When I was a kid, the standard story about slavery in medieval Europe was that the Roman Empire had been a slave society, but then slavery had just naturally, slowly died out of its own accord during the Early Middle Ages, as people developed a sense of individuality, personal ambition, and general Christian upstandingness. So by the Age of Exploration, Europeans hardly knew about slavery and had to re-invent it for the Caribbean sugar plantations, the Peruvian silver mines, and the American cotton fields.
But that’s totally wrong. Early medieval Europeans made piles of money by capturing other Europeans in battle and selling them into slavery to the manufacturing countries to their East in the Islamic Empire. Viking raids seized Europeans to carry through the Baltic and down through Russia to sell into slavery on the Black Sea or the Caspian.
The wars where Charlemagne was fighting the Saxons and the Slavs served partly as a means of capturing people to sell. If there were fewer enslaved people in Europe itself (which is by no means clear), this was mainly because there was hardly any manufacturing going on in early medieval Europe.
In the later Middle Ages, as Europe started to take over manufacturing from Islamic countries, European manufacturers started to import black Africans to enslave on sugar plantations on the island of Cyprus, in southern Spain, and then in the Canary Islands.
So when Europeans started to make trips down the Atlantic coast of West Africa, they were not exploring unknown territory. They were already deliberately looking for more people to enslave. And when Columbus headed out across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, maybe he was looking for India and maybe he wasn’t, but he realized as soon as he got to the Caribbean that Europeans would use those sunny islands to produce more sugar with enslaved labor.
It’s not an Age of Exploration. Slavery’s not an accident. Europeans knew where they were going, and they knew they were going there to capture or buy people as slaves, and to cut out the middleman and trade directly with India and China.
This isn’t all reflected yet in the articles I’m linking to here, because I can’t rewrite all my articles at once, but it will be as I update them in the new year. I feel terrible about having been taken in by this web of lies, and am looking forward to keeping my resolution to untangle this mess in 2020.