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The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and its Slaves

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - GermanSlavery (The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and its Slaves)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-01-31

In this project we explore the involvement of German individuals in the slave trade and the presence of trafficked people in the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and its successor states in the long eighteenth century. While for a long time slavery was only considered in the context of the colonial plantation economy outside Europe, for the past two decades research on enslavement practices in early modern Europe has been booming. Quantitatively speaking these enslavement practices came nowhere near the more than 12 million people trafficked as part of the transatlantic slave trade. However, it increasingly appears as though Europe was not only economically and culturally involved in this trade but also participated directly through the presence of trafficked people on the European continent. While a large body of research exists on western Europe and the Mediterranean, scholarship on countries of the HRE is still sparse since these countries either had no colonial holdings whatsoever or very limited ones and for a short period of time only. Nonetheless, German merchants, ship owners and bankers but also seamen, soldiers, and physicians were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. While people involuntarily brought to Europe lived in the HRE, their circumstances differed from those trafficked in the transatlantic plantation slavery system. In this project we want to better understand the legal and social situation of trafficked people as well as the impact of human trafficking on German society. The existence of slavery in the HRE not only shows that globalization and voluntary as well as forceful migration go back as far as the early modern period. Researching these histories is also an important step toward acknowledging the victims of human trafficking.
This project combines four case studies on Hamburg, Prussia, the Moravians, and the Netherlands with a database project in order to document the quantitative dimensions of human trafficking in the Holy Roman Empire and its successor states between 1650 and 1850. Beyond specific findings in each subproject, the following general results have already become apparent: Although enslavement practices in the Holy Roman Empire and its successor states mostly occurred in a legal grey area—much like in neighboring European countries—we found explicit proof of slavery “according to Roman Law” in eighteenth century German court cases and petitions (for this and the following, see Mallinckrodt 2016 and 2017). Furthermore, it became obvious that the designation of a person’s status as “slavery“ or “serfdom“ not only depended on the legal status of a person but was also used strategically and resulted from the interests of the persons involved and the chances of success they anticipated. In some cases the slave status of a person was confirmed because arguing for their freedom might endanger the institution of serfdom, which was still in place in the Holy Roman Empire. In other cases we located evidence of proslavery and abolitionist networks within Germany and beyond its borders. Additionally, we found that children and young people were especially affected by human trafficking and enquired into the reasons for and consequences of this phenomenon. We were also able to considerably increase the number of known and documented trafficked persons in the German territories. Finally, our work has allowed us to trace the outlines of an intra-European slave trade that we will continue to explore in depth. Besides our own research we organized two international conferences whose results are going to be published in English: “Negotiating Status and Scope of Action—Interrelations between Slavery and Other Forms of Dependency in Early Modern Europe” (2017) and “Traces of the Slave Trade in the Holy Roman Empire and its Successor States: Discourses, Practices, and Objects, 1500–1850” (2018).
Until now, the presence of trafficked people in the HRE was perceived as exceptional and negligible in quantitative terms. Furthermore, it was assumed that a person’s slave status ended either at the border of the Holy Roman Empire or with baptism, or that slave status quietly evolved into other forms of dependency such as serfdom or domestic service. In this project, we can not only prove the legal existence of slavery in the Holy Roman Empire, we will also be able to document that it was systematically integrated into the global slave trade. This refers not only to the total number of persons affected but also to the way they were acquired. The findings will connect research on enslavement practices in the HRE with research on slavery in Europe and around the world. At the same time, attentiveness to obscured enslavement practices like those in the HRE and the interrelations between slavery and other forms of dependency will broaden the horizon of international scholarship on slavery.
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