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The White Slave trade in Europe.

Updated on November 20, 2013

Slavery is one of human kind's greatest failures, as a species we have failed ourselves by employing and allowing this state of existence to continue throughout the many ages of our history. Slavery is a stain upon humanity, it is an evil that has flourished from our earliest ancestors through to the modern age that we live in today. Slavery exists were despair and misery reside, it is as vile a creation as ethnic cleansing and it stems from the darkest places of our prejudice's and fears.

Today Slavery continues to be an emotive subject and rightly so, when addressing the subject statesmen apologise for previous transgressions yet fail to realise that the subject is never going to be closed. It seems every politician who references the slave trade fails to recognise the issue has been ingrained in human history and continues in one form or another throughout the globe.

The following article examines the various types of Slavery that has been present in the European continent since the start of recorded human history.

Set of Slave Shackles taken from the the East African Coast.
Set of Slave Shackles taken from the the East African Coast. | Source
The Spartan's relied on a servant class to back up their Warrior caste system.
The Spartan's relied on a servant class to back up their Warrior caste system. | Source

Subjugation of the defeated.

The first form of Slavery in the continent of Europe would have been the enslavement of defeated tribes by their victorious rivals. When the early European peoples were scrambling for their national boundaries every effort was made to exploit any available resource of the defeated peoples. The taking of slaves to satisfy the needs of the ruling classes was beneficial to the progress of the early European cultures.

The Celtic people's often used the Slave classes as human sacrifices to appease their many Gods. The use of Slave's allowed the ruling cultures to invest their efforts in other fields such as Warfare, Technology, Philosophy and Literature. In Ancient Greece the Spartan civilization used a defeated people as the foundation for their military prestige and success.

The Messenian underclass undertook much of the low level work within the Spartan system. They tended to the fields, cared for the animals and produced much of the equipment used on and off the battlefield. The Messenian men who served as Helot's in the Spartan military could never rise above their station, no matter how well they served their Spartan masters they had no prospects for advancement.

The Roman's used Slavery in a number of ways to assert it's authority over it's massive Empire. The sale of Slaves for the use in Domestic servitude, Temple observance, Military service and Gladiatorial conflict. The image of slaves in the Colosseum is one of the first things we think of when we are reminded of the roots of European Slavery. The Germanic tribes that took over the lands of the fallen Roman Empire, adopted the traditions of previous dominant tribes and used those peoples they defeated in battle as their servile class.

The Viking's like the Barbary Corsairs believed taking innocent villagers as Slaves for the Arab world.
The Viking's like the Barbary Corsairs believed taking innocent villagers as Slaves for the Arab world.

Viking Era

The Norsemen of the Viking Age have a rich legend of removing villagers from their settlement and selling them into slavery, or using their captives as servants within their own homestead. The Viking raid's along the coastline and waterways of Western Europe yielded great amounts of bounty. As well as amassing Silver, Livestock, Alcohol and other treasures from their expeditions, the Vikings took hostages to either ransom back to their families, use in their own homes or sell across the Sea's to the lucrative Arabian markets.

There is much evidence of an established trade between the Pagan Viking's and the Muslim Caliphates. The amount of Islamic silver coinage in Viking burials highlights the amount of trade that once existed, and the writings of prominent Arab writer's gave detailed accounts of their behaviour and practices. There is evidence of a European woman been sold to the Caliph's harem, and she bore her master a Son who went on to inherit his father's powerful and prestigious position as Caliph himself.

If the captive villager was not sold into Slavery in the East, then they could expect to be put to work in the homestead's of Viking noblemen and warrior's. The use of captive foreigners within the Viking home was accepted by the Norse society and they could under the right circumstances buy their freedom in a similar way that Roman Slaves could. The Slaves in Viking society were treated as property, in much the same way native female's in Viking society were viewed.

For a Viking Slave there was always a possibility that they could meet a premature death in a number of ways. The penalty for drunkenly killing a slave was not a harsh price and given the Norse love of feasting, the occasional mead fueled incident could result in the slaughter of a Slave. If the head of the Homestead died and received a Viking ship burial as his funeral rite, a Slave was often slaughtered to tend his needs in the after life.

Life as part of a pressed crew was full of danger.
Life as part of a pressed crew was full of danger.

Middle Ages to Colonialism


With the establishment of the countries that we now recognise as the modern states of Europe, the leaders of these Kingdoms needed to establish a strong and defined hierarchy for it's subjects to adhere to. In the newly established hierarchy of the Christian Kingdom's there was clear divisions between the ruling class ( King's,Lord's, Bishop's and Knights) and the lowest classes of European civilization. The Serf's had very few rights especially in the Eastern European countries, their existence was one of constant servitude and each generation mirrored the previous ones vocations.

Press Ganging.

The practice of removing young drunk men from the taverns scattered across the British coastline is not generally recognised as Slavery as such, but on closer inspection matches up with some of the experiences of the African slaves who were transported to the American continent around the same time period. How cruel it must have been for a young lad in his late teens to be plied with drink all night by an unscrupulous stranger, then to be made unconscious by a severe blow to the head and kidnapped.

When the lad eventually wake's up aboard a crowded Naval vessel many miles from home, he has slim hopes of ever seeing family or friends ever again. The mortality rate among press ganged and enlisted marines in the Navies of Europe was extremely dire. These slaves to the vessels ran the risk of disease, loss of limbs, flogging, execution for treason and mutiny, accidents at sea, conflict, piracy and been lost at sea. Those few who eventually did return back to their home towns came back changed forever and usually came back to a life that was alien to them.

Indentured Servant's

Most White immigrants of European ancestry arrived in North America as indentured servants. These " White Slave's " were usually sent by their families to help alleviate family debts. The Indentured Servants were usually in their teenage years, and came in their thousands from countries such as Ireland, Germany, Scotland, England, and Holland.

Not every indentured servant that left their European homeland flourished, their terms of service were long and America was a wild and untamed land. The difference between an indentured Servant and a traditional held view of a Slave, was that an indentured servant had a guarantee of freedom after a set length of time.

Barbary Pirates

The Barbary pirates or corsair's had roots dating back to the rise of Islam in the Berber territories of North Africa. Like the Viking's of the Dark Age period the Berber's raided isolated European coastal communities for fresh slaves to use in the Slave markets of the Middle East and North Africa. The Berber's had little regard for the Christian villagers and took them in great quantity over a number of years.

It is impossible to estimate how many White Europeans were enslaved between 700 AD to 1890's. In time the raiding of European's mainland ceased due to collective defence and aggressive assaults upon Barbary bases by the superior European naval powers. Some of the notable countries the Barbary pirates raided were...

A map of the Barbary Pirate Coast.
A map of the Barbary Pirate Coast. | Source

  • Iceland
  • England
  • France
  • Spain
  • Italy

Throughout the history of the Barbary Pirate's they created a reputation for raiding the merchant vessels of many major naval powers. The British, Spanish, Dutch, French and Italian states all suffered the loss of naval personnel to piracy and even the United States of America had incidents with the Mediterranean Slavers. The overhaul and increased emphasis on the US Navy was in part a response to Barbary Slave raids.

The only way the Christian Slaves could hope to find their freedom was by accepting the relatively alien religion of Islam, if they did not they would be used by the high status members of the Arabic world as rowers for their boats, servants and made to do the work of animals. All of these tasks would be in the most inhuman of conditions, it would be comparable to how cattle are often treated today.

Forced Labour and Concentration Camps ran by the Nazi Regime.
Forced Labour and Concentration Camps ran by the Nazi Regime.

Slave Labour in the Third Reich.

The Nazi regime that ruled Germany and much of Europe in the Second World War used the ethnic minorities they saw as inferior as a massive pool of Slave labour. Often displaced from their homeland and sent to work in either menial or dangerous occupations to assist the Axis war effort, the workers were subject to appalling conditions and sadistic beatings. The people who ended became trapped and oppressed in the Nazi war machine were paid no wage, fed the merest of food rations and forced to work with minimal sleep.

The Nazi elite saw their slave workforce as expendable and beneath any worth. The slaves in the Nazi apparatus were a varied mix and treated along ethnic lines. Contempt was reserved for those slave workers of Slavic or Jewish stock, political and social opponents to the regime fared just as poorly. Those who fared best in the Nazi slave system, were those who matched the Nazi eugenics criteria and were not of a Marxist persuasion.

Beneath the night, slavery exists on European city streets.
Beneath the night, slavery exists on European city streets. | Source

Can Slavery ever be erradicted from Human civilization

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Human trafficking

Modern Europe still suffers from Slavery, there are thousands of such people who can be seen in every major European city. The modern slavery is evident with the influx of large numbers of foreign citizens moved into the big cities so they can work in the dark and seedy sex industries. These young people are taken away from their poor homelands by organized criminal gang's, sometimes they are sold by their families or are found as they run away from poverty.

They are then exported to the more affluent area's of the European continent, so they can work in the dark shadows of society. Once they arrive the new influx of disenfranchised immigrants are routinely abused and made to become addicted to narcotics, in doing so the modern day slaves are permanently indebted to their handler's.

From this article I hope we can all understand that Slavery is not a matter of one person's skin dominating those of a different colour. The problem of Slavery is one of one race, that of the human race and we should never believe that the problem has been consigned to our dark histories.

To combat the deplorable act of slavery we need to acknowledge that it has been widespread throughout our existence, with education and highlighting the problem it may be possible to make changes for everybody to escape these ancient and shameful shackles.


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    • Asp52 profile image

      Asp52 4 years ago from England

      It was a good hub to research and had to stop myself writing another few sections as there has been a long history of slavery. I had to omit the Roman slave ships and other interesting points. I think education is a good starting point and in some ways slavery is a subject many skip over.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I am glad you wrote this, it is a good subject to be aware to understand that human darkness.

    • Asp52 profile image

      Asp52 4 years ago from England

      It is a very hard to pinpoint a single culture that can hand on heart say they are innocent. For me Slavery is caused by the primeval darkness in the human condition, for all the could we can do it seems our ability for evil is just as strong. Maybe Slavery is a subject in this Modern Age which needs closer attention. Thanks for reading and commenting Ericdierker, I am always glad of your perspective.


    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Well written friend. Is there any culture that can historically claim innocence regarding slavery?