ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The Atlantic Slave Trade is one of the most significant events in world history. It began in the 16th century and saw the major European nations transport over 12 million slaves from the western shores of Africa to European colonies in the New World. In fact, African slaves ended up arriving in regions all across North America, South America and the Caribbean. Due to the mass migration of people that occurred as a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade, it is considered to be a transformative event in world history. The Atlantic Slave Trade is often discussed alongside other major historical events, including: Trade Triangle, slavery in the United States and the Abolitionist Movement.
CAUSES OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The Atlantic Slave Trade, which began in the 16th century, was caused by several main factors. First, historians consider the events of the Age of Exploration to be important to the eventual start of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Age of Exploration involved European explorers travelling across the Atlantic Ocean to establish colonies in the New World and along the western shores of Africa. In general, the Age of Exploration is considered to have occurred from the 15th century until the 17th century. While not a direct cause of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Age of Exploration set the stage for the eventual migration of African slaves to the New World. For instance, as European explorers carried out their voyages during the Age of Exploration, they came into contact with many different groups of indigenous peoples in places such as the Americas and Africa. Soon, Europeans began to view these people as commodities – something to be bought and sold. As a result, the Atlantic Slave Trade emerged out of this timeframe as a way for the European nations to make profit. In fact, economics and views on racial superiority by the European nations were important factors in the development of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
A second important cause of the Atlantic Slave Trade was the views on race that were held by many Europeans in the timeframe of the slave trade. As such, European beliefs about their own supposed racial superiority helped inform their interactions with the people they encountered, including native Africans. The term that best relates to this concept is ‘ethnocentrism’, which is the concept of judging other cultures based upon the views of your own. Further to this idea is the concept of ‘eurocentrism’. Eurocentrism is similar to ethnocentrism but focuses specifically on Europeans and the views of superiority expressed in relation to the timeframe of imperialism. These Eurocentric beliefs were justified by European governments due to a concept called Social Darwinism. In short, Social Darwinism is the idea that some ethnic groups or races are superior to others and therefore more ‘fit’ to rule over those that are less ‘fit’. Therefore, these views on racial superiority empowered European traders to view the Africans as a commodity (something to be bought and sold) and not as actual people. As such, these views led to the Atlantic Slave Trade in that they caused Europeans to view themselves as superior to the African people.
Another important cause of the Atlantic Slave Trade was the establishment of European colonies in the New World in the 16th century. The major European nations of Britain, France, Portugal and Spain set up many colonies throughout North and South America during this timeframe. One of the purposes of the colonies was to expand the economic base of the European nation and allow for raw materials from the New World to be exported to Europe. For instance, the European nations established plantations throughout the New World, which harvested crops such as: tobacco, sugar and cotton. European merchants needed a workforce of people to carry out the hard and laborious work on these plantations, such that the crops could be harvested and shipped to Europe. However, finding a workforce of people proved difficult. First, European indentured servants were considered for the work in the New World. Indentured servitude was a system wherein the person would trade their labor (work) for something else. For instance, sometimes working class people entered into indentured servitude as a means of gaining transport to the New World. While, European indentured servants offered a work force for the European merchants, it failed to meet the demand of the New World. There was not enough European indentured servants to power all of the plantations throughout North and South America. This lack of a European-based work force, combined with Eurocentric beliefs, led to the use of slaves on these plantations. At first, Europeans intended to enslave the indigenous peoples of the New World, but this proved to be impossible. For example, indigenous peoples of the New World suffered greatly from European diseases, which led to a mass depopulation across the Americas. As a result, Europeans turned to African slaves, since they had relative immunity to European diseases. As well, European enslavement of African people was relatively convenient in that European merchants had been sailing along the western shores of Africa for centuries. This meant that European trading posts along the African coast offered an easy opportunity for find and shipping slaves to the New World. As such, the need for slaves in the New World, to complete agriculture work on plantations, caused the Atlantic Slave Trade because it pushed the European countries to seek the most reliable and convenient ‘workers’, which proved to be African slaves.
*Editors note - To be clear, we are not condoning the use of African slave labor in the Americas, rather trying to explain and understand the choices made at the time. The discussion of the use of African slaves above is from the historic perspective of European slave merchants and does not represent modern views. It is also important to remember and make note of the terrible treatment that African slaves experienced aboard the slave ships as well as on the slave plantations in the Americas.
OVERVIEW OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 16th century, reached its peak in the 18th century and ended near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. While some historians disagree on the exact number of Africans forced into the Atlantic Slave Trade it was, regardless, a tremendous number of people. This made it one of the largest human migrations in history and certainly the largest forced migration in history.
Most of the slaves from Africa were taken by the European slave ships along the west coast of Africa. However, it should be noted that the Africa played an active role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. For instance, African societies along the western coast often captured and enslaved other Africans from the interior of the continent. Then, the western societies would sell or trade the captured slaves to European traders at long-established trading posts.
The Trade Triangle was a major aspect of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Trade Triangle is the term used by historians to refer to the form of trade that occurred across the Atlantic Ocean during much of the Age of Exploration and the years that followed. In general, it was a set of three routes that saw goods and people travel between Europe, Africa and the Americas. European traders exported manufactured goods (metal tools, textiles, tobacco, beads, etc.) to the societies of west coast Africa in exchange for African slaves. The European goods were manufactured in European factories and shops. Next, the African slaves were put aboard European slave ships and taken to the Americas to be sold for huge profits. Here the slaves were forced to labor on plantations in order to harvest raw materials, such as sugar, tobacco and cotton. The final stage of the Trade Triangle involved European traders taking the harvested raw materials from the plantations back to Europe where they were processed into goods in European factories. In general, the Trade Triangle formed a cycle that saw raw materials, manufactured goods, and people transported all across the Atlantic Ocean. The route from Africa to the Americas was commonly known as the Middle Passage. This was the part in which African slaves were shipped to the Americas.
Along the route of the Middle Passage, African slaves were transported to the New World as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. As such, the Middle Passage is notorious for the terrible conditions and treatment that the African slaves were subjected to as they were forced across the Atlantic Ocean by European slave traders.
Life aboard the slave ships for African slaves was terrible while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the Middle Passage. Slaves suffered in cramped conditions (each slave only had 4 square feet of space) and the lower decks received poor air circulation meaning the stench would linger and lead to horrible air quality. Some slaves would choose to jump overboard and drown (if they could escape their chains) rather than suffer onboard the ship any further. The conditions for slaves in the New World were not much better. Once they arrived, they were sold at auction to plantation owners. Many plantation owners would ‘brand’ their slaves, very much as is common with cattle. Once on the plantation, the life of a slave was dominated by work with long hours and under extreme conditions. Slaves also suffered abuse and torture on these plantations at the hands of the plantation owners and overseers. Because of this, the average life expectancy of a slave was low with slaves in Brazil averaging 23 years of age.
While North America has a well-documented history of its role in the Atlantic Slave Trade, it was not necessarily the destination of most African slaves. For example, the Caribbean received approximately 48% of slaves, while Brazil received approximately 40%. In contrast, the United States received about 5% of the total population of African slaves. Of 12 million African slaves that were transported during the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 600,000 were transported to the United States, which means that about 5% of all African slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade were brought to America. This process first began in the early colonies of America but continued well into the 19th century. In fact, African slavery in the United States became an important feature of early America.
Slavery in Colonial American was a major economic factor at the time. For example, slaves often carried out work that was financially beneficial to the slave and property owners. This was especially true in the South where large agricultural plantations were established that operated mostly with slave labor. More specifically, throughout the 18th century, slaves worked on these plantations by carrying out basic farming duties and assisting in the agricultural operation of the plantation. In fact, slaves were popular in the United States because the early agricultural products that the plantations produced usually required lots of labor-intensive work. As such, paying workers for these jobs hurt the financial profitability of the plantations, which made slavery a much more appealing option.
With that said, the early years of the Atlantic Slave Trade were dominated by the Portuguese. Portugal made some of the first journeys of the Age of Exploration and established numerous trading posts along the western coast of Africa. However, Britain would go on to play the largest role in the transport and sale of African slaves. In all, Portugal, Spain, Britain and France were the European nations that participated in the Atlantic Slave Trade the most. Regardless, the Atlantic Slave Trade was incredibly beneficial to European and other western nations, especially economically. The inexpensive labor meant that plantation owners were able to keep more of their profits and were able to amass large fortunes. As well, the harvested raw materials greatly benefitted European industries as they were able to use the raw materials to created manufactured goods.
The conditions on the slave ships of the Middle Passage eventually led to the growth of the British Abolitionist Movement and later the American Abolitionist Movement. This ultimately led to the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade. For example, the term ‘abolition’ means to stop or end something. As such, an abolitionist is someone who was working to ban slavery. The American Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1865 when the American government abolished slavery following the end of the American Civil War. Also, it should be noted that the American Abolitionist Movement occurred alongside the efforts of British abolitionists and the British Abolitionist Movement. The British Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1833 when the British government abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Although, it should be noted that British citizens continued to fight against slavery throughout the world in the time after 1833. For instance, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was a significant piece of British legislation in the history of the Abolitionist Movement in Britain. While the act did not ban slavery outright, it banned the slave trade in the British Empire. As such, this had a profound impact on the events of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
CITE THIS ARTICLE