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Research Project 2023

Research Project 2023

Slavery and Serfdom in Europe and the New World: Debates in the Early Modern Period

Research Project 20232024-02-13T10:22:44+01:00

Slavery and Serfdom in Europe and the New World: Debates in the Early Modern Period

This research project follows on directly from the previous programme, Slavery, ethnicity and race in the Mediterranean Ideas and attitudes from Homer to Columbus. Many of the fundamental questions concerning enslaved people remain similar

in the two periods: how could it ever be imaginable for some human beings to normalize the sale and enslavement of others? What are the various strategies and fictions devised in response to this seemingly unanswerable question?

This project will study the questions surrounding slavery and serfdom in Europe and the New World within the timeframe of the Early Modern period, defined here broadly as stretching from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth. The Portuguese began buying slaves in Africa in the sixteenth century, and the opening up of the New World from that time has vast repercussions for the self-image of the Old (European) World that have been extensively studied by literary and cultural historians. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that follow mark a significant turning-point in the debates about enslavement. It is not that the trading of enslaved people stops after that date: it does not (and nor does serfdom disappear entirely from Europe). But by then the arguments against the slave trade were fully articulated and coming to gain broad acceptance in Britain, France and elsewhere.
It has been estimated that about 12 million enslaved people entered the Atlantic trade between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and about 1.5 million of these died during the sea crossing. The European nations principally involved in the Atlantic slave trade were, in order the volume of the trade, Portugal, Britain, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the United States and Denmark. The most intensive moment of this Atlantic trade was in the eighteenth century, by which time Britain and France had become the principal actors; more than half of the entire Atlantic slave trade took place during this period.
This subject is currently an active area of research, and there have been a number of overviews of the history of enslavement and the questions it poses (for example, Delpiano). In contributing to this important ongoing debate, this project will focus on three aspects in particular:

In the early modern period, debates about slavery are centrally concerned with the enslavement of Africans and their forced relocation to the sugar cane, cotton, rice and tobacco plantations of the New World. This practice had a transformational effect on the economic development of the New World (Vidal) and of the Old World equally: plantation slavery and industrial capitalism are born together. The East India Companies in France, Britain and Holland played a major role in the economic development of their respective countries, and there has been much research into the evident relationship between slavery, commerce and empire. Berg & Hudson have recently brought to light new evidence to demonstrate the extent to which industrial development in Britain in the eighteenth century was linked to empire. Even after the apparent end of slavery, economic exploitation continued into the Victorian period (Williams).

The French philosophes all struggled with the challenges posed by slavery, beginning with Montesquieu in De l’esprit des lois and Voltaire in Candide, through the fifty-odd articles in the Encyclopédie, to Condorcet and the thinkers of the Revolution; their responses are often uncomfortably ambivalent. Only slowly, as Curran has shown, does the debate evolve away from the moral, mercantile and theological realms to the domain of anatomy, and a greater focus on race and ethnicity. In 1739, the royal academy of Bordeaux, a city whose wealth was largely based on the slave trade, announced a prize competition that asked a brutally stark question: ‘What is the source of blackness?’; and as Gates & Curran have shown, the wide range of answers submitted to the academy reveal vividly how little consensus there was at that date about notions of ethnicity and racial difference.

Theories about race and the origins of man, for example the rival explanations of polygenesis and monogenesis, are used in the eighteenth century to describe and justify the enslavement of human beings. Discussions of race and ethnicity lead on later in the century to discussion of the notion of the rights of man (Ferrone), debates that continue to resonate today. Modern concepts of race and equality have been forged in the intellectual world of the Enlightenment, and in our own day an over-simplified dichotomy has emerged, between the Enlightenment as a movement of emancipation on the one hand, and on the other, the Enlightenment as a pernicious and repressive product of modernity. This project will also explore the topic of slavery within the context of modern debates about the Enlightenment heritage (Lilti, Vartija).

Serfdom arose in Europe at the time of the decline of the Roman Empire, and it continued to exist across the continent, in a range of different forms, in the Early Modern period. In western Europe servitude declined considerably after the Middle Ages, but the position was complex, and in parts of the Austrian Empire, in Bohemia and most of Hungary, servitude actually increased in the eighteenth century, in a process known as ‘the second enserfment’ (Beales). By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, serfdom was coming to be widely challenged, as it suddenly seemed to be losing its moral and intellectual legitimacy. For Adam Smith, serfdom was economically wasteful; for Kant, it was an affront to natural law. Herder comments on the existence of serfdom in Livonia in the 1760s, which he sees as an abuse of liberty and a remnant of feudal oppression (Piirimäe).

Many Enlightenment rulers confronted the challenges posed by serfdom. In Prussia, in 1772, Frederick the Great banned the sale of serfs without land; in Russia, the first legal limitations on enserfment date from the reign of Catherine the Great, whose attempts at reform were in the end limited by the opposition of her nobility (de Madariaga). The most sustained attempt to tackle the problem was made in the Austrian Empire by Maria Theresa and then by her son Joseph II. In fact, their ambitious proposals for reform were not finally implemented as extensively as they had hoped; it was a common experience that monarchs persuaded by Enlightenment currents of thinking often found it hard to impose effective reform of an institution that was proving to be surprisingly entrenched. Then, with surprising rapidity, European serfs were emancipated: ‘Spanning an eighty-year period from the last quarter of the eighteenth century into the second half of the nineteenth century, emancipation brought an end to serfdom in all European states. […] An institution that had existed in one form or another for a millennium and a half disappeared within a relatively short period’ (O’Rourke).

It can be instructive to compare and contrast the debates about serfdom and about slavery (Doyle). Of course, serfdom and slavery exist in different geographical spaces, and function under different legal régimes: the two emphatically cannot be equated. However, there are undeniable parallels between the two institutions: both deprived human beings of basic human rights, and both were systems of labour organization that were crucial to the economic structure of the Ancien Régime. Many Enlightenment writers – Voltaire, Raynal, Filangieri among them – discuss serfdom and slavery together. Condorcet’s engagement with these questions provides an interesting case study: from 1774, he was the author of a number of works defending the economic reforms of Turgot, which included a denunciation of the economic impact of serfdom; then, in 1777, he published, anonymously, two articles in the Journal de Paris attacking black slavery, before publishing his Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres in 1781. In Condorcet’s thinking about human rights and human freedom, there does seem to be a continuum from his critique of serfdom to his critique of black slavery. This project will explore in greater depth both the parallels and the differences between these two systems of economic and social exploitation.

As already noted, the explanation and justification of enslavement by some human beings of others necessitates the creation of fictions of various sorts (Meillassoux), and this project will explore the dynamic contribution of literary works to these debates in the Early Modern period, beginning already in the sixteenth century (for example with the Essais of Montaigne). From the eighteenth century in particular, literature is used increasingly as a tool to explore the paradoxical fictions of enslavement (Seeber). At the time, the print trade was undergoing a revolution that created an unprecedented expansion in the readership of literary works; and in an age of sensibility, different forms of imaginative literature could play a crucial role in articulating and promoting a cause with an emotive appeal. Imaginative literature in the Enlightenment period is thus ideally placed to explore the unresolved questions and concerns about slavery and to communicate them to a broader public.

The challenge of depicting Africa and Africans in literature was a complex one, and early attempts to do this employ the form of travel literature; only later could works deal directly with enslavement and the slave trade (Diop). The Atlantic slave trade seemed all but unrepresentable in France before the 1770s, and the topic had to be approached through a series of literary filters, fictions and displacements, hence a sudden Enlightened interest in Peruvians, Incas and Aztecs. Dobie, for example, describes how Orientalism was used to circumvent direct discussion of the realities of slavery. Early discussions of enslaved persons often stuck with the abstracted ideal of the Rousseauian natural savage, and only later could writers of fiction describe African characters directly (Jean-François Butini, Lettres africaines, 1771; Florian, Sélico, nouvelle africaine, 1792; Jean-Baptiste Picquenard, Adonis, ou le bon nègre, 1798).

Questions of enslavement and servitude surface in a range of different literary genres. Prose fiction, with its growing preference for modes of realist depiction, was an obvious genre for these purposes. Aphra Behn’s pioneering novel Oronoko (1688), was influential beyond Britain: adapted into French in 1745 and republished in 1768, it exercised a direct influence on Saint-Lambert’s pioneering French story, Ziméo (1769). The theatre was another genre well placed to influence public opinion, and Aphra Behn’s Oronoko was transformed into a tragedy by Thomas Southerne (1695). Poetry too was turned to polemical ends: John Bicknell and Thomas Day wrote a long poem The Dying Negro: a poetical epistle, regarded as one of the earliest propagandist texts of the abolition movement in Britain; first published in 1773, it became a best seller, with a third edition appearing in 1775. To judge from the number of copies in circulation, a poem like The Dying Negro arguably had greater influence than a pamphlet like John Wesley’s Thoughts upon Slavery, published in London in 1774, and reprinted in Philadelphia.

The body of European literature dealing with enslavement reaches a point of critical mass by the end of the eighteenth century (see, for example, the abbé Grégoire’s De la littérature des nègres, 1808), and this paves the way for important prose works early in the following century, whether slave narratives from the New World, for example, or significant fictions in the French realist tradition, like Claire de Duras’s Ourika, or Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal.

Finally, discussions of slavery and serfdom in the Early Modern period are very often confined to single nations, and sometimes limited to the secondary literature in one language, and this can lead to a certain fragmentation in our understanding of these questions across Europe and the New World. For example, the legal position of enslaved people in French colonies, governed by the Code noir, was different from the position of enslaved people in English- or Dutch-speaking colonies. To take another example, the antislavery debate in France, stimulated by the libertarian rhetoric of the Revolution, was very different from the parallel debate in Britain, where the churches played a predominant role. This project will aim, where possible, to encourage a comparative perspective (Ismard, Rossi & Vidal), bringing new insights into the current debates about slavery and serfdom in the Early Modern period across the whole geographic space of the Atlantic slave trade.

Director of Studies

2024-2026 Research Cycle

4th Call for applications 2023

Placed On: November 29th, 2023
Closes: February 12th, 2024, 11:00 PM (CET)

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