Why did humans create slavery?

According to the US Constitution, all human beings are created equal. But that did not prevent the Americans from exploiting millions of slaves. A dark chapter in US history began 400 years ago.

"Around the 20th of August a Dutch warship came to us, from which we bought 20 negroes." The sentence noted by tobacco farmer John Rolfe in 1619, 400 years ago, marks the beginning of slavery in North America.

In 1607, 143 British adventurers had founded Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in the New World, on the east coast of North America. Indian attacks, disease and hunger: it was only when the settlers managed to grow tobacco and export it to England that survival in what would later become Virginia was assured. The labor shortage then paved the way for slavery.

The slave trade was a pillar of the colonial powers

Around a hundred years earlier, the Spaniards and Portuguese had begun to abduct people to South and Central America and the Caribbean, where they had to toil on sugar cane plantations. In the southern states of what was later to become the USA, slavery only gradually solidified: Initially, Africans were equal to white workers who had to pay for shipping from Europe through their work; they could change masters and marry independently. With the expansion of the tobacco and cotton plantations and the end of the civil war in England in 1651, which led to a decline in British emigrants, the disenfranchisement of the African population continued to advance.

Root of racism

There were laws that guaranteed the slaves certain rights. But all too often the slaves were subjected to the will of their masters. They were tortured and forced to obey with the severest punishments. Mutilation, whipping, and even the murder of slaves were not uncommon. Unlike in ancient society, for example, slavery in the USA was founded on racial differences from the start.

And it was not only in the south that people were exploited. While the slaves there mostly had to do hard labor, they were mainly employed as domestic staff in the northern colonies.

Millions of people abducted

In the nearly 400 years of Atlantic slavery, around ten to twelve million people have been deported from Africa to America. Four to five million were brought to the Caribbean, 3.5 to 5 million to Brazil, and half a million were sold to the United States. In 1860 there were four million slaves living there.

The Cologne historian Michael Zeuske emphasizes in his book "Slavery. A human history ..." that slavery has existed since the dawn of mankind. Whether with Egyptians and Romans, with Mayans or Arabs: slavery drove economy and wealth like an engine made of human bodies.

Beginning of slavery

The word "slave" is related to "slav" and comes from the Middle Ages when many people were deported from Eastern Europe - especially to the Islamic world. African societies, too, have been plagued by new raids by Arab traffickers since the seventh century. They received support from African tribal chiefs.

Many of the victims did not survive the capture, the deportation from the interior of Africa to the coasts and finally the cruel exertion of the shipping.

The transatlantic slave trade developed into a triangular trade: European ships went to the coast of West Africa to exchange goods for people, who were then sold in America. From there, ships drove back to Europe, loaded with products such as sugar, coffee or cotton. The Europeans, according to Zeuske, "always remained junior partners of the Islamic and African slave trade elites".

German slave traders

Germans were also involved: in 1682 the Great Elector founded the African Company to enter the slave business with a small fleet. Around 25,000 slaves were acquired.

There were various reasons why this form of slavery was finally abolished: In northern America, it was mainly Christians who campaigned for an end. Others argued that keeping slaves was no longer financially viable.

End of slavery?

In 1807 Great Britain initially only banned trade; In 1833 a comprehensive prohibition law came into force. The United States made slavery unconstitutional after the Civil War in 1865. In Brazil it was not officially lifted until 1888.