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Lesson 4.9: Slavery in the Mediterranean


Lesson 4.9: Slavery in the Mediterranean


Topic 6: Slavery in Mediterranean Contexts


Topic Overview

When we think of slavery in the period from 1450-1800, the story of trans-Atlantic slavery—the enslavement and forced migration of 12-15 million African people to labor in the plantations and mines of North and South America and the Caribbean—is so overwhelming an event in human history that it can be difficult to focus on other forms of slavery in the world. Slavery, however, existed in a variety of forms for a variety of purposes in the Mediterranean region, just as it had in most human societies. Examining and comparing these different forms of slavery should not blind us to the fundamental and terrible reality that these systems deprived millions of people of their liberty, the fruits of their labor, and often their lives; however, understanding the different economic, social and ideological functions of slavery in different contexts is a critical historical task.

Lesson Overview

Students will examine a variety of primary and secondary sources related to several forms and instances of slavery in the Mediterranean. They will compare the social and economic functions of slavery in different contexts, as well as the impact upon enslaved individuals and their communities.


Barbara Petzen


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


Two 45-50 minute class periods, plus additional time for extension (may be assigned as homework)


• Students will be able to define and distinguish different kinds and contexts of slavery in world history.

• They will be able to analyze the economic, technological, social and ideological underpinnings of slavery in its Mediterranean contexts. • They will be able to analyze primary and secondary sources from a variety of media.

• They will be able to analyze primary source documents and identify the point of view, goals, main arguments, and evidence used of the writers.

• They will be able to compare the positions and goals of the authors of different primary source documents on a single issue.


• Student Handout 4.9.1: Slavery in Mediterranean Contexts

Lesson Plan Text

1. Introduce the topic of slavery by asking students about examples of slavery in history with which they are familiar. For most students, the image of Africans enslaved to work on plantations in North America is likely to predominate (although there were far more slaves in the Caribbean and South America); they may also come up with other examples from ancient Rome (Spartacus) or the Middle East (the Janissaries). Ask students to describe the experiences of slaves in the examples they bring up, to the best of their knowledge. Teachers might want to extend the discussion by showing a clip from the film “Prince among Slaves,” which described the experience of a prince from Futa Jallon in West Africa who is enslaved and brought to work on a plantation in Mississippi.

2. Explain that slavery has existed in most human societies until the modern period, and still exists today. In the early modern Mediterranean there existed a wide variety of conditions and contexts of slavery, which we can examine through primary and secondary sources. Distribute the packets of readings (either on paper or electronically). Have students read the primary and secondary documents in the handout, and attempt to answer the questions given with each document. Ask students to highlight the information they think is most significant in each text, and to write down further questions they have about the issues raised.

3. Either as students read the documents or afterward, have them mark the location(s) mentioned in each text on a paper or online map. If time permits, one effective way to do this is to create a large-scale map of the Mediterranean (or use one produced for an earlier lesson in this curriculum). Assign each student, or pairs of students, a reading from the packet, and have students in turn to place a map pin(s) or other marker on the map with very brief information from the text on the event or person in question.

4. Referring to the map and to the documents as needed, open a discussion of the texts and the light they shed on the contexts of Mediterranean slavery.

• What differences and similarities do you see among the different cases presented?

• What social, religious, economic, technological or other factors do you think account for the wide variety of conditions of enslavement in the early modern Mediterranean?

• What stories or texts interested you the most? What information was most surprising?

• How porous were the boundaries of religious identity in the early modern Mediterranean? Give examples of individuals who crossed those boundaries, and of those who insisted on maintaining them. What arguments did each make for their position?

5. As homework, give students a short writing assignment in which will write from the perspective of one of the enslaved people mentioned in the documents. To prepare, ask students to choose a person whose experience is related in the texts. Pair students up, and ask them to spend a few moments each introducing themselves in character as the person they have chosen. Have them describe how they were enslaved, and what their lives were like before and after. How have they reacted to their new life circumstances? Have students then discuss with one another what gaps in their knowledge made it difficult for them to step into the shoes of the person they chose, and what information they might want to find in order to fill in those gaps to make their story more complete or interesting. What other information would help them to make an informed guess as to what might have shaped their daily experiences?

6. Have students write a letter from the perspective of the enslaved person they have chosen to represent to their relatives back home or to a friend, explaining what has happened to them. They may ask to be ransomed, describe their living conditions, or talk about the prospects in their new life, depending on the person they choose and their own imagination. If students prefer, they may instead compose a poem, song or dramatic scene, or create a visual representation of a significant event in their life as a slave.

7. Adaptation: (optional) If time is limited or students have limited experience working with historical documents, teachers can choose a smaller number of documents, and work through them with students. Extension: (optional) Have students research and write a 3-5 page essay on the following topic: In what ways were the experiences of Africans enslaved in the New World different from and similar to the various kinds of slavery practiced in the Mediterranean?

8. Assessment: Have students complete a peer evaluation of the final product (letter, poem, song, dramatic scene, or artwork) of at least two of their peers by commenting in the following way:

  • I like…(favorite elements of the project)
  • I wonder….(questions or concerns)
  • What if…(further ideas for exploration)
You might also incorporate this as an intermediate stage in the writing process, so that students can incorporate peer comments in their final product.



Barbara Petzen, “Lesson 4.9: Slavery in the Mediterranean,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed October 27, 2020,

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