Summary of Transatlantic Slave Trade

It was the labor of enslaved Africans who extracted the gold and silver from South American mines, who grew the sugar cane on Caribbean plantations, and later tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton on North American plantations that helped power an entire system of capitalism. European capital funded slave ships who carried European goods to the coast of Africa in exchange for human beings who became slaves and by extension commodities who were bought and sold to other traders and plantation owners.

These African slaves then produced commodities grown in European colonies that traders exported to Europe for manufacturing and sale to consumers across the continent. Africans and their labor were the beating heart of this interconnected system of global trade and capitalist expansion. For instance, in one single year, 1807, Britain imported 297.9 million pounds of slave-produced sugar, 72.74 million pounds of cotton, and 16.4 million pounds of tobacco — virtually all of it produced by slaves.

In the year 1800 alone, historian Robin Blackburn estimates that about one million slaves performed labor on British controlled plantations that amounted to about “2,500,000,000 hours of toil” combined. (Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery , 581, Rediker, The Slave Ship , 347–348). That same African slave labor in 1800 produced the equivalent of over 4 billion American dollars when adjusted for inflation in 2018.

Despite the exploitation and dehumanization they endured as slaves, Africans created new cultures and kinship ties that drew from their roots in Africa and their new experiences and contacts in the Americas. These African-American cultures would become the basis of black resistance and resilience for generations of slaves while, later, also becoming a fundamental part of the history and culture of the United States of America. (1)