4.4G: Changes and Continuities in Slavery 1450 to 1750


AP Theme

Social Interactions and Organization

Learning Objective 4G

Explain changes and continuities in systems of slavery in the period from 1450 to 1750.

Historical Development 1

Traditional forms of slavery continued, including incorporating slaves into households and exporting slaves to the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans regions.

Historical Development 2

The growth of the plantation economy increased the demand for slaves in the Americas, leading to significant demographic changes. 

Key ideas

Civilizations throughout history have utilized slavery as a labor and production system.

Slavery traditionally was not associated with race. Slavery during this period became racialized and associated with Africans and black skin.

Labor needs in colonial plantation agriculture drove the growth of the African slave trade.

The slave trade shaped population demographics in the Americas and resulted in large mixed-race populations in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Changes and Continuities in Slavery

Slavery represents a continuity throughout many societies in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is just the most recent widescale and horrifying example of owning and selling human beings.

Comparison of slavery before and after 1450
Slavery before 1450
Slavery after 1450
Significant areas of slavery were in the Mediterranean region and the Indian Ocean basin.
Slavery shifted to the Atlantic Ocean basin and the Americas.
The main source of slaves was the Slavic people in Southern Russia (the word slave comes from the name slav).
The rise of the Ottoman empire cuts off the source of Slavic slaves. The Western European source of slaves shifts mainly to sub-Saharan Africa.
African societies both practiced slavery and sold slaves into international slave markets.
African communities continued to sell people into slavery.
Trans-Saharan slave trade brought slaves into the Mediterranean region.
Large numbers of slaves still moved through the Trans-Saharan trade network, but Europeans bought most slaves in the coastal cities of Africa.
East Africa and Swahili sold slaves into the Indian Ocean region.
The slave trade continues to take place along the East African coast.
Slave owners often integrated slaves into their households.
Slave masters viewed slaves as dehumanized property. Integration into families in the Atlantic world was uncommon.
Female slaves for working in homes and domestic labor were preferred.
Male slaves for working in difficult plantation work were preferred.
In some places, children of slaves did not inherit slave status.
Children inherited the slave status of their parents.
In some locations, slaves could achieve an elite political or military status.
European slave owners created systems of oppression to keep slaves from achieving any social, political, or economic status.
Slavery was often associated with warfare and capture, not necessarily race.
Slavery becomes racialized and associated with blackness.
Changes in slavery after 1450
  • Slavery shifted from the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean regions to the Atlantic region.
  • Slavery becomes racialized and associated with blackness.
  • Slavery became the foundation of entire economies, not just components of a larger economy. 
  • Slaves became dehumanized property with little hope of improving social conditions.
  • The number of people held in slavery increased exponentially for hundreds of years.
  • The Ottoman Empire took over trade in Eastern European and Slavic slaves.
Major continuities in slavery after 1450
  • Slavery continued in traditional forms in Africa.
  • Slave traders continued to bring enslaved peoples to the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean regions.

The Role of Plantation Agriculture in the Slave Trade

The explosive growth of the Atlantic slave trade was due mainly to the rise of plantation agriculture in the Americas. Plantation agriculture began with sugar production in Portuguese Brazil and later expanded into Spanish, British, French, and Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Plantation agriculture developed further as Europeans introduced new crops like cotton and tobacco into the American plantation systems.

Components of American plantation agriculture
  • Production was mainly for export on international markets.
  • Sugar plantations were some of the first modern industrial mass production that required international investors’ capital (money). 
  • Production was labor-intensive. 
  • Mass production was necessary to ensure profitability.
Historical process: the growth of plantation agriculture
  1. Europeans learned about table sugar production methods from Arabs during the Crusading period. 
  2. Europeans established the first sugar plantations in the Mediterranean and islands off the west African coast using Slavic slaves. 
  3. Sugar production expands to South American and the Caribbean. 
  4. Slavery expanded rapidly in the Americas to meet labor demands on plantations. Some 80% of slaves transported across the Atlantic ended up in Brazil and the Caribbean. 

The Atlantic Slave Trade Shaped Populations in the Americas

Plantation colonies in Brazil and the Caribbean: Plantation colonies had vastly different ethnic and racial makeups than colonies in North America and the Spanish highland colonies in Latin American, where plantation agriculture was not as important a part of the economy. In Portuguese Brazil, Africans Africans accounted for nearly 50% of Brazil’s population in 1825. In the French Caribbean colony of Haiti, 93% of the population was African in 1790.

Racial mixing in Latin America and the Caribbean: Racial mixing was common in some colonies in Latin and South America. While only around 10 percent of marriages were among mixed-race people in Brazil, informal relationships and relationships outside of marriage produced a large population of mixed-race children. 

  • This group was named mulattoes and was the product of African-Portuguese unions. 
  • Mulattoes became the middle social class in Brazilian society and often occupied mid-level management positions on plantations or skilled urban workers. 
  • One primary cause of racial mixing in the Latin American and Caribbean colonies was that men in those colonies often came to the Americas without European women and families, resulting in the need to form relationships and unions with non-European women. 

Plantations colonies in North America: Plantation colonies in North America were very different than plantation colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Due to laws and social stigma, whites did not procreate with Africans and natives in the same numbers as other plantation colonies. 

  • While there were certainly mixed-race people in the British colonies, no large mixed-race population developed. 
  • Mixed-race children were most often just assigned the same slave status as their parents. 
  • Another reason for the lack of a strong mixed-race population was that more Europeans migrated to the colonies from Europe in the British North American colonies, including many European women. By the Amerian Revolution, the New England and middle colonies had 90% European ancestry.
Large mixed-race populations
Largely black African population
Majority white population
Latin American colonies
The Caribbean colonies
North American colonies

Chart: The Varying Racial Makeup of Colonial American Societies