Ambivalence is an aspect of the transcultural and transnational. Despite utopian hope, dystopian elements are part of the movement of peoples and the ways humans seek beyond nature and culture to go across borders. From the earliest times, boundaries required markers and were also ignored, crossed, or contested.

            Various religions in antiquity recognized the importance of this matter of bounds. For the sake of brevity, I shall appeal to examples from Asia Minor and Europe. In the Sumerian myth, “Enki and the World Order,” Enki, a god, is reported to have set national boundaries and assigned roles to the gods (Ea). Hermes was the Greek god whose name seems to be derived from herma, “a heap of stones” like that employed in the country to mark boundaries—a landmark (Hermes). Terminus was a Roman god who evolved from a boundary stone used to mark out the ground during a ceremony of anointment and sacrifice (Terminus). Often, then, there were sacred origins on the idea of bounds and demarcation. To break these boundaries could lead to death, or later, a fine—as in the case of anyone removing this boundary stone in Rome. Crossing boundaries is what migratory humans have done from the beginning, but boundaries are to be crossed as well as marking, defending, extending. Bounds are physical—like rivers and mountains—as well as religious, cultural, political and social frontiers.

            State or ‘nation’ is a way to extend tribal boundaries, and empire, which depends on a central cultural group or a nation, transforms the national and crosses national boundaries. Although I could discuss empires in terms of Europe, I could also choose examples from China, India, Iran or pre-contact America. Empires, as I have argued elsewhere, are ambivalent and contradictory, so they bring positives and negatives with them (see Hart 2001, Hart 2008). The same could be said about nation and nationalism. Otherness is part of the transcultural and transnational story of empire, as some like Michel de Certeau, Tzvetan Todorov, and others have explored—but sometimes that otherness can have a dark side such as slavery (Certeau, Todorov, Hart 2005, Hart 2015).

            Here, I would like to put slavery in the context of empire as a means of showing it as part of the story of empire and migration. Some moves are chosen or at least unforced, and some are imposed or forced. Movement and settlement form the spine of human history. Traditionally, empire has mixed force or conquest with religious, social, economic and political ideology. War and law became cornerstones of classical Greece and Rome, and of especially the latter (see Pagden 2003).1 The Greek, Roman, and British empires became diverse, but the violence, tyranny and use of slaves qualify the positives of the spread of law, order, and good government. The translation of empire from the Greeks to the Romans, from Alexander the Great to Augustus, and to the many inheritors of the empires of antiquity such as the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, England and Russia, helped to transform states and peoples for good and ill.

            Expansion and empire have many technologies based on warfare, like the Greek phalanx, which helped Alexander the Great to cross national boundaries and defeat other empires like the Persian empire. Besides military technologies of violence, Alexander seems to have had a vision of a universal empire made up of many peoples, so while there was a harsh side to building an expanding political entity, there was also an empire that crossed cultures and parochial boundaries to bring together east and west. Culturally and intellectually, the Romans gave Roman law to Europe and beyond, and thereby sought ethical, social, and political order—just as the Greeks had provided the natural sciences and moral philosophy (Pagden 2003 6-14, 27-29). Navigation was also important for the expansion of empires and the challenging of boundaries, but it could also serve as a way in war and slavery to force others against their will into a situation detrimental to them.

            When Columbus sailed into the western Atlantic in 1492, he carried with him technologies of sailing and war, and in addition to the framework of Christianity, he brought classical ideas. One such idea was Aristotle’s view of natural slavery in Politics. Columbus had some antecedents and slavery was an ancient institution. The Greeks and Romans had had slaves.

            Thus, before the Columbus, the ancients had held slaves, and so had the Portuguese. On a fateful day in 1444, as Gomes Eanes de Zurara describes, a terrible scene occurred of African slaves brought to Lagos in Portugal:

On the next day, which was the 8th of the month of August, very early in the morning, by reason of the heat, the seamen began to make ready their boats, and to take out those captives, and carry them on shore, as they were commanded. And these, placed all together in that field, were a marvellous sight; for amongst them were some white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned; others were less white like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiops, and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere. (Zurara 81)

            The question of race enters into the description and the aesthetics of the body are measured according to the European figure and eye. The captives are not free to choose, but are in a scene not of their making. Zurara appeals to emotion:

But what heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company? For some kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help of the Father of Nature; others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves at full length upon the ground; others made their lamentations in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country. (Zurara 81)

            The human heart sees the suffering of other humans, something that crosses cultural and national bounds. Zurara shows sensitivity to that cultural difference in the music. Nature, which the captives appeal to, encompasses all humans, European and African. The dirge is one of sad loss. Zurara is aware of his limitations and those of his compatriots:

And though we could not understand the words of their language, the sound of it right well accorded with the measure of their sadness. But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and who began to separate one from another, in order to make an equal partition of the fifths; and then was it needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. No respect was shewn either to friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him. (Zurara 81-82)

            Not even the writer or chronicler can understand the cultural difference with the captives, but he does convey the sadness and the way that suffering is increased through dividing up families. This division causes the apostrophe to fortune that involves generalizing a lesson:

O powerful fortune, that with thy wheels doest and undoest, compassing the matters of this world as pleaseth thee, do thou at least put before the eyes of that miserable race some understanding of matters to come; that they may receive some consolation in the midst of their great sorrow. And you who are so busy in making that division of the captives, look with pity upon so much misery; and see how they cling one to the other, so that you can hardly separate them. (Zurara 82)

            The scene is dramatic and stresses the sorrow while addressing the one making that division and, in some ways, the reader for whom this work is intended. The author elaborates so as to build up the drama and the tension:

And who could finish that partition without very great toil? for as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them. And so troublously they finished the partition; for besides the toil they had with the captives, the field was quite full of people, both from the town and from the surrounding villages and districts, who for that day gave rest to their hands (in which lay their power to get their living) for the sole purpose of beholding this novelty. And with what they saw, while some were weeping and others separating the captives, they caused such a tumult as greatly to confuse those who directed the partition. (Zurara 82)

            Here, the crowd witnesses “this novelty,” and it seems that they weep while the captives cry and try to reunite with the members of the family from whom the Portuguese have divided them. By tying to reform their family ties, the captives show their humanity and the inhumanity of the division. But the author tries to find a rationale or even rationalization for this act of division or partition:

The Infant was there, mounted upon a powerful steed, and accompanied by his retinue, making distribution of his favours, as a man who sought to gain but small treasure from his share; for of the forty-six souls that fell to him as his fifth, he made a very speedy partition of these; for his chief riches lay in his purpose; for he reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost. (Zurara 82-83)

            Prince Henry or the Infant was there on his puissant horse and in the company of his retinue and he took the fifth of the captives coming to him. What the author seems to say is that the division of the captives and Henry’s share, despite the pain and hardship, are worth of it because of the gift of Christianity to save their souls. Henry’s Christian motives seem, for the narrator, to be enough to make up for the separation and pain:

And certainly his expectation was not in vain; for, as we said before, as soon as they understood our language they turned Christians with very little ado; and I who put together this history into this volume, saw in the town of Lagos boys and girls (the children and grandchildren of those first captives, born in this land) as good and true Christians as if they had directly descended, from the beginning of the dispensation of Christ, from those who were first baptized (Zurara 83).

            The author swears to the benefit to these captives and their descendants so as to suggest that this partition was worth it, at least in the long run. The gift of baptism is supposed to mend this first scene of African slavery in western Europe. This cultural encounter is one of forced migration past familiar boundaries. The slaves are, Zurara seems to imply, almost subject to a fortunate fall.

            The wound of slavery is a trauma that remains from late medieval Europe to the New World and beyond today. With Columbus came the enslaving of Native Americans or the indigenous peoples of the New World. Bartolomé de Las Casas, who edited Columbus, wrote in his History of the Indies about the famous advent sermons of 1511 of a Dominican in Santo Domingo, Antonio Montesinos, in which Columbus’ son Diego was in the congregation. Montesinos’ sermon said that Montesinos was a voice crying in the wilderness and asked: “Tell me, by what right do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude?” (Montesinos 310). Montesinos spoke up against the exploitation of the Native peoples in the Caribbean and his views influenced Las Casas. In Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Las Casas says:

There are two main ways in which those who have travelled to this part of the world pretending to be Christians have uprooted these pitiful peoples and wiped them from the face of the earth. First, they have waged war on them: unjust, cruel, bloody and tyrannical war. Second, they have murdered anyone and everyone who has shown the slightest sign of resistance, or even of wishing to escape the torment to which they have subjected him. This latter policy has been instrumental in suppressing the native leaders, and, indeed, given that the Spaniards normally spare only women and children, it has led to the annihilation of all adult males, whom they habitually subject to the harshest and most iniquitous and brutal slavery that man has ever devised for his fellow-men, treating them, in fact, worse than animals. All the many and infinitely varied ways that have been devised for oppressing these peoples can be seen to flow from one or other of these two diabolical and tyrannical policies (Las Casas 12-13).

            This Spaniard sets out the cruelty of the Spaniards as he addresses this work to a member of the royal family of Spain, for the Prologue begins with the following: “of Bishop Brother Bartolomé de Las Casas, or Casaus, to the most high and most mighty Prince of Spain, our Lord the Prince Philip” (Las Casas 5). The brutality of this enslavement of the indigenous peoples leads to the use of African slaves because of the destruction of the indigenes. This perverse diversity of cruelty, as Las Casas catalogues it, becomes a prime example in the Black Legend of Spain in which the rivals and enemies of Spain take up. Las Casas has a way of accusing the Spanish of abuses in the Americas and even in the Netherlands and Europe through a typology of Old and New World.

            Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery was appealed to in debates over the nature of the Natives and whether or not the Spanish should enslave them. Aristotle speaks of slavery among the Greeks and barbarians and outlines the nature of a master and of a slave. He quotes Euripides who in a line says that the Greeks should rule over barbarians, implying, in Aristotle’s view, that is because barbarians are like slaves. Here we have a boundary between one people and those surrounding peoples. But Aristotle also mentions the criticism of the distinction between master and slave. In a sense, in Aristotle’s Politics, even if the author takes sides, he presents opposing positions, including the criticism of slavery as a convention contrary to nature (Aristotle 1252 a 32, 1253 b 20 and 32, 1254 b 20, 1255 a 3 and b 23, 1259 b 23, 1330 a 25). The debate between Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda—two clergy who show us how important religion and its boundaries were to the ancients and moderns—involved a refutation and affirmation of the Natives as Aristotle’s natural slaves (see Hanke 1959, 1974, Pagden 1982).

            M. I. Finley identified “only five genuine slave societies”: two in antiquity—of Greece and Rome—and three modern ones, in the Caribbean, Brazil, and the United States, based on race: “modern slavery was black slavery” (Finley 9; on the United States, see Pargas). In a sense, Finley means societies based on slavery over time, but that is not to say that the Spaniards had not destroyed the indigenous peoples of the New World. This debate over the nature of the human may have also included Africans and others, but the discussion of aboriginal peoples in the New World was a key to the ideology of slavery. The expansion of Europe into a new and unknown part of the globe allowed Europeans to meet peoples they had not known about, and in doing so, to expand ‘national’ and ‘imperial’ boundaries as well as those regarding religion and culture. Given the space I have, I will not discuss African slavery, except in passing: to say that the wound or trauma at Lagos in 1444 only got bigger and deeper with the vast Atlantic slave trade in the four or more centuries that followed. The dark side of empire and the transnational and transcultural is still with us; the ancients were used in the debate in modern slavery-holding societies, especially in the western hemisphere.

Jonathan L. Hart
Western University


  1. Pagden’s account (Pagden 2003) is brilliant and brief, and I am indebted to it above and below. He gives the outlines of European expansion and empire, and although I have written extensively on this topic, I find Pagden’s analysis to be exemplary in its clarity and definition.



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Azurara, Gomes Eannes de. The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, Vol. I. Trans. Charles Raymond Beazley and Edgar Prestage. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1896. Print.

Certeau, Michel de. L’Étranger (ou l’union dans la différence). Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1969. Print.

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Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980. Print.

Hanke, Lewis. Aristotle and the American Indians: A Study of Race Prejudice. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1959. Print.

—. All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation Between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974. Print.

Hart, Jonathan. Representing the New World. The English and French Uses of the Example of Spain. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

. Contesting Empires: Opposition, Promotion, Slavery. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

—. Empires and Colonies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008. Print.

—. The Poetics of Otherness: War, Trauma, and Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

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Montesinos, Antonio. “22:1. 1511. The Advent sermons of Fray Antonio Monesinos.” New Iberian World… Volume II The Caribbean. Ed. John H. Parry and Robert G. Keith. New York: Times Books and Hector & Rose, 1984. 308-12. Print.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Rise of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Print.

—. Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest. 2001. New York: The Modern Library, 2003. Print.

Pargas, Damian Alan. Slavery and Forced Migration in the Antebellum South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.

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