Is slavery a European invention?

By Hugo van Lent

This is certainly a question worth asking. However, its answer is not that simple. Was the trans-Atlantic slave trade first initiated by European merchant companies? Yes, sine dubio. Was the majority of those slaves transported to and made to toil the soil of European colonies? Yes. Was it European states that were responsible for displacing people on an unprecedented scale? Plausibly. Is it therefore reasonable to call slavery a European invention? Not necessarily.

Slavery, as defined by Paul Lovejoy in his book Transformation in Slavery, is not only based on the fact that its victims were chattel – property to be bought and sold – or that they were employed as forced labour; a third crucial element is that slaves were considered to live outside of civil society and therefore were not deserving of the rights and liberties of the citizen.

European philosophical and political thought during the Age of Slavery was very much set out to define the nature of the citizen and his natural, inalienable rights. Slaves, of course, did not have these rights – they were not considered citizens. Societies exclusively based on institutionalised chattel slavery – what Lovejoy calls “slavery society” – did not exist in Europe; they were meant as a model for the colonies, not for an enlightened European state or a “New-Europe”.

When enlightenment ideas were finally put into practice, Europeans realised their hypocrisy – that their political thought was utterly incompatible with what was happening in the colonies – and the international slave trade was banned. Only in the colonies, such as the American South – did slavery continue and was it institutionalised.

So did Europeans practice slavery on a scale much greater than before? Yes. But may slavery be considered uniquely European? Not at all. If anything is could be called European, it is the abolishment of slavery.