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During the 16th century in Europe, the Portuguese dominated the African slave trade. European ships were first exposed to African slaves when privateering vessels would find enslaved  Africans packed alongside Atlantic trade goods in the hulls of the captured ships. The Spanish were the first to try and break up the Portuguese monopoly on slaves, establishing a system known as the asiento de negros in the 16th century which was an agreement between the Spanish crown and a private person or granting a monopoly in supplying African slaves for the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Dutch would use similar contracts to compete in this market, and it wasn’t long before the British and French followed suit. We see glimpses of this history in Shakespeare’s plays when he mentions the word “slave” over 170 times, the word “negro” specifically in his play Merchant of Venice, and he refers to “an African” in the play The Tempest. Here today to help us understand the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the place of Africans, and understanding of black skinned people, and even white skinned slaves for Shakespeare’s England, is our guest and author of Transformations of Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa Paul Lovejoy.  

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Paul Lovejoy is Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, Department of History, York University, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was was the Founding Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas at York University. He is a past member of the UNESCO “Slave Route” Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage (1996-2012), with which he continues to be associated. Most recently he was awarded a grant from the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Innovation on Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (

More about Paul Lovejoy

Paul is Chair of the Board of Directors for Walk With Web Inc. ( and was the Founding Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas at York University, and held the Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History (2000-2015). He is a past member of the UNESCO “Slave Route” Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage (1996-2012), with which he continues to be associated. He has published more than forty books, including Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions (1775-1850) (2016), Slavery in the Global Diaspora of Africa (2019), and most recently Slavery, Resistance and Abolitions: A Pluralist Perspective (2019) with Ali Moussa Iye and Nelly Schmidt and The Atlantic and Africa: The Second Slavery and Beyond  (2021), co-edited with Dale Tomich, and Regenerated Identities: Documenting African Lives (in press, 2022)  He is editor of Life Stories and Freedom Narratives of Global Africa, UNESCO General History of Africa, vol. 10, and is General Editor of The Harriet Tubman Series on the African Diaspora (Africa World Press), which has published 35 volumes. He was co-editor of the journal, African Economic History for two decades until 2021. A special issue of African Economic History was published in his honor in 2021 (Vol. 49. No. 1). He has received numerous grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, currently holding multiple year awards for “Testimonies of Enslavement,” which has as its website and portal and “Islamic Terrorism in Africa” (  Most recently he was awarded a grant from the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Innovation on Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery ( His various web-based projects also include SHADD: Studies in the History of the African Diaspora Documents and Equiano’s World: Gustavus Vassa and the Abolition of the Slave Trade He is involved in digital preservation of the Sierra Leone Public Archives associated with the British Library Endangered Archives Programme. Finally, the Journal of Global Slavery and Brill Publishing have honored his contributions to scholarship by establishing the Paul E. Lovejoy Prize for the Study of Slavery, which is presented each year for best monograph on the subject of global slavery published each year. 

I’ll be asking Paul Lovejoy about:

  • How long had the slave market been in place in Africa before Europeans were involved?  
  • Europeans were involved in slave markets before Africans became a primary source of enslavement. “Enslave” comes from the middle east and has nothing to do with Africa or Black people. Slavery is extremely old and trade in slaves on the European continent is extremely old. The important question is why were there no enslaved populations in England, France, or Germany in the medieval period.  
  • What was the political or economic incentive for England to be involved in the slave market? 
  • What about groups like the Cimmarons who were escaped Spanish slaves that sided with Drake against the Spanish in Panama? I don’t understand why the Cimmarons would have worked with Drake if Drake was a slave trader himself.  
  • …and more!
1684 drawing of five Englishmen escaping slavery in a small boat. by Jan Luyken (1649-1712) | Amsterdam’s Historic Museum | Public Domain | Source

Slavery Persecuted People Long Before Africans

As Paul explains this week, slavery has a long, sordid, history that started well before Europeans became involved, and way before there was a slave market in Africa. In fact, “Europeans were involved in slave markets before Africans became a primary source of enslavement. “Enslave” comes from the middle east and has nothing to do with Africa or Black people. Slavery is extremely old and trade in slaves on the European continent is extremely old. The important question is why were there no enslaved populations in England, France, or Germany in the medieval period.”  

England Was Not Intending to Be Involved in the Slave Trade

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, England was focused on outdoing Spain and other foreign powers in the race for more money, which was the means of power. In sending ships abroad to capture merchant vessels, England was commandeering the silver, gold, and valuables that Spain was trying to trade.

It wasn’t focused on the slave market. The focus was on stealing gold and sliver, to make money—that was the aim. These were officially privateers operating in Elizabethan times. They were sanctioned thieves, they were pirates. Queen Elizabeth had her own personal military that was beyond the realm of the state itself. The instructions were simple: Go out, steal money, coop partners in crime. It was all organized gangster activity with royal sanction. The following century, legalized involvement in slave trade was officially sanctioned by companies like The company of royal adventurers and then the royal Africa company. There’s a transition of piracy and stealing to formation of companies in the modern sense.  

16th-century trade routes prey to privateering: Spanish treasure fleets linking the Carribbean to Seville, Manila-Acapulco galleons started in 1568 (white lines) and rival Portuguese India Armadas of 1498-1640 (shown in blue lines) | Showing the Spanish colonial Manila-Acapulco Galleons route (1565-1815) between the Viceroyalty of New Spain (México) and the Spanish East Indies (Philippines), using the ports of Acapulco and Cavite. | Public Domain | Source

Francis Drake and other Privateers were hired to steal gold and silver 

Essentially, the English crown had sanctioned piracy in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Privateers, as they were called, were sent to capture foreign vessels and return the goods to England. As Paul explains,

“[Sir Francis Drake and others were sent abroad to] intercept the Spanish galleons that crossed the ocean in large fleets. Elizabeth I deliberately consciously recruited paid and honored Drake and Hawkins but it was all done unofficially, not through the government so she could always lie internationally and say she nor the English government was uninvolved. Their purpose was to return with gold and sliver, but the enslaved had value. The Spanish ships they were capturing they had slaves on board, which meant they were commandeered with the gold and sliver that was on board. To isolate slaves as a target is a bit of distortion. The real target was coin.”  

Christian prisoners are sold as slaves in a square in Algiers | Public Domain | Source

Initially, most of England’s slave population was Irish

At this time, the piracy and privateering was establishing the foundations of what would become the British Navy. In fact, many of the approaches to leadership and shipboard management employed by Drake in some of his voyages remain the standard of operation on ships for the British Navy still today. “It was about” two decades [after Shakespeare’s lifetime] before England is looking to establish plantations in the Americas, which happened first on Barbados in the middle of the 17th century, which is 50 years after Elizabeth I”s reign, only 50 years after her reign that we see British Caribbean colonies using to a great extent, indentured labor, mostly the Irish, but some West Africans as well.”

By the end of the 16th century, West Africa is under Iberian control, and the English, French, and Dutch are trying to insert themselves into this market to break up the monopoly. There was not a particular interest in slavery, but because that market was of big interest to the locations, like Africa, where these countries are trying to get a foothold economically, “very soon… there’s a shift and there’s an interest in slaves for producing goods in the Americas which would become and fuel British and the French and other prosperities in Europe.” 

Read more about England’s Irish Slaves here.

Partnering with Native Groups like the Cimmarons in the Caribbean 

In the case of Sir Francis Drake, he wasn’t going to the Carribean to capture people and bring them back to England as slaves. Instead, Drake was going to these Gulf of Mexico locations to capture Spanish ships, and when he would take them over, the hull would be full of captured slaves (some of which he would often just set free.)

“[Drake] formed an alliance at Nombre de Dios, a port on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus in Panama in which the caravans coming from Peru bringing gold and silver and from the Pacific side of modern day Columbia. What he did was he formed an alliance with the Cimmarons of this town to steal one of the big caravans. It wasn’t the Cimmarons having an interest in the Spanish or in protecting the route at this time, so they had to be bought off, and they were by the Spanish government, because ultimately they were granted the status of a town with a cathedral, and became—the town was declared to be free. So once they got their freedom within the Spanish Empire, they didn’t have any interest in someone like Drake anymore.”

Anonymous 17th century illustration of Christian Slaves on the Barbary Coast. “les Religieux de la Mercy de France, qui font un Vœu de Racheter les Captifs, et en cas de besoin de demeurer en leur place, ayant l’an 1662, racheté en Alger environ 100 Esclaves et l’an 1666 fait une rédemption à Tunis et en l’année 1667 une autre en Alger” Translation: the Religious of the Mercy of France, who make a Vow to Redeem the Captives, and in case of need to remain in their place, having the year 1662, redeemed in Algiers about 100 Slaves and the year 1666 made a redemption in Tunis and in the year 1667 another in Algiers | Public Domain | Source

16th century use of the words “negro”, “Slave”, and “African”

In Shakespeare’s play, Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare uses the word “negro” and in other plays he also describes people as “Moor” “Lybian” “African” or “Ethiopian.” Paul explains for us what Shakespeare is talking about in a 16th century context when he uses these terms.

“The time the play was written is very important. Influential people close to Queen Elizabeth had as servants, Africans, in England and especially in London, but overall there was not many people from Africa in England at this time. There were really only ones brought in by the privateers that had been taken off Spanish ships. It is important to remember that in 1596/98 when Merchant of Venice is written, the size of the population is approaching 4 million people, about 200,000 living in London, which for it’s period is a substantial city, a major city, but still it’s 200,000 and from today’s perspective, these are not huge numbers of people. The relatively few number in that 200,000 people in London were only probably talking about hundreds of people who were actually from Africa. A disproportionate number would have been in quite visible positions as servants in households, or working with merchants in the streets, and things like this. It wouldn’t have been unusual for someone to see or come in contact with someone from Africa, but it was a tiny percentage.”  

Turk and clergyman with Christian slaves, Jan Luyken, 1684 | Public Domain | Source

As far as the specific terms that Shakespeare was using in his plays, there was no indication that any of these terms were pejorative or insulting.

The use of the term isn’t the only term that he uses. He uses all kinds of terms—moor, black-a-moor, and other terms such as Libyans, Africans, and Ethiopians. In his reading of Merchant of Venice, Othello, or other plays, Paul expresses that he doesn’t get the sense that there’s a racialized dimension to the way Shakespeare’ using these terms. Shakespeare is very often considered one of the greatest English authors, and one of the reasons that he is is because of his ability to play with words….[when it comes to the use of words like “moor”, “Slave”, and “negro”] …these people were Central europeans..nothing to do with black or skin color”   

Being a Slave Doesn’t Indicate Black Skin

As we’ve already outlined, white Irish people were where England found most of its’ slaves originally. Furthermore, Muslims enslaving white Christians, as well as Christians enslaving Muslims goes back for centuries prior to the African slave trade, adn as Paul points out this entire situation “had nothing to do with skin color, it had to do with religion.” In fact, the word “Moor” refers to a group of people from a region of the world where people are predominantly black so “therefore they are “Black a moor” because “moor” meant muslim.” There’s a recognition of skin color but it wasn’t racist or prejudicial.

Looking back at slavery in Shakespeare’s lifetime teaches us that slavery is a universal human evil that impacted the ancestries of all skin colors.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!