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The Newness of New World Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 3028


Was the slavery that developed in the New World fundamentally different from the kinds of servitude found in classical antiquity or in other societies? In one respect, New World slavery clearly was not unique. Slavery everywhere permitted cruelty and abuse. In ancient India, Saxon England, and ancient China, a master might mistreat or even kill a slave with impunity.

Yet in four fundamental respects New World slavery differed from slavery in classical antiquity and in Africa, eastern and central Asia, or the Middle East.

1. Slavery in the classical and the early medieval worlds was not based on racial distinctions. Racial slavery originated during the Middle Ages, when Christians and Muslims increasingly began to recruit slaves from east, north central, and west Africa. As late as the 15th century, slavery did not automatically mean black slavery. Many slaves came from the Crimea, the Balkans, and the steppes of western Asia. But after 1453, when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, the capital of eastern Christendom, Christian slave traders drew increasingly upon captive black Muslims, known as Moors, and upon slaves purchased on the West African coast or transported across the Sahara Desert.

2. The ancient world did not necessarily regard slavery as a permanent condition. In many societies, including ancient Greece and Rome, manumission of slaves was common, and former slaves carried little stigma from their previous status.

3. Slaves did not necessarily hold the lowest status in premodern societies. In classical Greece, many educators, scholars, poets, and physicians were in fact slaves.

4. It was only in the New World that slavery provided the labor force for a high-pressure profit-making capitalist system of plantation agriculture producing cotton, sugar, coffee, and cocoa for distant markets. Most slaves in Africa, in the Islamic world, and in the New World prior to European colonization worked as farmers or household servants, or served as concubines or eunuchs. They were symbols of prestige, luxury, and power rather than a source of labor.

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