The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 15th through 19th centuries.
The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 15th through 19th centuries. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported to the New World, mainly on the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage, were West Africans from the central and western parts of the continent who had been sold by other western Africans to western European slave traders, with a small minority being captured directly by the slave traders in coastal raids, and brought to the Americas. The South Atlantic and Caribbean economic system centered on producing commodity crops, making goods and clothing to sell in Europe, and increasing the numbers of African slaves brought to the New World. This was crucial to those western European countries which, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.
The Portuguese were the first to engage in the New World slave trade in the 16th century.
Between 1418 and the 1470s, the Portuguese launched a series of exploratory expeditions that remapped the oceans south of Portugal, charting new territories that one explorer described as "oceans where none have ever sailed before." In 1526, the Portuguese completed the first transatlantic slave voyage from Africa to the Americas, and other countries soon followed. Shipowners regarded the slaves as cargo to be transported to the Americas as quickly and cheaply as possible, there to be sold to labour in coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar and cotton plantations, gold and silver mines, rice fields, construction industry, cutting timber for ships, in skilled labour, and as domestic servants. The first Africans imported to the English colonies were classified as "indentured servants", like workers coming from England, and also as "apprentices for life". By the middle of the 17th century, slavery had hardened as a racial caste; they and their offspring were legally the property of their owners, and children born to slave mothers were slaves.
As property, the people were considered merchandise or units of labour, and were sold at markets with other goods and services.
The major Atlantic slave trading nations, ordered by trade volume, were: the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch Empire. Several had established outposts on the African coast where they purchased slaves from local African leaders. These slaves were managed by a factor who was established on or near the coast to expedite the shipping of slaves to the New World. Slaves were kept in a factory while awaiting shipment. Current estimates are that about 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, although the number purchased by the traders is considerably higher. Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, governments in the Atlantic World acted to ban the trade, although illegal smuggling still occurred. In the early twenty-first century, several governments issued apologies for the transatlantic slave trade.
The Atlantic slave trade arose after trade contacts were first made between the continents of the "Old World"
There is evidence that enslaved people from some African states were exported to other states in Africa
The Atlantic slave trade arose after trade contacts were first made between the continents of the "Old World" (Eurasia and Africa) and those of the "New World" (North America and South America). For centuries, tidal currents had made ocean travel particularly difficult and risky for the ships that were then available, and as such there had been very little, if any, naval contact between the peoples living in these continents. In the 15th century, however, new European developments in seafaring technologies meant that ships were better equipped to deal with the problem of tidal currents, and could begin traversing the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1600 and 1800, approximately 300,000 sailors engaged in the slave trade visited West Africa.
In doing so, they came into contact with societies living along the west African coast and in the Americas which they had never previously encountered. Historian Pierre Chaunu termed the consequences of European navigation "disenclavement", with it marking an end of isolation for some societies and an increase in inter-societal contact for most others.
Historian John Thornton noted, "A number of technical and geographical factors combined to make Europeans the most likely people to explore the Atlantic and develop its commerce". He identified these as being the drive to find new and profitable commercial opportunities outside Europe as well as the desire to create an alternative trade network to that controlled by the Muslim Empire of the Middle East, which was viewed as a commercial, political and religious threat to European Christendom. In particular, European traders wanted to trade for gold, which could be found in western Africa, and also to find a naval route to "the Indies" (India), where they could trade for luxury goods such as spices without having to obtain these items from Middle Eastern Islamic traders.
Although the initial Atlantic naval explorations were performed purely by Europeans, members of many European nationalities were involved, including sailors from Portugal, Spain, the Italian kingdoms, England, France and the Netherlands. This diversity led Thornton to describe the initial "exploration of the Atlantic" as "a truly international exercise, even if many of the dramatic discoveries [such as those by Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan] were made under the sponsorship of the Iberian monarchs." That leadership later gave rise to the myth that "the Iberians were the sole leaders of the exploration".
Slavery in Africa
Group of men, children, and women being taken to a slave market
Slavery was practiced in some parts of Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas for many centuries before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. There is evidence that enslaved people from some African states were exported to other states in Africa, Europe and Asia prior to the European colonization of the Americas. The African slave trade provided a large number of slaves to Europeans and many more to people in Muslim countries.
The Atlantic slave trade was not the only slave trade from Africa, although it was the largest in volume and intensity. As Elikia M’bokolo wrote in Le Monde diplomatique:
The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth).... Four million enslaved people exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharancaravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean.
According to John K. Thornton, Europeans usually bought enslaved people who were captured in endemic warfare between African states. Some Africans had made a business out of capturing Africans from neighboring ethnic groups or war captives and selling them. A reminder of this practice is documented in the Slave Trade Debates of England in the early 19th century: "All the old writers... concur in stating not only that wars are entered into for the sole purpose of making slaves, but that they are fomented by Europeans, with a view to that object."
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. However, the European demand for slaves provided a large new market for the already existing trade. While those held in slavery in their own region of Africa might hope to escape, those shipped away had little chance of returning to Africa.
European colonization and slavery in West Africa
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The Portuguese presenting themselves before the Manikongo. The Portuguese initially fostered a good relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo. Civil War within Kongo would lead to many of its subjects ending up as enslaved people in Portuguese and other European vessels.
Upon discovering new lands through their naval explorations, European colonisers soon began to migrate to and settle in lands outside their native continent. Off the coast of Africa, European migrants, under the directions of the Kingdom of Castile, invaded and colonised the Canary Islandsduring the 15th century, where they converted much of the land to the production of wine and sugar. Along with this, they also captured native Canary Islanders, the Guanches, to use as slaves both on the Islands and across the Christian Mediterranean.
As historian John Thornton remarked, "the actual motivation for European expansion and for navigational breakthroughs was little more than to exploit the opportunity for immediate profits made by raiding and the seizure or purchase of trade commodities". Using the Canary Islands as a naval base, European, at the time primarily Portuguese traders, began to move their activities down the western coast of Africa, performing raids in which slaves would be captured to be later sold in the Mediterranean.
Although initially successful in this venture, "it was not long before African naval forces were alerted to the new dangers, and the Portuguese [raiding] ships began to meet strong and effective resistance", with the crews of several of them being killed by African sailors, whose boats were better equipped at traversing the west African coasts and river systems.
By 1494, the Portuguese king had entered agreements with the rulers of several West African states that would allow trade between their respective peoples, enabling the Portuguese to "tap into" the "well-developed commercial economy in Africa... without engaging in hostilities". "Peaceful trade became the rule all along the African coast", although there were some rare exceptions when acts of aggression led to violence. For instance Portuguese traders attempted to conquer the Bissagos Islands in 1535. In 1571 Portugal, supported by the Kingdom of Kongo, took control of the south-western region of Angola in order to secure its threatened economic interest in the area. Although Kongo later joined a coalition in 1591 to force the Portuguese out, Portugal had secured a foothold on the continent that it continued to occupy until the 20th century. Despite these incidences of occasional violence between African and European forces, many African states ensured that any trade went on in their own terms, for instance, imposing custom duties on foreign ships. In 1525, the Kongolese king, Afonso I, seized a French vessel and its crew for illegally trading on his coast. Historians have widely debated the nature of the relationship between these African kingdoms and the European traders. The Guyanese historian Walter Rodney(1972) has argued that it was an unequal relationship, with Africans being forced into a "colonial" trade with the more economically developed Europeans, exchanging raw materials and human resources (i.e. slaves) for manufactured goods. He argued that it was this economic trade agreement dating back to the 16th century that led to Africa being underdeveloped in his own time.
These ideas were supported by other historians, including Ralph Austen (1987). This idea of an unequal relationship was contested by John Thornton (1998), who argued that "the Atlantic slave trade was not nearly as critical to the African economy as these scholars believed" and that "African manufacturing was more than capable of handling competition from preindustrial Europe". However, Anne Bailey, commenting on Thornton's suggestion that Africans and Europeans were equal partners in the Atlantic slave trade, wrote:
To see Africans as partners implies equal terms and equal influence on the global and intercontinental processes of the trade. Africans had great influence on the continent itself, but they had no direct influence on the engines behind the trade in the capital firms, the shipping and insurance companies of Europe and America, or the plantation systems in Americas. They did not wield any influence on the building manufacturing centers of the West.
16th, 17th and 18th centuries
Portrait of an African Slave Woman, probably painted by Annibale Carracci in the 1580s
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 enslaved Africans to, primarily, South American colonies of the Portuguese and Spanish empires; it accounted for 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 were directly involved in trading enslaved peoples, the Spanish empire relied on the asiento system, awarding merchants (mostly from other countries) the license to trade enslaved people to their colonies. During the first Atlantic system most of these traders were Portuguese, giving them a near-monopoly during the era. Some Dutch, English, and French traders also participated in the slave trade. After the union, Portugal came under Spanish legislation that prohibited it from directly engaging in the slave trade as a carrier. It became a target for the traditional enemies of Spain, losing a large share of the trade to the Dutch, English and French.
The Second Atlantic system was the trade of enslaved Africans by mostly English, Portuguese, French and Dutch traders.
The main destinations of this phase were the Caribbean colonies and Brazil, as European nations built up economically slave-dependent colonies in the New World. Slightly more than 3% of the enslaved people exported from Africa were traded between 1450 and 1600, and 16% in the 17th century.
It is estimated that more than half of the entire slave trade took place during the 18th century, with the British, Portuguese and French being the main carriers of nine out of ten slaves abducted in Africa. By the 1690s, the English were shipping the most slaves from West Africa. They maintained this position during the 18th century, becoming the biggest shippers of slaves across the Atlantic.
Following the British and United States' bans on the African slave trade in 1808, it declined, but the period after still accounted for 28.5% of the total volume of the Atlantic slave trade.
"The Slave Trade" by Auguste François Biard, 1840
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 in the 16th century. The graveyard had been in use from approximately 1550 to the late 17th century.