Notes on the History of Slavery: Why did Western European Slavery end in the 12th Century?

Two of my best-read posts ever in this blog, “The Downsides of World Government” (Part 1 and Part 2) deal with, well, the downsides of having centralized, world-encompassing authorities. So this really caught my eye: I was recently reading Volume 3 of “The Cambridge History of Slavery,” and I came across related evidence that political centralization tends to increase the percentage of enslaved peoples, while de-centralization has the opposite effect:

In classical times, prisoners of war were probably the major source of slaves, especially in the early expansionary days of the Roman Empire, as was also the case more recently in Africa and the indigenous Americas. Historically, capture in war has always been a justification of slavery. If a victor has the power to end a person’s life, then presumably the victor also has the power to inflict social death, or slavery, as opposed to biological death. A typical pattern at the conclusion of a battle was to inflict the latter on adult males and the former (slavery) on women and children. Such behavior is observed in the struggles between core states in Western Europe and the peoples that spearheaded the great migration prior to the fall of the Roman Empire and on down to the early Middle Ages. It was dependence, servility, and coerced labor also prevalent in struggles between most premodern polities everywhere in the world. The first effect of the emergence of large states and empires – whether in China, Mesoamerica, or the aforementioned case of Rome, where state structures allowed the control of men as well as of women and children – was that men, too, became slaves. Yet in the European world, treatment of prisoners of war changed rather decisively around the twelfth century, as relative equality of power between European states (and also between Islamic and Christian powers) and the attendant fear that the defeated power might be the victor in the next conflict meant that gradually more and more prisoners of war came to be exchanged or ransomed. Yet when Western European nations ended enslavement of one another, they still carried on extensive warfare resulting in large-scale deaths, rape, and pillaging. Whatever the reason, there is almost no evidence of prisoners of war being enslaved in the European Atlantic world during the era of American slavery, and indeed, no indication of servitude of any length being exacted by the victors in the many intra-European wars of the era (except, perhaps, for Dutch prisoners being put to work draining the English fens in the seventeenth century for the duration of hostilities). The major exception was prisoners of civil wars and those on the Celtic fringe that resisted the expansionary impulses of the core states of Western Europe, they were sent in large numbers to American plantations, at least in the seventeenth century, but always as servants with fixed terms rather than as chattel slaves, and with offspring who were free.

Obviously, Western Europeans continued to enslave others — Eastern Europeans, Moors, Africans, some Native Americans, etc — but not each other: a development of huge importance in the history of the region, similar but more comprehensive and more strictly enforced than Muslim and Christian bans against enslaving correligionists.

This topic is fascinating, and deserves some explaining. As I’ve discussed before, there’s a massive difference between debt bondage and other kinds of forced labor and slavery:

Debt bondage was a form of servitude based upon an initial agreement to borrow funds and continued until the time, if ever, the debt was repaid. The debt was payable by the family of the borrower if the latter was unable to repay while alive. Lenders were accused of extending too much credit or charging an excessively high interest rate so that repayment was never possible. The borrower would therefore become bound for very long periods, perhaps for life. Debt bondage was a system of coercion sometimes associated with the post-chattel-slavery era, as manifested in nineteenth-century India, but it was practiced widely and in some cases earlier in other parts of Southeast Asia, as well as in Latin America, Africa, and China.

This kind of status hasn’t always been clearly separate from that of a “free” but subject laborer:

The nature of free labor has changed substantially within the confines of the period to which volume three of the present project is devoted – waged labor in seventeenth-century England (and even in mid-nineteenth-century America) being taken as a sign that an individual could not possibly be a full citizen. Among the more overt forms of dependency and coerced labor, convict labor (in the sense of those guilty of offenses being required to labor) by the state has increased dramatically since the early modern period. Prior to this, and in many non-Western environments long afterward, those guilty of crimes against the community might be physically chastised or expelled. Punishment had few implications for labor. In Western societies, physical chastisement came to be supplemented by, or in some instances replaced with, incarceration, and expulsion became systematized into transportation. In both cases, however, convicts were frequently expected to labor as well. The Siberian case is well known. Exile was stipulated as early as 1582, but the forced labor of exiles is an eighteenth-century phenomenon, with, in the British case, a rapid switch from colonial North America to the antipodes as the place of exile. The most striking example is perhaps Australia, where shortly before the ending of transportation in the 1850s, convicts brought halfway around the world formed a similar proportion of the total population as had slaves in South Carolina less than a century earlier, and a far greater proportion than was ever the case in Siberia.

Yes. Not the best-known fact in the world, possibly another after-effect of very effective anti-Czarist Communist propaganda. Moving on:

They were also responsible for much of the infrastructure that accelerated the economic development of Australia. Despite this, the exaction of labor was never the major reason for the creation of convicts in the first place, or even, after conviction, for the existence of schemes that used the labor of those convicted, such as workhouses, prison gangs, galleys, soviet gulags, and transportation to distant colonies. Indeed, the history of coerced labor in the context of the history of the community’s or state’s need to punish transgressors seems a story of lost economic opportunity. One possible reason for this is that few schemes to harness the labor of convicts appeared to have warranted the expenditures they incurred – at least within the norms that most societies regarded as acceptable for the treatment of convicts. If convicts had been treated like African slaves, then there might have been different economic consequences.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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