Which Europeans Trafficked in Slaves?
The Portuguese dominated the first 130 years of the transatlantic African slave trade. After 1651 they fell into second position behind the British who became the primary carriers of Africans to the New World, a position they continued to maintain until the end of the trade in the early nineteenth century.
Based on data concerning 86% of all slaving vessels leaving for the New World, historians estimate that the British, including British colonials, and the Portuguese account for seven out of ten transatlantic slaving voyages and carried nearly three quarters of all people embarking from Africa destined for slavery (Eltis et al 2001).
France joined the traffic of slaves in 1624, Holland and Denmark soon followed. The Dutch wrested control of the transatlantic slave trade from the Portuguese in the 1630s, but by the 1640s they faced increasing competition from French and British traders. England fought two wars with the Dutch in the 17 th century to gain supremacy in the transatlantic slave trade.
Three special English companies were formed, including the Royal African Company, to operate in the sale of slaves. They were given the exclusive rights to trade between the Gold Coast and the British colonies in America. As the 17 th century came to a close in 1698, English merchants’ protests led to the English crown extending the right to trade in slaves more generally. Colonists in New England immediately began to engage in slave trafficking. Vessels left Boston, Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island laden with hogsheads of rum that were exchanged for people in Africa consequently enslaved in North American and Caribbean colonies.
Beginning with the Spanish demand for slave labor, a demand that continued and expanded in the other colonies and the United States even after abolition of the trade in 1807, the Transatlantic Slave Trade brought between 9.6 to 11 million Africans to the New World (Curtin 1969; Donnan 2002; Eltis et. al 2001; Hall 1992).
Greater numbers of people were sold into slavery from some regions as compared to other regions. Some European nations transported more Africans than others and some regions in the New World received more Africans from certain regions than others. The British and Portuguese account for seven out of every ten transatlantic slaving voyages and carried nearly three quarters of all people embarking from Africa destined for slavery (Eltis et al 2001). (3)
The Middle Passage
European slavers transported millions of Africans across the ocean in a terrifying journey known as the Middle Passage. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Olaudah Equiano, a former slave and abolitionist whose memoir helped end the British slave trade in 1807, recalled the fearsomeness of the crew, the filth and gloom of the hold, the inadequate provisions allotted for the captives, and the desperation that drove some slaves to suicide. (Equiano claimed to have been born in Igboland in modern-day Nigeria, but he may have been born in colonial South Carolina, where he collected memories of the Middle Passage from African-born slaves.) (2)
In the same time period, Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon, described the sufferings of slaves from shipboard infections and close quarters in the hold. Dysentery, known as “the bloody flux,” left captives lying in pools of excrement. Chained in small spaces in the hold, slaves could lose so much skin and flesh from chafing against metal and timber that their bones protruded. (2) Other sources detailed rapes, whippings, and diseases like smallpox and conjunctivitis aboard slave ships. (1) One historian has referred to conditions Africans endured in the Middle Passage as “probably the purest form of domination in the history of slavery as an institution.” (Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, 117). (2)
“Middle” had various meanings in the Atlantic slave trade. For the captains and crews of slave ships, the Middle Passage was one leg in the maritime trade in sugar and other semi-finished American goods, manufactured European commodities, and African slaves. For the enslaved Africans, the Middle Passage was the middle leg of three distinct journeys from Africa to the Americas. First was an overland journey in Africa to a coastal slave-trading factory, often a trek of hundreds of miles. Second—and middle—was an oceanic trip lasting from one to six months in a slaver. Third was acculturation (known as “seasoning”) and transportation to the American mine, plantation, or other location where new slaves were forced to labor. (2)