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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
clicking on
ExhibitionSponsors.

Introduction of SlaveryThe Origins of Race-based Slavery

The institution of slavery in any culture at almost any time in recorded history has had at its foundation the tacit understanding of the slave as "other." By classifying the slave as being fundamentally different, and thus somehow inferior to the master, slave owners could justify their treatment of the enslaved. Slaves could be used brutally, made to do unreasonable or dangerous tasks, and dehumanized because they were somehow "different." Throughout history, slaves have differed from the masters in a variety of ways: they could be prisoners of war, debtors, people of another faith, or simply foreign. Skin color, however, did not come into this equation until the 15th century.

White Europeans and black Africans had commingled through trade associations since antiquity. The eighth century spread of Islam and the conversion of much of northern Africa added a divisive element in that many blacks were now of an opposing religion that threatened much of Christian Europe. White Christians, however, still held out hope of finding the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John, hidden somewhere in Africa. The failure to find Prester John during successive explorations of Africa in the early 1400s, along with the desire to circumvent the nations of Islam in obtaining or producing trade goods, led to the increasing perception of the black African as "other." The reconquista movement in Spain, which culminated in the expulsion of both the Moors and the Jews in 1492, fed on religious fervor directed at the "other" as well. This religious impulse, coupled with the increasing need for slave labor in the New World colonies ultimately, led to the institution of black slavery.


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