Slavery

It was a surprise for me to discover the extent to which the Viking economy depended on slavery. Scandinavia was under-populated and there was a huge demand for cheap manual labour. Slaves provided the workforce to replace the strong young men when they went off each year to raid and plunder abroad. Slaves worked on farms and helped to provide the raw materials required to build the Viking ships.

A Viking battle axe, their weapon of choice

A Viking battle axe, their weapon of choice

Slaves were also a very valuable trading commodity for the Vikings. Commercial centres trading in slaves, such as Dublin, were supplied with the prisoners taken by Norse raiding parties. The price of a slave in Dublin was 12 ounces of silver for a man and 8 ounces for a woman.

The distinguished Swedish historian, Wilhelm Moberg, estimated that 20% of the Swedish population at this time were slaves, or bondsmen, as he called them. They had no rights and were bought and sold as chattels. They were mainly of three types: prisoners of War, Voluntary slaves, (often selling themselves to repay debt), and those who had been born into bondage by virtue of the fact that their parents were slaves.

Generally, slaves were treated well, partly because of their intrinsic monetary value, but also because the condition of slaves reflected the status of their owner. However, their lives were totally in the hands of their masters. Not infrequently, slaves were used as human sacrifices to curry the favour of the pagan gods.

The very word “slavery” is morally repugnant in our modern society, but almost every country in Europe had a hand in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, what is not generally known is that a huge number of English people were enslaved in Barbary. (This name came from Berber the inhabitants of North Africa). Thousands of English men, women and children were captured in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in raids by Barbary slave traders, on the west of England, in particular Cornwall. Sailors also fell victim to capture at sea. In the sixteenth century around 175,000 English sailors were captured by the Barbary slave traders.

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