White Slaves, African Slave Traders, and the Hidden History of Slavery

A brief history of slavery

Slavery existed in ancient Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Sumeria, and other ancient societies of the Middle East; it is even mentioned in the Bible. It was also practiced in ancient China, India, and among the blacks of Africa and the Indians of America. Slavery in ancient times reached its height in Greece and the Roman Empire. The major source of slaves in ancient civilizations were prisoners of war. Other slaves were criminals or people who could not pay their debts.[15]

Julius Caesar enslaved as many as one million Whites from Gaul, and the British were regarded as a race of slaves. From the eighth to the eleventh century France was a major transfer point for White slaves to the Muslim world, with Rouen being the center for the selling of Irish and Flemish slaves. At the same time Venetians were selling slaves and timber across the Mediterranean. The slaves were usually Slavs brought across the Alps.[16]

After the Roman Empire broke up in the 400s, international trade fell sharply. The loss of markets for goods that slaves might have produced led to a decline in the need for slaves. In Europe, slavery slowly changed into serfdom. However, slavery continued in the areas around the Mediterranean Sea. During the 600s and early 700s, Arab Muslims conquered the Middle East, North Africa, and almost all of Spain. During the Crusades, which began in the 1000s, the Christians attempted to recapture Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land from the Muslims, and both groups enslaved their prisoners. Following the fall of Acre and the last Christian strongholds on the mainland of Syria in 1291, Christian captives from Acre glutted the local slave markets.[17]

The Crusaders discovered sugar in the Holy Land, and when they returned home a widespread demand was created for sugar in Europe. As a result, Italian merchants established sugar plantations on several Mediterranean islands. The production of sugar required large numbers of laborers, and so slaves were imported from Russia and other parts of Europe.[18]

Even the Church owned slaves.

    "Had the Church been against slavery it would have branded it as a wrong, and have set the example of liberating its own slaves. It did neither. Its conscience was only shocked when a Jewish or Heathen master owned Christian slaves. Nay, the Church not only held slaves itself, not only protected others who held slaves, but it thundered against all who should despoil its property by selling or liberating slaves belonging to the Church. The Council of Agatho, 506, considered it unfair to enfranchise the slaves of monasteries, seeing that the monks themselves laboured. The Council of Toledo, 597, stigmatised as robbers those who set free the slaves of the Church without giving an equivalent. The Council of Epaona, 517, prohibited abbots from emancipating the slaves of their monasteries. Slaves were bequeathed to the Church by will, or given as an act of piety, and never was the gift refused. The Church, too, held its slaves to the end. In France, in his day, Voltaire [1694 - 1778] estimated that the Church held between 50,000 and 60,000 slaves."[19]

The word "slave" itself comes from "Slav" (the name of the largest ethnic group in Eastern European). Many slaves in Europe were sourced from Russia and other Slavic areas. The Vikings often supplied slaves from Russia. However, during the mid-1500s, the expanding Ottoman Empire cut off the supply of slaves from Eastern Europe. By that time, however, the Portuguese were increasing their trade with Africa, exchanging cloth and weapons for gold, salt, and slaves.[20]

By the 1300s, a few African blacks had begun to replace Russian slaves on Italian plantations. These Africans were bought or captured from North African Arabs, who had enslaved them for years. During the 1400s, Portuguese sailors started to explore the coast of West Africa and to ship Africans to Europe as slaves; also enslaving Africans on sugar plantations that they established on islands off the coast of West Africa. In 1481, El Mina, the first European trading post for slaves was created on Africa's Gold Coast by the Portuguese who began slave trading from their new fort. The Spanish wanted to use black slaves to take over from the Indian populations in the colonies and to cover labour shortages in Brazil. Portuguese traders filled their ships with African slaves from the Congo and Angola.[21]

Enslaved Africans were taken to the Americas at the beginning of the 1500s. In 1502 the governor of Hispaniola in the West Indies arrived with a dozen African slaves. By 1510 traders were shipping a few hundred African people to the Americas every year. In 1517 Spain issued its first Asiento Treaty, a contract to supply 4000 slaves over the following eight years. More than 100,000 slaves were imported into the Spanish possessions in the Americas. The Portuguese slave traders had special licence from the Spanish government to supply slaves to its colonies until Holland took over after the Dutch West India Company was formed in 1621. Holland then captured all the trading posts established by the Portuguese on the African Gold Coast, and set up a number of posts of its own by 1681. The Dutch held the Spanish contract for the supply of slaves from 1640-1700. By 1623 Holland had taken 15,430 slaves to Brazil. In 1646 the first black slaves were landed in the earliest Dutch settlement in America, New Amsterdam, on the tip of Manhattan. New Amsterdam became New York when the settlement was captured by the English.[22]

The demand for slaves to work on sugar and tobacco plantations increased during the 1600s when France, England, and the Netherlands established colonies in the West Indies, and along the East Coast of North America. In those areas, the local natives were not found to be adequate as a labour force.[23]

Howard Dodson, of National Geographic, wrote that Black slavery was wanted in order to replace the slavery of Whites and Indians.

    "According to European colonial officials, the abundant land they had "discovered" in the Americas was useless without sufficient labor to exploit it. Slavery systems of labor exploitation were preferred, but neither European nor Native American sources proved adequate to the task." [24]

White Slaves, African Slave Traders, and the Hidden History of Slavery