I'm trying to get at an insider's perspective on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and on the institution of slavery in the New World more generally. Partly I'm puzzled by why it took until the 18th century for slavery to be seen as bad (which is discussed nicely in this related question). Taking the question back a step: did the people who initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade see themselves as doing something new?

I'd like to understand the issue in the context of other non-free labor of the era, as it had grown out of feudalism. Serfdom died out in England in the 16th century; the serfs in Russia were not freed until the 19th century. So there was some kind of social category for “people who had to work the land and couldn't leave.” Did early slavers just see themselves as carrying on the feudal system in a new place, or did they think of it as something new?

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    I won't edit the question since answers refer to it, but in the first sentence of the second paragraph, “as it had grown out of feudalism” is mistaken. Part of the point of the question, of course, is to ask about the relationship between slavery and feudalism.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 1:59

2 Answers 2


Slavery in Americas didn't appear in United States in the 18th century; it originates much earlier in Spanish and Portuguese colonies. So we should look whether slavery existed in Christian Iberian kingdoms before the discovery of the New World. And it surely did.

Slavery distinct from mere serfdom existed in Europe in medieval era without interruptions. Unlike serfdom which was represented as local tenants still enjoying certain freedoms, slavery was largely associated with captives from war and raiding which were deemed unfit for ransoming. Slave markets traded people who were often captured thousands miles away whereas serfs usually lived in the same place for generations. Slaves were considered property like cattle, unlike serfs who still enjoyed some important amount of personal freedom.

The major slave traders in the medieval Christendom were Genoa and Venice who used their access to the Mediterranean and Black Sea slave markets. In fact slaves of Slavic origin constituted such a large portion of the medieval slaves that it's usually assumed that the very word "slave" is a derivative of the "Slav". The eastern markets also supplied large number of the captives from steppes and the Caucasus. All those people constituded very large proportion of the slaves in medieval Iberian kingdoms, which you can read e.g. in "La esclavitud en Valencia durante la baja edad media (1375-1425)" by Francisco Javier Marzal Palacios. In addition, during Muslim-Christian wars, both sides practiced enslavement of captives in part to pay for the war, e.g. in 1147 almost 10000 Muslim women and children from Almeria were sold to Genoese slavers.

However, towards the end of the Reconquista and especially with the conquest of Ceuta the Iberian kingdoms, primarily Portugal, gained access to the African West Coast; and European participation in the Sub-Saharan slave trade begins. In 1444 the first large group of the African slaves was brought into Europe by Lançarote de Freitas. By 1452 the first sugar plantations start appearing in Madeira.

By the time Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, a system with slaves captured from the West African Coast brought to European owned sugar plantations was already operating in the Old World. This system already began to transfer to the New World at the beginning of the 16th century - the first large group of 4000 African slaves was sent to New Spain in 1518. Reliance on African slaves increased as the Native American population declined largely due to epidemics but also from the overexploitation on encomiendas.

So, no: Slavery by itself was nothing new, and it was separate from serfdom. It dates before the discovery of the Americas. What was novel was its widespread use on plantations. It was caused by sudden access to new productive lands and direct access to many slaves.

The history of Russian serfdom is a completely separate topic, I'm afraid, and had a VERY different nature than the Atlantic Slave trade. Until the very end when some centralized agricultural estates appear it was not associated with high production plantation economy. Russian serfs at least officially never were considered a simple property of their lords, but subjects of the Tsar given to dvoryans (Russian nobles) for their support, and until the 18th century, the government opposed the trade of serfs. It took the ugliest form in the times of Catherine the Great when nobles were freed from any responsibilities and given excessive rights over the lives of their serfs. Still, they enjoyed certain personal freedoms in comparison with European and American slaves.

As for rationalization, the following is largely my opinion (and I'm not a historian to be authoritative). In the medieval period, religious differences were extremely important. It was much easier to accept enslavement of Muslim, "pagan" or "wrong Christian" captive rather than fellow Christian. You should remember that it was a time of many conflicts with religious justifications. Crimes against humanity were done by practically everyone then. Muslims were eagerly enslaving Christians (and vice versa) both in war and piracy. But in general, if you were in a weak position anywhere, you very likely faced imprisonment, slavery or death. This hostile world only further supports the mentality where all "others" are considered natural enemies. This produced a comfortable atmosphere for slave markets to operate as those "others" are acceptable targets. The decline of this justification and transition to straightforward racism is probably connected to the rise of the European dominance and much improved order in world affairs (for Europeans at least).

  • I made a few tweaks; feel free to revert the edit.
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 16:34
  • That is a great answer, thank you. Could you provide some evidence for this claim, though? “By the time Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, a system with slaves captured from the West African Coast brought to European owned sugar plantations was already operating in the Old World.”
    – adam.baker
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 1:43
  • I was curious about the old-world sugar plantations too, and found this article from a JStor blog which links to a full academic paper on Madeira: daily.jstor.org/…
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 16:48

Slavery certainly did not "grow out of feudalism". Slavery is a much older and much more global institution than feudalism.

Those who started transporting slaves from Africa to North America did not do anything new. Long before that, slaves were transported from Africa to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean and to South America. Slavery in Africa itself existed since pre-historic times, and a large scale export of African slaves was performed by the Muslim traders since the establishment of the first Caliphate. Historians estimate the total volume of East African slave trade (performed mostly by the Muslims) as approximately equal to to the volume of the West African trade (performed by the Christians). But Islamic slave trade lasted much longer (from 7th to 19th century). Africa was not the only major source. Another major source was Eastern Europe. And not only Muslims were involved in Eastern Europe. For example, the state which later become known as Rus (on the territories of modern Ukraine and Russia) was established by the pagans from North Europe whose main business was slave trade. This business was discontinued when the Rus became Christians, but later a massive slave trade from Eastern Europe as continued by the Muslims. They sold these Slav slaves everywhere, including Western Europe, until slavery was prohibited in Western Europe.

Both Christian and Muslim religions in principle ban or restrict slavery of people of the same religion. So after antiquity slavery slowly declined in Europe, and in some Muslim countries. But this did not prevent from performing it "abroad".

Some sources:

  • P. Frankopan, The silk roads, Bloomsbury, 2016,

  • M. White, The great big book of horrible things, Northon and Co, NY, London, 2011.

  • А. П. Толочко, Очерки начальной Руси, Киев, 2015.

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