The Slave Trade

The Slave Trade

In this article, I shall discuss the slave trade within the context of international relations. I shall discuss what was the slave trade, where it took place, and its relation to issues of international trade. As Chanda (2015) explains, “[t]he word slave was coined in reference to the widespread enslavement of central European Slavs in the ninth century. The group constituted the main target or “resource” population for the Viking-Arab trade in the Middle Ages” (153). However, it existed well before the ninth century, and continued to take place throughout later centuries.

One of the most horrific effects of international trade and globalization in human history has been the development of the slave trade. As we shall discuss, “[t]he misery of the African slaves formed a vital link in the trading system that connected the continents and formed the backbone of the global network of commerce” (Harms, 2003). And as has been pointed out, while there is significant attention to the slave trade routes that tie Europe, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere, that is not the entire picture, but rather, the slave trade routes were also tied to Europe’s trade with Asia (Harms, 2003). For example, the ties between Europe, Africa, and North and South America are well known. However, as Harms (2003) explains, 

“If the slave trade was intimately intertwined with Europe’s New World trade, it was equally embroiled in the Asia trade. When the slave ship Diligent left France for the West African coast in 1731, over half its cargo consisted of cowry shells and various types of Indian textiles. The cowry shells, which served as the major currency along the West African coast, came from the Maldive Islands, near India. Company of the Indies ships returning from India and China would stop in the Maldive Islands and purchase cowry shells, which they used as packing material to cushion crates of porcelain and other goods much as we would use Styrofoam popcorn today. The cowries also served as ballast to keep the ship steady. Because the porcelain, tea, spices, and textiles of Asia were of higher value than the European trade goods that the ships brought from France, returning ships had a great deal of empty space in their holds that was filled with cowry shells. Once back in France, the cowries were removed and repacked in barrels to be shipped to West Africa.”

Scholars have argued that slavery has been seen as one of the oldest trades in the world. As Chanda (2015) writes, “[t]he importance of human beings as a source of energy helps explain why forced labor was so ubiquitous in the premodern world. Many forms of slavery existed centuries before the word slave came into formal existence. People’s insatiable search for wealth and drive for profit, combined with power imbalances between human communities, led to the growth of a system that reached its peak in the early nineteenth century and has since profoundly altered human civilization” (153).

Sadly, there were many cases of the use of slaves and slave trades in human history. For example, The Roman Empire, in the first century a.c.e., used slaves from the Balkans, Northern Europe, and the Middle East for their own benefit. The slave trade developed further as the Roman leaders were looking for more slaves for domestic work in Rome. The government would have thousands of slaves sent in daily to Rome. In fact, worried about rebellions, they often made it a policy to not have too many individuals from one ethnic group together (Chanda, 2015). 

However, the Romans were far from the only ones involved in the slave trade. For example, “[f]or the succeeding millennium, slavery remained a common feature of societies around the Mediterranean, all the while growing in scale…[For example,] [i]n the ninth and tenth centuries, Viking and Russian traders took slaves from the eastern Slavic states to Moorish Spain and North Africa as domestic servants, soldiers, and mine workers. [However,] [s]lave trading was not confined to Europe and the Middle East. According to seventh-century Chinese sources, slaves were brought from Zenj (sub-Saharan Africa)…” (155). Furthermore, the slave trade was quite present in the Middle East, with slavery in Arabia during the 500 and 600s, as well as in Muslim empires such as the Abbasids (Chanda, 2015). The Abbasid empire used slaves for working in the salt marshes, for the production of sugar, as well as making them serve in the military (Chanda, 2015).

In addition, slavery also existed through the 1300s in Italy, and into the 1500s in Spain and Portugal (Chanda, 2015: 155). One aspect of trade that governments and powers used slaves for was with regards to the production of sugar. Slave labor were already being used for sugar cultivation, and following European interests (such as Italy and Portugal) in cultivating sugar, set up their own sugar plantations. Discussing this issue, Chanda (2015) explains that “[o]n his first voyage across the Atlantic, Columbus stopped in the Canary Islands for repair and had the opportunity to see firsthand how slave labor was being used in sugar plantations. Although he was disappointed not to find the spice or gold he had sought in Hispaniola…” he became quite interested in using slave labor for sugar plantations (157). Sugar was being produced throughout parts of Central America and South America, and it was being done with slave labor (Chanda, 2015).






Chanda, N. (2015). Slaves, Germs, and Trojan Horses. Chapter 12, pages 149-175.

Harms, R. (2003). Early Globalization and the Slave Trade. Yale Glboal Online: 9 May 2003. Available Online:

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