The institution of slavery vanished from Europe during the Dark Ages, which followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Why did slavery come to an end in the Dark Ages?
Some historians have credited Christianity for the end of slavery in the Dark Ages. This could be the case but the Christian thinkers were not explicitly against slavery. After the fifteenth century, the conquistadors (who were Catholic), and the imperialists (who were Catholic and Protestant) practiced slavery on a world-historical scale in the Americas and other colonies.
It seems that feudalism had a much bigger role to play in the abolition of slavery in Europe than Christianity. The European feudal lords were opposed to the idea of having slaves. Instead of slaves, the feudal lords used local labor to manage the agriculture work of their vast land holdings.
But the end of slavery led to Dark Ages in Europe. It is possible that the Europeans are not capable of creating a powerful empire unless they have access to cheap slave labor. Europe’s history shows that whenever there is large-scale opposition to slavery, there is decline in the continent’s economy and culture, and a new Dark Age begins.
After the fifteenth century, the rise of Europe as a global power has coincided with the rise of slavery. Around 1850, when European power was at its peak, the institution of slavery was also at a peak. The European slavers had transported between 12 to 18 million people from Africa to work as slaves in the Americas and in other colonies. The plantations, which were almost entirely dependent on African labor, were the backbone of the European economy in the Americas.
Before the Africans arrived, the European settler population in the Americas was starving—the average life expectancy of the settlers was just 25 years. Most settlers used to die within five years of arrival in the Americas due to disease, bad living conditions, and starvation. The irony is that the Africans, with their capacity for hard work, saved the European population in the Americas and made the colonization of North America possible.
We read in history books that the West has won in the last 300 years because of the “Western work ethic.” The German philosopher Max Weber has talked about the “Protestant work ethic” being the cause of the success of Western capitalism. If the Europeans had a better work ethic, then why did they need millions of slaves in their colonies? Perhaps Max Weber was wrong. Perhaps he had overestimated the role played by the Protestant work ethic.
In the twentieth century, the USA and Europe had to transfer much of their agriculture production to South America and Africa, and their major industries to China, Japan, and other Asian countries. Perhaps this was because the work ethic in the non-European parts of the world was better than the European work ethic. If Weber had been exposed to the culture of Asia, he would have praised the Asian work ethic.