The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the transatlantic slave trade, was the trade of African people supplied to the colonies of the New World that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century. Most slaves were shipped from West Africa and Central Africa and taken to the New World (primarily Brazil). Generally slaves were obtained through coastal trading with Africans, though some were captured by European slave traders through raids and kidnapping. Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World, although the number of people taken from their homestead is considerably higher.
The slave-trade is sometimes called the Maafa by African and African-American scholars, meaning "holocaust" or "great disaster" in Swahili. The slaves were one element of a three-part economic cycle—the Triangular Trade and its Middle Passage—which ultimately involved four continents, four centuries and millions of people.
The Atlantic slave trade is customarily divided into two eras, known as the First and Second Atlantic Systems.
The First Atlantic system was the trade of African slaves to, primarily, South American colonies of the Portuguese and Spanish empires; it accounted for only slightly more than 3% of all Atlantic slave trade. It started (on a significant scale) in about 1502 and lasted until 1580, when Portugal was temporarily united with Spain. While the Portuguese traded slaves themselves, the Spanish empire relied on the asiento system, awarding merchants (mostly from other countries) the license to trade slaves to their colonies. During the first Atlantic system most of these traders were Portuguese, giving them a near-monopoly during the era, although some Dutch, English, Spanish and French traders also participated in the slave trade. After the union, Portugal stayed formally autonomous, but was weakened, with its colonial empire being attacked by the Dutch and English.
The Second Atlantic system was the trade of African slaves by mostly English, Brazilian, French and Dutch traders. The main destinations of this phase were the Caribbean colonies, Brazil and North America, as a number of European countries built up economically slave-dependent colonial empires in the New World. Amongst the pioneers of this system were Francis Drake and John Hawkins.
Only slightly more than 3 percent of the slaves exported were traded between 1450 and 1600, 16% in the 17th century. More than half of them were exported in the 18th century, the remaining 28.5% in the 19th century.
A burial ground in Campeche, Mexico, suggests slaves had been brought there not long after Hernán Cortés completed the subjugation of Aztec and Mayan Mexico. The graveyard had been in use from approximately 1550 to the late 1600s.
The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of slaves from 1440 to about 1900. For each captive, the African rulers would receive a variety of goods from Europe. These included guns and ammunition and other factory made goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, the Caribbean Islands, and North America. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods to Europe from the Americas. The goods were the products of slave-labor plantations and included cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.
However, Brazil (the main importer of slaves) manufactured these goods in South America and directly traded with African ports, thus not taking part in a triangular trade.
Many crops could not be sold for profit, or even grown, in Europe. Exporting crops and goods from the New World to Europe often proved to be more cost effective than producing them on the European mainland. A vast amount of labor was needed for the plantations in the intensive growing, harvesting and processing of these prized tropical crops. Western Africa (part of which became known as 'the Slave Coast'), and later Central Africa, became the source for slaves to meet the demand for labor.
The basic reason for the constant shortage of labor was that, with large amounts of cheap land available and lots of landowners searching for workers, free European immigrants were able to become landowners themselves after a relatively short time, thus increasing the need for workers.
Europeans usually bought slaves who were captured in tribal wars between African kingdoms and chiefdoms, or from Africans who had made a business out of capturing other Africans and selling them. Europeans provided a large new market for an already-existing trade, and while an African held in slavery in his own region of Africa might escape or be traded back to his own people, a person shipped away was sure never to return. People living around the Niger River were transported from these markets to the coast and sold at European trading ports in exchange for muskets and manufactured goods such as cloth or alcohol.
The Atlantic slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured on raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa. These expeditions were typically carried out by coastal African kingdoms, such as the Oyo empire (Yoruba) and the kingdom of Dahomey.
Europeans rarely entered the interior of Africa, due to fear of disease and fierce African resistance. The slaves would be brought to coastal outposts where they would be traded for goods. Enslavement became a major by-product of war in Africa as nation states expanded through military conflicts in many cases through deliberate sponsorship of benefiting Western European nations. During such periods of rapid state formation or expansion (Asante or Dahomey being good examples), slavery formed an important element of political life which the Europeans exploited: As Queen Sara's plea to the Portuguese courts revealed, the system became "sell to the Europeans or be sold to the Europeans". In Africa, convicted criminals could be punished by enslavement, a punishment which became more prevalent as slavery became more lucrative. Since most of these nations did not have a prison system, convicts were often sold or used in the scattered local domestic slave market.
The majority of European conquests occurred toward the end or after the transatlantic slave trade. One exception to this is the conquest of Ndongo in current day Angola where Ndongo's slaves, warriors, free citizens and even nobility were taken into slavery by the Portuguese conquerors after the fall of the state.
Slavery in African cultures was generally indentured servitude: slaves were not chattel, nor enslaved for life. African slaves were paid wages and were able to accumulate property. They often bought their own freedom and could then achieve social promotion — just as freedmen in ancient Rome — some even rose to the status of rulers (e.g. Jaja of Opobo and Sunni Ali Ber). Similar arguments were used by Western slave owners during the time of abolitionism, for example by John Wedderburn in Wedderburn v. Knight, the case that ended legal recognition of slavery in Scotland in 1776. Regardless of the legal options open to slave owners, rational cost-earning calculation and/or voluntary adoption of moral restraints often tended to mitigate.
The savage nature of the trade, in which most of the slaves were prisoners from African wars, led to the destruction of individuals and cultures. The following figures do not include deaths of African slaves as a result of their actual labor, slave revolts or diseases they caught while living among New World populations.
A database compiled in the late 1990s put the figure for the Transatlantic Slave Trade at more than 11 million people. Estimates as high as 50 million have been floated. For a long time an accepted figure was 15 million, although this has in recent years been revised down. Most historians now agree that at least 12 million slaves left the continent between the fifteenth and nineteenth century, but 10 to 20% died on board ships. Thus a figure of 11 million slaves transported to the Americas is the nearest demonstrable figure historians can produce.
According to David Stannard's American Holocaust, 50% of African deaths occurred in Africa as a result of wars between native kingdoms, which produced the majority of slaves. This includes not only those who died in battles, but also those who died as a result of forced marches from inland areas to slave ports on the various coasts. The practice of enslaving enemy combatants and their villages was widespread throughout Western and West Central Africa, although wars were rarely started to procure slaves. The slave trade was largely a by-product of tribal and state warfare as a way of removing potential dissidents after victory or financing future wars. However, some African groups proved particularly adept and brutal at the practice of enslaving such as Kaabu, Asanteman, Dahomey, the Aro Confederacy and the Imbangala war bands. By the end of this process, no less than 18.3 million people would be herded into "factories" to await shipment to the New World.
In letters written by the Manikongo, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, to the King João III of Portugal, he writes that Portuguese merchandise flowing in is what is fueling the trade in Africans. He requests the King of Portugal to stop sending merchandise but should only send missionaries. In one of his letter he writes:
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, slavery had already existed in Kongo. Despite its establishment within his kingdom, Afonso believed that the slave trade should be subject to Kongo law. When he suspected the Portuguese of receiving illegally enslaved persons to sell, he wrote in to King João III in 1526 imploring him to put a stop to the practice.
The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery, who otherwise would have been killed in a ceremony known as the Annual Customs. As one of West Africa's principal slave states, Dahomey became extremely unpopular with neighbouring peoples. Like the Bambara Empire to the east, the Khasso kingdoms depended heavily on the slave trade for their economy. A family's status was indicated by the number of slaves it owned, leading to wars for the sole purpose of taking more captives. This trade led the Khasso into increasing contact with the European settlements of Africa's west coast, particularly the French. Benin grew increasingly rich during the 16th and 17th centuries on the slave trade with Europe; slaves from enemy states of the interior were sold, and carried to the Americas in Dutch and Portuguese ships. The Bight of Benin's shore soon came to be known as the "Slave Coast".
King Gezo of Dahomey said in the 1840s:
In 1807, the UK Parliament passed the Bill that abolished the trading of slaves. The King of Bonny (now in Nigeria) was horrified at the conclusion of the practice:
Raymond L. Cohn, an economics professor whose research has focused on economic history and international migration, has researched the mortality rates among Africans during the voyages of the Atlantic slave trade. He found that mortality rates decreased over the history of the slave trade, primarily because the length of time necessary for the voyage was declining. "In the eighteenth century many slave voyages took at least 2-1/2 months. In the nineteenth century, 2 months appears to have been the maximum length of the voyage, and many voyages were far shorter. Fewer slaves died in the Middle Passage over time mainly because the passage was shorter.
The trade of enslaved Africans in the Atlantic has its origins in the explorations of Portuguese mariners down the coast of West Africa in the 15th century. Before that, contact with African slave markets was made to ransom Portuguese that had been captured by the intense North African Barbary pirate attacks to the Portuguese ships and coastal villages, frequently leaving them depopulated. The first Europeans to use African slaves in the New World were the Spaniards who sought auxiliaries for their conquest expeditions and laborers on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola, where the alarming decline in the native population had spurred the first royal laws protecting the native population (Laws of Burgos, 1512-1513). The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501 . After Portugal had succeeded in establishing sugar plantations (engenhos) in northern Brazil ca. 1545, Portuguese merchants on the West African coast began to supply enslaved Africans to the sugar planters there. While at first these planters relied almost exclusively on the native Tupani for slave labor, a titanic shift toward Africans took place after 1570 following a series of epidemics which decimated the already destabilized Tupani communities. By 1630, Africans had replaced the Tupani as the largest contingent of labor on Brazilian sugar plantations, heralding equally the final collapse of the European medieval household tradition of slavery, the rise of Brazil as the largest single destination for enslaved Africans and sugar as the reason that roughly 84% of these Africans were shipped to the New World.
Merchants from various European nations were later involved in the Atlantic Slave trade: Portugal, Spain, France, England, Scotland, Brandenburg-Prussia, Denmark, Holland. As Britain rose in naval power and settled continental North America and some islands of the West Indies, they became the leading slave traders. At one stage the trade was the monopoly of the Royal Africa Company, operating out of London, but following the loss of the company's monopoly in 1689, Bristol and Liverpool merchants became increasingly involved in the trade . By the late 17th century, one out of every four ships that left Liverpool harbour was a slave trading ship. Other British cities also profited from the slave trade. Birmingham, the largest gun producing town in Britain at the time, supplied guns to be traded for slaves. 75% of all sugar produced in the plantations came to London to supply the highly lucrative coffee houses there.
In general, early Christians, such as Paul, St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas did not oppose slavery. Pope Nicholas V even encouraged enslaving non-Christian Africans in his Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1454. Since then other popes stated that slavery was against Christian teachings, as is now generally held. Even earlier, in 1435, Pope Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands. In 1537, Pope Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians and other indigenous peoples with the papal bull Sublimus Dei. A list of papal statements against slavery (and also claims that the popes nonetheless owned and bought slaves) is found in the discussion Christianity and Slavery.
Most Christian sects found some way to soothe the consciences of their slave-owning members. One notable exception was the Society of Friends (Quakers), who advocated the abolition of slavery from earliest times.
The 17th century saw an increase in shipments with slaves arriving in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Irish immigrants brought slaves to Montserrat in 1651. And in 1655, slaves arrive in Belize.
Distribution of slaves (1450-1900)
|British West Indies||17.7%|
|French West Indies||14.1%|
|British North America and future United States||4.4%|
|Dutch West Indies||4.4%|
|Danish West Indies||0.2%|
Slave trade profits have been the object of many fantasies. Returns for the investors were not absurdly high (around 6% in France in the 18th century), but they were considerably higher than domestic alternatives (in the same century, around 5%). Risks — maritime and commercial — were important for individual voyages. Investors mitigated it by buying small shares of many ships at the same time. In that way, they were able to diversify a large part of the risk away. Between voyages, ship shares could be freely sold and bought. All these made the slave trade a very interesting investment.
By far the most successful West Indian colonies in 1800 belonged to the United Kingdom. After entering the sugar colony business late, British naval supremacy and control over key islands such as Jamaica, Trinidad, the Leeward Islands and Barbados and the territory of British Guiana gave it an important edge over all competitors; while many British did not make gains, a handful of individuals made small fortunes. This advantage was reinforced when France lost its most important colony, St. Dominigue (western Hispaniola, now Haiti), to a slave revolt in 1791 and supported revolts against its rival Britain, after the 1793 French revolution in the name of liberty (but in fact opportunistic selectivity). Before 1791, British sugar had to be protected to compete against cheaper French sugar.
After 1791, the British islands produced the most sugar, and the British people quickly became the largest consumers. West Indian sugar became ubiquitous as an additive to Indian tea. Nevertheless, the profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to less than 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 1700s.
|Latin America and the Caribbean||16||24||38||74||167||511|
|Latin America and the Caribbean||2.0||2.5||3.0||4.5||6.6||8.5|
Historian Walter Rodney has argued that at the start of the slave trade in the 16th century, even though there was a technological gap between Europe and Africa, it was not very substantial. Both continents were using Iron Age technology. The major advantage that Europe had was in ship building. During the period of slavery the populations of Europe and the Americas grew exponentially while the population of Africa remained stagnant. Rodney contended that the profits from slavery were used to fund economic growth and technological advancement in Europe and the Americas. Based on earlier theories by Eric Williams, he asserted that the industrial revolution was at least in part funded by agricultural profits from the Americas. He cited examples such as the invention of the steam engine by James Watt, which was funded by plantation owners from the Caribbean.
Other historians have attacked both Rodney's methodology and factual accuracy. Joseph C. Miller has argued that the social change and demographic stagnation (which he researched on the example of West Central Africa) was caused primarily by domestic factors. Joseph Inikori provided a new line of argument, estimating counterfactual demographic developments in case the Atlantic slave trade had not existed. Patrick Manning has shown that the slave trade did indeed have profound impact on African demographics and social institutions, but nevertheless criticized Inikori’s approach for not taking other factors (such as famine and drought) into account and thus being highly speculative.
No scholars dispute the harm done to the slaves themselves, but the effect of the trade on African societies is much debated due to the apparent influx of capital to Africans. Proponents of the slave trade, such as Archibald Dalzel, argued that African societies were robust and not much affected by the ongoing trade. In the 19th century, European abolitionists, most prominently Dr. David Livingstone, took the opposite view arguing that the fragile local economy and societies were being severely harmed by the ongoing trade. This view continued with scholars until the 1960s and 70s such as Basil Davidson, who conceded it might have had some benefits while still acknowledging its largely negative impact on Africa. Historian Walter Rodney estimates that by c.1770, the King of Dahomey was earning an estimated £250,000 per year by selling captive African soldiers and even his own people to the European slave-traders.
Walter Rodney argued that the export of so many people had been a demographic disaster and had left Africa permanently disadvantaged when compared to other parts of the world, and largely explains the continent's continued poverty. He presented numbers showing that Africa's population stagnated during this period, while that of Europe and Asia grew dramatically. According to Rodney, all other areas of the economy were disrupted by the slave trade as the top merchants abandoned traditional industries to pursue slaving, and the lower levels of the population were disrupted by the slaving itself.
Others have challenged this view. J. D. Fage compared the number effect on the continent as a whole. David Eltis has compared the numbers to the rate of emigration from Europe during this period. In the nineteenth century alone over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas, a far higher rate than were ever taken from Africa.
Other scholars accused Rodney of mischaracterizing the trade between Africans and Europeans. They argue that Africans, or more accurately African elites, deliberately let European traders join in an already large trade in slaves and were not patronized.
As Joseph E. Inikori argues, the history of the region shows that the effects were still quite deleterious. He argues that the African economic model of the period was very different from the European, and could not sustain such population losses. Population reductions in certain areas also led to widespread problems. Inikori also notes that after the suppression of the slave trade Africa's population almost immediately began to rapidly increase, even prior to the introduction of modern medicines. Shahadah also states that the trade was not only of demographic significance, in aggregate population losses but also in the profound changes to settlement patterns, exposure to epidemics, and reproductive and social development potential.
The Atlantic slave trade was without question a long-standing system which displaced many African people from their native lands, tribes, and families. The evidence of the populations of descendant Africans is most clear in the continents of North America and South America.
In Britain, Portugal and in some other parts of Europe, opposition developed against the slave trade. Led by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and establishment Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce, the movement was joined by many and began to protest against the trade, but they were opposed by the owners of the colonial holdings. Denmark, which had been active in the slave trade, was the first country to ban the trade through legislation in 1792, which took effect in 1803. Britain banned the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in 1807, imposing stiff fines for any slave found aboard a British ship (see Slave Trade Act 1807). The Royal Navy, which then controlled the world's seas, moved to stop other nations from filling Britain's place in the slave trade and declared that slaving was equal to piracy and was punishable by death. The United States outlawed the importation of slaves on January 1, 1808, the earliest date permitted by the constitution for such a ban.
On Sunday 28 October 1787, William Wilberforce wrote in his diary: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the Reformation of society.” For the rest of his life, William Wilberforce dedicated his life as a Member of Parliament to opposing the slave trade and working for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. On 22 February 1807, twenty years after he first began his crusade, and in the middle of Britain’s war with France, Wilberforce and his team’s labors were rewarded with victory. By an overwhelming 283 votes for to 16 against, the motion to abolish the slave trade was carried in the House of Commons.
After the British ended their own slave trade, they felt forced by economics to press other nations to do the same, or else the British colonies would become uncompetitive. With peace in Europe from 1815, and British supremacy at sea secured, the Navy turned its attention back to the challenge and established the West Coast of Africa Station, known as the ‘preventative squadron’, which for the next 50 years operated against the slavers. By the 1850s, around 25 vessels and 2,000 officers and men were on the station, supported by nearly 1,000 ‘Kroomen’, experienced fishermen recruited as sailors from what is now the coast of modern Liberia. Service on the West Africa Squadron was a thankless and overwhelming task, full of risk and posing a constant threat to the health of the crews involved. Contending with pestilential swamps and violent encounters, the mortality rate was 55 per 1,000 men, compared with 10 for fleets in the Mediterranean or in home waters. Between 1807 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 ships involved in the slave trade and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these vessels.. The last recorded slave ship to land on American soil was the Clotilde, which in 1859 illegally smuggled a number of Africans into the town of Mobile, Alabama. The Africans on board were sold as slaves, however slavery was abolished 5 years later following the end of the civil war. The last survivor of the voyage was Cudjoe Lewis who died in 1935.
Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against ‘the usurping King of Lagos’, deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers. The British campaign against the slave trade by other nations was an unprecedented foreign policy effort.
Although the slave trade had become illegal, slavery remained a reality in British colonies. Wilberforce himself was privately convinced that the institution of slavery should be entirely abolished, but understood that there was little political will for emancipation. In parliament, the Emancipation Bill gathered support and received its final commons reading on 26 July 1833. Slavery would be abolished, but the planters would be heavily compensated. Thank God, said William Wilberforce, that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery.
The last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade was Brazil in 1831. However, a vibrant illegal trade continued to ship large numbers of slaves to Brazil and also to Cuba until the 1860s, when British enforcement and further diplomacy finally ended the Atlantic trade.
At the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa, African nations demanded a clear apology for slavery from the former slave-trading countries. Some EU nations were ready to express an apology, but the opposition, mainly from the United Kingdom, Portugal Spain, Netherlands, and the United States blocked attempts to do so. A fear of monetary compensation was one of the reasons for the opposition. Apologies on behalf of African nations, for their role in trading their countrymen into slavery, also remains an open issue.
On January 30, 2006, Jacques Chirac said that 10 May would henceforth be a national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery in France, marking the day in 2001 when France passed a law recognising slavery as a crime against humanity.
On November 27, 2006, Tony Blair made a partial apology for Britain's role in the African slavery trade. However African rights activists denounced it as "empty rhetoric" that failed to address the issue properly. They feel his apology stopped shy to prevent any legal retort. Mr Blair again apologized on March 14, 2007.
On February 24, 2007 the Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution Number 728 acknowledging "with profound regret the involuntary servitude of Africans and the exploitation of Native Americans, and call for reconciliation among all Virginians." With the passing of that resolution, Virginia became the first of the 50 United States to acknowledge through the state's governing body their state's involvement in slavery. The passing of this resolution came on the heels of the 400th anniversary celebration of the city of Jamestown, Virginia, which was the first permanent English colony to survive in what would become the United States. Jamestown is also recognized as one of the first slave ports of the American colonies.
On May 31, 2007, Alabama Governor Bob Riley signed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for Alabama's role in slavery and apologizing for slavery's wrongs and lingering effects. Alabama is the fourth Southern state to pass a slavery apology, following votes by the legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
On August 24, 2007, Mayor Ken Livingstone of London, England apologized publicly for England's role in colonial slave trade. "You can look across there to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery," he said pointing towards the financial district. He claimed that London was still tainted by the horrors of slavery. Jesse Jackson praised Mayor Livingstone, and added that reparations should be made.