Atlantic Slave Trade
Atlantic Slave Trade, the forced transportation of at least 10 million enslaved Africans from their homelands in Africa to destinations in Europe and the Americas during the 15th through 19th centuries. European and North American slave traders transported most of these slaves to areas in tropical and subtropical America, where the vast majority worked as laborers on large agricultural plantations. See Slavery.
Between 1440 and 1880 Europeans and North Americans exchanged merchandise for slaves along 5600 km (3500 miles) of Africa’s western and west central Atlantic coasts. These slaves were then transported to other locations around the Atlantic Ocean. The vast majority went to Brazil, the Caribbean, and Spanish-speaking regions of South America and Central America. Smaller numbers were taken to Atlantic islands, continental Europe, and English-speaking areas of the North American mainland. Approximately 12 million slaves left Africa via the Atlantic trade, and more than 10 million arrived. The Atlantic slave trade involved the largest intercontinental migration of people in world history prior to the 20th century. This transfer of so many people, over such a long time, had enormous consequences for every continent bordering the Atlantic. It profoundly changed the racial, social, economic, and cultural makeup in many of the American nations that imported slaves. It also left a legacy of racism that many of those nations are still struggling to overcome.
II SLAVERY IN AFRICA BEFORE THE 1500S
Slavery was not unique to African societies. Various forms of human bondage existed from early times. Sumerians in Mesopotamia relied on slave labor before 3000 bc, as did the ancient Egyptians. China had slavery during the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220), and the societies of classical Greece and Rome made heavy use of slave labor from the 6th century bc through the 5th century ad.
Most societies in sub-Saharan Africa also used captives and dependents for labor. African slavery typically differed from others, however. Land in Africa tended to be plentiful, owned communally, and parceled out to families according to their needs based on the number of laborers they could marshal. To increase production, families had to invest in more workers. The quickest way was to buy slaves. Thus, in much of Africa, those interested in increasing their wealth through production purchased slaves. Usually, second- or third-generation slaves became recognized members of the household, no longer liable for sale. Slaves of royal families could even serve in offices of state. But no matter how integrated their situation or important their role, in the kinship-based societies of sub-Saharan Africa, slaves remained outsiders, or at least other than full-fledged kin.
As in most places where slavery existed, Africans obtained slaves by more or less violent means. Warfare was the most common method. Even in wars not fought to gain slaves, prisoners were usually enslaved and sold or put to work. People were also enslaved as punishment for crimes or religious offenses. As the slave trade grew, slavery probably became a more common punishment. And, finally, a few became slaves voluntarily because they could not feed or care for themselves or their families.
African societies that practiced slavery usually traded slaves. Export of slaves from black Africa had roots that preceded the Atlantic slave trade. Peoples in western Africa had been selling slaves across the Sahara to North Africa before ad 700, a trade that continued to the beginning of the 20th century. Between 8 and 10 million slaves crossed the desert in this trans-Saharan trade. Central Africans sold slaves eastward to the Indian Ocean for the same length of time.
When the Atlantic slave trade began, institutions already were in place to provide slaves in exchange for commodities. Only the European shippers and the American destination were different in the beginning. What proved novel about the Atlantic slave trade was its scale: No other exporting of slaves matched the massive, involuntary movement of people out of western and west central Africa between 1440 and 1880. Although the trans-Saharan trade transported nearly as many slaves, the Atlantic slave trade took place over a much shorter period and on average moved much larger numbers of slaves per year.
III ROOTS OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The Atlantic slave trade began because a great demand for labor developed on plantations spread about the Atlantic, especially in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere. Most of the plantations produced sugarcane for Europe, but planters eventually grew such other products as coffee, cocoa, rice, indigo, tobacco, and cotton. The Atlantic slave trade became an integral part of an international trading system.
A Spread of the Plantation System
Europeans craved cane sugar as soon as they encountered it in the 11th century during the early Crusades in the Middle East. Planting, harvesting, and processing sugar cane for export required a sizeable workforce. Because labor in the sugar fields was a strenuous and exhausting task, plantation owners used slave labor. Planters could work slaves in inhuman ways, dawn to dusk, to bring in the cane before it rotted in the fields. Planters could not make similar demands on typical workers of the time. Most of these workers were feudal serfs who were legally bound to work on the land owned by their landlords (see Serfdom). Sugar plantations and a related slave trade developed around the eastern Mediterranean in response to the growing demand for sugar. Among the earliest slaves on these plantations were Slavic peoples—the source of the words for slave in several European languages. As demand for sugar grew, the plantations spread westward, reaching Spain and Portugal by the 14th century.
Portuguese sailors who ventured into the Atlantic in the 15th century enabled plantation agriculture to spread to such tropical Atlantic islands as Madeira, the Canary Islands, and Sao Tome, all of which emerged as major sugar producers. The nearest labor force for these plantations was Africa’s western coast. Eventually plantation agriculture spread to the Americas: After 1550, northeast Brazil became the leading sugar-producing area, and after 1640 the leading position passed to the Caribbean. Eventually, the British colonies of mainland North America imported slaves to grow tobacco, rice, and indigo. Extensive cotton production based on slave labor did not begin in the southern United States until the beginning of the 19th century.
B Africans as the Labor Source
New World plantation owners sought labor that was abundant and inexpensive. Native Americans were the obvious choice, but they died rapidly from such diseases as smallpox, mumps, and measles, which the Europeans introduced into the region and to which the Native Americans lacked immunity. They also could run away with ease: Their homes were usually close by, they were familiar with the land, and they knew how to survive on indigenous plants and animals. European indentured servants—criminals sentenced to labor or men obligated to work for a set time in exchange for ocean passage—also fell victim to diseases, mostly tropical malaria and yellow fever. They could also escape and easily blend in as members of the colony’s white ruling class.
But Africans were different: They came from an environment where those who survived into adolescence acquired some immunity to such “Old World” diseases as smallpox, mumps, and measles, as well as to such tropical maladies as malaria and yellow fever. This meant they lived three to five times longer than white laborers under the difficult conditions on plantations, and longer still than Native Americans. Also, when Africans ran away they could neither go home nor be mistaken for members of the planters’ society. Through most of the years of the Atlantic trade, prices for Africans remained favorable in relation to the price of the crops they produced. They were, thus, the best economic solution for plantation owners seeking inexpensive labor.
The Atlantic slave trade began as a trickle in the 1440s and grew slowly through the 17th century. By 1700, 25,000 slaves, on average, were crossing the Atlantic every year. After 1700 the trade grew much more rapidly to a peak in the 1780s, when an average year saw 80,000 African slaves arrive on American shores. Then the trade fell off more slowly and after 1850 quickly declined.
Most of the slaves transported in the Atlantic slave trade were adult men. About twice as many African men as women crossed the Atlantic, and only one in ten slaves traded to a European was under age ten. Africans tended to retain women slaves, whom they valued as agricultural workers and bearers of offspring. Children were less economical to trade: They cost as much to enslave and transport, yet brought lower prices.
Nearly all persons transported across the Atlantic in the slave trade came from the coast and interior of west and west central Africa, between the Sénégal River in the north and southern Angola in the south. A smaller number came from the Mozambique coast or the island of Madagascar along the southeastern side of Africa. Some areas supplied especially large numbers: Perhaps one-third of all slaves came from 800 km (500 mi) on either side of the Congo River and another one-third from the area that today is Benin and Nigeria.
IV CONDUCT OF THE SLAVE TRADE
The first Europeans to sail down Africa’s west coast in the mid-15th century attempted to steal Africans from their homes. Several violent confrontations showed Africans’ strength, however, and African boycotts proved how dependent Europeans were for such necessities as food and water. It became evident that the only practical way to obtain slaves or other commodities was to bring items the residents wanted in exchange. Within a short time, Europeans and Africans established a systematic way of trading that changed little over several centuries.
A basic tenet of the slave trade was that Europeans were the shippers only. They were not welcome inland and were generally forbidden to become involved in African politics. Consequently Europeans established outposts on islands or coastal ports where they dealt with neighboring African merchants and rulers.
Inland, Africans developed various commercial networks for supplying slaves and moving them to the coast. Across the interior of West Africa, Muslim families organized slave caravans and moved them from the interior to the coast. Along the Gold and Slave coasts (an area now comprising the nations of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria) the rulers of large states such as Ashanti, Dahomey, and Oyo obtained slaves through tribute, which was provided by the rulers of less powerful states in exchange for protection or as a symbol of allegiance. East of the Niger Delta, African commercial associations (known as trading houses) controlled slave procurement and delivery. Along the Angolan coast, officials of the Portuguese crown first organized inland slaving, but by the 18th century private Portuguese, mulatto (individuals of mixed African and European descent), and African traders were taking trade goods to interior markets and returning with slaves.
At various points along the coast, buyers and sellers met and struck deals. Europeans examined slaves; Africans looked over merchandise; and then the parties haggled to set the values of each. The assortment of the Europeans’ trade goods was always an important factor. Any notion that Africans were duped into accepting trinkets of little value is incorrect. Most knew what they wanted and could hold out for good terms. Typical commodities exchanged for slaves included cloth, metals and metalware, firearms and gunpowder, spirits, cutlery, coins, decorative wear, horses, salt, cowrie shells, and paper. The prices Europeans paid for slaves rose steadily through the years. An English buyer could obtain a healthy slave for 5.5 pounds worth of commodities in 1690 and 14 pounds worth in 1760. The same slave sold in Virginia for 15 pounds in 1690 and 45 pounds in 1760.
Slaves were not distributed evenly around the Atlantic. Roughly 40 percent of the total went to the Caribbean islands; another 38 percent went to Brazil; and Spanish America accounted for 17 percent. Only about 6 percent entered what would become the United States. Mortality factors affected the various populations’ abilities to reproduce, however, so the geographical distribution of African slaves does not correspond to today’s population of African descent in the western hemisphere. Slaves working on Caribbean and South American sugar plantations faced higher mortality rates as a result of harsh labor conditions and exposure to tropical diseases. As a result, slave populations in many sugar-producing areas grew steadily only because planters imported a continuous supply of new slaves from Africa. Slaves in what were the British North American colonies tended to live longer, healthier lives due to less brutal working conditions and a climate less hospitable to tropical diseases. As a result, slave populations in those areas continued to grow even after Britain and the United States abolished the importation of slaves in the early 1800s.
The Portuguese transported the greatest number of slaves in the early years of the slave trade, exercising a near monopoly well into the 17th century. Portugal had several advantages because of its early expansion into Africa and the ease of transporting slaves over the relatively short distance from Africa to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. The annexation of Portugal by Spain, from 1580 to 1640, tightened the Portuguese hold over the slave trade. Phillip II of Spain granted Portuguese merchants a monopoly on the importation of slaves to Spain’s colonies in America.
Portuguese influence declined after it gained independence from Spain in 1640. This coincided with the establishment of sugar plantations in the West Indies by the British, French, and Dutch. These nations began to claim larger parts of the slave trade during the 1640s, and by the 18th century the British were the dominant slave traders.
The Atlantic slave trade became part of a prosperous trading cycle known as the triangular trade. In the first leg of the triangle, European merchants purchased African slaves with commodities manufactured in Europe or imported from European colonies in Asia. They then sold the slaves in the Caribbean and purchased such easily transportable commodities as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Finally the merchants would sell these goods in Europe and North America. They would use the profits from these sales to purchase more goods to trade in Africa, continuing the trading cycle.
V MIDDLE PASSAGE
The voyage from the African coast to the Americas was called the Middle Passage. For the human cargo of slaves, it was among the most difficult sea passages ever undertaken. On average, 16 percent of the men, women, and children involved perished in transit.
The typical ocean crossing might last from 25 to 60 days, depending on origin, destination, and winds. Slaves were kept below at night on decks four or five feet high. They had less than half the space allotted convicts or soldiers transported by ship at the same time. Captains kept slaves above deck through as much of the day as weather permitted. Men remained shackled; women and children were freer; crews encouraged movement and activity. Two meals per day were the norm. The food varied according to purchases at departure: corn and rice from the less-forested regions on the northern and southern extremes; yams from the Niger delta to the Zaire River. Sometimes dried beans from Europe were standard fare. Each person received about a pint of water with a meal.
Shipboard hygiene was primitive. Captains made reasonable efforts to guard food and water from contamination and to isolate the sickest slaves, but sanitary facilities were inadequate and slave ships harbored a wealth of diseases. Dysentery was the biggest killer. Mortality rates declined after the mid-18th century. By that time ships had become faster (meaning less time for contamination of food and water and spreading of diseases), and captains had learned how to prevent scurvy with citrus fruits and how to produce fresh water by boiling and evaporating salt water.
VI FINAL DESTINATION
Dangers were not over with landfall in the Americas. Africans were entering new disease environments, eating new foods, drinking different water. Mortality rates through an assimilation period were high—10 percent on British islands in the Caribbean, for instance.
Slaves faced a variety of experiences in the Americas, but nearly all involved heavy physical labor, poor housing, and insufficient medical care. Sugar plantations were the norm from northeastern Brazil through the Caribbean islands and plantation conditions brought the highest mortality rates. For example, British planters imported about 264,000 slaves into the Caribbean between 1640 and 1700, but high mortality rates reduced the number of slaves on the islands to about 100,000 by the time of the 1700 census. In the French colony of Saint Domingue, about 860,000 slaves arrived between 1680 and 1791, but the black population was only 480,000 in 1791. Slaves also worked mines in Peru or Mexico and labored to produce tobacco, indigo, rice, or cotton on the British North American mainland. In the few places where plantation agriculture was not profitable, they did a variety of tasks for their masters, from working as house servants to practicing a trade.
VII ABOLITION OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
Ending the Atlantic slave trade was a long process that involved changing economic circumstances and rising humanitarian concerns. In the late 18th century, European economies began to shift from agriculture to industry. Plantations remained profitable, but Europeans had promising new areas for investment. The slave-operated American plantations had to compete for capital and preferential laws with textile mills and other industries that hired free laborers. Also, the need for the slave trade lessened as American slave societies approached the point where they could reproduce enough offspring to meet labor needs.
But the humanitarian motive was strong, too. Antislavery sentiments began to appear in Europe in the 18th century with roots in Christian religious principles and in the egalitarian philosophy that emerged during the Age of Enlightenment. By 1750 abolitionists were devoting money and time toward ending the slave trade and slavery itself. Their efforts were aided by the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) and by such bloody slave rebellions as the Haitian Slave Revolt on the French island of St. Domingue in 1791.
Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, as did the United States in 1808. The Netherlands followed in 1814, France in 1815, Spain in 1820. It remained for the British, who controlled the world’s most powerful fleet, to enforce antislave trade laws, and that was difficult. The Atlantic slave trade continued, with declining numbers, through most of the 19th century. The movement of African slaves across the Atlantic did not end until slavery was outlawed everywhere in the Americas. Cuba was the last to outlaw slavery, in 1888.
VIII EFFECTS OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE ON AFRICA
The consequences of the slave trade for African societies are being debated. The slave trade’s harshest critics point out that removal of millions of young men and women led to depopulation that stifled African creativity and production. They argue, too, that slaving and slave trading stimulated warfare, corrupted laws (making more crimes punishable by enslavement), stifled technological advancement, and created a class of elite rulers and traders. Some argue that the slave trade was the beginning of a dependency relationship with Europe. This relationship was based on the exchange of Africa’s valuable primary products for European manufactured goods, which continued after the slave trade ended, through a colonial period and beyond. In this sense, the slave trade was the first step toward modern Africa’s current status as a region where technological development has yet to match that of more industrialized nations.
Those who argue that the effects were less dramatic believe that serious depopulation occurred only in specific locations and only in the 18th century, when the trade was at its height. Some suggest that warfare caused slave trading rather than vice versa or that African production of such items as cloth and metals grew rather than declined through the slave-trade years. Some argue that African societies were likely to become dependent on Europe’s industrial economy, as others did in the 19th and 20th centuries, without regard to its history of slave trading.
One might think that ending the slave trade would be beneficial for all Africans, but such was not the case. Many coastal groups had been exchanging humans for merchandise for centuries. Their economies were geared to slave exporting, and they were dependent on the commodities they obtained for slaves. Stopping the slave trade caused economic hardship, especially for groups who had no products to substitute for slave exports. Some nearer the Sahara or Africa’s eastern coast continued the trade in a different direction; others were able to make the transition to legitimate commerce, such as growing peanuts or extracting palm oil. Still others found additional uses for slaves in their own societies. But many had little economic alternative to the slave trade, and for them the 19th century brought hard economic times.
IX LEGACY OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE FOR WORLD HISTORY
Although the Atlantic slave trade was an economic phenomenon, the millions of Africans who crossed the Atlantic had enormous demographic, social, cultural, and intellectual effects on the Americas. For over three and one-half centuries more Africans crossed the Atlantic than Europeans. Today, people of African descent are the dominant elements of populations throughout the Caribbean and are significant parts of the population in North and South America. African culture mixed with European and Native American ways to define life in the multicultural American setting. African elements are identifiable today in American religions. The Vodun religion of Haiti and the Candomblé religion of Brazil are two examples. More subtle elements, such as call-and-response singing, appear in churches in North America. African influence is also apparent in music (the African roots of blues and jazz are well documented), dance, language (the Gullah dialect of coastal South Carolina retains much African vocabulary), family practices, architecture, foods, dress, and more.
The fact that nearly all people of African descent in the Americas were slaves has been an important factor in the growth and persistence of racism in the Western world. Europeans based judgments of people on physical appearance before the Atlantic slave trade, but once dark skin alone became associated with slave status, racism leapt forward. Moreover, forcing slaves to work inhumanly hard and behave in prescribed ways required punishing them beyond civilized norms and the limits of the law. To justify such punishment, people classified slaves as different, even subhuman. Race became the obvious marker of such differences. The resulting negative perceptions of persons of African descent have been difficult to eradicate over the years since the Atlantic trade, and New World slavery, have ended.
Donald R. Wright
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.