptions of difference between peoples, and bolstered social inequalities. Perhaps most importantly, it linked regions of the world previously isolated from one another. The result was a new transatlantic world that both altered and unified human history.


Time Period: 1500-1800

The period 1500 to 1800 marked an unprecedented era of global interdependence. Encounters between Europeans and the people of the Americas connected all of the world's regions for the first time. Ecological and demographic catastrophe was the result in the Americas, while new foodstuffs and the discovery of precious metals fueled population and economic growth in Afro-Eurasia. Also in this period imperial states expanded in West Asia, China, and India, while Europe produced the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Europeans at this time also sought economic opportunities in the Americas. As part of these efforts, they began to forcibly move African slaves across the Atlantic to work in agricultural enterprises in the Americas. Slavery was hardly unique in human societies of this period, and was widely practiced in areas as diverse as China, India, the Americas, and Southeast Asia. The Atlantic system of slavery was unique, however, for its scale, scope, and brutality.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economy and politics by focusing on trade, systems of international exchange, and the effects of war and conquest in tsarist Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Americas.
  • Explores technology, demography, and the environment. Labor systems around the world resulted in enormous population and environmental changes, especially in the American exchange.
  • Discusses systems of social structure by exploring how labor systems helped shape, and were shaped by, wider social structures.


  • Question 1: What are some ways that different cultures and times have used land and labor?
  • Question 2: How did conquest affect systems of land and labor?
  • Question 3: How and why did labor systems change on a global scale after 1500?
  • Question 4: How did massive forced labor migrations between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries contribute to globalization?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

How did massive forced labor migrations between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries contribute to globalization?

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Land and labor systems — whether in the form of wage labor, serfdom, corvée labor, or slavery — were usually based on social inequalities; thus, their structures both contributed to and maintained perceptions of difference between peoples.

Back to Top


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy