The two faces of slavery

By Lorraine Besnier

Although there are proofs that Europeans did not invent slavery but simply changed its face, some questions remains concerning the extent of this statement. The way Europeans reinvented not only the definition of slave, but also reorganised societies around it, suggests that they did create an entirely new structure.

In this post, I will try to show that by redefining slavery, Europeans completely changed the existing institutions, based on their own perception of the matter.

Lovejoy explains in “Transformation of slavery” how slavery in its basic definition of one person owning another existed long before the Europeans first came to Africa. Indeed, indigenous slavery was based on the survival of the fittest. A man, to protect himself, would enslave his adversary for if he failed to do so, he himself would have to submit. But some rules were informally enforced. For instance, there was no idea of class, and tribes did matter.

After the arrival of the Europeans, the rules changed. Indeed, with the importance given to slaves, the indirect implantation of new institutions, and the creation of an entire market, the incentives were increasing for individuals to pay attention to this “business”.

However, the effects were not the same for everyone, and as the Europeans transposed their own beliefs abroad by solely approaching people whom had some kind of authority in the communities, only a small number of individuals could benefit from it. Lovejoy's example of the Oracle “swallowing” people to sell them perfectly illustrates the idea. Thus, native chiefs and religious guides had the monopoly on slave trafficking.

With their “contribution” of a new system, the Europeans succeeded in creating an unprecedented organisation within Africa. Slavery was no longer a matter of safety, but one of money.