Atlantic Slave Trade and the United States
The Transatlantic Slave Trade History
Atlantic Slave Trade in America
A History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
|Atlantic slave trade routes to the US
|Map of major Transatlantic Slave Trade routes
The Atlantic Slave Trade, commonly known as the Transatlantic
Slave Trade, refers to the shipment of slaves from Africa to the Americas from
the 16th to 19th centuries. Brazil, the last nation to embrace the institution of slavery in the Western Hemisphere,
permitted the importation of slaves from Africa until 1850 and the nation abolished slavery on May 13, 1888, with
Lei Áurea (Golden Law) and 23 years after the 13th Amendment went into effect.
With more than 35,000 slave
voyages, human cargo, as they were oft times referred, were imported into the Western Hemisphere during the Atlantic
slave trade. A total of approximately 600,000 slaves were imported into the Thirteen Colonies and the U.S, constituting 5%
of the estimated eleven million slaves* brought from Africa to the Americas. The majority of African slaves were transported
to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil. As life expectancy was short, their numbers had to be continually replenished.
Because life expectancy was much higher in the U.S. and the slave population began to reproduce, the enslaved population
grew rapidly, reaching 4 million by the 1860 U.S. Census. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of
natural growth of North American enslaved people was much greater
than the growth of the population of any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice
as rapid as that of England.
*Because of poor, inadequate and even destroyed records only best estimates
are available for the total slaves transported during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Estimates vary widely and are between
9 and 13 million, but approximately 1.2 – 2.4 million Africans also died during their transport to the New World, while
an unknown total died soon upon their arrival. The Atlantic slave trade was also defined by shipment from Africa to North
and Latin America as well as the Caribbean, thus making it impossible to extrapolate an accurate total. The number of
lives lost in the procurement of slaves remains a mystery but may equal or exceed the number who survived to be enslaved.
Slavery has long existed in human societies, but the Transatlantic Slave
Trade is unique in terms of the destructive impact it had on Africa.
From the middle of the 15th century, Africa entered into a unique relationship
with Europe that led to the devastation and depopulation of Africa, but contributed to the wealth and development of Europe.
From then until the end of the 19th century, Europeans began to establish a trade for African captives. Initially, this trafficking only supplemented a trade in humans that already existed within Europe,
in which Europeans had enslaved each other. Some enslaved Africans had also reached Europe, the Middle East and other parts
of the world before the mid-15th century, as a result of a trade in human beings that had also long existed in Africa. Many of these African captives crossed the Sahara and reached Europe and other destinations
from North Africa, or were transported across the Indian Ocean.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade began during the 15th century when Portugal,
and subsequently other European kingdoms, were finally able to expand overseas and reach Africa. The Portuguese first began
to kidnap people from the west coast of Africa and to take those they enslaved back to Europe. It
is estimated that by the early 16th century as much as 10% of Lisbon's population was of African descent. After the European
discovery of the American continent, the demand for African labor gradually grew, as other sources of labor - both European
and American - were found to be insufficient. The Spanish brought the
first African captives to the Americas from Europe as early as 1503, and by 1518 the first captives were shipped directly
from Africa to America. The majority of African captives were exported from the coast of West Africa, some 3,000 miles between
what is now Senegal and Angola, and mostly from the modern Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Chattel slavery, also known as traditional slavery, is a system under
which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. The slaves transported from Africa to
the Western Hemisphere were considered Chattel slaves. Because they were personal property and could be traded as commodities,
slaves had no rights and were expected to perform from hard labor to sexual favors at the command of a slave master.
|Slave population by locations and percentages
|World slave population by destinations and percentages
|Atlantic Slave Trade Map
|Principal Atlantic Slave Trade Routes to the 13 Colonies and later the United States
The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the largest long-distance forced movement
of people in history. From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, over twelve million (some estimates run as high
as fifteen million) African men, women, and children were enslaved, transported to the Americas, and bought and sold by European
slaveholders as chattel property to be used for their labor and skills. The
Transatlantic Slave Trade occurred within a broader system of trade between West and Central Africa, Western Europe, the Caribbean,
and North and South America. At African ports, European traders exchanged
metals, cloth, beads, guns, and ammunition for captive Africans brought to the coast from the African interior. Many captives
died just during the long overland journeys (the slave coffle) from the interior to the coast. European traders then held
these enslaved Africans in fortified slave castles such as Elmina in the central region (now Ghana), Goree Island (now in
present day Senegal), and Bunce Island (now in present day Sierra Leone), before forcing them into ships for the Middle Passage
across the Atlantic Ocean. Scholars estimate that from ten to nineteen
percent of the millions of Africans forced into the Middle Passage across the Atlantic died due to rough conditions on slave
Those who arrived at
various ports in the Americas were then sold in public auctions or smaller trading venues to plantation owners, merchants,
small farmers, prosperous tradesmen, and other slave traders. These traders could then transport slaves many miles further
to sell on other Caribbean islands or into the North or South American interior. Predominantly European slaveholders purchased
enslaved Africans to provide labor that included domestic service and artisanal trades. The majority, however, provided agricultural
labor and skills to produce plantation cash crops for national and international markets. Slaveholders used profits
from these exports to expand their landholdings and purchase more enslaved Africans, perpetuating the Transatlantic Slave
Trade cycle for centuries, until various European countries and new American nations officially ceased their participation
in the trade in the nineteenth century (though illegal Transatlantic slave trading continued even after national and colonial
governments issued legal bans).
|US and Transatlantic Slave Trade History
|Transatlantic Slave Trade History
In the fifteenth century, Portugal became the first European nation to take
significant part in African slave trading. The Portuguese primarily acquired slaves for labor on Atlantic African island plantations,
and later for plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean, though they also sent a small number to Europe. Initially, Portuguese
explorers attempted to acquire African labor through direct raids along the coast, but they found that these attacks were
costly and often ineffective against West and Central African military strategies. For
example, in 1444, Portuguese marauders arrived in Senegal ready to assault and capture Africans using armor, swords, and deep-sea
vessels. But the Portuguese discovered that the Senegalese out-maneuvered their ships using light, shallow water vessels better
suited to the estuaries of the Senegalese coast. In addition, the Senegalese fought with poison arrows that slipped through
their armor and decimated the Portuguese soldiers. Subsequently, Portuguese traders generally abandoned direct combat and
established commercial relations with West and Central African leaders, who agreed to sell slaves taken from various African
wars or domestic trading, as well as gold and other commodities, in exchange for European and North African goods.
Over time, the Portuguese developed additional slave trade partnerships
with African leaders along the West and Central African coast and claimed a monopoly over these relationships, which initially
limited access to the trade for other western European competitors. Despite Portuguese claims, African leaders enforced their
own local laws and customs in negotiating trade relations. Many welcomed additional trade with Europeans from other nations.
When Portuguese, and later their European competitors, found that peaceful
commercial relations alone did not generate enough African slaves to fill
the growing demands of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, they formed military alliances with certain African groups against their
enemies. This encouraged more extensive warfare to produce captives for trading. While European-backed Africans had their
own political or economic reasons for fighting with other African enemies, the end result for Europeans traders in these military
alliances was greater access to enslaved war captives. To a lesser extent, Europeans also pursued African colonization to
secure access to slaves and other goods. For example, the Portuguese colonized portions of Angola
in 1571 with the help of military alliances from Kongo, but were pushed out in 1591 by their former allies. Throughout this
early period, African leaders and European competitors ultimately prevented these attempts at African colonization from becoming
as extensive as in the Americas.
The Portuguese dominated the early Transatlantic Slave Trade on the African
coast in the sixteenth century. As a result, other European nations first gained access to enslaved Africans through privateering
during wars with the Portuguese,rather than through direct trade. When English, Dutch, or
French privateers captured Portuguese ships during Atlantic maritime conflicts, they often found enslaved Africans on these
ships, as well as Atlantic trade goods, and they sent these captives to labor in their own colonies. As
a result, privateering generated a market interest in the Transatlantic Slave Trade across European colonies in the Americas.
After Portugal temporarily united with Spain in 1580, the Spanish broke
up the Portuguese slave trade monopoly by offering direct slave trading contracts to other European merchants. Known as the
asiento system, the Dutch took advantage of these contracts to compete with the Portuguese and Spanish for direct access to
African slave trading, and the British and French eventually followed. By the eighteenth century, when the Transatlantic Slave
Trade reached its trafficking peak, the British (followed by the French and Portuguese) had become the largest carriers of
enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. The overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans went to plantations in Brazil and the
Caribbean, and a smaller percentage went to North America and other parts of South and Central America.
|Atlantic slave trade departure areas
|African embarkation areas from 1519 to 1700
(Left) Map of slave market regions and participation
There were eight principal areas or regions used by Europeans to buy
and ship slaves to the Western Hemisphere. The number of enslaved people sold to the New World varied throughout the slave
trade. As for the distribution of slaves from regions of activity, certain areas produced far more enslaved people than others.
Between 1650 and 1888, at least 11 million enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas from the following regions in the following
Senegambia (Senegal and the Gambia): 4.8%
Upper Guinea (Guinea-Bissau,
Guinea and Sierra Leone): 4.1%
Windward Coast (Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire): 1.8%
Gold Coast (Ghana and east of Côte d'Ivoire):
Bight of Benin (Togo, Benin and Nigeria west of the Niger Delta): 20.2%
Bight of Biafra (Nigeria east of the Niger
Delta, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon): 14.6%
West Central Africa (Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo
and Angola): 39.4%
Southeastern Africa (Mozambique and Madagascar): 4.7%
(Right) Pie chart indicating the volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade embarkations by region, West
and West Central Africa, from 1519 to 1700.
Economy and Religion
As the 15th century came to a close, Europeans embarked upon exploration
of the New World and Africa in search of expanded territory, new goods, precious metals, and new markets. All of these enterprises
required manpower to explore, clear land, build colonies, mine precious metals, and provide the settlers with subsistence.
In the New World, Europeans first tried to meet these needs by enslaving American Indians and relying on European indentured
laborers. When both of these sources proved inadequate to meet the needs for labor, Europe turned to Africa.
The Protestant Reformation and the Inquisition both indirectly influenced
the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. At different times and in different nations, religious persecution by Catholics
of Protestant sects, Protestant persecution of Catholics, and the Spanish Inquisition of Jews and other non-Christians led
people to migrate to the New World to escape religious persecution. Many Christians believed that the conversion of the indigenous
population to Christianity was imperative. Furthermore, by the early 16th century the Portuguese introduced Christianity to
many West Central African peoples. Some of these people and their descendants enslaved and free lived on the Iberian Peninsula.
For Europeans concerned with spreading Christianity, converted Africans were a more acceptable alternative labor supply than
In the New World, war, disease and famine among American Indians and the
European settlers further depleted the colonies short labor supply. The development of economies based on production of sugar,
tobacco and eventually rice were contingent upon workers with particular attributes of material cultural knowledge, agricultural
skills and the physical capability to acclimate to the New World environment. Africans first enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese
demonstrated that they were people who fulfilled these requirements.
|Transatlantic Slave Trade History
|Transatlantic Slave Trade History
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores sailed to the Americas lured
by the prospects of finding gold. They brought a few Africans as slaves with them. Early Spanish settlers soon were reporting
that in mining operations the work of one African was equal to that of four to eight Indians. They promoted the idea that
Africans as slaves would be essential to production of goods needed for European colonization.
Several factors combined to give impetus to the Spanish demand for an African
work force. Amerindians died in large numbers from European diseases for which they had no immunity. At the same time, the
Spanish clergy interceded to the Spanish Crown to protect exploitation of Indians in mining operations. The introduction of
sugarcane as a cash crop was another factor motivating the Spanish to enslave Africans. In order to turn a profit Spanish
planters needed a large, controllable work force, they turned to Africa for laborers.
Once Portugal and Spain established the profitability of the African slave
trade, other European nations entered the field. The English made an initial foray into the African slave trade in 1530 when
William Hawkins, a merchant of Plymouth, visited the Guinea Coast and left with a few slaves. Three decades later Hawkins’
son, John, set sail in 1564 for the Guinea Coast. Supported by Queen Elizabeth I, he commanded four armed ships and a force
of one hundred and seventy men. Hawkins lost many of these men in fights with “Negroes” on the Guinea coast in
his attempts to secure Africans to enslave. Later through piracy he took 300 Africans from a Spanish vessel, making it profitable
for him to head for the West Indies where he could sell them for money and trade them for provisions. Queen Elizabeth I rewarded
him for opening the slave trade for the English by knighting him and giving him a crest that showed a Negro’s head and
bust with arms bound secure.
For more than a century after Columbus’s voyages, only Spain and Portugal
established New World settlements. England did not establish its first enduring settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, until 1607.
France founded a settlement in Quebec in 1608. Henry Hudson brought Africans with him in his Dutch sponsored exploration of
the river that came to bear his name. Africans also accompanied the Dutch in 1621 when they established a trading post in
the area of present day Albany.
Altogether, about 400,000 people migrated from England to the New World
in the 16th and 18th centuries, including many farmers, small merchants, and artisans. Outside of New England, most European
immigrants came to the colonies as indentured servants who agreed to serve a term of service in exchange for transportation
across the Atlantic. English settlement itself took a variety of forms. In the Chesapeake region, the economy was structured
around larger farms and plantations, relying on indentured servants, and later slave labor, to raise tobacco. The Low Country
region, also structured around large plantations, relied upon slave labor from its inception. After experimenting with livestock
production and naval stores, planters in coastal South Carolina and later Georgia, developed an economy based on rice production.
With the introduction of rice as a staple crop, South Carolina and Georgia colonists became even more reliant upon slave labor.
Northern colonies developed more diversified economies. The Dutch first
traded in furs then later developed new economic activity in the production of food, timber, tobacco, and eventually, trade
in people—slaves. Mid-Atlantic colonies developed grain commodities-based economies with centers in Philadelphia and
New York that traded with other mainland and Caribbean colonies as well as England. Wealthy people in these colonies owned
slaves and indentured servants, sometimes in considerable numbers. In New England the economy was based on fishing, small
manufacturing, shipbuilding, rum distilleries and intra-coastal Caribbean and transatlantic commercial trade, not the least
of which was transatlantic slave trade. New Englanders enslaved a few however their economic growth was heavily dependent
upon the transatlantic slave trade.
Race as a Factor
European participation in African enslavement can only be partially explained
by the needs for labor, profit, and religious motives. At the end of the medieval period, slavery was not widespread in Europe.
It was mostly isolated in the southern fringes of the Mediterranean. Iberian Christians mostly enslaved Muslims, Jews, Gypsies,
and Slavs. When the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Africans began in 1441, most Africans were placed in a new and different
category of enslaveable peoples in terms that flowed from an understanding in the European world view of Africans as inferior
human beings. The policies and ideas that flowed from understandings of the African as inferior served to crystallize racial
hierarchies across Europe. The first transnational, institutional endorsement of African slavery occurred in 1452 when the
Pope granted King Alphonso V of Portugal the right to reduce all the non-Christians in West Africa to perpetual slavery. According
to Sweet, by the second half of the 15th century, the term “Negro” had become essentially synonymous with “slave”
across the Iberian Peninsula and had literally come to represent a race of people, most often associated with black Africans
and considered to be inferior. Race-based ideas of European superiority and religious beliefs in the need to Christianize
“heathen” peoples contributed to a culture in which enslavement of Africans could be rationalized and justified.
However, these explanations do not answer the question of why some Africans were complicity in the enslavement of other Africans
in the transatlantic slave trade?
Internal African Conflicts and Complexities
Western and African historians agree that war captives, condemned criminals,
debtors, aliens, famine victims, and political dissidents were subject to enslavement within West African societies. They
also agree that during the period of the transatlantic slave trade, internal wars, crop failure, drought, famine, political
instability, small-scale raiding, taxation, and judicial or religious punishment produced a large number of enslaved people
within African states, nations and principalities. There is general agreement among scholars that the capture and sale of
Africans for enslavement was primarily carried out by the Africans themselves, especially the coastal kings and the elders,
and that few Europeans ever actually marched inland and captured slaves themselves. In spite of this agreement, contemporary
historiography of the transatlantic slave trade attribute greater complicity of Africans than did earlier histories and primary
source documents such as the ship log of Sir John Hawkins. Although the historical complexities that contributed to African
participation in the transatlantic slave trade can hardly be teased apart 400 years later, it is fair to say that internal
African wars were the most important source of enslavement. It is also fair to say that had there been no European demand
for African slave labor in the New World, there would not have been any market for an African labor supply.
Slave trade within Africa predated European contact. In the mid-1400s, the
Portuguese learned how to navigate the Atlantic and worked their way down the West Coast of Africa buying people for enslavement
in Europe. The slave trade to Europe began to decrease in the late 1400s with the Portuguese development of sugar plantations
in the Atlantic islands of Madeira and São Tome, two islands, located off the West African coast. Much of the earliest European
trade with West Africa was in gold, not people and took place in trading forts called castles located along the West African
coast of present day Ghana. Later the trade in the forts shifted from gold to people.
As the New World demand for labor increased over the 17th century, the value
of European goods traded for African people surpassed the value of goods exchanged for gold. The transatlantic slave trade
was in full swing.
|Atlantic Slave Trade
|America and the Slave Trade
Who were Enslaved and Why?
As a concomitant of the rise and fall of various African rulers and ruling
parties, their political opponents, people of high social status, and their families were sold to promote internal political
stability. Poor people were sold to reconcile debts owed by themselves or their families. Chiefs sold people as punishment
for crimes. Gangs of Africans and a few marauding Europeans captured free Africans who were also sold into slavery. Domestic
slaves were resold and prisoners of war were sold. However, Boahen, an African scholar, asserts, “The greatest sources
to supply slaves were raids conducted for the sole purpose of catching men for sale and above all, inter-tribal and inter-state
wars which produced thousands of war captives, most of whom found their way to the New World.”
All of these African people were bartered for European trade goods. A slave
purchased for 100 gallons of rum worth only £10 could be sold for £20 to £50 in 17th century America. England regarded the
slave trade with such importance that as part of the 1713 peace of Utrecht, England insisted she be awarded thirty years exclusive
rights to transport Africans to Spanish colonies in America. This was before the slave trade was fully developed in the 18th
The slave trade was greatly encouraged by the low cost of slaves. Even though
the price of slaves rose three- or four-fold during the 18th century, many Europeans were convinced that it was “cheaper
to buy than to breed.” Between the 16th and mid-18th centuries, it was cheaper to import a slave from Africa than to
raise a child to the age of 14. During the late 17th century, merchants in the Senegambia region of West Africa paid as little
as one pound sterling for young males, which they sold to European traders for the equivalent of three-and-a-half pounds sterling,
or 11 muskets, 31 gallons of brandy, or 93 pounds of wrought iron. Initially, many slaves were acquired from regions within
fifty or a hundred miles of the West African coast. During the 18th century, however, rising prices led slavers to search
for captives in interior regions, 500 to 1,000 miles inland.
Just as there were wars between Europeans over the right to slave catchment
areas and points of disembarkation, there were increasing numbers of wars between African principalities as the slave trade
progressed. Whatever the ostensible causes for these wars, they resulted in prisoners of war that supplied slave factories
at Goree and Bance Islands, Elmina, Cape Coast Castle, and James Forts and at Fernando Po along the West and West Central
The fighting between African societies followed a pattern. Wars weakened
the centralized African governments and undermined the authority of associations, societies, and the elders who exercised
social control in societies with decentralized political forms. The winners and losers in wars both experienced the loss of
people from niches in lineages, secret societies, associations, guilds and other networks that maintained social order. Conflict
brought about loss of population and seriously compromised indigenous production of material goods, cash crops and subsistence
crops. Seventeenth century Capuchin monks reported that the Angolan Ndongo slave catchment area was rapidly becoming a wasteland
as a result of slave trading induced wars and raids that decimated the population. According to them, by the end of the 17th
century the area was a wasteland depopulated by slave exports, deaths during wars or slave transit to slaving depots, and
as a result of mass out migrations of people fleeing in advance of the slave catching warriors.
Winners and losers in the African wars came to rely upon European trade
goods more and more. Eventually the European monetized system replaced cowrie shells as a medium of exchange. European trade
goods supplanted former African reliance on indigenous material goods, natural resources and products as the economic basis
of their society. At the same time Europeans increasingly required people in exchange for trade goods. Once this stage was
reached an African society had little choice but to trade human lives for European goods and guns; guns that had become necessary
to wage wars for further captives in order to trade for goods upon which an African society was now dependent.
While munitions contributed to the military prowess required by an African
state to control the slave trade, the effects of the trade on the other aspects of African civilization and culture were far
more devastating. African societies lost kinship networks, agricultural laborers and production. The loss of people meant
the loss of indigenous artisans and craftsmen, along with the knowledge of textile production, weaving and dying, metallurgy
and metalwork, carving, basket making, potting skills, architectural, and agricultural techniques upon which their societies
depended. Africa’s loss was the New World’s gain. These were the same material cultural expertise and skills that
Africans brought to the New World along with their physical labor and ability to acclimate to environmental conditions that
made them indispensable in the development of the Western Hemisphere.
Cease and Desist
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, delegates fiercely debated the
issue of slavery, but ultimately agreed that the United States would cease its engagement in the transatlantic slave trade
in 1808. Known as the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807, the U.S. law was enacted on March 2, 1807, but went
into effect on January 1, 1808. While American vessels, as of this date,
no longer traveled to Africa in search of human merchandise, a domestic or "coastwise" trade in slaves persisted between ports
within the United States, as demonstrated by Slave Manifests and court records. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation
Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which granted the freedom of slaves in the ten Southern states that were still in rebellion,
thus applying to 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the U.S. at the time. The 900,000 that remained in the bonds of slavery
were located in the Border States, which had been under Union control since the Civil War broke out. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery on
December 13, 1865, with the following text:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof
the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Brazil, a colony of Portugal, was responsible for 40% of the total transatlantic
slave trade, accounting for a slave population of 4,000,000. Driving Brazil's demand for involuntary servitude was its
production of sugar and its mining of gold and diamonds. After its independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil, which was named
after the brazilwood, a tree that once flourished along its coast, continued to import slaves until 1850. Brazil
had previously adopted the Law of November 7, 1831, declaring its maritime slave trade abolished, prohibiting any form
of importation of slaves, and granting freedom to slaves should they be illegally imported into Brazil. Nevertheless, in spite
of its adoption, the law was seldom enforced prior to 1850, when Brazil adopted additional legislation to criminalize the
importation of slaves. Halting the nation's practice was the Eusébio de Queiróz Act (Law 581 of September 4, 1850),
criminalizing the maritime slave trade as piracy, and imposing other criminal sanctions
on the importation of slaves. Without rebellion or Civil War, Brazil enacted Lei Áurea, the Golden Law, on May 13, 1888, decreeing
the total abolition of slavery with immediate effect, without indemnities to slaveowners, but also without providing for any
aid to newly freed former slaves. The Lei Áurea consisted of only two articles:
Article 1. From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil.
Article 2. All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.
|U.S. Slave states
|U.S. Slave and Free states from 1789 to 1861
The 9th through the 15th centuries were times of great struggle in Europe.
The European powers struggled with one another for territorial and commercial dominance. Western and Eastern Christendom struggled
with one another and with Islam for religious and cultural dominance. The struggle for religious dominance resulted in North
African Berbers, Mid-Eastern Arabs and other Muslim peoples from Morocco occupying the Iberian Peninsula for 700 years from
712 A.D. to 1492 A.D. During this time, while the Iberian powers sought to free themselves of Moorish occupation, England
and France embarked on the Crusades to retake the Holy Land from Muslims, whom Christians called the “infidels.”
The periods of the 9th to 15th centuries were also times of external warfare among European powers over trade, the decline
of chiefdoms, and of internal consolidation, all leading to the emergence of new European states. This era, which anthropologist
Eric Wolf describes as the “crisis of feudalism,” was marked by the loss of agricultural productivity, famine,
disease, and epidemics. Peasants rebelled against increased demands by nobility for tribute to pay for the wars. To resolve
the emerging crisis, European nations increased the scale and intensity of Old World wars for commercial dominance. These
circumstances combined to deplete the wealth of European nobility and the Church.
Britain and Portugal dominated the slave trade. Before 1650, the Portuguese
transported more than 95 percent of what appear by later standards to be a small flow of people. Between 1660 and 1807, when
the slave trade was at its height, the British and their dependencies carried every second slave that arrived in the Americas,
a dominance that would no doubt have continued but for the politically inspired decision to abolish the trade.
The best estimates suggest that between 1451 and 1870 when the transatlantic
slave trade ended, over 9 million people were transported from Africa to be enslaved in the New World. On the African coast, West Central Africa was an even more important source of people for
the New World slave markets than recent literature credits. For every region outside Angola there was a pattern of a marked
rise in slave departures that occurred in sequence, followed by a plateau of departures that continued until a rather sudden
end to the traffic. However for Angola, the pattern was different. After the swing away from export of Africans from Angola,
a return to exporting people from Angola occurred.
In the Americas, sugar was the driving force in the slave trade, though
gold and silver were important in the earliest phase of the traffic. Coffee would later assumed the role of sugar in the final
phase. American cotton would not develop as an export until after the United States abolished slave trade. Perhaps the most important conclusion of recent history on the subject of transatlantic links
is that “the picture of African coerced migrants arriving mainly in a mix of peoples—often on the same vessel—needs
revising.” Like the free migrant and indentured servant trades, systematic geographic patterns existed. Presently, scholars
should now turn to exploring what these mean both for Africa and for African influences in the shaping of the New World.
Sources: National Park Service; Library of Congress; African History: a
Very Short Introduction by John Parker and Richard Rathbone (Oxford, 2007); The African Slave Trade from 15th to the 19th
Centuries (UNESCO Reports and Papers (2), 1999); How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney (Bogle l'Ouverture, 1983);
General History of Africa [vols. 1-8] by UNESCO; Encyclopedia of African
History, [vols 1-3] by K. Shillington (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005); Africa
in History by B. Davidson (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001).
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