Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 September 2011
When historians reflect on involuntary migration in the early modern period, the Atlantic slave trade almost invariably comes to mind first. This is understandable. In the three and a half centuries after its inception in the early sixteenth century, transatlantic slave trafficking was responsible for the forced migration of some 12.5 million Africans to the Americas. This was the largest coerced oceanic migration in human history. Seen by some as a “black Holocaust,” the Atlantic slave trade is now considered to have had profound effects on the repeopling of the Americas following the devastating impact on the post-Columbus demographic history of Native Americans. Some three times as many enslaved Africans landed in the “New World” as white settlers from Europe before 1820. Yet though due attention has to be given to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, European colonization of the Americas had its origins in the Mediterranean, where involuntary labor and slave trafficking, involving Africans as well as non-Africans, was a common feature of life for centuries before 1492 and was to remain so for several centuries thereafter. Moreover, just as involuntary labor was critical to the resettlement of the Americas after 1492, so it became pivotal to the early modern consolidation of state power in land-rich and population-scarce central and eastern Europe in the form of serfdom, where it gave rise to formal systems of labor exploitation that, according to some historians, were akin to slavery and, legally at least, outlived formal African slavery in the Americas.