In addition to the spread of Christianity, western Europeans did not enslave other Europeans by the late fifteenth century because of a relatively equal and stable balance of power. Various nation states connected to the Atlantic Ocean, including England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain, rose to power within close geographic proximity of one another. The ongoing wars and competition between and within these nation states meant that no single government had enough central authority to control commercial expansion or enslave the population of another state or their own citizens.
The tenuous power balance that grew between nations made it possible for western Europeans to collectively prevent enslavement. In contrast to Africa and the Americas, this unique set of geographic, economic, and religious circumstances allowed western Europeans to maintain basic rights over their own labor and physical mobility, rather than having these rights determined by their national or ethnic status. Though Europeans still operated within rigid class, gender, and labor hierarchies, western European laborers developed and maintained the ability to not live as the property of another human being in the centuries before New World expansion.
This increased individual mobility for many Europeans marked an early beginning to modern understandings of freedom in the Atlantic World. Still, individual rights and free labor would not effectively emerge as influential political and social concepts in the Atlantic World until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Whether through individual choice or through migration forced by political and religious conflicts (such as the Protestant Reformation or Jewish persecution), western Europeans found that these historic circumstances allowed for greater mobility outside of the geographic or social boundaries of their nation or kinship group. While populations throughout the world demonstrated significant technology and skill in maritime navigation, western Europeans possessed the additional social and labor mobility to explore and establish long-term Atlantic trade on a large scale. They also had the motive. The constant warfare between and within nations in Western Europe proved costly, and European nations struggled with a chronic shortage of gold and silver. In addition, Western Europe experienced a shortage of labor due to the plague, or "Black Death" that killed over thirty percent of Europeans at its height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Individual traders and commercial entrepreneurs increasingly pursued additional sources of wealth and labor outside of their native countries through trade and expansion, often with the support of financially depleted monarchies.
As European explorers and entrepreneurs established profit-seeking settlements in the Americas, they needed labor to cultivate or mine their new properties. If they could not obtain this labor by employing European indentured servants (particularly when the labor was arduous or deadly), Europeans increasingly acquired enslaved laborers through military attacks or trade networks in Africa and the Americas.
Initially, the religions practiced by the indigenous populations in Africa and the Americas provided adequate European justification for their capture and enslavement, but what happened when Africans or American Indians converted to Christianity? To avoid religious exemption, European slaveholders in the New World justified the enslavement of non-Europeans by constructing the concept of a white European race as separate and superior to non-Europeans. European legal, military, and religious support for slavery based on racial heriarchies allowed for a long term coerced labor force in the Americas, and Europeans could use the myth of white superiority to avoid their own enslavement.