Slavery, Historical

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Slavery, Historical

The growing concern with achieving freedom and social equality focuses attention on the inequity of slavery in the past, and poses continuing questions. Was large-scale slavery a necessary and inevitable stage of human development? Or was it an accident of history that might have been avoided? What is the nature and extent of slavery's legacy?

Slavery before Modern Times

Slavery existed in most societies for which we have historical records, but became extensive only where there were strong states or systems of commerce, and not in all of these. Of the populous regions of the pre-modern world, one belt of territories saw a particular development of slavery: the lands adjoining the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf. From the time of the Babylonians through the classical era of the Greeks and Romans, the medieval societies of Muslims and Christians, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, slavery waxed and waned with greater intensity in this region than elsewhere.

Captives were drawn from the region's peripheries: from the Nile Valley, the Caucasus, Slavic populations, and others. While the occupations of male slaves ranged widely—including miners, galley slaves, and soldiers—most slaves were female, working as domestics. In medieval times, the cultivation of sugar spread from the eastern Mediterranean to the west, with much of the work done by slaves. In time, the cultivation of sugar spread to islands of the Atlantic, and eventually to the Americas.

Distinctiveness of Modern African Slavery

The capture and enslavement of Africans by fifteenth-century Portuguese voyagers was initially little different from earlier Mediterranean slavery, of which it formed a small portion. By the late seventeenth century, however, the transatlantic shipment of African captives exceeded all the rest of slave trade, and the majority of the world's slaves were located in the Americas.

From then until the twentieth century, what distinguished African enslavement by Europeans from earlier systems of slavery was its magnitude, its incidence primarily on Africans, the development of racial categories, and the imposition of racialized social inferiority on Africans. Transatlantic slavery stimulated a more widespread system of slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the expansion of slavery in Africa and the rise of slavery on all the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery and Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade began with the fifteenth-century capture of Africans who were sent to work in Iberian farms and households and who became laborers on sugar plantations from São Thomé to Madeira and the Canaries. With the discovery of the Americas, Africans were taken first to the Caribbean, then to the centers of Spanish colonies in Mexico and Peru. Portuguese settlers in Brazil relied first on enslaved Amerindians for labor, but in the late sixteenth century began sending slaves from West and Central Africa to Brazil. Slaves in this era came mainly from Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Congo, and Angola, with the total of slave cargoes ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 per year.

Early in the seventeenth century, the emerging Dutch Republic set a plan of displacing the Portuguese from the Atlantic, and began seizing Portuguese slave entrepǒts in Africa and plantations in Brazil. Once Portuguese resistance had largely repulsed the attacks by 1650, the Dutch turned to using their new African and Caribbean bases for introducing the system of sugar plantations to the Caribbean. The English and French joined them in expanding Caribbean and continental American slavery. From this time forth, the Atlantic slave trade exceeded the trans-Saharan trade in volume.

European purchasers of captives set up diplomatic and commercial relations with African leaders. Wherever warfare emerged, purchasers appeared to buy captives. As the slave trade continued from generation to generation, regular systems of supply developed. These ensured the transport and nutrition of captives in Africa, the paying of duties and fees to authorities along the trade routes, the sale and loading of captives aboard ship, and the Middle Passage of several weeks at sea. Once in the Americas, captives underwent seasoning and socialization, further transport to their final destination, and assignment to their work.

With the turn of the eighteenth century, the demand for slaves rose rapidly. In the period from 1790 to 1830, the volume of slave exports nearly doubled and the prices of slaves purchased in Africa rose by a factor of four or more. The processes of enslavement included warfare (notably in the Gold Coast and Bight of Benin), raids (especially in the upper Niger Valley), kidnapping (in the Bight of Biafra), and enslavement through judicial process (in the Bight of Biafra and Angola). The West African ports of Ouidah and Bonny and the Central African ports of Luanda and Loango accounted for about two thirds of all slave exports, but slave merchants bargained for portions of their cargoes at almost every port along the African littoral. In contrast to the West African system of slave trade, in which Europeans remained offshore or in small coastal enclaves, in Angola the Portuguese controlled a sizable colony. There Portuguese officials and their allies over-saw the conduct of warfare and the collection and dispatch of captives to Brazil, in the largest segment of the eighteenth-century Atlantic trade. The Bight of Benin was the most intensively harvested region, followed by the Bight of Biafra and Central Africa, but every region adjoining the western coast of Africa suffered significant disruption. Slave cargoes rose to a peak of some 60,000 per year transported across the Atlantic in the 1790s. The eighteenth-century Atlantic slave trade comprised the largest-ever human migration, to that point.

The nineteenth-century Atlantic slave trade was contested. It became illegal for British and Americans from 1808, but substantial shipments to Brazil and Cuba continued up to 1850. These shipments drew especially from the port of Luanda in Central Africa, but also from Lagos in the Bight of Benin. Meanwhile, as the Atlantic slave trade reached its peak and then began to decline, expanding demand caused slave shipments across the Sahara, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean to rise in the late eighteenth century and to continue until the end of the nineteenth century.

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, some eleven million captives were dispatched from the western coast of Africa across the Atlantic, another five million were sent across the Sahara and the Red Sea, and two million were carried off from the eastern coast of Africa in the nineteenth century. Somewhere between five and ten million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa lived in slave status at the end of the nineteenth century.

Modern Slavery to 1880: Causes and Effects

The demand for labor by European-based colonizers in the Americas was the single greatest cause for this system of slavery. Yet this demand, to be effective, required the concomitant supply of laborers who could be purchased at a sufficiently low price because they had been stolen, and perhaps because the productivity of African hoe agriculture was lower than that of European plow agriculture. The wealth generated in the Americas and the political disarray fomented in Africa by enslavement each served to reinforce the system. Ideologies of racial hierarchy grew up to rationalize this thriving but exploitative system, based on Christian doctrines of God's will and the curse of Ham or on secular doctrines of natural law and evolutionary hierarchy. The growth of the system and rebelliousness of the enslaved led to increasing violence from the masters. Although prejudice against foreigners existed in many societies, the history of the Atlantic slave trade shows that explicit racial discrimination was a result rather than a cause of the expansion of slavery.

Global effects of slavery and the slave trade included the creation of the African diaspora, that dispersal of persons of African origin all around the Atlantic, with smaller numbers as well at the shores of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Slavery brought the development of racist practice and ultimately of its formulation in scientific terms. In response, however, slavery brought religious and secular movements for liberation and a movement for emancipation that went beyond slavery itself to address oppression by gender, nation, and religion.

In Africa, the effects of slavery were pervasive. Slavery expanded throughout Africa in association with the export slave trade. The population of West and Central Africa declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the population of East Africa declined in the nineteenth century in response to the captures and mortality of the slave trade. European conquests in Africa after 1880 brought an end to slave raiding, but generally did not bring emancipation to slaves until the passage of two or three decades.

The societies of the Americas all became racialized in one form or another. The Caribbean became dominantly African in ancestry, but with a hierarchy of color gradations. Brazil brought in nearly as many Africans as the Caribbean and became a racialized society, with overlapping subgroups. Racialization in the United States took the form of sharp white-black distinctions. Former Spanish territories of the mainland have significant African heritage, but this heritage has been minimized with time through the expansion of the category Mestizo. Africans on the continent lived under racialized colonial rule for much of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, communities of African ancestry subsisted throughout the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean regions.

Heritage of Slavery since 1880

The end of slavery as a major social institution was a slow process. The major episodes of legal emancipation or gradual manumission of slaves took place across a century and a half. Slaves gained freedom in Haiti in the 1790s, in former Spanish America from the 1820s, in British territories in 1838, in French territories in 1848, in the southern United States in 1865, in Brazil in 1888—and the final absorption of millions of African slaves into other categories of subordination took place in the 1920s and 1930s.

Nonetheless, from the mid-nineteenth century, post-emancipation societies emerged in region after region as the slave trade and then slavery ended. The heritage of slavery in post-emancipation societies included the efforts of ex-slaves to achieve full social equality: reuniting and creating families, schooling at both basic and advanced levels, gaining entry to new occupations, and emphasizing development of a public culture, especially in the arts. Yet the moves of freed persons to advance themselves met with the elaboration of new ideologies and techniques to maintain the subordination of former slaves. Scientific racism, articulated progressively throughout the nineteenth century, was followed by social movements of racial discrimination and segregation at the turn of the twentieth century. Segregation and lynching in the American South were paralleled by occupational hierarchies elsewhere in the Americas and by residential segregation and colonial hierarchies in Africa. In the same era and through analogous rationale, anti-Jewish sentiment became reformulated in racial terms, and grew to its peak.

In the post–World War II era of civil rights, decolonization, and response to the Holocaust, slavery itself seemed clearly a thing of the past, yet the heritage of slavery continued to be debated. In the 1980s and 1990s some public figures began to use the terms genocide and Holocaust to refer to the Atlantic slave trade and its impact. While this use of these terms died down after some debate, the call for defining and assessing reparations for the inequities of the slave trade gained a more permanent place in the discussion of the heritage of slavery. In this and other ways, the heritage of slavery brings a continual concern with the meaning of this past of oppression.

SEE ALSO France in Tropical Africa; King Leopold II and the Congo; Slavery, Legal Aspects of


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Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Patrick Manning

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Slavery, Historical

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