Europe Endorses Slavery

By the seventeenth century, slavery on European soil had been absent for four hundred years, but the reemergence of slavery in the New World forced Europeans to decide between condemning and condoning a practice that was as economically desirable as it was morally inexcusable.

Summary of Event

Economic realities had essentially forced slavery out of Europe by the 1200’. Over the next four hundred years, however, as maritime advances opened up fresh sources and new markets for products, the preoccupation of European leaders with their intercontinental disputes and wars allowed for the reestablishment of the trade in human beings, this time in the Americas. The unique situations of colonial America and Africa made slavery not only feasible but also economically desirable, while the authorities in Europe were both slow to react against the creation of a global slave trade and impotent to regulate affairs on the other side of the world once they attempted to restrain the trade. [kw]Europe Endorses Slavery (17th cent.)
[kw]Slavery, Europe Endorses (17th cent.)
Economics;17th cent.: Europe Endorses Slavery[0080]
Trade and commerce;17th cent.: Europe Endorses Slavery[0080]
Social issues and reform;17th cent.: Europe Endorses Slavery[0080]
Europe;17th cent.: Europe Endorses Slavery[0080]

The institution of slavery goes back to the beginning of recorded history, but slavery faded in Europe between 800 and 1200, transitioning into feudalism. The latter system used serfs, who had some limited rights, instead of slaves, who were treated only as property. The absence of slavery in Europe had lasted a couple of centuries, when, once again, the potential profits of trading in forced servitude attracted Europeans. Portuguese mariners of the 1400’s transformed the limited intra-African slave trade into an intercontinental market. Other Europeans followed suit, including the Spanish (1479), the English (1562), the Dutch (1625), and the French (1634). Trade;slaves

The European hunger for sugar and to a lesser degree that for coffee, chocolate, and tobacco fueled the rise of slavery in the New World. The capture and deportation of generations of Africans was from the outset founded on the economics of gold. By the seventeenth century, it was a simple white substance that caused the stir. Sugar held two strong attractions: Economically, it was valuable enough to gain the label “white gold,” and physically, it was almost addictive. The Arabs had taught the crusaders how to cultivate sugar on plantations around the Mediterranean. Agriculture;sugar When it was brought back to the West, European consumers came to associate sugary products with wealth, increasing demand by imparting it with symbolic value in addition to its more obvious use-value. As a result, what had been profitable to cultivate at the edges of the Mediterranean became hugely valuable when installed in the tropical areas of the New World. From the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth, sugar outdistanced grain as the world’s most valuable commodity. Sugar;trade in

The Dutch demonstrated the profits that could be made from a wide range of associated commercial operations. In the port of Amsterdam, they built sugar refining and warehousing companies to complement the shipping industry. The three-stage journey required to provide “sugar in every cup of tea” began in seaports from Spain to Denmark. Ships left these ports bound for the west coast of Africa, where, with the help of African middlemen, the Europeans traded manufactured goods (especially guns) for slaves. Captive Africans were then taken to the Americas and exchanged for raw sugar cane. The cane was shipped to Europe for refining, thereby completing the commercial triangle. Entire cities, especially the ports of Seville, Lisbon, La Rochelle, Amsterdam, and London, profited enormously from this system.

The cultivation of these tropical crops relied upon two essential components, large expanses of land and large numbers of workers. In order to take advantage of innovations in seafaring and international trade, European nations organized legitimate commercial companies. These enterprises, often labeled with exotic names, ended up providing slaves to American plantations. In 1621, the Dutch formed the West India Company Dutch West India Company , which by virtue of its government-granted monopoly became one of the largest single slave-trading businesses in history. In 1660, King Charles II Charles II (king of England);Africa and of England supported the launch of the Royal Adventurers into Africa. Twelve years later, the British created the Royal African Company Royal African Company , which set up and administered trading posts in western Africa. One task of this organization was to seize the occasional rogue British trader who, for private gain, tried to bypass the royal monopoly. Privateers and pirates also did their share of slave trading during this century.

Seventeenth century monarchs played an important role in deciding whether to move toward or away from slavery. The favorable economics of the enterprise usually outweighed moral considerations among European leaders. King Louis XIII Louis XIII;slavery and of France was at first aghast that the refined French should follow Portugal and Spain in accessing the slave trade. Eventually, however, led by the promise of national profit and convinced that the Africans would benefit by converting to Christianity, the French became willing participants in human commerce. Jean-Baptiste Colbert Colbert, Jean-Baptiste , Louis XIV’s finance minister, doubled national revenues over a ten-year period. One of his profit points was the establishment of France’s own West Indian Company French West Indian Company in 1664, complete with contracts for the delivery of slaves to the New World.

Most seventeenth century European heads of state were too worried about their own domestic or intercontinental disputes to involve themselves with the issue of slavery. The French, for example, fought among themselves in the Siege of La Rochelle (1627-1628) La Rochelle, Siege of (1627-1628) and battled the Spanish off and on between 1635 and 1659. Louis XIV went to war (1667-1668) against the country of his wife, Marie-Thérèse, daughter of Philip IV of Spain, in order to gain territory. The English, the Irish, and the Scots fought between the years 1641 and 1648. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) included a Danish phase (1625-1629), a Swedish phase (1630-1635), and a Franco-Swedish phase (1635-1648) before the Peace of Westphalia (1648) Westphalia, Peace of (1648) . Thus, if the distracted European governments addressed the question of human servitude, they generally pronounced against it but then supported it indirectly by enacting trade motivations.

The positions of religious institutions vacillated on the question of slavery. The idea of bringing indigenous people a new and “right” religion was used to justify the subjugation of Africans. However, religious currents were usually a force against slavery, or at least for the mollification of its fierceness. In 1627, Father José de Anchieta Anchieta, José de , a Jesuit Jesuits;slavery and priest working peaceably among the Indians of Brazil Brazil;slavery in , faced off with his compatriot colonizers who wanted to import slaves. The Jesuits in that same year announced to Europeans their belief that slavery combined humankind’s worst qualities. In 1639, Pope Urban VIII Urban VIII forbade slavery in any New World colonies. Exemplifying the ambiguity of the time, the Quakers Quakerism;slavery and in 1676 admonished others to “treat kindly” their slaves and yet banned “negroes” from their own meetings. Further, the Roman Catholic Church Catholicism;slavery and , despite its official anti-slavery message, had a history of being associated with properties worked by slaves.

The Europeans received their first impressions of Africans by way of explorers’ journals and various tales of travel. Along with missionaries, adventurers and often slavers wrote about their encounters with Africans. Thomas Phillips, Phillips, Thomas a British slave trader of the late 1600’, admired “Negroes” who willfully drowned themselves rather than submit to slavery. Of all the original European perceptions of African peoples, the one that continued to prop up the system of brutality was the idea that the black man had a special resistance for working the hot and humid fields of sugar cane. Despite the obstacles of disease and oppression, and despite dying in shocking numbers, slaves did produce tropical crops in profitable quantities. The Europeans did not lose sight of this fact.


Even apart from the mass genocide that results from the transport and abuse of slaves, slavery represents humankind at its worst. Many modern culture clashes have their roots in the transatlantic slave trade. Seventeenth century Europe, itself free from slavery for many years, became its instigator on the world stage, essentially for profit motives. Leading up to the seventeenth century, maritime and other technological advances made international slaving economically feasible on a large scale. Sea explorers were more intrepid and precise in their undertakings because of better ships, maps, and clocks.

Even if slavery had its historical origins already in place among African tribes, it never would have developed into the mass removal of peoples across the Atlantic without European technologies of agriculture and transportation and European political and social structures underpinning those technologies. If one considers that the institution of slavery was on the brink of extinction in the Western world, Europe’s culpability in the foundation of the transatlantic slave trade becomes even clearer. It seems possible that some little impetus from a leader here or there might have been sufficient to prevent the trade from taking route and to allow it to progress toward obsolescence.

Further Reading

  • Blackburn, Robin. “The Old World Background to European Colonial Slavery.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 54, no. 1 (January, 1997): 65-102. Treats the economic origins of sugar and slaves preceding transatlantic slave trade.
  • Bonnassie, Pierre. From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A close look at religious, military, and economic influences on the shift from slavery to serfdom in Europe, especially from 800 through 1100. Sets the stage for the events of the seventeenth century.
  • Deveau, Jean-Michel. La France au temps des négriers. Paris: Éditions France-Empire, 1994. Slavery from maritime point of view, as the author is from the French port of La Rochelle.
  • Gunther, Lenworth, ed. Black Image: European Eyewitness Accounts of Afro-American Life. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1978. Ranging from the 1400’s to the 1960’, the editor provides first-person reports as to how opinions and stereotypes develop.
  • Klooster, Wim, and Alfred Padula. The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, 2005. The introduction and chapter 2 deal extensively with the European take on seventeenth century slavery.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles II (of England); Jean-Baptiste Colbert; Louis XIII; Louis XIV; Urban VIII. Slavery;Americas