African Slaves in Europe?

I got into an interesting lunchtime conversation today with a couple of history majors. The topic was slavery, and I learned an interesting tidbit: Britain outlawed slavery about 40 years before the US. Apparently, there were many African slaves all over Europe.

However, that led to another question: As an American, why didn’t I see or hear about African slaves in Europe? Why aren’t they in films of that era? How many were there?

In my life, I’ve seen maybe 1-2 films of that era that featured a black person acting like a typical butler.

I just checked Wikipedia, and there’s no mention of slavery in Spain, France, etc., just Britain, Romania, Sweden, and Portugal.

(Of course, I know slaves built the Roman and Egyptian empires, but they weren’t black.)

Was it a historical whitewashing? Are American textbooks worse than I thought?

Thanks in advance.

Technically, the slave trade was banned in 1807 in Britain, 1808 in the US I believe, although the US took longer to make owning slaves illegal. One individual I know of is Olaudah Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa.

There certainly was slavery in Spain throughout the Middle Ages (and of course previously): AFAIK it was common in the Muslim Kingdoms, uncommon but still extant in the Christian ones (generally as a temporary and non-inheritable situation, but remember this is some 10 centuries and over 20 different realms). Black slaves were unusual, but there were some: one reason they were valuable was their exoticism. Most of the slaves would have been of local extraction (a relatively common reason for someone to go into slavery in some of the Christian realms was the inability to pay off a debt; another source was prisoners of war, which if Muslim could already have been slaves before the battle took place).

Post-Middle Ages, one of the sources of tension between metropoli and colonies was slavery: was it allowable or not, if so of whom…

Denmark outlawed the slave trade in 1803; whereas the French 1st Republic abolished black slavery in 1794 ( but restarted it later ); although technically slavery was illegal in France, Sweden and Britain from the middle ages, anyway.

In the 17th and 18th centuries a very, very few people had black slaves, mostly travellers from countries where slavery was practiced, and they would have been personal unpaid servants rather than toilers. Not that servants got paid much even if they were free.

Outside the Mediterranean it would be very unlikely for most people in inland Europe to ever see a black person in their whole lives until the 20th century unless they travelled further than most travelled ( in living memory there were people all over the world who never moved more than 20 miles from their villages ).

There’s a painting of Francis Barber, a freed slave who became valet to Dr. Johnson, an intense opponent of slavery, and was left his heir. In general black slaves in Britain were in transit to the Americas. 95% to Latin America.

Most of Europe’s use of enslaved Africans was in their colonies, not mainland Europe. I don’t think this is whitewashed, it’s fairly common knowledge.

Slavery was banned in the British Empire 40 years before the US, but this did not mean that slavery was rife within Britain itself prior to that – far from it. The vast majority of African slaves were shipped direct to the Americas. Very few African slaves were in Britain before this time, and those that were would mostly be household servants rather than farm workers (we had our own downtrodden villeins for that).

According to the Doomsday book of 1086, about 10% of the population at that time was enslaved, but these would not have been from Africa or even continental Europe. More likely, they would’ve been from neighbouring tribes. Church pressure from the Council of London in 1102 led to the majority of slavery being replaced with villeins – i.e. peasant workers who were tied to the land and couldn’t leave with the landowners consent (slave in all but name?).

Once the African slave trade got underway in the 16th century, there was conflicting opinion about whether slavery was legal in England (as opposed to ‘Britain’ which didn’t exist until 1707), for example during the time of Elizabeth a court case stated that ‘England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in’. The final word seems to come from the Lord Chief Justice after a court case in 1772 where a slave was challenging his freedom

I’m not saying that slavery didn’t exist in Britain, merely that it was a tiny minority and a contentious issue, and reserved primarily for the ‘colonies’.

One issue was the status of slaves who for instance came along with their master travelling to his “mother country”. There has been caselaws on this particular issue in several countries. In both France and the UK courts eventually found that such slaves had to be freed.

I remember that Francis I (early 16th century) passed a law allowing slavery in French colonies in the new world (which seems to mean that slavery was at that time considered unlawful in France).

I’m pretty sure that a similar ordinance was signed by the king of Spain at about the same time. However, I’m also pretty sure there was slaves in both Spain and Portugal at this time, though I wouldn’t know who they were (maybe Moors rather than black Africans).

Yeah, this is a conflation which appears both in the OP and in several other posts: you wouldn’t have seen a Black African in Spain or Italy much more easily than in Denmark, throughout most of history; Africans yes, Blacks no. There was the occasional Black around, but every individual story of slaves in the Peninsula I can remember involves either someone “as local as they go” or an import from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Spain perhaps, but I’m fairly sure that Sicilians wouldn’t be surprised to see black people: there was an continuous influx of slaves from before Roman times and they came from many areas. Plus the adjoining Barbary states naturally had many negro slaves ( and free black citizens if muslim ) as well as white slaves, and would have used them as galley slaves mostly. And anyone on any coast of Europe was at danger of joining them.

Also, apparently, ‘*From 1450 to 1550 Southern Italy experienced a large influx of black slaves… from the slave markets of Tripoli… etc…’ ‘The Muslim King of Bornu ( in modern-day Northeastern Nigeria ) was known for raiding pagan areas in the south to obtain slaves whom he sold to Berber traders. The Spanish capture of Tripoli in 1510 facilitated this flow of black slaves into Italy. Scholars estimate the slave population of Renaissance Sicily varied between 1 and 3 per cent… the Genoese slave population was perhaps 4 to 5 per cent’*.
North Italy would be different — and one might think as far as exploitation is concerned the difference between being a slave and being a Sicilian peasant was usually nominal at any time.

You might want to look into the Arab slave trade for some perspective. The slave trade was never one-way.

It’s possible that Santa Claus had one.

The thing that made the New World slave trade exceptional was not that it existed- slavery has pretty much always existed in different forms all over the world- but rather that it was done on an industrial scale to serve large commercial interests. Through most of history, and slave would be an exotic luxury afforded only to the elite. Keeping a slave probably worked out to being more expensive than paying a regular servant, but it did have a certain appeal to have someone from the other side of the world serving your guests at dinner parties. Anyway, slaves would be an investment, and would probably be treated better than your average servant…you own the slave, but do you really care if the scullery maid can feed her kids? Slavery was not a nice institution, but it could have been worse.

The American slave trade changed that. The land and technology was just right to start using slaves for large-scale agriculture. Slavery became an essential part of the industrial model, and so they became considered like machines or livestock- and maintained and discarded as such. It’s really a totally different phenomena…like comparing a massive modern factory farm to the retired couple that keeps some chickens as pets.

I dunno: Roman slavery was on an industrial scale; and I rather doubt that muslim slave-owners looked after their property as much as they did their animals ( particularly with the conquest of India ), they sometimes seemed to let them starve when in large concentrations rather than fuss about making sure their property was kept in good nick.

Could have been from fatalism; or also from a feeling: ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’.
The Athenian silver mines were pretty bad too.

John & Dominique De Menil were philanthropists who sponsored art shows in Houston; eventually, an exquisite museum was built. They were also active in civil rights. FromUpcoming Events at The Menil:

Only part of the collection is on view at any time, but it does include some quite “African” images dating back to antiquity. The Romans enslaved anybody, from Nubians to the palest Anglos. African slaves/servants continued in Europe, although they remained rare & somewhat exotic. They only became economically important as slaves in the colonies.

This was highly variable. The Qur’an acknowledged slavery, but made it a virtuous act to free slaves and Islamic law, in theory, set fines ( including forced manumission ) for the mistreatment of slaves. Likely this was frequently ignored in practice - the existence of laws usually presupposes the need for them. But slavery often took on a slightly different flavor in the Islamic world in general. There was at least one large scale use of servile labor in the Middle Ages in the modern region of Iraq, one of the few areas then suited to intensive cultivation in the Muslim world, which culminated in a significant uprising that brings to mind Rome’s servile revolts.

On the other hand in the ‘slave state’ of the Mamluk Sultanate a period of slavery was a prerequisite to rising to wealth and status. Imported Circassian and Turkish slaves did a long stint as Mamluks ( elite slave soldiers ), then were freed and became “Mamluks”, the administrative and military elite who ruled the state.

I was under the impression ( vide my post no.9 above ) that if a slave voluntarily converted to Islam his or her owner had to set him free, since no muslim may enslave another muslim.
[ In slavery in the Americas, slaves were encouraged to become christian, but this had a dual effect: to encourage them to bear their servitude as a duty, whilst encouraging abolititionists to argue that shared christianity was one reason not to keep fellow religionists as slaves.
Props to F. Nietzsche of Röcken for analysing it as a slave religion. ]

No, actually. Technically you weren’t supposed to enslave another Muslim ( though this too was not absolute at times - the Barbary corsairs weren’t always that picky ), but converting to Islam while already a slave was not a get out of jail free card. Hence the various flavors of Mamluks ( not just in Egypt ). It would, of course, de facto make you a more attractive candidate for being freed eventually, which was one way for a Muslim sinner to expiate their sins.

Among the old West African Islamic states, slavery has been (and still is) somewhere between a heavy form of a caste/serf system and the sort of “chattel slavery” we are more familiar with. Slave and slave-owner families were sometimes bound together for generations, and in other areas it was more of an indentured servitude relationship. While slaves do perform involuntary labor, they often run their own enterprises, have some freedom in personal affairs, and can eventually buy their freedom. Meanwhile there are other semi-free castes (often including blacksmiths and musicians) whose labor is partially controlled by traditional leaders and who face heavy restrictions on where they can go, who they can marry, and what work they can perform. There are times in some empires when pretty much half of everyone was a “slave.” It’s a complicated system that one simple term doesn’t really describe.

And of course that system didn’t keep anyone from going into the wilderness and catching some of the heathens hanging around the borders to sell to Europeans or Arabs.

I think this is the key point. Plantations in the new world - coton, sugar cane, etc. - needed field workers. Apparently the local populationhad the bad habit of letting themelves be beaten to death rather than working under duress, plus were dying off in droves due to outside diseases.

Africa was a convenient source of slaves - uncivilized compared to Europe, so they did not have the technology to fight back effectively; tropical residents who handled the climate much better than indentured europeans; and a huge non-Christian population, meaning they could collect victims on the industrial scale needed to supply Brazil, the Carribean and America with less of the moral objections that normally accompanied this activity. It helped that in many cases coastal Africans were happy to trade their unfortunate inland neighbors for profit.

Europe, on the other hand, did not need to import slaves. The land was pretty much full already of whatever population it could support with available technology. There was no sudden change (like cotton farming, or sugar cane) that required intensive new labour sources. (In fact, in the Highland clearances, the problem was the opposite). If you wanted slaves, thre were plenty of locals. If you wanted your wheat fields or vineyards worked, there were plenty of subsitence farmers or day laborers that did not cost any more than slaves.

(A slave is like a condo - you pay for him, then you still have to pay to feed him all the time. With day laborers, you can tell them to go away if you don’t want to feed them for the winter.)

Which makes sense if you think about it. There was no large need for slave labor on mainland Europe, since they already had a home grown labor force (and up until the middle ages being a serf was roughly the equivalent of being a slave in some European countries). However, there was always a shortage of labor in the various colonies, since they didn’t have large populations (especially in the Americas, where a lot of the native population had died or been wiped out, and weren’t really suited in any case to being laborers from what I understand).

I’m not surprised that there were some slaves in Europe, but it I don’t think it’s a whitewash (so to say ;)) that most of the slaves were in the colonies, not in the various European nations themselves.