The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Slavery and Freedom in the Early Modern World

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC Early Career Scheme

Abstract of Project

It is common in both public and academic discourse today to trace the origins of human trafficking and “modern slavery” to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in enslaved Africans, to which our modern scourge represents a departure in its global impact, multiethnic character and the preponderance not of manual labor (e.g. plantation agriculture), but of domestic, military and sexual exploitation. In contrast, this project argues that this Atlantic-centric view is historically myopic, and thereby less appropriate for framing our current problems. Indeed, if we look beyond the Atlantic, we see that slavery and human trafficking in the early modern world (c. 1500-1800) mirrored our current situation closely. In particular, the global slave system created by Iberian (i.e. Spanish and Portuguese) expansion produced an interrelated series of slave-trading networks that reached across the globe, from Macau to Mexico and from India to Peru, and entrapped people enslaved in different places for different purposes. This included South and Southeast Asians forced to work in Iberian homes, Africans bought and sold as plantation laborers and Korean women trafficked as sex slaves.

In order to inform discourse on the origins of “modern slavery” and human trafficking, this project will study the interconnected history of the Iberian slave trade from a global, rather than a regional or proto-national perspective. Using Iberian history as a point of departure for studying early modern global history, the project will focus on Iberia’s global slave regimes and their interactions with contemporary slave systems in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In particular, it will address the ways Iberians and those with whom they interacted conceived of slavery and freedom, both in their own and other societies, using thematic case studies, rather than a geographically-defined structure. In this way, this project will contribute both to globalizing the field of Iberian history, and make an important contribution to global intellectual and legal history, especially debates surrounding the origins and uniqueness of western concepts of freedom and slavery. It will do so not by studying western and non-western concepts separately and then comparing them, but by studying their connections and interactions, especially in the field of slave law (both secular and religious), where such issues were discussed explicitly in this period. The ultimate outcome of this research will be two peer-review articles and a book proposal to be submitted to a major North American university press.

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