The Start of the Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic Slave Trade


Part 1 Beginnings


The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, refers to the trade in slaves that took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries. The vast majority of slaves involved in the Atlantic trade were Africans from the central and western parts of the continent, who were sold by Africans to European slave traders, who transported them across the ocean to the colonies in North and South America. There, the slaves were forced to labor on coffee, tobacco, cocoa, cotton and sugar plantations, toil in gold and silver mines, in rice fields, the construction industry, timber for ships, or in houses to work as servants.

The slave traders were, in order of scale: the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and Americans. These traders had outposts on the African coast where they purchased people from local African tribal leaders. Current estimates are that about 12 million were shipped across the Atlantic, although the actual number of people taken from their homes is considerably higher.

The slave trade is sometimes called the Maafa by African and African-American scholars, meaning “holocaust” or “great disaster” in Swahili. Some scholars, such as Marimba Ani and Maulana Karenga use the terms African Holocaust or Holocaust of Enslavement. Slavery was 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

Atlantic travelslave2

The Atlantic slave trade came about after trade contacts were first made between the continents of the “Old World” (Europe, Africa, and Asia) 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 boats 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 fifteenth century however, new European developments in sea-faring technologies meant that ships were better equipped to deal with the problem of tidal currents, and could begin traversing the Atlantic Ocean. In doing so, European sailors came into contact with societies living along the West African coast and in the Americas whom 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.

As 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 of 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 the Iberian kingdoms, the Italian kingdoms (Portugal, Spain …), England, France and Poland. 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 of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan] were made under the sponsorship of the Iberian monarchs”, something that would give rise to the later myth that “the Iberians were the sole leaders of the exploration”.

 African slaveryslave3

Slavery was practiced in some parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas 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.

The Atlantic slave trade was not the only slave trade taking a toll on 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 millionthrough the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan 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. There were also Africans who had made a business out of capturing Africans from neighboring ethnic groups or war captives and selling them. Thornton says that 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, 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 (matchlock between 1540–1606 but flintlock from then on) and manufactured goods such as cloth or alcohol.

 European colonization and slavery in West Africa

Upon discovering new lands through their naval explorations, European colonizers soon began to migrate to and settle in lands outside of their native continent. Off of the coast of Africa, European migrants, under the directions of the Kingdom of Castile, invaded and colonized the Canary Islands during the fifteenth 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. The Kingdom of Castile was one of the medieval kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. It began in the 9th century: it was called County of Castile and was a vassalagedepending from the Kingdom of León. It was one of the kingdoms that existed before the Kingdom of Spain.

 slave5As 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, and at the time primarily Portuguese traders then 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, which was followed in 1571 when Portugal, supported by the Kingdom of Kongo, was able to capture the south-western region of Angola in order to secure its threatened economic interest in the area. Although Kongo later joined a coalition to force the Portuguese out in 1591, Portugal had secured a foothold on the continent that it would continue to occupy until the twentieth century. Despite these incidences of occasional violence between African and European forces however, many African states were able to ensure that any trade went on in their own terms, imposing custom duties on foreign ships, and in one case that occurred in 1525, the Kongolese king, Afonso I, seized a French vessel and its crew for illegally trading on his coast.

 In 1526 Afonso wrote two letters concerning the slave trade to the king of Portugal, complaining of Portuguese complicity in purchasing illegally enslaved people.

In one of his letters he writes

“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in these kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.”

Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects…. They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night….. As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.

slave6Before 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

Historians have widely debated the nature of the relationship between these African kingdoms and the European traders. 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 sixteenth century that led to Africa being underdeveloped in his own time. These ideas were supported by other historians, including Ralph Austen (1987).

 However, it was not just along the West African coast, but also in the Americas that Europeans began searching for commercial viability. European Christendom first became aware of the existence of the Americas after they were discovered by an expedition led by Christopher Columbus in 1492. As in Africa however, the indigenous peoples widely resisted European incursions into their territory during the first few centuries of contact, being somewhat effective in doing so. In the Caribbean, Spanish settlers were only able to secure control over the larger islands by allying themselves with certain Native American tribal groups in their conflicts with neighboring societies. Groups such as the Kulinago of the Lesser Antilles and the Carib and Arawak people of (what is now) Venezuela launched effective counter attacks against Spanish bases in the Caribbean, with native-built boats, which were smaller and better suited to the seas around the islands, achieving success on a number of cases at defeating the Spanish ships.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, colonists from Europe also settled on the otherwise uninhabited islands of the Atlantic such as Madeira and the Azores, where with no slaves to sell, exporting products for export became the main industry.

 Sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

slave10The 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 only slightly more than 3% of all Atlantic slave trade. It started (on a significant scale) in about 1502and lasted until 1580 when Portugal was temporarily united with Spain. While the Portuguese traded enslaved people themselves, 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, although 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, and become a target for the traditional enemies of Spain, losing a large share to the Dutch, British and French.

The Second Atlantic system was the trade of enslaved Africans by mostly British, 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. Only slightly more than 3% of the enslaved people exported were traded between 1450 and 1600, 16% in the 17th century.

It is estimated than half of the 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 from Africa.

The 19th century saw a reduction of the slave trade that accounted to 28.5% of the total Atlantic slave trade.

 Triangular trade

slave11European colonists initially practiced systems of both bonded labor and “Indian” slavery, enslaving many of the natives of the New World. For a variety of reasons, Africans replaced Native Americans as the main population of enslaved people in the Americas. In some cases, such as on some of the Caribbean Islands, warfare and diseases such as smallpox eliminated the natives completely. In other cases, such as in South Carolina, Virginia, and New England, the need for alliances with native tribes coupled with the availability of enslaved Africans at affordable prices (beginning in the early 18th century for these colonies) resulted in a shift away from Native American slavery.

 “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. The graveyard had been in use from approximately 1550 to the late 17th century.

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 enslaved people from 1440 to about 1833. For each captive, the African rulers would receive a variety of goods from Europe. These included guns, ammunition and other factory made goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. 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.

 Labor and slavery

slave13The Atlantic Slave Trade was the result of, among other things, labor shortage, itself in turn created by the desire of European colonists to exploit New World land and resources for capital profits. Native peoples were at first utilized as slave labor by Europeans, until a large number died from overwork and Old World diseases. Alternative sources of labor, such as indentured servitude, failed to provide a sufficient workforce.

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 profitable than producing them on the European mainland. A vast amount of labor was needed to create and sustain plantations that required intensive labor to grow, harvest, and process prized tropical crops. Western Africa (part of which became known as ‘the Slave Coast‘), and later Central Africa, became the source for enslaved people 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.

Thomas Jefferson attributed the use of slave labor in part to the climate, and the consequent idle leisure afforded by slave labor: “For in a warm climate, no man will labor for himself who can make another labor for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed is ever seen to labor.”

 Slave Codes

Throughout British North America, slavery evolved in practice before it was codified into law. The Barbados slave code of 1661 marked the beginning of the legal codification of slavery. The Barbados Assembly reenacted the slave code, with minor modifications, in 1676, 1682, and 1688. The Barbados slave code also served as the basis for the slave codes adopted in several other British colonies, including Jamaica (1664), South Carolina (1696), Antigua (1702),and Virginia’s (1662). Eventually this slave code was adopted in one form or another throughout the Caribbean and throughout the Americas.

 The legal basis for slavery was established in Mexico in 1636. These statutes created the status of chattel slave for those of African descent, i.e. they were slaves for life and the status of slave was inherited. Slave status passed to through the mother in these statutes. Virginia’s 1662 statute read, “All children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”

 Slave codes were laws, which defined the status of slaves and the rights of masters. These codes gave slave-owners absolute power over the African slaves. Examples below are from the slave code developed for Jamaica

 slave12XXTI. And, in order to encourage slaves for every good and worthy act that they shall do, be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That every slave or slaves, that shall inform against any person who shall have or conceal any runaway slave or slaves, so that such runaway slave or slaves may be taken and restored to his or their owner or owners, or be committed to any workhouse, every such slave or slaves, so informing, shall be entitled to such reward as any justice shall think just and reasonable, and be paid by such person or persons as such justice shall determine ought to pay the same, not less than ten shillings, nor exceeding twenty shillings, to be enforced by a warrant under the hand and seal of such justice.

 XXIII. And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any slave or slaves shall kill or take any slave or slaves in actual rebellion, he or she shall receive from the churchwardens of the respective parishes, where such slave or slaves shall have been killed, the sum of three pounds, and the sum of five pounds if taken alive, and a blue cloth coat, to be paid and furnished by the churchwardens of the respective parishes where such slave or slaves shall have been killed or taken; the whole expense whereof shall be reimbursed by the receiver. General for the time being, out of any monies in his hands appropriated.

 XXXV. And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That all officers, civil and military, shall be, and are hereby, empowered and required to enter into any plantation, settlement, or other place, to disperse all such unlawful assemblies, and to suppress and prevent all unlawful drumming, or other noise, as before mentioned, any law, custom, or usage, to the contrary notwithstanding, according to the nature, degree, or circumstances, of the case.

 XXXVI. And whereas it has been found by experience that rebellions have been often concerted at negro dances, and nightly meetings of slaves, and as it has been found also that those meetings tend much to injure the health of negroes: Be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any owner or proprietor, overseer, or, in his absence, any book-keeper, or other person having the care and management of any plantation or settlement, shall suffer any slaves to assemble together, or beat their drums, or blow their horns or shells, every such owner or proprietor, overseer, book-keeper, or other person, so offending, shall, for every such offence, upon conviction thereof, upon an indictment in the supreme court of judicature, or before the justices of assize, or court of quarter-sessions wherein such offence shall be committed, suffer imprisonment, without bail or main prize, for any term not exceeding six calendar months ; provided information is made, upon oath as aforesaid, before one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace, within fourteen days

 Life on a Slave Plantation

slave14The life as a slave was very difficult. Here are some things that were in a slave’s life.

Every year, slaves usually received two linen shirts, two pairs of trousers , one jacket, one pair of socks, one pair of shoes, an overcoat, and a wool hat.

Slaves usually received cornmeal salt herrings and eight pounds of pork or fish each month for food.

Slaves houses were usually wooden shacks with dirt floors, but sometimes houses were made of boards nailed up with cracks stuffed with rags. The beds were collected pieces of straw or grass, and old rags, and only one blanket for a covering. A single room could have up to a dozen people-men, women, and children.

When a slave was only 12 months old his/her mother could be sold far away. When a slave was four, they sometimes worked as a babysitter. When a slave was around the age of five, they would run errands and carry water to the field slaves. Around the age of eight, children would be expected to work on the plantation.

Over 32% of marriages were cancelled by masters as a result of slaves being sold away from the family home. A slave husband could be parted from his wife, and children from their mothers.

Slaves could be killed for murder, burglary, arson, and assault upon a white person. Plantation owners believed that this severe discipline would make the slaves too scared to rebel.

In South Carolina one slave owner would put nails in a barrel sticking out on the inside of the barrel, then put the slave in and roll him/her down a very long and steep hill. Another punishment slave owners used was to whip their slaves. Other slave owners in Virginia smoked their slaves. This involved whipping them and putting them in a tobacco smokehouse.

Some other punishments were getting beaten with a chair, broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife handles, the heavy end of a woman’s shoe, and an oak club.

One of the main reasons masters didn’t want their slaves to become Christians involved the Bible. This was one reason why most plantation owners did what they could to stop their slaves from learning to read. In the South, black people were not usually allowed to attend church services. Black people in the North were more likely to attend church services. Drums, which were used in traditional religious ceremonies, where banned because overseers worried that they would be used to send messages.

 “There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these…They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day’s work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,–the cold, damp floor,–each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver’s horn.” 

Frederick Douglass, from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845



Racism of the oldest truisms around. Racism, it’s said, is as old as human society itself. As long as human beings have been around, the argument goes; they have always hated or feared people of a different nation or skin color. In other words, racism is just part of human nature.

If racism is part of human nature, then socialists have a real challenge on their hands. If racism is hard-wired into human biology, then we should despair of workers ever overcoming the divisions between them to fight for a socialist society free of racial inequality.

Fortunately, racism isn’t part of human nature. The best evidence for this assertion is the fact that racism has not always existed.

 Racism is a particular form of oppression. It stems from discrimination against a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors. Yet the concepts of “race” and “racism” are modern inventions. They arose and became part of the dominant ideology of society in the context of the African slave trade at the dawn of capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s.

 The origin of Negro slavery was not because of race. The reason was economic; it had nothing to do with the color of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labor. The planter would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China.

 Planters’ fear of a multiracial uprising pushed them towards racial slavery.

It was necessary for them to design codes related to the Negro that made them distinct by color from any other race. These codes were encrusted in Law. These laws attempted to preserve the property rights of slaveholders and establish barriers between slaves and free which were to become hardened into racial divisions over the next few years.

 slave17Racism, Slavery and Poverty

Slavery in the colonies helped produce a boom in the 18th century economy that provided the launching pad for the industrial revolution in Europe. From the start, colonial slavery and capitalism were linked. While it is not correct to say that slavery created capitalism, it is correct to say that slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial accumulations of wealth that helped to propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America.

The clearest example of the connection between plantation slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism was the connection between the cotton South, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Northern industrial states. Here, we can see the direct link between slavery in the U.S. and the development of the most advanced capitalist production methods in the world. Cotton textiles accounted for 75 per cent of British industrial employment in 1840, and, at its height, three-fourths of that cotton came from the slave plantations of the Deep South. And Northern ships and ports transported the cotton.

 To meet the boom in the 1840s and 1850s, the planters became even more vicious. On the one hand, they tried to expand slavery into the West and Central America. The fight over the extension of slavery into the territories eventually precipitated the Civil War in 1861. On the other hand, they drove slaves harder–selling more cotton to buy more slaves just to keep up. On the eve of the Civil War, the South was petitioning to lift the ban on the importation of slaves that had existed officially since 1808.

The close connection between slavery and capitalism, and thus, between racism and capitalism, gives the lie to those who insist that slavery would have just died out. In fact, the South was more dependent on slavery right before the Civil War than it was 50 or 100 years earlier. Slavery lasted as long as it did because it was profitable. And it was profitable to the richest and most “well-bred” people in the world.

A lot of Negros still lives in poverty because of slavery and the segregation era. Slave masters forbade slaves from learning how to read, so, even once they were freed; they had no skills to better their lives. This inequality was further increased by the segregation era, when Blacks were forced into unequal housing and schooling. If Blacks were being unequally educated in impoverished neighborhoods, then how could they ever gain the skills to bring themselves and their families out of poverty? So then, it becomes like a vicious cycle. Their children grow up in the same poverty and bad schooling… and it continues down the generational line.

 The transatlantic slave trade contributed to the legacy of poverty and inequality in African and Caribbean countries today. Many African countries lost millions of their productive young people through forced transportation. Caribbean countries did not benefit economically from slavery and struggled to provide employment to ex-slaves after emancipation.

 The Atlantic Slave Trade was the beginning of the journey in history for the Black Peoples of the western hemisphere from their homelands in Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. This Journey began as a result of those who sought to exploit the weak and vulnerable for their own gain. Thus began a period in human history which many regarded as the holocaust of the African peoples.  slave18

The Ethiopian World federation Incorporated



Leave a Reply