Slavery & the Emerging Global Economy
In the 15th century, people did not see themselves as Africans or Europeans. They saw themselves aligned with certain cultural groups and regions. People in the western African region were leaders and everyday men and women with intellect, culture, power and a sense of community. While people in the western European region sought new opportunities to expand their global power as they recovered from challenges including religious warfare, pandemic conditions and famine. They engaged in global trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange. In the 1440s western Europe and western Africa were no longer limited by overland trade, and they connected along the Atlantic coast which opened new trade relations.
Eventually, the Western Atlantic became a site for colonization with fertile land to cultivate sugar, the driver of the transatlantic slave trade. The demand for profit and power came with a human cost. At the heart of the tension were the lives of enslaved African men, women and children and the moral degradation of enslavers and those who benefited from trade, both directly and indirectly.
Like Africa, western Europe was home to diverse people who lived in territories as small as a city-state and as large as a kingdom. As Europeans began to form nation-states, they sought to increase their influence around the world through trade, exploration, and colonization. These new nation-states forged national identities in part through religion and casting out people who did not belong, such as non-Christians. New national identities also made it easier to justify enslaving people from Africa and the Americas.
In the 1400s many of the nations that would dominate the Transatlantic Slave Trade did not yet exist. In fact, the slave trade was essential to the development and wealth of each nation. Four nations invested most heavily in the forced migration of 12 million African people. These nations include Portugal (which transported 31% of enslaved people); the Netherlands (6%); England (40%); and France (18%).
During the early 1600s France operated under a feudal system. Peasants lived on and farmed land in exchange for the promise of military service to landholding feudal lords. This system remained in place as France engaged in lengthy wars, both religious and political. War, along with internal religious conflict and class strife, delayed the pursuit of global trade opportunities. Eventually France became a colonial power and joined the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
By the late 1400s England was weakened by 100 years of warfare and the plague. The country’s new Tudor kings began experimenting with how to amass wealth without becoming indebted to rival nobility. They sold titles of nobility, sent explorers on minor expeditions, built up a strong navy, and thrived on piracy. England slowly began to build its strength to challenge European monopolies on trade with African and American peoples.
As a small Protestant region in a Catholic empire, the Netherlands began to grow wealthier and more united around religion and global trade. The Netherlands began to develop autonomy through financial innovations—notably the bank and the check. The financial tools benefited the region when it became a strong contender against the Portuguese and briefly took control of the slave trade.
North African Muslims, referred to as Moors, were in the Iberian Peninsula from the 700s until their expulsion in the late 1400s due to religious conflict.
The Iberian Peninsula, modern-day Spain and Portugal, was part of an Islamic empire that spread from the Middle East through northern Africa to the Atlantic.
The marriage of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II created the Spanish Kingdom. Considered religious zealots, they were known as the Catholic Monarchs. In the 15th century their army defeated the Muslim inhabitants of Spain and Portugal, known as Moors, and banished them from the kingdom. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were violently expelled or executed. In their kingdom, national identity was defined by limpieza de sangre, or pure blood.
Pope Nicholas V, head of the Catholic Church, advised Spanish and Portuguese leaders, including Spain’s Queen Isabella. He drafted edicts in the form of papal bulls that served as pseudo governmental orders which empowered the European nation states to institute perpetual slavery and colonization. The papal bull, known as the Dum Diversas, was one of several Catholic edicts foundational to the creation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The Portuguese were in the forefront of European trade in western Africa. Prince Henry the Navigator, a nobleman, helped Portugal achieve this status by organizing voyages to trade, convert non-Christians, and find a maritime route to Asia. In 1441 Henry was presented with 10 kidnapped African people as evidence of what the region held. In 1455 the pope granted exclusive rights to the sub-Saharan trade to the Portuguese crown, including the trade in enslaved people.
The Ottoman Empire controlled many desirable northern overland trade routes, cutting off western Europe from northern Africa and Asia. Determined to find alternative routes and new trade opportunities, western Europeans took advantage of the astrolabe, compass, and triangular sail. These tools allowed them to sail north and south along the Atlantic. The triangular sail helped control wind better than square rigging. The astrolabe and the compass enabled sailors to navigate the seas beyond the sight of land.
Christopher Columbus’s expedition was part of a series of events that transformed Europe, Africa, and the Americas. His travels were intended to open the Asian spice trade for Spain. In 1492 Columbus landed in the Bahamas, traveled to modern-day Cuba, and ultimately established a settlement in Hispañola, modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. By 1542 virtually all of the native people of Hispañola had died from disease and abuse, prompting the import of African slaves to replace their labor in the sugar fields.
Vespucci was an Italian explorer, navigator, and cartographer. He proved that Columbus did not travel to Asia, but rather reached present-day Brazil and the West Indies. In 1507, for the first time, a mapmaker included the word America on a map of the Western Hemisphere, in honor of Vespucci. Vespucci’s letters also informed the European public about the unexplored new lands and their native people.