The Universal Attractions of Slavery

M. Brady & Studio/Private Collection/Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
John Henry, right, an escaped slave who joined the Union Army as a servant, 1861–1865

If I were to ask most Americans what comes to mind in response to the words “slave” and “slavery,” I would probably get an image of an African-American picking cotton in Mississippi or Africans being jammed into the hold of a slave ship. But if an Englishman had been asked the same question in 1670 or 1710, he would almost certainly have referred to fellow white countrymen who had been seized on the English coast or on ships by Barbary corsairs and transported to Muslim North Africa for heavy labor or sometimes ransom. For some three centuries Muslim raiders, often aided by European renegades, enslaved English, Irish, Scottish, French, Iberian, American, and even Scandinavian and Icelander captives, who joined other slaves from Russia, Italy, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa in the Maghreb. From 1600 to 1750 at least 20,000 British and Irish were held as slaves in North Africa.

But in 1490 the image would have been quite different. During the preceding nearly three centuries, slavery in the Christian Mediterranean had been identified with so-called Slavs, many of them from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, who had been purchased by Italian merchants and sold in both Christian and Muslim markets (and the Western European words for “slave”—esclavo, escravo, Sklave, esclave, schiavo—stem from the Latin for Slav, sclavus). By 1490 a notary in Sicily would have answered the question about the prevailing image of slavery with the Latin phrase sclavi negri, literally “black Slavs,” as black African slaves then greatly outnumbered white bondspeople, a transformation that occurred—in ways that would affect the settlement of the Americas—in Portugal and the sugar-producing Atlantic islands, such as São Tomé.

Since I have been attempting for over forty years to put slavery in a more global perspective, I could not be more delighted by Seymour Drescher’s magisterial new history of both slavery and antislavery from the late Middle Ages to the end of World War II. While we of course differ on a few minor issues, I believe Abolition is the most comprehensive, detailed, and integrated account of its subjects yet to appear, concentrating on the Americas but including fascinating digressions and comparisons that involve much of the rest of the world. The book is encyclopedic, but Drescher is superb at giving frequent overviews of a big picture, charting the expansion and contraction of his subjects over a period of twenty or fifty years. And there are valuable insights, to say nothing of enlightening information, on almost every page.

In view of the gradual disappearance of slavery and serfdom in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, it is easy to forget that free labor was virtually unknown in the rest of the world during most of human history. Drescher…

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