10 Cities You Probably Didn’t Know Were Built on Slavery

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Slavery is bad. That’s the sort of massively uncontroversial statement we can probably all get onboard with (if not, maybe it’s time to re-examine your life, Mr. “I still live in the 18th Century”). No matter who is enslaving whom or what they’re doing with all that concentrated human power, it’s almost guaranteed to be a bad idea.

Yet that doesn’t mean we’ve scrubbed away all the traces of this exceptionally bad idea from our modern world. Far from it. Go traveling around the Americas, Europe, Africa or the Caribbean and you’ll find entire cities that were built on the groaning backs of enslaved peoples. Cities that today are sometimes some of the biggest tourist hotspots there are. Cities like…

10. Prague (Czech Republic)

If cities were celebrities, Prague would be Audrey Hepburn: small, sophisticated, overflowing with European elegance, and, above all, heart-stoppingly beautiful. The Czech capital has been a major center of art and talent since before the days of Rudolph II. Yet all this Instagram-worthy gorgeousness didn’t just appear overnight. It had to be funded, and the money to fund it came from – you guessed it – the selling of slaves.

“But wait!” We hear you cry, “the Czechs never had African holdings. They weren’t implicated in the slave trade!” Sure, that’s absolutely true… if you’re talking about the Transatlantic slave trade. But we’re talking about an older, less recognized one. The slave trade that involved wealthy white Europeans selling their poor countrymen into bondage in the Islamic world.

As Peter Frankopan details in his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, the Dark Ages in Europe only really ended when enterprising royals started selling other Europeans into slavery. The money flowing back into Europe from the Islamic world’s slave markets went right into reviving European culture and creating glorious medieval cities like Prague.

9. Havana (Cuba)

We hear a lot about how the US benefitted from the enslavement of Africans (and it did benefit; a lot), but it’s worth remembering that America’s Caribbean neighbors benefited, too. We’re used to thinking of Cuba’s capital, Havana, as a time-trapped colonial delight; a kind of Cartagena that’s easier to get to. But there’s another way we could all be looking at it. We could be looking at it as a gigantic monument to thousands of slaves.

Pretty much all of old Havana was built by enslaved Africans. The areas that weren’t are often linked to slavery in horrific ways. The grand Old Square was constructed as the island’s slave market, where people were bought and sold for shockingly small amounts. The old town walls were built by the same people bought in these markets, part of a depressing circle of misery that no-one seemed to care about in those times. You can even go see locations where rebellious black Cubans were killed for resisting Spanish rule.

It wasn’t until 1886 that slavery was abolished in Cuba. It had been a fact of life since 1513.

8. New Orleans (USA)

Pop quiz: name an American city that benefited from slavery. The list is effectively endless, of course, but we’re betting you plumped for somewhere like Charleston or Atlanta. Well, there’s another, equally famous city you could have gone for, and it’s one we don’t often associate with the slave trade. Its name? New Orleans.

Even in the antebellum South, slavery was something that was usually kept hidden, confined to one street or market in the cities. Not in New Orleans. As NPR explains, Louisiana’s biggest city was “completely saturated” with slavery. You could buy slaves in the business districts, the French quarter, or even in the lobby of your hotel. You could buy slave-produced cotton by the bucket load on nearly every street. Slave ships docked several times a year, and something like a million people passed through the city’s slave markets. There was barely an inch of the city that wasn’t stained with the suffering of countless people.

So, why don’t we remember this dark legacy when we think of New Orleans today? NPR suggests it’s because of a lack of monuments and markers… not to mention our willingness to forget.

7. Algiers (Algeria)

If the Transatlantic slave trade hadn’t existed, the Barbary slave trade would probably have been the nastiest in the last 500 years. Between the 16th and early-19th Centuries, Barbary pirates from North Africa made a horrible habit of attacking European ships and coastal communities and dragging their inhabitants off into slavery in the Islamic world. Villagers from as far away as Ireland or Scotland ended their days in enslavement, while Sicily was raided so many times it came close to being completely depopulated.

Overall, it’s thought that a million white Europeans were enslaved in this way (compared to around 10 million Africans in the Transatlantic slave trade). The epicenter of this lucrative market was Algiers.

One of the reasons that Algiers was able to prosper with white slaves was that the only naval superpower in Europe (Britain) calculated it was worth the odd Barbary raid to secure commercial shipping in the region. When Britain finally outlawed slavery, that all changed. In 1816, the British teamed up with the Dutch to shell Algiers into submission. The bombardment freed 3,000 slaves. The days of the Barbary pirates were effectively over.

6. Mexico City (Mexico)

One of the largest cities on the planet, Mexico City today stands partly over the long-buried remains of Tenochtitlan, the great Aztec metropolis Hernan Cortes completely obliterated in 1521. While Cortes leveled the city (classic Cortes-the-jerk move), he allowed most of the population to live; a magnanimous act that quickly came to seem a whole lot less magnanimous when Cortes enslaved them all and forced them to rebuild their city in European style over the ruins of Tenochtitlan. See what we mean? Total jerk.

Before you go feeling too sorry for the enslaved Aztecs, we should point out that a lot of Tenochtitlan was itself built using slave labor, which gives the whole thing a sort of ‘what goes around comes around’ vibe. Still, Aztec slavery wasn’t necessarily as bad as slavery under the Spanish. While Aztec slaves could save up and eventually buy their freedom, captured natives tended to be worked to death by the Spanish. But hey, at least the Spanish didn’t gruesomely sacrifice thousands to make the sun come up. Like we said, bad sides all round.

Sadly, slavery in Mexico City isn’t a thing of the past. Today, human traffickers sell poor Mexicans into another type of slavery in grimy corners of the metropolis.  

5. Venice (Italy)

At the same time as the wealthy of Europe were selling their fellow whites into Islamic slavery, parts of Italy were doing a roaring trade selling Muslims into Christian slavery. The port (then a powerful city state) of Venice was ground zero for the arrival of thousands upon thousands of enslaved Scythians and Tartars and Balkan Muslims, all bound for servitude in Italy. Nor were Christians truly safe. While the Venetians tended not to enslave Christians, the Genoese considered Orthodox Christians fair game, meaning those in places like Greece could expect to be enslaved by both their Islamic and Catholic neighbors.   

While Venice made money from a lot of avenues, slavery definitely boosted the economy. Merchants could get returns as high as 150%, after accounting for death, shipwrecks, and disease. People from all walks of life owned other humans. While the Church set rules that stopped people from treating their slaves as badly as they would in either the Barbary States or the Deep South, they didn’t rule out using female slaves for sex. As a result, female slaves could expect a lifetime of abuse.

4. Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

Brazil has the highest proportion of citizens of African descent anywhere outside of Africa. Care to guess the reason? Yep, it’s because the Portuguese were absolutely mad for slavery. During the height of the Transatlantic slave trade, over four million people were bought to Brazil, mostly from Angola. That’s an even bigger number than it already sounds. Brazil alone accounted for 40% of the entire Transatlantic slave trade. By comparison, it’s estimated fewer than half a million Africans were sold into slavery in the USA.

The beating heart of all this human trafficking was Valongo wharf, now subsumed into the sprawling city of Rio de Janeiro. Valongo was what abolitionists had nightmares about. From 1811-1888 (when Brazil outlawed slavery), around one million Africans were sold here, causing an insane economic boom right alongside an insane amount of misery. It was the main departure point for slaves into the whole of South America. Without it, both modern Rio and Brazil itself would look nothing like they do today.

3. Elmina (Ghana)

A tiny, picturesque town on the coast of Ghana, Elmina today basically exists to give fans of charming colonial cities something to blow their loads over. Lonely Planet, to cite just one example, raves about the place. Yet all this architectural beauty and idle sensuousness hide a grim and depressing past. One involving Portugal setting up the first slave trading post in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Yep, Elmina is basically ground zero for the entire humanitarian mess that followed.

Before you go blaming the Portuguese too hard, we should point out that nearly all the major European slave powers got in on the act at one point or another. After the Portuguese founded Elmina in 1482, they ruled it for over 100 years before losing it to the Dutch, who did some slave trading of their own. Then the British took over in 1800, although they managed to get it together enough to abolish slavery completely in 1833. Thank God, too, as by the 18th Century, Elmina had seen up to 30,000 slaves a year pass through its castle port.

2. Cadiz (Spain)

Just like in the US, Spanish slavery mainly took place in the country’s south. One of the most-important ports in this Iberian slave trade was the city of Cadiz. Straddling the Atlantic and Mediterranean, it was an ideal dropping off point for ships heading to or returning from Africa. And you better believe the Spanish crown took full advantage of this. From the 16th to 18th Centuries, Cadiz was a city that thrived on an endlessly moving tide of enslaved peoples.

This might come as something of a shock to those used to thinking of Cadiz as a vacation spot. The bone white city is an architectural marvel, mixing Catholic and Moorish influences so seductively it can be hard to believe anything bad has ever happened here. Yet these winding alleyways were once paths leading toward endless human suffering. While Spain would eventually abolish slavery in 1811, cutting off the human supply to ports such as Cadiz, its colony of Cuba would refuse to enforce the ban for nearly another century.

1. Pretty Much Any Town or City in Belgium (Belgium)

Belgium is a tiny nation that spent most of modern European history acting as a kind of unwilling highway for the Germans whenever they got an urge to invade France. Yet it remains one of the 25 richest nations on Earth, outstripping even heavy hitters like Japan, the UK, and France in GDP per capita. There’s a reason such a small, repeatedly-invaded place manages to be so wealthy, and it’s not all thanks to Jean Claude van Damme’s residuals checks. Belgium became a rich, modern state by plundering the Congo like crazy.

If you thought life under colonial Britain or France or the Netherlands was morally troubling, at least those countries built roads and hospitals and generally tried to do a smattering of good. The Belgians under King Leopold II did none of that. They just enslaved nearly every human being in the Congo, forced them into backbreaking, deadly labor, and robbed their land of all its resources. Somewhere between 3 and 10 million people died, comparable to the Armenian Genocide or the Ukrainian Holodomor. In return, the Congo got 1,250 miles of paved roads – roughly the same as Rhode Island in an area something like 500 times the size – while Belgium’s cities got stinking rich.


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1 Comment

  1. I would argue that getting to Havana is actually more complicated than getting to Cartagena. To go to Cuba, there are forms that have to be filled out and hoops to jump through, where as for Cartagena, just buy your ticket and get on the plane. Can’t say anything about Havana since I’ve never been there, but I do highly recommend Cartagena.

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