Slavery Timeline 1400-1500
A Chronology of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation in the Fifteenth Century
This page contains a detailed timeline of the main historical, literary, and cultural events connected with slavery, abolition, and emancipation in the British Isles between 1400 and 1500. Given Britain's limited role in this period, it mainly includes references to the most significant events taking place outside of the British zone of influence (in the fifteenth century that was most of the world) as well as some key events in the history of European exploration and colonisation.
While there is plenty of detail in this timeline, it is of course impossible to record every event related to slavery in this period. The following selection is thus intended to provide an overview of the topic only. If there is something I have left out that you think should be included, please let me know.
Click on a date in the list below, or scroll down the page, for information. Links are given to pages on this website only. For my sources and for further reading, look at the page Further Reading: Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation.
Before 1400: Slavery had existed in Europe from classical times and did not disappear with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slaves remained common in Europe throughout the early medieval period. However, slavery of the classical type became increasingly uncommon in Northern Europe and, by the 11th and 12th centuries, had been effectively abolished in the north. Nevertheless, forms of unfree labour, such as villeinage and serfdom, persisted in the north well into the early modern period.
In southern and eastern Europe, classical-style slavery remained a normal part of society and economy for longer. Trade across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard meant that African slaves began to be brought to Italy, Spain, Southern France, and Portugal well before the discovery of the New World in 1492.
From about the eighth century onwards, an Arab-run slave trade also flourished, with much of this activity taking place in East Africa, Arabia, and the Indian Ocean. In addition, many African societies themselves had forms of slavery, although these differed considerably, both from one another and from the European and Arabic forms.
Although various forms of unfree labour were prevalent in Europe throughout its history, historians refer to 'chattel slavery', in which slaves are commodities to be bought and sold, rather than domestic servants or agricultural workers tied to the land. Chattel slavery is the characteristic form of slavery in the modern world, and this chronology is concerned primarily with this form.
- 1441: Start of European slave trading in Africa. The Portuguese captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão capture 12 Africans in Cabo Branco (modern Mauritania) and take them to Portugal as slaves.
- 1444: Lançarote de Freitas, a tax-collector from the Portuguese town of Lagos, forms a company to trade with Africa.
- 8 August 1444: de Freitas lands 235 kidnapped and enslaved Africans in Lagos, the first large group of African slaves brought to Europe.
- 1452: Start of the 'sugar-slave complex'. Sugar is first planted in the Portuguese island of Madeira and, for the first time, African slaves are put to work on the sugar plantations.
- 18 June 1452: Pope Nicholas V issues Dum Diversas, a bull authorising the Portuguese to reduce any non-Christians to the status of slaves.
- 8 January 1454: Pope Nicholas V issues Romanus Pontifex, a bull granting the Portuguese a perpetual monopoly in trade with Africa. Nevertheless, Spanish traders begin to bring slaves from Africa to Spain.
- 1461: The first of the Portuguese trading forts, the castle at Arguin (modern Mauritania), is completed.
- 1462: The Portuguese colony on the Cape Verde Islands is founded, an important way-station in the slave trade.
- 1462: Portuguese slave traders start to operate in Seville (Spain)
- 1470s: Despite Papal opposition, Spanish merchants begin to trade in large numbers of slaves in the 1470s.
- 1476: Carlos de Valera of Castille in Spain brings back 400 slaves from Africa.
- 1481: A Portuguese embassy to the court of King Edward IV of England concludes with the English government agreeing not to enter the slave trade, against the wishes of many English traders.
- 1481-86: Diogo da Azambuja builds the castle at Elmina (modern Ghana) which was to become the most substantial and the most notorious of the slave-trading forts in West Africa.
- 1483: Diogo Cão discovers the Congo river. The region is later a major source of slaves.
- 1485: Diogo Cão makes contact with the nation of Kongo and visits its capital, Mbanza Kongo. He establishes relations between Portugal and Kongo.
- 1486: João Afonso Aveiro makes contact with the kingdom and the city of Benin.
- 1486: Portuguese settle the West African island of São Tomé. This uninhabited West African island is planted with sugar and populated by African slaves by the Portuguese. The settlement thus extended and developed the sugar-slave complex that had been initiated in Madeira.
- 1487-88: Bartolomeo Dias rounds the Cape of Good Hope and explores the Indian Ocean and the East African coast.
- 2 January 1492: The Moorish town of Granada surrenders to the Spanish forces of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, marking the end of La Reconquista, the war between Moors and Spaniards in the Iberian peninsular. Both sides retain many slaves taken during the course of the war.
- 12 October 1492: Christopher Columbus becomes the first European since the Viking era to discover the New World, setting foot on an unidentified island he named San Salvador (modern Bahamas).
- 3 November 1493: On his second voyage, Columbus again reaches the New World (modern Dominica). On this voyage he initiates the first transatlantic slave voyage, a shipment of several hundred Taino people sent from Hispaniola to Spain. There are doubts about the legality of their enslavement in Spain.
- 8 December 1493: Columbus founds the first European colony in the New World: La Isabela on the island of Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic).
- 8 June 1496: Columbus returns from his second voyage, carrying around 30 Native American slaves. Once again, there are doubts about the legality of their enslavement.
- 24 June 1497: John Cabot, an Italian sponsored by King Henry VII of England, makes landfall on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland (modern Canada). This discovery became the basis of subsequent English claims to North America.
- 1499: More than 200 slaves taken from the northern coast of South America by Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Hojeda and sold - apparantly without legal problems - in Cádiz.
- 22 April 1500: Pedro Cabral of Portugal discovers Brazil, landing at Porto Seguro, southern Bahia.