How the Fall of Rome Led to the Global Explosion of Slavery

Slavery Routes: A Short History of Human Trafficking

Part 1 476 AD -1375 AD: Beyond the Desert

DW (2020)

This series explores slave trading that followed the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 AD. Although debt and conquest-related slavery clearly occur in ancient Greece and prehistoric civilizations, wholesale slave trafficking to remote locations only began after the fall of Rome.

Following the fall of Rome, the barbarian societies that replaced Roman civilization (the Goths, Visigoths, Slavs in the Northeast, Byzantine Empire, Berbers and Nubian and Arab tribes). For several centuries Slavs from Eurasia were the preferred slaves. This would cause their ethnic label to be confused with the Greek word for slave.

As Arab armies began expanding into Egypt after 641, the economy and demand for slaves increased exponentially. As oil wouldn’t be discovered for another 1200 years, slaves would serve as an essential source of energy for territorial and economic expansion.

In less than a century, the Islamic Empire would occupy the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean. When Baghdad became its capital (762 AD) thousands of slaves were needed to remove the coating of salt* that covered the soil around Basra to enable cultivation. It was during this period Muslims first began using African slaves. Under Islamic law, only non-Muslims could serve as slaves. Slaves who converted to Islam had to be freed.

Over the eighth century, the Islamic Empire expanded into the Caucasus, the Balkans, Turkey and Russia.

After Cairo became the new capitol of the Islamic Empire in the tenth century, Berber slaves taught their Muslim masters how to use camels for transportation. This enabledĀ  military and political leaders to cross the Sahara Desert for the first time to the rich capitol of theĀ  the Mali Empire Timbuktu. The Mali emperor employed more than 12,000 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to work his gold mines – representing, at the time, the world’s largest gold reserves.

Once he he declared Islam the official religion, more than 1000 slaves would leave Mali every year for distant outposts of the Islamic World. Mali rulers also enslaved more than 12,000 natives of sub-Saharan Africa to work the emperor’s goldmines.

By the end of the Middle Ages, there were six main trading routes for exporting sub-Saharan slaves to territories north of the Mediterranean and in some cases as far as China and Japan. Between the 7th and 14th century (when Europe entered the slave trade), it’s estimated a total of 3.5 million Africans were captured and sold into slavery by Islamic traders.

Ironically in the 21st century, light skinned Tuaregs in North Africa still enslave sub-Saharan Africans who become prey to traffickers trying to flee economic oppression and violence in southern Africa.

History of Capitalism: The Tragic and Shameful Roots of the African Slave Trade

Slavery Routes – Part 1 For All the Gold in the World

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

This three part documentary explores the ugly, tragic and above all profitable history of the African slave trade. The profound grief, anger and shame I experienced on watching it was compounded by having to wait until age 70 to learn this stuff. This is a history all American and European children should learn by heart in primary and secondary school.

Part 1 focuses around the 15th century European slave market, which was mainly run by the Portuguese. Prior to the fall of Constantinople (to the Turks) in 1453, Europeans sourced their slaves (derived from the word “slav”) from the Balkans.

Following the collapse of the Slavic slave trade, during the 15-17th century the Portuguese kidnapped more than one million Africans were kidnapped for sale in Spain, Italy and Southern France. They were put to work in agriculture, iron works, sailing, fishing and pottery production. Most archeological traces of Lisbon slave trade were destroyed in the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755.

In Europe, African slaves were assimilated into European families and communities and many Mediterranean families carry African DNA.

Starting in 1434, the Portuguese established small settlements in the Muslim colonies along the coast of West African that were their initial source of slaves. In 1455, the Portuguese were joined by slave traders from many other European countries. Their despicable activities were supported by a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas V (allegedly to assist the Crusades in ending Muslim occupation of the holy lands). The latter provided a legal framework for Europeans to “conquer all pagans for perpetual slavery in the name of God.”

The Portuguese also established a profitable trading relationship with the powerful King of Konga, who converted to Christianity and traded African gold for modern European goods for his nobles.

In addition to transporting the slaves they captured to Europe, the Portuguese put them to work in the Elmina gold mines in modern day Ghana and on the first sugar plantations on Sao Tomean Island in the Gulf of Guinea. A series of successful slave uprisings caused the collapse of the Sao Tomean plantations. At this point, the Portuguese began transporting their African slaves to new sugar plantations in Brazil.

I’m unable to embed the video, but you can watch it free at this link:

Slavery Routes: For All the Gold in the World