Yes. Nearly all Americans of European ancestry are descendents of slaves.

I try not to be surprised at the ignorance of politicians and journalists. Nevertheless, I admit a mild case of astonishment when I heard these soundbites on a radio program:

“Obviously, very few white Americans have any slaves in their ancestry.”
“Let’s face it: Europeans never suffered from mass enslavement.”
“We all know that white-skinned people enslaved dark-skinned people and not the other way around.”

Incredible. Students of European history know that a lot of “white persons” have ancestors who were slaves. The first clue is the word slave itself. Many slaves in the Byzantine Empire (fourth through eleventh century C.E.) were Slavs, speakers of the Slavic languages from central and eastern Europe, so the words slave and Slav became virtually synonymous.

Virtually every European language has at least one word for “slave” that is derived from “Slav.” Yet, Slavs were hardly the only slaves in the history of the continent.  Far from it. And I’m not just talking about the Islamic Moors of North Africa (dark-skinned peoples) bringing slavery (and white-skinned slaves) to Muslim Spain. (That’s not to say that no slavery existed there prior to the Moors, but they definitely greatly expanded the trade.)

The Slavic peoples were hardly the only “white person slaves”. In the days of John Adams, enslaved Europeans and even some Americans labored throughout the nations of north Africa and the Middle East. The Marine Corps Hymn mentions “the shores of Tripoli” because American troops were sent to the distant land we call Libya in order to stop the Barbary pirates, who (among many other crimes) were kidnapping Americans and Europeans–and had been enslaving their victims for over three hundred years.  And they certainly were not the first slave-merchants from Africa and Asia to consider European slaves a lucrative commodity. Young monks and other clergymen were especially valuable because they were literate and often had other rare skills, such as accounting/bookkeeping.

Slavery was common throughout the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes, and on the British Isles. Irish slaves helped settle Iceland. Viking raids sent thousands of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Franks, as well as German, Baltic, Latin, Finnish, and, yes, Slavik thralls (the Norse word for “slave”) all over the then known world including the Middle East and as far as central Asia. Obviously, many of these “white” slaves eventually became the property of “black” slaveholders and merchants.

Slavery in general (and not just indentured servitude) was extremely common in western Europe until about the year 1000, when serfdom became pervasive.

I’ve never tried to calculate how many “white persons” in America today had slave ancestors but by any reasonable estimate, they number in the many many millions. By any measure, the chances of any white American of European ancestry today not having slaves somewhere in their family tree is virtually nil.

I share this information because history matters. What lesson or lessons we draw from the facts of history is yet another matter.


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