Europeans played roles in the slave trade ranging from brutal ship captains to ardent abolitionists.

The institution of slavery in Europe existed long before the transatlantic slave trade. One instance of this was in Ancient Rome where slaves were commonplace. After the fall of Rome, slavery mostly disappeared from Europe, having been replaced with feudal serfdom, which obligated peasants to work for a lord but granted them some rights which were not available to slaves. But even after the fall of Rome, there were other instances of slavery that happened prior to the transatlantic slave trade.  A notable example is that from the 1400s, all the way to the 1800s, pirates would enslave Christians to sell at Islamic slave markets. Although it is evident that slavery has a long and notable history in Europe, before the transatlantic slave trade happened, in this chapter we will direct our focus to Europe’s connections to slavery during the time of the transatlantic slave trade. The first subject we will cover is the differing views on slavery. Following that will be a section on the experiences of slave owners and slavers, and finally, we will look at the effects of the transatlantic slave trade on the European economy, politics, and social structure. These topics are included so that we can look at slavery from multiple perspectives and have an unbiased view on the slave trade.


The Debate on Slavery


Europe was one of the major players in the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted from the 17th century to the 19th century. However, not all Europeans were pro-slavery. European opinions on slavery tended to fall into two categories: pro-slavery views and abolitionist views. The pro-slavery views tended to be based on justifying slavery both morally and economically, while abolitionist views tended to be moral arguments. By looking at these views and comparing them, we can start to see slavery as less of an issue of right and wrong and more of a perspective based issue, even though slavery is now considered completely immoral.

Justifications of slavery by Europeans tended to either be philosophical, religious, or economic. Philosophical justifications for slavery have been around since ancient Greece, where Aristotle claimed that some people were predisposed for slavery, while others were predisposed to rule. This theory became popular during the Medieval era, where a theologian by the name of Thomas Aquinas elaborated on Aristotle's theory. Aquinas believed that since this world is sinful, slavery is inevitable. He was also of the opinion that the slave is the physical instrument of the master, allowing the master to claim ownership to anything created or owned by the slave, including the slave’s own children. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these theories were brought up again to use as justifications of the slave trade. This time, philosophers brought in a religious component, claiming that Africans were descendants of the biblical figure Ham, who had been cursed into slavery by Noah.

Later on, theorists from the Southern United States created their own pro-slavery theories. John C. Calhoun, a prominent theorist (as well as Vice President in the early 19th century), thought that slavery created a stable society. Without slavery, he claimed, everyone would be able to participate in the democratic process, leading to chaos. Another popular theory, created by a man named Henry James Hammond, was the Mudsill Theory. The Mudsill Theory was that without a lower class to support the upper class, the upper class would cease to exist. The Mudsill Theory got its name from mudsills, which are a parts of a building that support the upper levels. A third theory, held by many different Southern theorists, was that a lowest class posed a direct threat to society. However, they were easily manipulatable and by enslaving this lower class, the threat was mitigated. Now that slavery has been abolished for over a hundred years, the argument that slavery stabilizes society seems completely illogical and quite racist. But to the people who had only ever lived with slavery, it would be scary for them to see such a radical societal change. Does this justify support of slavery? No, it doesn’t. However, these pro-slavery theories actually do a good job of humanizing the slave owners, and showing that they really just feared change.

John C. Calhoun, photographed by Mathew Brady (1849). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another type of justification of slavery was the claim that slavery was integral to the success of the economy. This opinion was often voiced by American plantation owners, who believed that their plantations wouldn’t function without slave labor. However, this opinion was also held by British slave owners, who feared that the British economy would collapse without slavery. They also argued that if Britain didn’t have slavery, the profit would instead go to their rivals. Like the Southern pro-slavery theorists, these British slave owners also feared change. Like the Southerners, they were also quite wrong, as Britain continues to have a functional economy over a hundred years after the abolishment of slavery.

Abolitionist arguments were mostly based on the moral concept that slavery is fundamentally wrong. Like those who were for slavery, they also used religion to back themselves up. An example of this would be the quote from Luke 16:13, “No man can serve two masters.” This quote claims that a person can’t serve both God and a human master. Another abolitionist argument was that slavery was damaging the economy, population, and culture of Africa. This was true. The African population remained stagnant during the period in which there was slavery, and the African economy was damaged as well. One final abolitionist argument was that Africans were not some sort of inferior race, and were people just like the Europeans. They backed this up with the living evidence that was Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was a former slave, as well as the author of an autobiography entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Abolitionists argued that if Equiano was capable of writing a famous book in English, he couldn’t be from an inferior race.

In the end, the abolitionists won. However, simply saying that doesn’t tell the whole story. By looking back on the arguments for and against slavery, we can learn that those who were for slavery were humans too, albeit those with amoral beliefs. We can also gain important information into how the abolitionists succeeded and why. In the next sections, we will look at the actual day-to-day experiences of slavers and slave masters, then look at the effects that slavery had on Europe.


Perspectives of Slave Traders and Owners


Illustration of Africans forced to dance on the deck of a slave ship, published in 1837. Source:

Most history books nowadays focus on the slaves as the main point in the transatlantic slave trade. This is not a wrong way to interpret the slave trade, but the problem in this, is “The Danger of a Single Story”. The danger, in simple words, is the lack of perspectives and the bias(often unintentional) that comes with one story.

Most of the slave collectors were not working voluntarily. They were dragged into it while being drunk, and became indebted to the captain of the slave ship. Of course, they were given more food than the average slave would, but that didn’t make them much happier. On some of the slave-collecting trips, as much as half of the crew could die of sickness or starvation.

The sailors were also not enthusiastic about the implications of their job. Most of them were against the slavery, and only agreed with it due to the propaganda that told of the original slave residence as a place of suffering. Once they learned of the rich and happy conditions the non-slave Africans lived in, they finally had no reason to ever support the slave trade.

The ship captains were nothing short of madmen. The treatment of the crew was, in one word, horrifying. They starved, injured and killed the crew whenever they had any reason or meaning to. The crew members, it may be considered, have been worse off than the slaves, who at least had a final destination, and thus, were not killed.

The ship captains were indifferent towards the deaths of the slaves. As can be noted by the tone of their voices, they seemed to fake a hint of mourning in them, for it to feel more humane in the eyes(or ears) of the listener. However, they tried to justify the deaths by saying that “they were not well in the first place”. In addition, they did not bother to learn the names of the slaves, and simply referred to them with numbers when they passed away.

Overall, the amount of sins committed by the slave traders were much higher than the good deeds they did. To add on, their wrongdoings were given as a trait to all the crew that transported slaves, which has led to the opinion that everyone involved in the slave industry was a person with low morales. This was not true, as most of the crew were not voluntary, and would gladly retire from their slave-collecting job.

In the next section, we will discuss how, and in what ways, did the Slave Trade affect Europe.


Effects of the Slave Trade in Europe


The transatlantic slave trade had effects on Europe that were of many different variations. Not only did the slave trade have obvious economic effects, but it also caused less obvious changes in religious, philosophical, and social areas. In addition it was also a source of conflict between European countries who competed in the slave trade. Having knowledge of these effects is not only helpful but essential to understanding the workings of the transatlantic slave trade.

Economic Effects

While the exact scale and nature of the transatlantic slave trade’s economic effects on Europe is a subject of some controversy, it is not hard to see that many profited as a result. Because of this a new wealthy class was created. The profit was not exclusive to the super wealthy, the profiteers of the transatlantic slave trade also included: ship owners, slave traders, plantation owners, factory owners, ports, and bankers. Additionally it may be noted that even after slavery was abolished in parts of the British Empire, they still benefited from using the cheap cotton grown by slaves in other locations in their cotton mills. Not only did the 1838 Slavery Abolition Act not grant the slaves true freedom for another four years, it also gave a total of £20 million (£16 billion in today’s money) to slave owners as compensation for “their lost property.” That made up 40 percent of the government spending that year.

An 1833 satirical cartoon attacks abolition while also criticizing the proposed payments of £20 million in compensation to British slave owners. On the left, a slave owner and a Whig politician take £20 million out of the pocket of John Bull (the British equivalent of Uncle Sam), who is talking with an abolitionist. On the right, demeaning caricatures of newly freed slaves celebrate their emancipation in the British Caribbean. Source: John Carter Brown Library

The slave trade also became a source of European conflict, as it became increasingly profitable they began to fight over control of the routes, markets, and colonies. The trade also resulted in power shifts amongst nations, as nations with more maritime power and advantageous location for trade became more powerful. One instance of this is the Dutch Republic whose global trade networks allowed it to surpass other nations including Portugal and to become the most important European trading power on the African coast by the 1640s.

Social Effects

The social effects of the transatlantic slave trade included racism, which still exists today, and the creation of a new low social class. Prior to the transatlantic slave trade slavery was for the most part connected to war and punishment, and not to race, religion, or physical appearance. Overtime, as Europeans increasingly enslaved people based on their differences, and not as a form of punishment, Europeans began to associate and justify slavery with differences in religion, skin color, and culture. Eventually as the transatlantic slave trade grew, slaves became heavily associated with non-white skin.

Effects on Philosophy

The slave trade had an evident effect on philosophy, because philosophy looks at the fundamental nature of the world and reality, and therefore philosophers must consider why slaves should be slaves and what slavery means. Philosophers and theologians had to make sense of slavery in the construct of their beliefs. Early Christians such as Thomas Aquinas drew on the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle for justifications of slavery. Aristotle had stated that the master/slave relationship was of natural order in a hierarchical world. After 1517 Europeans began to shift their justifications to religion. Sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians combined both religion and philosophy, tying together Aristotle's argument with the Old Testament Biblical story of the Curse of Ham. Although the story says nothing about Ham’s skin color, the theologians assumed Ham was dark-skinned and that Africans were his descendants and were therefore also cursed into slavery3. On the other hand some like French philosopher Rousseau disapproved of the transatlantic slave system because he thought it was inhumane and cruel.

Effects on Religion

The transatlantic slave trade connected with religion in multiple ways. Some people referenced their religion to justify slavery, and others would likely use the same religion to argue the opposite. Some people became abolitionists as a result of how they interpreted their religion. Around the 15th century the Catholic Church was teaching against “unjust” slavery, beginning when enslavement of the recently baptised was prohibited in 1435, although under political pressure as the slave trade grew the response of the church became more divided. Popes began to justify enslavement of non-Christians as an “instrument for Christian conversion” In fact the first major shipment of African slaves to the Americas was initiated by Bishop De Las Casas in 1517.