Why the 15th Century Saw New Forms of Slavery


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The story begins around the year 1400 when certain ideas about racial difference, connected to blackness and whiteness, are starting to germinate. This is also, not coincidentally, the period when Europeans, led by the Portuguese—whose strategic coastline projected into the Atlantic—were beginning to establish colonies on Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Azores.

Medieval painting of Portuguese ships off a rocky coast
Led by the Portuguese, Europeans established colonies in the Atlantic in the early 15th century. (Image: Royal Museums Greenwich/Public domain)

Why Did the Demand for Slaves Increased?

Within a few generations, the indigenous inhabitants of these islands, especially the population of the Canaries, were almost eradicated by their mass enslavement and conquest by the Spanish crown of Castile.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese had reached the Cape Verde Islands and the Gold Coast of West Africa. This gradual, creeping expansion of the slave industry turns out to have been self-perpetuating; the large-scale process of colonization and enslavement, which had led to the depopulation of the Atlantic islands, was what drove the need for slaves from West Africa.

New Navigational Techniques

Now, it’s important to recognize that contacts between West Africans and Europeans was not new. We now know that sub-Saharan Africa had long been integrated into the medieval world system of trade and exchange; for example, importing copper from Germany and Poland, and exporting gold and elephant ivory. 

But that trade has always been indirect and overland, through a network of caravan routes or small-time coastal trading. In the 15th century, however, new naval and navigational technologies were enabling huge cargo ships full of men from northern Europe and the Mediterranean to access West Africa directly, rather than through middlemen.

All of these factors began to change the nature of slavery as it had been known since antiquity: a regime, often temporary, of unfree labor that could ensnare anyone, of any social rank or ethnicity. Captured in war or sold to pay debts, premodern slaves were not indelibly marked by any shared set of physical characteristics, which is why they were usually branded or tattooed, or given distinctive haircuts; otherwise, there would be no way to tell their status as enslaved.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Slavery Not Based on Race

In contrast to antiquity, moreover, where entire economies, societies, and political systems—including Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic—could not have existed without slavery on a huge scale, slavery in the medieval West was relatively insignificant. Chattel slavery had essentially been eradicated in much of northern and western Europe, although many forms of coerced labor remained. 

In the Mediterranean, where slavery existed on a small scale, there were no slave factories or plantations. The only slave-based economy of this era was that of the Ottoman Empire, where slaves were often European Christians from the Balkans, Slavic lands, and Greece. Enslaved men ran the state bureaucracy and staffed the army, while enslaved women often became the mothers of free Ottoman Turks. Indeed, the Ottoman sultan was almost always the son of a slave.

In all these cases, moreover, as in antiquity, no aspect of slavery was justified or based on an idea of race. In Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, slaves were often captives from an array of locales, especially the Black Sea region. In the early Middle Ages, Germanic and Celtic peoples had been widely enslaved and were, indeed the most valuable commodities that European Christians had to trade with their much wealthier Muslim neighbors.

Racialization Increases

What was new about slavery by about 1500, then, was its increasing racialization—an aspect of modern slavery that has made an indelible impact on our own society. Think about how current forms of slavery are called white to distinguish them from a slavery imagined as normatively black—this is a distinction that would not have been made before the racialization of the trade around the 16th century.

And it is true that West African slaves would have been visible in Europe in ways that other slaves were not. But still, the number of these enslaved Africans was initially quite small; in Lisbon, which became a significant market during the first half of the 15th century, something on the order of 15 to 20,000 African captives were sold within a 20-year period. (In the following half century, the numbers amounted to more like 150,000, increased by a factor of 10.) 

A Status Symbol

For the most part, during these early decades, the purchasers of such individuals regarded them as status symbols; it became fashionable to have West African footmen, page boys, ladies’ maids, and courtesans.

In the Atlantic colonies of Madeira, the Canaries, and the Azores, meanwhile, agricultural work was mainly supplied by European settlers and sharecroppers, suggesting that distinctions among laborers were not yet racialized.

Slave-based Plantation in Atlantic Colonies

A Medieval map of Cape Green Island
The 1460s saw a new slave-based plantation in Portugal’s Atlantic colonies. (Image: Barent Langenes/Public domain)

However, a new kind of slave-based sugar plantation began to emerge in Portugal’s Atlantic colonies in the 1460s, starting on the Cape Verdes. These islands had not been populated when the Portuguese began to settle them, and their climate generally discouraged most settlers from living there. 

They were ideally located, however, along the routes of traders venturing outward from the nearby West African coast, supplying the enforced labor that the plantations needed. It was this plantation model that would be developed and exported to Brazil by the Portuguese and to the Caribbean islands of the Americas by their Spanish conquerors, with incalculable consequences.

Common Questions about New Forms of Slavery

Q: Where were the new European colonies established in the early 15th century?

Europeans, led by the Portuguese began to establish colonies in Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Azores, all into the Atlantic.

Q: How did the large-scale process of colonization drove the need for slaves from West Africa?

The indigenous inhabitants Atlantic Islands were almost eradicated by the mass enslavement and conquest by the Spanish crown of Castile. It was at this point that the Portuguese reached the Cape Verde Islands, so this process of colonization and enslavement led to the depopulation of the Atlantic islands and drove the need for slaves from West Africa.

Q: When did the new slave-based sugar plantation start?

It emerged in Portugal’s Atlantic colonies in the 1460s, starting on Cape Verdes. This would be developed and exported to Brazil by the Portuguese and to the Caribbean islands of the Americas by their Spanish conquerors, too.

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