The ancient world – before the English arrived in England – was run on slavery. It was ubiquitous. Even the poorest Roman citizens (the Head Count) typically had at least one slave in the household. It had no racial component; anybody might become a slave, and any slave might buy his freedom or be manumitted. The greatest source of slaves was war captives. (Julius Caesar was famous for his generosity to his legions in the conquest of Gaul, for he donated the commander’s share of the booty to them. But traditionally, the sale of captives as slaves was entirely credited to the commander, and Caesar sold whole tribes that got in his way into slavery. It was the foundation of his personal wealth.) Slavery was common in Britain before the Romans arrived, and they brought their own legal structures which allowed for slavery with them. Slavery was common in Ireland as well, and the Irish were great slavers, raiding the coasts of Britain and seizing people to be sold. (St. Patrick, a Romanized Briton, was captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland as a youth.)
The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples of the North also practiced slavery. In Scandinavia, slaves were called thralls. The Anglo-Saxons and the Northmen who took over much of the country in the 9th and 10th Centuries had slave markets operating in most large towns. Perhaps as many as 30% of all the people living in Anglo-Saxon England were slaves. The Vikings took over from the Irish as the most prominent slavers in the North, capturing Irish, British, English, Frankish, and other people in raids. Dublin (a Viking settlement in Ireland), Hedeby (Denmark) and Birka (Sweden) were the major clearinghouses for slaves. The Swedes also raided and traded down the eastern river systems through what became Russia. The major destinations for the northern slave trade were Constantinople and Baghdad. The word “slave” comes from “Slav,” since so many Slavs were captured and sold for the purpose.
Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, slavery was declining in England under various pressures, but it was still more common than we realize. When William the Conqueror commissioned Domesday Book to investigate the wealth of his subjects, the commissioners found that about 10% of the population were still slaves. Within a hundred years, however, slavery had all but entirely disappeared from England – so thoroughly, that its legal status disappeared, too. The English Common Law, which began to be developed in the late 12th Century, was based upon experience, not legal draftsmanship; by the reign of Henry II, there were basically no slaves left for judges to make decisions about, so slavery did not exist as a recognized issue in English law for the next four and a half centuries.
Why did it disappear? One reason: the Normans. They had abandoned the practice of slavery a few generations earlier, as had most of the rest of the western Europe. The Normans reorganized England on a feudal basis, and feudalism didn’t operate on chattel slavery. It operated on serfdom. Serfs weren’t free, but they weren’t the individual property of another person. Their whole village and all its residents were the property of some lord or abbey, who could command their labor (and sexual access) without the bother of looking after them as individual units of property. Serfs (also called villeins) were not allowed to move away or change occupation. They did move away, however – to towns. The Normans founded a lot of towns, which added to the wealth of the country. A town had a charter, granting it certain privileges, which their lordships granted in order to secure the benefits that could only be had by allowing free commerce. Towns also elected their own mayors and councils. Serfs who could sneak into a town and make a living by the use of their skills became free. “Town air is free air” ran the saying. Eventually, the Common Law recognized that any serf who managed to live for a year and a day without recapture in a town was as free as the freeborn, and could leave the town and go wherever he wanted.
The villeins’ struggle to improve their lot – which is what the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was about – was only successful because of the Black Death. The death toll was so huge that the price of labor rose significantly (even in a command economy, the law of supply and demand remains in effect). The nobles and merchants were so in need of labor that they bid against each other to gain it, even overpaying according to the official rates and schedules. So, in the end, serfdom was abolished practically before it was abolished legally. To be born English now meant to be born free.
That said, freedom by itself doesn’t put any bread on the table. And the economic basis of English society retained some marks of the medieval experience into thoroughly modern times. Land was, and to a great extent is, the major source of wealth in England. Long after feudalism had been superseded, the patterns of land-holding remained. Most of the land (and houses) of England belonged to somebody rich, and most people outside the towns were renters or sharecroppers. The local lord became a squire. The squire could no longer command the villagers’ labor, but they still depended on his good will far more than we Americans are used to. Right up through the Edwardian period and World War I, great deference was shown to local estate owners, who took a paternalistic view of their leadership role in the county. America was colonized by Englishmen during this long period of slow development between the end of serfdom and the birth of a modern economy.
Slavery continued in odd corners of Europe and North Africa during the medieval period. Once again, war captives were the primary source of slaves. The Barbary Coast sheiks raided the ships and coasts of the western Med and sold their wares inland and across to Egypt and the Middle East. Italians and Spaniards raided back and occasionally took captives, too. The Pope had a group of slaves to row his galleys. And, of course, slavery was still openly recognized in Muslim countries.
The raiding and trading among African peoples to obtain slaves goes back to the Islamic conquest. Three great routes of enslavement and transshipment were developed, long before Europe emerged from its feudal period. There was the western route, characterized by the North African Muslims, who brought slaves up from the interior around Ghana as well as raiding across the Med. There was a central route, whereby enslaved Africans were brought up via Lake Chad and on to Egypt. And then, there was the East African slave trade, which ran full blast from the 9th to the 19th Century from the Indian Ocean coast to Oman and on to Baghdad. The Arabs called black Africans Zanj, and this is the source of the place-name “Zanzibar,” to which the Sultan of Oman removed at some point, the better to control this trade.
The beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade are with the Portuguese. Concurrent with Prince Henry the Navigator’s expeditions down the African coast to find a sea route to the Indies was the practice of capturing natives. These natives couldn’t well be returned, so they were sold. Soon Spain joined in with Portugal in capturing and buying Africans from coastal African kingdoms to be sold at home. They petitioned the Pope to sanction this new form of trade. Pope Nicholas V issued a series of papal bulls in the 1450s encouraging and regulating the slave trade, ostensibly for the benefit of the Africans’ souls.
Fifty years later, the Iberians had a whole New World on their hands, and were looking for labor to develop it. The Caribbean Indians were almost wiped out by European diseases, and elsewhere the natives proved stubborn about forced labor. Spanish royal law also discouraged trying to make the Indians into outright slaves. So the Spanish and Portuguese began importing Africans to their colonies in the New World as chattel slaves. Over the course of the Atlantic slave trade, the largest share of blacks forcibly imported as slaves went to Brazil. The next largest share went to the Caribbean. Only a minority of the enslaved Africans were brought to the English colonies in North America. And by the time the first slaves arrived at Jamestown in 1619, black chattel slavery was being established in the Caribbean, where the primary crop was sugar. English shippers were already competing in the Atlantic slave trade, and English planters in the Caribbean were copying Spanish practices. Slavery brought great wealth to England, but the actual practice of slavery never caught on there. Chattel slavery was still not a recognized category of the Common Law, and it seemed un-English to create it there. So why did it catch on in America, and why did the northern Colonies/States eventually abolish it while the southern did not?
The book, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, points out that the English came to America in four different waves. Each wave originated among a different class of people and largely from a different part of Britain. Each wave came mostly at a different time. They transplanted their customs, including occupation, religion, architecture, and cooking to their new environment. The Puritans of New England came largely from the eastern shires, London, and a few pockets of Puritanism elsewhere. The tidewater gentry of Virginia and Carolina were Cavaliers from the west and midland shires. The Mid-Atlantic colonies of Pennsylvania and adjacent places came mostly from Lancashire and the North. The Scotch-Irish came last, were despised by everybody, and passed through the best farmland to find mountainous homes similar to the Highlands they loved best. American slavery was largely developed by that second group, the displaced Cavaliers. American slavery became what it was because of what those people made it. The ideology of race that was developed then, and continued long after the Civil War, was developed by those particular colonists, following their own ideas. This explains why racism developed differently in the United States from, say, Mexico. The tidewater gentry of colonial America created a different society from the hidalgos of the Spanish Empire.
So, what kind of society were the tidewater gentry trying to create? The answer: an aristocratic one. The displaced Cavaliers brought with them a disdain for manual labor as not fit for “gentlemen.” Gentleman had a very distinct meaning in English society, and one could lose one’s status by engaging in trade or working with one’s hands. The Cavaliers became “planters”; that is, their goal was to own and manage large estates (plantations). They wanted to be English squires, the leading element in their towns and villages, shown deference by (as they called them) “their people.” The Cavaliers also had a romantic view of medieval feudalism. There were to be no lords in the New World, but that didn’t mean that there couldn’t be “knights” with the 17th-Century equivalent of manor houses and the command of great swathes of labor.
Much of the labor that came to the Colonies, of course, was free and British: indentured servants. Like apprentices, people signed contracts called “indentures” which placed their labor at the disposal of whoever bought their contract. Some didn’t come quite voluntarily, it should be said, but all came as a result of individual contracts, however assumed. Many poor Britons came to America this way, to work as domestic servants, artisans, and even field hands. Of course, at the end of the indentured period, as at the end of an apprenticeship, the indentured servant was free to go one’s own way, often with a specified payout as a start in life.
And yet the need for labor remained immense. The labor-hungry Cavaliers thus pounced upon the first shipment of black slaves from the Caribbean, and soon bought more. Slavery was still not recognized in the Common Law, but you know how it goes: “the custom of the country,” and all that. The British had already learned from the Spanish in the Caribbean, and the British merchant marine had already assuaged their consciences about how they made their money in foreign parts, so there you are. Slavery was brought to North America in a haphazard way, and became rooted while still in an undefined legal state.
It might not have gone the way it did. The South’s hunger for labor (not personally done by the estate owner) was still huge, but slavery wasn’t really very profitable. A Northerner changed all that: Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794, and cotton, which was a troublesome commodity to prepare for market, suddenly became highly profitable. Cotton production exploded in the South, the only part of the country where cotton could be grown, and was overseen by the large estate owners who needed vast amounts of labor to produce it. And so the value of slaves – particularly after Congress banned the international slave trade in 1808 – also went up. The gentry still thought they were being benevolent squires who tenderly looked after “their people,” but they also accustomed themselves to the violence, political and actual, necessary to keep masses of involuntary laborers hard at it.
At the time of Independence, slavery was legal in all thirteen States, largely because neither the Common Law nor Act of Parliament had ever taken up the subject to declare it illegal. Nevertheless, it was not extensive in the North, because although many wealthy people had servants, slavery was considered somehow un-English, and, of course, because cotton (and in Louisiana, sugar cane) were not crops that were grown in the North. Within a few years, every northern State had abolished slavery by law. But the South had become hooked, and it undertook to defend its “peculiar institution” by more and more draconian measures, until finally the country was torn by Civil War. (The great mass of Southern whites never owned slaves, but they were loyal to the society led by the gentry.) The British had already suppressed the Atlantic slave trade and managed to free all the slaves in its colonial possessions. America finally freed all its slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Slavery continued elsewhere in the Americas, especially in Brazil, for some decades longer.
So while the English in Britain and America eventually abolished slavery, other societies took a lot longer to do so. And some haven’t done so, yet. Islam still allows for slavery, and slavery continues in many out of the way places in the world. And slavery, as “human trafficking,” especially for sexual purposes, remains a scourge in our society, among others. So the fight for liberty goes on.
That said, the English in Britain and America were among the first societies in the history of the world to actually formulate the idea that slavery was wrong, and abolish the practice (rather than just letting it fall into desuetude). We deserve some credit for that, I think. “The Rights of Englishmen,” as understood on both sides of the Atlantic, had no room for slavery. The Declaration of Independence was penned by a hypocrite, but as used to be said, “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”: Jefferson knew what was right, even if his personal practice was wrong, and his words still stand. In the end, it was American ideals that doomed slavery in America. The Quakers and the Methodists led the way toward Abolition – a long and weary way. We are still dealing with the results of our long dalliance with slavery, especially in the racism that keeps mutating and somehow surviving in our society (though that’s another post).