The capture, shipping and sale of African slaves was most famously directed towards the colonies of European empires in the Americas, where they were put to work on plantations and other harsh, labor-intensive jobs.

Since African slaves were known to be an abundant and cheap source of labor, it seems like the Europeans of the time could've profited greatly from importing slaves to their home lands too, instead of just colonies. Did this ever happen, and in what scale? If not, why?

2 Answers 2


In the Colonial Period, Europe had some ideas about the enlightenment that made slaves unpleasant to their sympathies. For that reason, despite the English having slaves in their colonies, you could become a free man by visiting Britain's shores (there were some interesting court cases related to this).

More important to this era was poverty, which was a big issue in European cities. So there was no shortage of cheap labour; even with the dying out of serfdom. Serfdom lost popularity in Western Europe around the 1300s (though cases remained until the 1500s). The practice was continued in Eastern Europe for a lot longer, to try and fill the gap in the agricultural market that arose with the reduction of serfs. After the Napoleonic wars, serfdom mostly came to an end in Europe, save Russia.

The place where a demand for cheap and harsh labour was in force, was in the colonies with their plantations. Recruiting people from the European homeland to farm this would've been difficult to convince them and expensive to pay them, so slaves were the economical way out.

  • 3
    sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Apr 3, 2017 at 10:00
  • 1
    I agree with this answer and add that the shortage of labour in New World colonies was partly due to the dying off due to exposure to European diseases of a large part of the native population who might otherwise have provided the forced labour
    – Timothy
    Apr 3, 2017 at 12:52
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    In the colonies, white indentured servants transported from eg Gt Britain tended to die of exhaustion/disease in the hot climate, or if they escaped they could mingle with the free white population. Africans survived longer (though not much longer in some cases) and obviously could not pass for white (or Christian, a litmus test in the early days of trans-Atlantic slavery.
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 4, 2017 at 14:32
  • @MarkC.Wallace - I agree. I think referencing one of those court cases would improve this answer as well as some passages from authoritative authors specialising in this topic. Feb 28, 2018 at 12:52

It would seem that slavery in Europe was all but extinguished by the Medieval Era - so the Colonial Era slave trade from Africa was not directed at Europe: Slavery in medieval Europe (Wikipedia).

Europe was also more populous than the Americas, with much of the population already bonded as serfs to the noble land owners. There's not much different between a serf or slave, so there wouldn't have been much of a market.

The slave traders were making money from selling their slaves to the Americas, where they would then buy coffee, cotton, and many other goods back to Europe - this is what Europe wanted. It would not make sense for them to curtail their profits by simply shipping slaves to Europe.

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    There was at least some European slave trading going the other way: slaves captured on raids in Europe going to Islamic lands. e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sack_of_Baltimore
    – jamesqf
    Apr 2, 2017 at 19:43
  • @jamesqf While that is true, the question is explicitely about African slave trade. Apr 3, 2017 at 9:57
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    Not sure I completely agree with this answer. Yes, within Western Europe during the Medieval period the chattel slavery that had existed in Roman was largely abolished. However, I think it requires explanation, if later Western Europeans thought slavery acceptable in their colonies why did they not think it acceptable at home? Also, not only is there a real difference between serf & slave (serfs are attached to the land, they are not movable property to buy & sell) but serfdom was in the process of disappearing in Western Europe just as slavery in the New World colonies took off.
    – Timothy
    Apr 3, 2017 at 12:49
  • While I see the point of serfs removing the need for chattel slavery, what about the Bubonic plague outbreaks, eg. the one in London in 1665? With casualties in hundreds of thousands, why wouldn't nobles import slaves to replace those lost to the plague?
    – kviiri
    Apr 3, 2017 at 12:58
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    Slavery had no good reputation in Europe, was not accepted in most part neither by church nor the people, and was largely illegal. Often people (esp if they were white) were bought and freed from Muslim traders. African slave trade to the new world was more of stretching these conditions, and doing dirty business while people in Europe kept their eyes closed. Large population movement after plagues,wars were generally peasant, settlers from other European countries (often encouraged by feudal lords to move)
    – Greg
    Apr 6, 2017 at 14:39

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