The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Exchanging People for Trade Goods


Map includes northern Africa from Tunis eastward to Eygpt and extends around the eastern portion of the Mediterranean Sea to include Syria and Sinai. It then extends eastward to through Persia (modern day Iraq), north and westward to Anatolia and Rumelia (modern day Turkey and Greece), and northward from Rumelia to Hungary and Transylvania into modern day Poland.
Figure 2-1: Ottoman Empire by André Koehne is in the Public Domain . Map of the Ottoman Empire’s geographical reach in the Mediterranean world from 1481 to 1683.

Europeans made the first steps toward an Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s when Portuguese sailors landed in West Africa in search of gold, spices, and allies against the Muslims and the Ottoman Empire who dominated Mediterranean trade. (2) See Figure 2-1 )

When the Portugese landed on the coasts of Africa they found societies engaged in a network of trade routes that carried a variety of goods back and forth across sub-Saharan Africa. Some of those goods included kola nuts, shea butter, salt, indigenous textiles, copper, iron and iron tools, and people for sale as slaves within West Africa. The arrival of European slave traders in Africa also followed Muslim traders by some eight centuries. As early as the seventh century, Muslims from North African and other areas of the Mediterranean world established trade routes into Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa and acquired gold, pepper, ivory, dried meat and hides, and slaves, which they transported to North Africa, the Middle East and beyond (Curtin 1990:40–41, Collins and Burns, A History of Sub-Saharan Africa (2014), 202).

As a result of the early West African slave trade by the Portuguese, a sizeable number of Africans ended up in Portugal and Spain. By the middle of the 16th century, 10,000 black people made up 10 percent of the population of Lisbon. Some had been freed while others purchased their freedom. Some were the offspring of African and Portuguese marriages and liaisons. Seville, Spain had an African population of 6,000. Some of these Africans accompanied Spanish explorers to the North American mainland. (Curtin 1990:40–11).

All of the sub-Saharan African societies discussed in Module 1 participated in the slave trade as the enslaved or as slavers or brokers. While Europeans created the demand side for slaves, African political and economic elites did the primary work of capturing, transporting and selling Africans to European slave traders on the African coast (Thornton 2002:36). Since European traders were vastly outnumbered by West Africans who controlled trade along the coast, they first had to negotiate with powerful African chiefs who often demanded tribute and fair trading terms. Only then could European traders acquire African slaves.

The reason why Africans participated in the slave trade, given its drain on the most productive adults from Africa’s populations, is complex.

The violence and war sown by the slave trade greatly disrupted African societies. One answer is that the institution of slavery already existed in African societies. Slavery in Africa, however, was different from the kind of slavery that evolved in the New World, particularly the English colonies, a topic discussed in Module 3. (Curtin 1990:40–41).

Most legal systems in Africa recognized slavery as a social condition. Slaves constituted a class of people, captives or their descendants, over whom private citizens exercised the rights of the state to make laws, punish, and control. Although these rights could be sold, in practice people of the slave class who had been settled in one location for a sufficient time came to possess a number of rights, including immunity from resale or arbitrary transfer from one owner or location (Thornton 2002:43). In Kongo in west central Africa, there was no such thing as a class of slaves but many people belonged to a transitory group of servile subjects. “These were people of foreign origin, people who had been outlawed for criminal acts, people who had lost the protection of their kinfolk, or become irredeemably indebted to others,” argues one historian. “They differed from those enslaved by Europeans in that under normal conditions they were likely to be reabsorbed into society (Birmingham 1981:32).”

Many of those enslaved and brought to the New World were people who had participated in local and long-distance trade. Depending upon their resources, they were skilled agriculturists; artisans of textiles, bronze, gold, ivory sculpture, jewelry and sacred objects; craftsmen of wooden tools, furniture, and architectural elements; as well as potters and blacksmiths. Others were skilled linguists in more than one African language and often one or more European languages as well. In some cases, they had developed trade languages that facilitated inter-group communication even among African people whose language they did not know.

Even though those who were enslaved became part of one of the most heinous of historical tragedies, Africans enslaved in North American also became part of one of the greatest triumphs of human history. African people and their descendants helped to develop the modern Western world and create a new nation in the process. (3)

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The ninth through the fifteenth centuries were times of great struggle in Europe. The European powers struggled with one another for territorial and commercial dominance. Western and Eastern Christendom struggled with one another and with Islam for religious and cultural dominance.

The struggle for religious dominance resulted in North African Berbers, Mid-Eastern Arabs and other Muslim peoples from Morocco occupying the Iberian Peninsula for 700 years from 712 A.D. to 1492 A.D. During this time, while the Iberian powers sought to free themselves of Moorish occupation, England and France embarked on the Crusades to retake the Holy Land from Muslims, whom Christians called the “infidels.”

The periods of the ninth to fifteenth centuries were also times of external warfare among European powers over trade, the decline of chiefdoms, and of internal consolidation, all leading to the emergence of new European states. This era was marked by the loss of agricultural productivity, famine, disease, and epidemics. Peasants rebelled against increased demands by nobility for tribute to pay for the wars. To resolve the emerging crisis, European nations increased the scale and intensity of Old World wars for commercial dominance. These circumstances combined to deplete the wealth of European nobility and the Church (Wolf 1982:108–125). (3)

Economic Factors Leading to the Enslavement of Africans

Map shows both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Area of west Indian Slave Labour supply’ is marked across the western portion of Africa — reaching from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn. On the left side, ‘Area of Slave Labour’ is marked from approximately Cape Cod to the Tropic of Capricorn. This mark follows the eastern coastline.
Figure 2-2: Map of the Atlantic to illustrate colonization in America (1888) by Charles P. Lucas is in the Public Domain . Map showing the Atlantic world, including the places in African where European traders acquired slaves and the regions in the Americans where Europeans used them for labor.

As the fifteenth century came to a close, Europeans embarked upon exploration of the New World and Africa in search of expanded territory, new goods, precious metals, and new markets. All of these enterprises required manpower to explore, clear land, build colonies, mine precious metals, and provide the settlers with subsistence. In the New World, Europeans first tried to meet these needs by enslaving American Indians and relying on European indentured laborers. Nevertheless, war, disease and famine among Native Americans and European settlers depleted the colonies’ already limited labor supply. When both of these sources proved inadequate to meet the needs for labor, Europe turned to Africa (Wolf 1982:108–125).

The development of economies based on production of sugar, tobacco and eventually rice were contingent upon workers with particular attributes of material cultural knowledge, agricultural skills and the physical capability to acclimate to the New World environment. Africans first enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese demonstrated that they were people who fulfilled these requirements (Wolfe 1982:108–125).

In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadores sailed to the Americas lured by the prospects of finding gold. They brought a few Africans as slaves with them. Early Spanish settlers soon were reporting that in mining operations the work of one African was equal to that of four to eight Indians. They promoted the idea that Africans as slaves would be essential to production of goods needed for European colonization.

Several factors combined to give impetus to the Spanish demand for an African work force. Native Americans died in large numbers from European diseases for which they had no immunity. At the same time, the Spanish clergy interceded to the Spanish Crown to protect exploitation of Indians in mining operations.

The introduction of sugarcane as a cash crop was another factor motivating the Spanish to enslave Africans. In order to turn a profit, Spanish planters needed a large, controllable work force, they turned to Africa for laborers (Reynolds 2002:14).

Once Portugal and Spain established the profitability of the African slave trade, other European nations entered the field. The English made an initial foray into the African slave trade in 1530 when William Hawkins, a merchant of Plymouth, visited the Guinea Coast and left with a few slaves. Three decades later Hawkins’ son, John, set sail in 1564 for the Guinea Coast. Supported by Queen Elizabeth I, he commanded four armed ships and a force of one hundred and seventy men. Hawkins lost many of these men in fights with “Negroes” on the Guinea coast in his attempts to secure Africans to enslave. Later through piracy he took 300 Africans from a Spanish vessel, making it profitable for him to head for the West Indies where he could sell them for money and trade them for provisions. Queen Elizabeth I rewarded him for opening the slave trade for the English by knighting him and giving him a crest that showed a Negro’s head and bust with arms bound secure (Hale [1884] 1967 Vol. 3:60).

For more than a century after Columbus’s voyages, only Spain and Portugal established New World settlements. England did not establish its first enduring settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, until 1607. France founded a settlement in Quebec in 1608. Henry Hudson brought Africans with him in his Dutch sponsored exploration of the river that came to bear his name. Africans also accompanied the Dutch in 1621 when they established a trading post in the area of present day Albany. (3)

Race as a Factor

European participation in African enslavement can only be partially explained by economics. At the end of the medieval period, slavery was not widespread in Europe. It was mostly isolated in the southern fringes of the Mediterranean. Iberian Christians mostly enslaved Muslims, Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs who were “white” non-Christian eastern Europeans from whose name the word “slave” derives. When the transatlantic slave trade in Africans began in 1441, Europeans placed Africans in a new category. They deemed them natural slaves — a primitive, heathen people whose dark skin confirmed their God-ordained inferiority and subservience to Christian Europeans. (Gomes 1936 in Sweet 2003:5). Europeans thus created an emergent understanding of “race” and racial difference from their participation in the transatlantic slave trade and a system of racism codified in law and policy and driven by a desire for wealth and profit. The first transnational, institutional endorsement of African slavery occurred in 1452 when the Pope granted King Alphonso V of Portugal the right to reduce all the non-Christians in West Africa to perpetual slavery (Saunders 1982:37–38 in Sweet 2003:6).

By the second half of the fifteenth century, the term “Negro” had become essentially synonymous with “slave” across the Iberian Peninsula and had literally come to represent a race of people, most often associated with black Africans and considered to be inferior (Sweet 2003:7). In the seventeenth century, Spanish colonizers created a sistema de castas, or caste system, that ranked the status, and power, of peoples based on their “purity of blood.” Spanish elites born in Spain sat the top of this racial classificatory system while African slaves occupied the bottom. Skin color thus correlated with status and power. Race-based ideas of European superiority and religious beliefs in the need to Christianize “heathen” peoples contributed to a culture in which enslavement of Africans could be rationalized and justified. These explanations, however, do not answer the question of why some Africans participated in the enslavement of other Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. (3)

Oil painting showing the Spanish sistema de casas, or caste system, that ranked people based on skin color and geographical origin. Light skinned people born in the elite classes in Spain appear at the top. Black slaves born in Africa appear at the bottom.
Figure 2- 3: Las castas mexicanas by Ignacio María Barreda is in the Public Domain .

Internal African Conflicts and Complexities

Western and African historians agree that war captives, condemned criminals, debtors, aliens, famine victims, and political dissidents were subject to enslavement within West African societies. They also agree that during the period of the transatlantic slave trade, internal wars, crop failure, drought, famine, political instability, small-scale raiding, taxation, and judicial or religious punishment produced a large number of enslaved people within African states, nations and principalities. There is general agreement among scholars that the capture and sale of Africans for enslavement was primarily carried out by the Africans themselves, especially the coastal kings and the elders, and that few Europeans ever actually marched inland and captured slaves themselves (Boahen, 1966; Birmingham 1981; Wolf 1985; Mintz 2003). African wars were the most important source of enslavement. (3) It is important to recognize, however, that there did not exist a common shared “African” identity among African peoples during the early stages of the transatlantic slave trade along the coast of West Africa. Consequently, when traders from West African kingdoms sold men, women, and children to Europeans slave traders most would have thought they were selling outsiders, rather than fellow Africans, from their societies and kingdoms — people who spoke different languages, people who were prisoners of war or criminals, debtors and dissidents. (1)

Just as there were wars between Europeans over the right to slave catchment areas and points of disembarkation, there were increasing numbers of wars between African principalities as the slave trade progressed. Whatever the ostensible causes for these wars, they resulted in prisoners of war that supplied slave factories at Goree and Bance Islands, Elmina, Cape Coast Castle, and James Forts and at Fernando Po along the West and West Central African coast.

The fighting between African societies followed a pattern. Wars weakened the centralized African governments and undermined the authority of associations, societies, and the elders who exercised social control in societies with decentralized political forms. The winners and losers in wars both experienced the loss of people from niches in lineages, secret societies, associations, guilds and other networks that maintained social order. Conflict brought about loss of population and seriously compromised indigenous production of material goods, cash crops and subsistence crops.

Winners and losers in the African wars came to rely upon European trade goods more and more. Eventually the European monetized system replaced cowrie shells as a medium of exchange. European trade goods supplanted former African reliance on indigenous material goods, natural resources and products as the economic basis of their society. At the same time Europeans increasingly required people in exchange for trade goods. Once this stage was reached an African society had little choice but to trade human lives for European goods and guns; guns that had become necessary to wage wars for further captives in order to trade for goods upon which an African society was now dependent (Birmingham 1981: 38).

While the slave trade often enriched the West African kingdoms that controlled the trade along the coast, it had a devastating impact on the societies as a whole. African societies lost kinship networks, agricultural laborers and production. The loss of people meant the loss of indigenous artisans and craftsmen, along with the knowledge of textile production, weaving and dying, metallurgy and metalwork, carving, basket making, potting skills, architectural, and agricultural techniques upon which their societies depended. Africa’s loss was the New World’s gain. These were the same material cultural expertise and skills that Africans brought to the New World along with their physical labor and ability to acclimate to environmental conditions that made them indispensable in the development of the Western Hemisphere. (3)