The Transatlantic Slave Trade

by Suzannah Riddell

Slavery was not new to Africa when the African genocide known as the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade began. African people had been traded, enslaved and taken from their land across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean since the 9th century by the time the Portuguese first took enslaved Africans to work on sugar plantations on the East Atlantic Islands of Madeira, Sao Tome and Principe and Cape Verde in the 1400s.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade however was unlike anything the world had seen before. In it, one of the largest forced migrations of people in history, approximately 12 million people were violently ripped from their land and taken across the Atlantic to be bought and sold like cattle in the most brutal and dehumanising conditions. In the type of slavery implemented in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, known as chattel slavery (which continues to exist today), human beings become the legal property of their owner. Chattel slavery is intergenerational and hereditary.

The number of those killed on the journey across the Atlantic, known as The Middle Passage, is set between 2 -4 million. A vastly higher and more realistic death toll would take into account those who died on the journey from the African interior to the coastal regions from which the ships departed, as well as those who died in the tortuous plantations and mines of the New World.

How did the Transatlantic Slave Trade begin?

The Transatlantic Slave Trade is inextricably linked to the cultivation of sugar which began in Mesopotamia in the 7th century and spread westwards through the Middle East and into the Mediterranean through the 12th – 16th centuries. Initially Slavs  (from which the word slave comes from) from the Black Sea region were brought by Italian merchants from the Black Sea region to provide slave labour on plantations across Sicily, Cyprus, Crete and southern Spain.

The arrival of Africans to work on these plantations began in the 1400s as the Portuguese and Spanish began to navigate the wind and ocean currents of the North and South Atlantic and quickly established a trade route in enslaved Africans. Seville, Valencia and Lisbon became important ports receiving African slaves who were auctioned for use in a variety of contexts including homes, workshops and plantations as well as for use in the Americas and other areas of the Mediterranean. Large black African populations are documented in these and other southern European port cities. It is recorded that, by 1490 black slaves outnumbered white ones in Sicily and by 1550 Africans made up 10% of the population of Lisbon (this was also due to the Saharan slave trade). At the end of the 16th century 58,000 slaves lived in Spain. By the end of the 19th they had all but disappeared.

In the late 15th century Italian merchants helped the Iberians extend the sugar plantations system to the Eastern Atlantic Islands of Madeira, Cape Verde and Northern Brazil where black Africans were taken from European ports to provide slave labour. Though in terms of numbers the Transatlantic Slave Trade was modest in the 15th – 16th centuries, it quickly became racially biased with only black Africans considered eligible for trafficking to and enslavement in the New World Colonies. This happens for a number of reasons:

  • The fall of Constantinople diverted the flow of Balkan Slavic slaves from Europe
  • The decimation of native populations of the Americas through disease and harsh working conditions
  • Changes in the socio political landscape of Europe
  • European peoples (indentured labourers, criminals, political prisoners etc) could not withstand the climate or the harsh conditions of the labour intensive cultivation process
  • African peoples were favoured for their natural resistance to tropical diseases and climate and their knowledge of agriculture and cultivation techniques
  • It was easier for slave owners to identify run away black slaves than white ones, who could too easily blend into the growing settler populations

A Trade of Two Systems

In the Northern hemisphere the currents flowed clockwise from the West African Bight of Benin to the Caribbean and North America and then to Europe. Slave ships departed mainly from Europe to embark on the now infamous triangular trade route: On The Outward Passage, ships took goods such as textiles, rum, and guns to West Africa where they were traded for captive Africans. These captives were taken to the Caribbean, Brazil, and the American colonies on The Middle Passage. On The Return Passage, ships returned to Europe loaded with the products produced by slave labour for sale in Europe.

In the Southern hemisphere the wheel of currents turned anti clockwise and trade routes – or perhaps more aptly human trafficking routes – linked the area of West Central Africa with Brazil south of Amozonia. The trade in the Southern system was a two way rather than a triangular system with less engagement with Europe than the Northern system. From 1660 the Portuguese and to a lesser extent Dutch trade in stolen Africans was operated from Brazil, rather than Europe. In Rio de Janeiro for example, captains exchanged merchandise produced in Brazil or imported from Asia rather than Europe, for slaves.

Slave Trade Map
Bentley/Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past.NY, McGraw Hill.

Three Periods of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1.  1501 – 1642 Domination of the Atlantic by Iberians

This period sees the continued conquest of the Americas and the Caribbean predominantly by the Spanish and Portuguese and the transport of around 300,000 captive Africans to work in plantations mainly producing sugar, tobacco and rum. Lisbon and Seville continue as the organisational centres of the slave trade.

Throughout this period the number of Africans taken to the Americas and East Atlantic under the aegis of the Iberians was controlled by the Spanish Crown. Licenses were granted to human traffickers from Seville, Castille, Vizcaya, Portugal, Genoa, Florence, Germany and Belgium to take Africans to the New World Colonies.

In 1589 the Spanish Crown effectively outsourced the trade of slaves to its colonies through the Asiento de Negros system. Under direct regulation by Madrid it granted a monopoly to the holder or holders to carry African captives to the Americas. This mechanism provided countries which had no or few colonies, such as the Netherlands, to benefit from the trade of slaves and created competition between European powers to obtain it.

2.  1641 – 1808 The trade reaches its peak and abolition begins

In this most devastating period the Portuguese and British transported nearly ¾ of all slave taken from Africa. The organisational centre of gravity shifted northward as Liverpool, London, Bristol and Nantes are now as dominant as Iberian ports were in the previous century.

Great Britain
Until this period the British had relied on white indentured labour. Following a shift from tobacco to sugar production (which was more labour intensive) they turned their attention to African slave labour. With the right to trade slaves on behalf of Spain and with a strong base in the Caribbean they came to dominate the Northern system of the slave trade for half a century after 1660

Brazil received more slaves than any other country – some 4.9 million over the course of Transatlantic Slave Trade. As well as being a major sugar producer, the demand for slave labour increased from 1690 after the discovery of gold and diamond mines. From 1660 Portuguese and Dutch trade was operated from Brazil, rather than from Europe.

British colonies in North America
In 1670s Virginia white immigration began to decline and large planters turn to Africa to import slave labour. By the early 1690s black slaves outnumber whites 4 to 1. The slave trade of mainland North American colonies grew rapidly after 1730 and declined after the American Revolution and declaration of Independence in 1776.

“Of all captive Africans taken to the New World in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, 90% of all captives were taken to Brazil and the Caribbean. Only 4% were taken to North America.”

France join the TAST in this period with significant colonial presence in the Caribbean and on the North American continent. Most notably during this period, in 1659 the French take control of San Domingue on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti). The ‘Pearl of the Antilles’ it became the most densely populated and wealthiest colony in the West Indies until a slave revolt ended colonial rule and independence was declared.

In this period the Spanish crown issue their Código Negro (1789) deregulating the slave trade in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Province of Caracas creating a boom in the Spanish slave trade, particularly in Cuba.

The Netherlands and the Baltic States also become become significantly involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade in this period.

The period that saw the peak in activity also saw the beginning of its abolition. Denmark, Great Britain and newly independent North America outlawed the trade in slaves respectively in 1802, 1807 and 1808.

3.  1808 – 1867 Disengagement

In this period the trade was once again dominated by Spain, Portugal and Brazil. By 1820 treaties and government decrees against the trade were in effect in Spain, Portugal and France. France did not enforce the law fully until 1831 and neither Spain nor Portugal took action until the 1840s. Brazil continued trading slaves until 1888. Slave voyages left from Barcelona as late as 1860s and from Lisbon as late as 1867.

After 1807 the system of the Southern hemisphere system dominated the Slave Trade. For every slave voyage setting out from Europe, 9 left ports in the Americas. The central organisational centres for the Slave Trade shifted to Cuba (Havana), and Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia). After 1832, Havana became the major departure point for slave trading vessels, becoming a larger point of entry for slaves than any 19th century port in Europe. This period was marked by the end of slavery in most European colonies as well as in newly independent countries such as Argentina and Chile.