What We Talk About When We Talk About Enslaving Others

In class today, Lola discussed how Nell Painter grouped African and white slaves together at certain points within “The History of White People,” raising the question of the meaning of white slavery within the context of Nell Painter’s book.

On one hand, studying white slavery as a way to downplay the black experience of slavery is a real danger. However, we also discussed how the history of white slavery may allow us to consider slavery as a tradition of white people enslaving others as an alternative to the idea of enslavement as inextricable from race.

This discussion made me curious about what would appear in a Google search of “white slavery.” The first page of results included a white supremacist WordPress blog that used the enslavement of whites along the Barbary coast as justification for African enslavement in America. This blog was clearly a product of racism and hatred. However, I was concerned to find on the same page of Google results a university study that should be more scholarly yet contained many implicit racist undertones. This article was out of Ohio State University, and was about a new study revealing that the numbers of whites enslaved along the Barbary Coast in Africa was greater than initially thought. 

On the one hand, the study’s author Davis attempts to extricate race from the idea of slavery. He writes:

“One of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature – that only blacks have been slaves. But that is not true,” Davis said. “We cannot think of slavery as something that only white people did to black people.”

However, I was struck that Davis in the interview only discussed the history of white slavery in terms of whites being enslaved by Muslims in Africa, failing to include the long history of white people enslaving other white people, whether that was within Ancient Greece, in powerful Italian and Iberian city-centers, or within the Vikings’ massive European slave-trade–among other examples.

From the outset, it is unclear how reliable this study is. However, the very fact that Davis only focuses on white enslavement within North Africa is incredibly problematic, as it creates an implicit dichotomy between the experience of whites in Africa as explanation for the development of the Atlantic slave trade.

Davis then describes the experience of the slavery in the Mediterranean trade as qualitatively equally to the experience of slavery in the Atlantic trade:

“Davis said his research into the treatment of these slaves suggests that, for most of them, their lives were every bit as difficult as that of slaves in America.

“As far as daily living conditions, the Mediterranean slaves certainly didn’t have it better,” he said.”

He frames this white enslavement as brutal, and then attempts to use this history to soften the image of Western colonialism and frame white people as victims:

“The enslavement of Europeans doesn’t fit the general theme of European world conquest and colonialism that is central to scholarship on the early modern era, he said. Many of the countries that were victims of slavery, such as France and Spain, would later conquer and colonize the areas of North Africa where their citizens were once held as slaves. Maybe because of this history, Western scholars have thought of the Europeans primarily as “evil colonialists” and not as the victims they sometimes were,” Davis said.

This article is from 2004, but it remains one of the most viewed Google pages on the topic of white slavery. While it is obviously not Nell Painter’s intention to discuss white slavery as a way to implicitly justify white enslavement of Africans, the clearly problematic undertones of Davis’s article highlight how history can be framed retroactively in very dangerous ways. As we see in this example, discussions of the history of slavery often include elements that on the outside seem to be attempting to deconstruct the idea of race and hierarchies, but are in fact used to implicate historically oppressed groups and excuse the actions of the oppressors.


2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Enslaving Others

  1. The notion to look at slavery removed from race, as Davis appears to be supporting, is an interesting one. Because of the long and tumultuous history of black slavery, and the intense and long-standing consequences of it, it seems near impossible to separate the two. Possible, yes, but maybe not in reality (specifically the United States). I almost wonder if a redefining of the word, to include race, would be more helpful so that it would be a more accurate representation of what most people, I think, already take the word to mean. What do you think?


  2. Hi Lola,
    Sorry to be responding so late, you bring up a good point. I think it is very important to distinguish between the various histories of slavery, especially as they have been experienced in the United States. While indentured servitude was certainly a form of bondage, white people never came to be defined by their servitude and were able to move past their servitude and eventually ascend the ranks of society. Africans, however, were initially enslaved by white people for their value working on plantations, but came to be attributed with the inherent characteristic of “slavishness.” Whereas white people were never thought of as in servitude because they were inherently meant for that position, black slavery eventually produced the idea that black people deserved to be enslaved. While I think redefining the word “slavery” to include race might be potentially problematic, because it could potentially miss the very complex history of slavery throughout the world, I do think it is important to distinguish between the history of white servitude and the more insidious, systemic and long-lasting impacts of black slavery on our current social conditions.


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