Anton Wilhelm Amo argues against the legality of slavery in Europe (1729)

Anton Wilhelm Amo was an African born in Axim (in today’s Ghana). He was raised in the household of the dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel and studied and taught philosophy at German universities, where he became embroiled in bitter philosophical debates that reached well beyond the ivory tower. Authorities and critics eventually made his position so uncomfortable that he returned to Axim around 1747. During his time in Germany, his African heritage seems to have remained important to him, and it was a factor in the opportunities and limits that shaped his career.

In 1729, at the University of Halle, he defended his Masters thesis, entitled “Inaugural dissertation on the Law of Moors in Europe.” While the dissertation regrettably has been lost, we know of its content from later summaries by  Johann Peter von Ludewig and Johann Heinrich Zedler. It seems that Amo argued that Africans who had been vassals of Rome had the same rights as Europeans not to be enslaved  The argument is noteworthy for being a scholastic argument against slavery, based not in sentimental appeals or Biblical references but rather attacks on the fundamental legality of the institution.

Jeff Bowersox


Johann Peter von Ludewig (1729):

In this very place a baptized Moor by the name of Mister Anton Wilhelm Amo, in the service of His Highness the Duke of Wolfenbüttel, spent some years for the purpose of studying. And after he had attained a proficiency in the Latin language, he showed such dedication and success in the lessons of private and public law that he became very well versed in this field. After this, with the consent of his most merciful Highness, who had supported him until know, he was permitted by the Chancellor von Ludwig to hold a public disputation under his [the Chancellor’s] presidence. So that the argument of the disputation should be appropriate to his situation, the topic De iure Maurorum in Europa, or the law of Moors, was chosen. Therein it was not only shown from books and from history, that the kings of the Moors were enfeoffed by the Roman Emperor, and that every one of them had to obtain a royal patent from him, which Justinian also issued, but it was also investigated how far the freedom or servitude of Moors bought by Christians in Europe extends, according to the usual laws.


Johann Heinrich Zedler (1739):

Amo (Anton Wilhelm), a baptized Moor, originally from Guinea in Africa. His Highness the Elector of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, at his own expense, sent Amo to study philosophy and law for some years at Halle. In the year 1729, in the month of November, he defended a dissertation in law, with the Chancellor von Ludwig presiding, entitled De jure Maurorum in Europa, or on the law of Moors. In this work he showed from laws and histories that the kings of the Moors were enfeoffed under the Roman Emperor, and that each of them had to obtain a royal patent, which Justinian also issued. After this, he investigates how far the freedom or servitude of baptized Moors in Europe extends according to the usual laws (see Ludwig’s Universal-Historie, Part 5, p. 251). From this he obtained the Master’s degree, and for some time gave private lessons in Halle (see Dreyhaupt’s Beschreibung des Saalkreises, Part II, p. 28). He must however have subsequently visited the University of Wittenberg, since we possess from him a Disputationem philosophicam, continentem ideam distinctam eorum, quae competunt vel menti vel corpori nostro vivo & organico, which he publicly defended aspraeses in Wittenberg on 29 May, 1734. In this dissertation he refers several times to another dissertation he defended, the Dissertatio de humana [sic] mentis apatheia.

Source: Johann Heinrich Zedler, “Amo (Anton Wilhelm),” in Großes Universallexicon aller Wissenschaften und Künste, translated by Justin E. H. Smith (Leipzig, 1739-1750), 1369-1370.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Justin E. H. Smith and The Amo Project for making these sources available.

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