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Debt, poverty and slavery in
historical perspective

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Exploring the historical relationship between debt and slavery.

Scholars of contemporary slavery often link slavery with debt, yet prior to this project, little research existed on the relationship between the debt and slavery in the past. The aim of this project was to look at the use of debt as a method of enslavement in Africa during the period c. 1600-c. 1800, when Europeans were purchasing enslaved people to transport them to the Americas for sale.

Image: © Eltis & Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2010), Published by Yale University
Debt, poverty and slavery in historical perspective revealed how debt was used to enslave Africans during the period of the transatlantic slave trade.


Lead researchers

Judith Spicksley

Dr Judith Spicksley explored the records created by European companies involved in the transatlantic slave trade, and the travel narratives of European visitors to Africa.

She investigated two specific areas – the West Coast of Africa and the West-Central Coast of Africa - uncovering common practices that led to people becoming enslaved for debt.

The Impact

The research revealed that debt was a more significant cause of slavery than previously thought and indicated that up to 25% of slaves may have fallen in to slavery as a result of debt. 

This might have been because they were held as security for debt, and sold when the debt was not repaid, because they had borrowed money for a business transaction or because they had been convicted of an offence and could not pay the fine that was demanded for it. It was also clear that the legal relationship between debt and enslavement was exploited in order to force more people into enslavement, just as it continues to be in situations of contemporary slavery. Understanding debt slavery in the past reveals much about processes of enslavement today.

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