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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchGlobal Slavery in the Making of States and International Orders

Global Slavery in the Making of States and International Orders

Authors: J.C. Sharman and Ayşe Zarakol

Affiliation: University of Cambridge 

Organization/Publisher: American Political Science Review

Date/Place: June 9, 2023/US

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 13 



Keywords: Slavery, States, International Order, Ottoman Empire, U.S. Atlantic, Africa



The field of political science have long ignored the central role of slavery in nation-building and the formation of the international system from ancient times until the early twentieth century. In order to counter these classical theoretical prejudices that focus only of the United States and the Atlantic, the writers highlight a broader view that takes into consideration the Muslim world, Africa and Asia. Rather than looking at ancient or medieval times, the article focuses mainly on early modern history as crucial to correctly understand contemporary politics.


At first the authors try to touch on the conceptual aspect of slavery. They believe that its wide spread across diverse political and social environments over thousands of years has contributed significantly to the difference in its nature and practice. In this context, they link slavery to unfree labor, defining it as a formal relationship in which one person or institution owns another person as property. However, this definition does not include other categories of unfree labor. Accordingly, the authors point out that there are ambiguous definitional boundaries in addition to differences within the category of slavery.     

 The writers strongly criticize the neglect of slavery within the discipline of political science. According to their beliefs, slavery as a global phenomenon has not received much attention in this field because, as a result of biased Western studies, slavery has been confined throughout history to the transatlantic slave trade. Because of this limited focus, the authors argue that the field intentionally reproduces misleading racial stereotypes and rarely focuses on the wide variety of non-Western societies that widely practiced slavery or were sources of slave supply. Accordingly, the article calls for a more comparative look at slavery in order to better theorize key political science concerns.


The article then discusses how slavery offered at least two alternative paths to state building, ‘slaves as state’ and ‘slaves under the state.’ The first model, ‘slaves as state’, refers to rulers (slave managers) who seek to offer an alternative path to political centralization and state-building so that they can counterbalance or neutralize subordinate rulers within complex political systems through the use of a class of soldiers and civilians with undivided loyalties. Thus, from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century, many great empires and kingdoms West Africa to Central Asia were formed, maintained and expanded by slave armies and ruled by slave managers. The authors argue that this use of slavery was widespread in Islamic politics, most notably the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth century. The slaves formed formidable military formations under Ottoman command and were their most effective tool of conquest. In addition, the majority of the most important civil officials in the empire were slaves. Furthermore, many of the sultans’ high-ranking officials were former Christians who had been enslaved, forcibly converted, and then transferred into Ottoman service.

The second model, “slaves under the state,” refers to the state’s dependence on slaves as its basic economic base by externalizing the demand for slaves, which contributed to strengthening military and commercial relations across borders. Thus, it strengthened international conflict and international trade, which formed systems of international slavery. Besides Africa, a large section of Southeast Asia relied on this idea for a long time due to the scarcity of labor, such as Siam, Laos, and Burma. Although liberals consider slave economies to be stagnant and backward, the writers argue that on the contrary, they proved to be very successful and dynamic. For example, in the nineteenth century, when Britain banned the transatlantic slave trade, this reduced the price of slaves for African buyers and redirected the long-distance slave trade eastward to the Indian Ocean. At the same time, industrialization in Europe and North America reduced the prices of manufactured goods, leading to a significant increase in demand and thus the prices of raw materials and agricultural commodities coming from Africa.       


The article then moves on to the role that slavery played in building the international system. The authors believe that the patterns of violence and exchange on which slavery was based linked political systems, despite their differences, to each other in a deeper way. Especially in the modern era, the importance of these links has grown even more, and orders of slavery increasingly extended across continents and oceans in line with the expansion of empires and the globalization of the world economy. Thus, international orders of slavery were formed through customs, war, and trade. They had a significant impact in building sustainable relationships between these orders. This is what the writers consider to be an oft-ignored but particularly important aspect for international relations. This international aspect reflects the fact that groups as distant as pre-Columbian Native Americans, Europeans, Persians, and many African societies shared a normative reluctance to enslave members of their own community. Moreover, slavery simultaneously created or reinforced normative and identity boundaries between in-groups and out-groups, as well as extensive and enduring military and commercial relations across these borders that sometimes coalesced into international systems.                           

For further clarification, the authors conduct a comparative study of two different systems both based on the system of slavery: the Ottoman Empire and the Atlantic Empire, and how they contributed to the creation and sustainability of the international slave system.


First: The Ottomans:                                                                                                                  

Although slavery was prohibited among Muslims, according to the authors, this did not prevent the Ottomans from not adhering to this principle absolutely. For example, the article argues that the two most important political regimes loyal to the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Tatars and the Barbary pirates, relied on capturing slaves and selling them to the Ottomans. The number of slaves captured and sold by the Crimean Tatars between the period 1450 to 1700 across Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the present-day Caucasus is estimated at 2.5 million. The slave trade was described as “the backbone of the economy of the Crimean Khanate.” As for the Barbary pirates on the African coast, they relied on exporting slaves from the Mediterranean Sea, along the coast of southern Europe, and sometimes Atlantic Europe. The number of slaves they captured and then sold, mostly to the Ottomans, is estimated at about 1.25 million slaves in the period between 1530-1780.


Second: The Atlantic Ocean:

 In this part, the writers intend to address this system from a political perspective rather than the economic aspect that dominates analysis, in addition to highlighting  the essential role some Africans played as independent actors in this system. Initially, prevailing European religious customs prohibited the enslavement of Europeans, which led to the Europeans’ demand for slaves shifting abroad, and then their interest gradually shifting to West Africa. Thanks to strong local African military opposition, it was impossible for Europeans to take Africans by force through war. As a result of these military and normative constraints, the transatlantic slave trade was decisively shaped by these two considerations. The writers also try to shed light on African merchants and rulers, who often acted as intermediaries by providing slaves and selling them to Europeans in difficult deals at high prices. Consequently, European slave traders found themselves forced to work according to African rules.                                       

 Thus, some African suppliers served the Atlantic and Islamic markets at the same time. As an example, Mali sent some of its slaves to the Atlantic coast of Senegambia who were shipped to the Americas, while others were transported across the Sahara and then to the Middle East.                                                                                                                                     Finally, the authors stress the necessity and importance of political scientists focusing on studying slavery as a global phenomenon due to its tendency to demarcate the boundary of in-group/out-group, and because it also served to bind political systems together in regional and transcontinental patterns of violence and exchange. It is the only way we can correctly understand certain issues such as race and slavery in the United States and elsewhere in the West. The global focus on slavery reminds us of the central role of violence in the process of state formation. 

By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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