Was Slavery A European Invention?

By Sidi Mohammed

Was slavery a European invention? This was one of the core questions that triggered my mind and was “answered” in the readings we had assigned for our fourth seminar. The readings all somewhat offered the same answer: Islamic slavery. Europeans did not invent slavery, because Islamic empires already got involved in the slave trade in the mid-1400s, which seems to answer the question, but not fully to my satisfaction. In chapter 1 of his Transformations in Slavery, Lovejoy raises that before the mid-1400s “the Islamic world was virtually the only external influence on the political economy of Africa.” Nunn and Acemoglu & Robinson also “ignore” slavery’s ancient history of before the 1400s. Most people who are interested in religious history will know the story of Moses in Exodus 4, in which he managed to rescue the Israelites from slavery under the rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Academic articles discussing the ancient presence of slavery seem to be scarce, the recognition of slavery’s long presence in Western civilization – from the times of ancient Mesopotamia – still gets acknowledged. The depiction of “Islamic slavery” as the starting point of slavery in general does not seem to do justice to the long history slavery has in the Western world. An important nuancing of the abovementioned criticism surely denies the deliberate ignorance of slavery’s ancient history, as the readings that were discussed during seminar 4 were merely focussing on the institutional impacts of “African slavery” in specific. Looking at the context of slave trade in Africa, there does not seem to be a convincing incentive to involve ancient slavery in the analysis. Nevertheless, “Islamic slavery” is an answer for the question posed in the title, especially when looking at path dependence and the possible impact of ancient slavery on “Islamic slavery”.