Slavery was pervasive in the Ancient World: you can find it in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In Late Antiquity , however, slavery went...

Slavery was pervasive in the Ancient World: you can find it in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In Late Antiquity , however, slavery went into decline. It survived and even flourished in the Byzantine Empire and Muslim lands, yet it all but disappeared in Medieval Western and Central Europe.

Then, rather suddenly, slavery reappeared in the West, or rather in Western empires. By the early sixteenth century, Portuguese traders had laid the foundations of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They bought or captured slaves in West Africa and then transported and sold those slaves to plantation owners in European-controlled regions in the New World (especially Brazil, the Caribbean Basin, and Mexico).

How, one might well ask, did the trans-Atlantic slave trade emerge so quickly, seemingly from nothing? In his fascinating book The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), historian Toby Green addresses this question. His answer is subtle and multi-faceted, but it might be boiled down to this: the Portuguese traders didn’t build the slave trade, they joined it, expanded it and, ultimately, transformed it. Listen in.

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