The Continuity of the International Slave Trade and Slave System

By Charshee McIntyre (1990) 

An Overview—First of Two Parts

More institutional continuity between ancient and modern slavery existed than generally has been suggested. While some scholars recognize that American slavery had much in common with that of the Greek and Roman classical form, many scholars prefer to accept the rumor of chattel slavery's disappearance during Europe's Middle Ages. This acceptance tends to preclude any theory of direct influence and linkages. However, the evidence of continuity remains. This paper offers a brief overview of the connections between the slave system and slave trade of the Old World and that of the so-called New World by highlighting the role of Jews in this oppressive commercial enterprise and social system.

The continual expulsion of Jews from different nations throughout Europe and the Mediterranean arena forced this religious group to develop particular skills that these same hostile nations at various times wanted and needed. The individual European nations' intermittent expulsion of Jews caused them to live in many countries, to adopt many "national" identities and names, and to be able to speak many languages. They represent probably the first truly international people, establishing residences in many different countries and interlinking and interlocking with relatives and co-religionists throughout the world.

What is a Jew and who is a Jew become significant and complex questions. In old countries, a person would say, "I am Russian of the Jewish faith." In America, the term Jew means other than follower of a faith, for many identify themselves as Jewish but adhere to no or a different faith, such as a Christian Jew. Through intermarriage, many prominent families have some Jewish ancestry. Stephen Birmingham discusses a book written by Malcolm H. Stern, Americans of Jewish Descent. This text lists over 25,000 entries, including "the Rockefellers … the De Lanceys, the Livingstons, the Goodwins, the Stevensons, the Ingersolls, the Lodges, the Ten Eycks, the Tiffanys, the Van Rensselaers, the Hopkinses, the Baltimore Blairs … and the Vanderbilts" to highlight a few.1

A brief overview such as this essay cannot provide sufficient illumination regarding this very complex patten of Jewish identity. However, when discussing their involvement in any commercial enterprises, we must remember the heinous mistreatment they underwent from many nations that legally offered them sometimes no, and often few, alternatives. The Christian nations reserved activities they believed to be sinful, like money lending, for Jews and then defined these endeavors negatively. Max Weber explains the pattern:

To the English Puritans, the Jews of their time were representatives of capitalism which was involved in war, government contracts, state monopolies, speculative promotions, and the construction and financial projects of princes, which they themselves condemned. In fact, the difference may, in general with the necessary qualifications, be formulated that Jewish capitalism was speculative pariah-capitalism, while the Puritan was bourgeois organization of labor.2

Despite the biased characterization of their activities, Jews remained major players in international commercial endeavors when the mercantilist age and, later, the industrial revolution, developed. As the merchant class gained power and respectability, Jews proved tremendously competitive. In some cases, they gained friends; in other cases, they acquired powerful enemies.3

The Jewish involvement in and sanctioning of slavery can be traced to the teachings of Moses, who was informed (by Yahweh) that "the Hebrews should buy their slaves from neighboring nations." The restrictions for Jews involved the enslavement of their own people—which was not prohibited, but set within certain parameters: "No Hebrew bondsman was to serve, without his consent, for longer than 50 years."4 Both the Christian and Judaic text identified servitude with Canaan.5 But the justification for the enslavement of Black people came from the Jewish interpretation of the Hamitic Myth from "the Talmudic and Midrashic sources," which included: "Ham was smitten in his skin"; that Noah told Ham, "Your seed will be ugly and dark-skinned"; and that Ham was father "of Canaan who brought curses into the world, of Canaan who was cursed, of Canaan who darkened the faces of mankind, of Canaan the notorious world darkener."6

This interpretation came from the Babylonian Talmud, not the Jerusalem Talmud. The distinction is important, according to St. Clair Drake, who hypothesizes that "special conditions in Mesopotamia generated rabbinic stories associating Negroidness with excessive and aberrant sexuality and Noah's curse." Drake argues that the Mesopotamia Jews negatively encountered significant numbers of Africans called the Zanj. In Fact, Drake insists that "some Jews had a stake in maintaining slavery. They were not just supervisors of slave labor; eventually, they became slave owners and dealers in the slave grade. A Diaspora Jewish culture with values quite different from those in Palestine developed."7 He explains as follows.

During the first century A.D. … among Babylonian Jewry was a class of native born aristocrats. … Under these circumstances, parts of the Jewish community became involved in the importation and exploitation of "Zanj" labor in southern Mesopotamia. Insofar as the landed upper class followed the ancient Babylonian pattern, it would have been a slaveholding class. And it is likely that some of the farmers and tradesmen held slaves as well. The Jewish people were also represented in commerce, in manufacturing, and in the ownership of vessels that traded in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, where they were in direct contact with the "Zanj."8

Of course, the enslavement of all captives from wars and other means indicated some form of human progress. Since before slavery, these poor souls would have been murdered. Therefore, during ancient and biblical times, the buying and selling of slaves occurred. By the fifth century and up to the 15th century, and international slave trade flourished in the Black and Mediterranean seas.9

As early as A.D. 472, Bishop of Clermont, Appolaris Sidonius, praised Jewish merchants for "Conducting honest business," while he scolded Christians as usurers. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the rapid spread of Christianity to some slight degree may have ameliorated the conditions of enslaved Europeans such as to affect the trade, but the church make no effort to abolish the institution.10 Greeks, Bulgars, Italians, Syrians and Jews shared the European court. At first, Syrians dominated the trade, but by the seventy century, Jews took the lead.

Ships owned by Jews sailed the Mediterranean, and Jewish traders trafficked by cart up and down the valleys of and by raft up and down the rivers Rhone, Danube and Rhine. Venice, Passau, Cologne and the city fairs of Champagne became the chief ports of entry for spices, silks, ivory and other luxuries of the East. Merchants sold these goods to princes, peddled them at convent doors, and displayed them in Episcopal halls. In return, these traders received Western furs, weapons and enslaved humans to take to Moslem Spain and the East.

As Islam rose in the seventh century, it shattered for many years the free commerce of Europe with Africa and Asia. The Mediterranean ceased to be a Roman lake; it became a foreign sea. The same reasons—their common faith, their common social habits, and the community of blood underlying their group—that kept Jews from entering and becoming part of the Christian European world made the Jews the obvious channels for the trading community. These factors allowed the Jewish merchants to serve as international traders; allowed them to connect with other traders in far-off lands and across vast seas "to ship, in short, a bale of silk from Constantinople to Cologne."

The Jewish 'Slave trains moved across Europe from Germany to Verdun and finally to Moslem Spain" with enslaved humans that originated in "Bohemia, Moravia and remoter Slavic lands." They carried "slaves, furs and swords to the Jewish-Khazar kingdom on the Volga" when they traveled eastward to China. The "slaves and furs, much prized in Moslem lands, were picked up for little more than nothing in the great Slavic reservoirs of men and beast." When moving westward toward the palace of the King of all Franks, these merchants carried "spices, silks and tapestries." Along the way, they would meet Italian Jews, probably in Worms and Mayence, selling Byzantine items from Venice. Many reaped substantial profits that became the basis for Jewish wealth and their money-lending activities.11

The Jewish presence permeated throughout; and around A.D. 794, the Synod of Frankfort in Central Germany, attempted to break the Jewish trade monopoly. Custom collectors levied taxes "on Jews and other merchants" for "slaves and other wares." Even Charlemagne attempted to stop the Jewish traffic to no avail—for the demand for stalwart enslaved humans, good spices and furs outweighed the laws against Jewish trading.

By the ninth century, the words "merchant" and "Jew" had ecome almost synoymous. "Judaei vei ceter; negotiatatores sive Judaei, mercatores ei Judaei—Jews or other traders, traders or Jews, merchants and Jews—so ran the usual phrases in [European] chronicles, legal codes and tariff bills."12

By A.D. 887, some German cities made Jewish merchants pay "an extra 10-cents tax," primarily to give the Christian competitors and advantage. And, in A.D. 888, the Synod of Metz "forbade Christians" to eat or to drink with Jews. Most of these negative laws and punitive taxation toward the Jews occurred because of the church trying to expel the Jews from their areas. The church, having to compete with them in selling wine and grain, desired their removal; but "above all, the church objected to the Jewish slave trade "not because the church had compunctions about having and selling enslaved humans. Rather, it resented the Jews proselytizing the captives.13The church passed laws that forbade Jews owning enslaved Christians and laws forbidding Jews converting heathens to Judaism.

Of course, most of these laws were broken, for the army, along with others, tended to look favorably upon the Jewish merchants.14 When Germans opened up frontier towns along their eastern border about A.D. 965, Otto the Great placed "the Jews and all other merchants" under the rule of the local bishop. Jews owned a salt mine there, and Jewish merchants brought in "Byzantine wares and coins" with which to buy "slaves, tin and lead."

In the 10th century, a Jewish minister of state to the Caliph of Cordova employed another German Jew as a messenger "though Slavic lands to the Khazar Kingdom." In the 10th and 11th centuries, Swedish merchants also established contact with the Caliphate of Baghdad and the Byzantine Empire. They traded wax, furs and enslaved Russians for the spices and silks of the East. The merchants and princes of Kiev, Russian, considered the export of enslaved humans one of their principal sources of wealth.15

By the end of 11th century, German Jews had entered Rhinelands, Saxony and the Reich "and the threads of their trade united them with far places." Jewish merchants often served as "the instruments by which the most distant nations conversed with one another." As stated earlier, this Jewish international trade network became strong primarily due to the social proscriptions levied upon them in their home nations. They could not become citizens or engage in agriculture—which left them commerce and money lending pursuits.

As Western Europeans developed many new towns during the 11th and 12th centuries, Jewish merchants first prospered then met fierce competition. In "Venice, Bari and Amalfi, Italian merchants began to dominate commerce with the East." The "doge of Venice urged the Church to outlaw Jews' trading in coins, textiles" of anything related to Christian commerce. Venetian ships first could not carry Jewish Merchants, then Jewish goods.

Jews continued to trade wherever they could, taking the position that to counter these oppressive acts, persuasion wouldn't work but providing money and luxury items would. One scholar argued that Jews "did not cling to Judaism in order to become merchants—they became merchants in order to remain Jews."16

Throughout the Middle Ages, a regular trade in slaves and a form of slavery existed that included Blacks from Central Africa, Mongols and whites from the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.17 The Christian, Jewish and Islamic traders of Southern Europe and Northern Africa found steady sources. Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Byzantine Empire received Moslem slaves. North Africans received Christian slaves.18

Once kept alive by the Moslems' demand for enslaved whites, the European demand for enslaved humans gradually decreased. Depots existed in Lyons, Verdun, Civitavecchia and elsewhere. An eastern route carried Slaves from Kiev and the Crimea by way of Byzantine to the Mediterranean. Using the non-European route over the Caucasus Mountains, merchants carried the captive Slavs and Circaccians to the Abbasid Caliphate. The North and East African routes provided enslaved Blacks for the Ottoman Empire, which the Moslems controlled exclusively. Italian cities played a very large role in this trade.19

In the 13th century, sclavus, meaning slave, reappeared in Italy and spread over Europe. At this time, Italians established a new trade route that particularly served the Mediterranean world.20 Enslaved Slavs from Southeastern Europe and the shores of the Black Sea began to be imported into Italy. Refugees and captives multiplied with the new Asiatic invasions of Eastern Europe and the Near East. Venetian and Genoese (many Jewish) traders bought Circassians, Armenians, Syrians, Bulgarians and Serbians from the Turks to resell principally in the Mediterranean countries.21

During this time, Venetians transported enslaved humans to the harems of Syria and Egypt/Kemet. This trade proved vital to Venetian prosperity. Venetian merchants invented the institution later applied to the African trade. On the coasts of the Black Sea in the 13th century, they established bases of factories, which became thriving markets for the purchase of enslaved humans. These Italian merchants created joint stock companies, commercial or fondachi, along with a highly organized slave trade, securing enslaved humans from the Tartars. They established plantations in Cyprus to cultivate sugarcane. Later, colonizing nations looked to these Italians for commercial theory and practices.

The enslavement of humans served as a strong source of income to all Mediterranean ports in the Middle Ages. Crusaders had brought back many Nubian captives as their personal servants, and almost every king in Europe displayed enslaved Blacks in court. Merchants raided Africa and Asia Minor to seize suitable captives. The Turks raided the coasts and the Balkan states, capturing Christian boys to train them for government positions and to fight in the Turkish armies. In 1330, the Janissaries organized 1,000 Christian men to be soldiers.22

The city of Rome, down the 16th century, patronized the enslavement of humans. Naturally, the rest of Italy followed the example of the metropolis of Christianity. The popes issued edicts of enslavement against whole towns and provinces. Boniface VIII issued one against the retainers of Colonna; Clement V against the Venetians (1294–1348); Sixtus against the Florentines (1375–1378); Julius against the Bolognes and Venetians; and the laws obligated anyone who could succeed in capturing any of the condemned people to enslave them. The examples of Rome encouraged the whole of Italy, especially Venice, to carry on a brisk foreign trade, especially in the enslavement of females.23

The Turks' conquest failed to affect the Iberian Peninsula and slaves densely populated parts of Spain. Catalonia-Aragon and Majorca, by the 13th century, possessed African bondsmen. Their numbers increased significantly by the end of the 14th century. The exchange occurred both ways, for the Genoese provided the Saracen traders with ships and enslaved Christians. Significant trading existed.

Bondsmen formed a significant portion of Tuscany's population. Even nuns, priests and shopkeepers in Florence commonly owned enslaved people. The church occasionally denounced the sale of Christians, but the merchants disregarded all attempts at regulation. Thus, during the late Middle Ages, flourishing societies of enslaved humans existed alongside the main routes of commerce from Russia and Egypt/Kemet to Venice and the south of France.

The military success of the Ottoman Turks encouraged the revival of human enslavement. Standard accounts assert that at least 50,000 people were sold into enslavement after the fall of Constantinople.24 But the Turks eventually sealed off slave markets of the Black Sea, and Florence's trade all but disappeared from the Mediterranean basin. As the Turks gradually extinguished the trade of Genoese and Venetian merchants (Christian and Jewish), Portuguese navigators nosed along the coast of Africa.

Throughout the Middle Ages and in 1501, after the fall of Capua, merchants sold enslaved women in Rome. A century and a quarter before that date, Pope Gregory XXI excommunicated the Florentines and ordered them enslaved wherever taken. In 1488, King Ferdinand, the Catholic, sent a gift of 100 enslaved Moors to Pope Innocent VIII. The pope distributed them to cardinals and church notables.25

While many scholars point out that serfdom replaced slavery by the time of the European invasion of the Americas, some slavery remained in many European places. In Rome, for a time, a privilege existed that allowed an enslaved person to become free by taking refuge in the capital. But in 1548, through a presentation to the Senate, Paul VII abolished this privilege. Of all the great powers in Europe, Rome and the Catholic Church retained the enslavement of humans the longest.26

Europeans slowly shifted the slave trade from the Mediterranean basin to the coast and islands of Portugal and West Africa.27 Uncovering a number of these African islands renewed the Europeans' search for people to enslave. Portugal and Spain captured and enslaved, in addition to other Africans—the Guanaches, a Canary Island people. They are now extinct. For a time, the traders transported these African captives over Moslem territory into Southern Europe. Then during the 14th century, they opened a special caravan route from Sudan through the Sahara to the Peninsula in Cyrenaica.28

The Portuguese owned many vessels used exclusively in the buying and selling of humans for enslavement. Some scholars suggest that the introduction of large numbers of these enslaved persons led to Portugal's dacay.29 Following wars on the Iberian Peninsula, Christians commonly enslaved Moslems. When victorious at sea, the Spaniards sent the Moslems to slave markets in North Africa. In Central Spain, the struggle with the Moors lasted until the conquest of Granada in 1491. When the re-conquest concluded, leaving no Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, the citizens needed to secure enslaved people outside the boundaries of the kingdoms.30

Part 2


Charshee McIntyre, Ph.D., is an associate professor of humanities in the English Language Studies Program at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.


  1. Stephen Birmingham, America's Sephardic Elite, the Grandees (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp.4–5.
  2. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner, 1958), p. 271n.
  3. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II vol. II, p. 727.
  4. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press 1966,), pp. 64–66.
  5. Davis, ibid.
  6. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550–1812 (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1971), pp.17–19.
  7. St. Clair Drake, Black Folk Here and There (Los Angeles, California: Center for Afro American Studies, UCLA, 1990), pp. 28–30.
  8. Drake, p. 319n.
  9. Davis, pl 31.
  10. Davis, p. 91ff.
  11. Marvin Lowenthal, The Jews of Germany: A Srory of Sixteen Centuries (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938), pp. 1–18.
  12. Lowenthal, p. 1.
  13. Chaim Potok, Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews; (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1978), p. 395.
  14. Lowenthal, pp. 20-21.
  15. Davis, pp. 41-44.
  16. Lowenthal, pp. 20-32.
  17. John Codman Hurd, The Laws of Freedom and Bondage in the United States (1858 reprint, New York: Negro University Press, 1966), 2 vols., p. 163.
  18. Davis, p. 4.
  19. "Slavery," Chambers Encyclopedia, vol. 12 (1969), p. 601.
  20. Drake, p. 228, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIII, p. 284.
  21. "Slavery," Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, vol. 14 (1969), p. 78.
  22. The New Learned History, vol. IX (1968).
  23. The New Learned History, vol. IX.
  24. The New Learned History, vol. IX.
  25. Drake. pp. 227ff. Also see Encyclopedia Americans, vol. I., p. 88b.
  26. Braudel, vol. II, pp. 754–755.
  27. Davis, p. 31.
  28. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIII, p. 284.
  29. The New Learned History, vol. IX.
  30. The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIII, p. 284.

Part 2