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Age of Discovery and Conquest: Prehistory–1763

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Origins and Path of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The transatlantic slave trade radically influenced the first two centuries of American history.

Europeans initiated the African slave trade by the 1480s when Portugal began using African slaves on their eastern Atlantic sugar plantations. Conquistadores brought African slaves to the Spanish Caribbean islands after 1502. With the Native American population decimated from war and disease, European colonists turned to Africa for enslaved labor to work their sugar and tobacco plantations. By the 17th century the economy of the Americas depended on the transatlantic slave trade—or the capture and purchase of tribespeople in Africa, their transport to the Americas, and their sale into a life of slavery.

The Portuguese controlled the African slave trade until the mid-17th century, although it was an English privateer sailing for the Dutch crown that brought the first African slaves to Jamestown in 1619. Slavery began for different reasons and was practiced to varying degrees in different colonies, but by 1700, enslaved workers were in all the colonies. Virginia and Maryland's tobacco fields were tended by slaves.

The Dutch replaced the Portuguese as the major slave traders and by the mid-17th century controlled approximately half of the transatlantic trade. The English and French traders together controlled the other half. The transatlantic slave trade consisted of three stages: supplying finished goods to Africa, transporting enslaved Africans to the Americas, and shipping America's produce and goods to Europe. In the first stage, items such as wine, weapons, iron, and cloth were shipped from Europe to Africa and traded for African slaves. In the second stage, Europeans transported chained enslaved Africans in crowded ships to the Americas—a journey known as the Middle Passage. They worked on sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations. In the final stage, sugar, coffee, and tobacco were shipped from the Americas to European markets.

Transatlantic Slave Trade, 15th-19th Centuries

The Transatlantic slave trade involved three continents: Europe, Africa, and North America.
The demand for enslaved workers in the Americas rose in the 18th century as plantation farming increased in the middle and southern English colonies. The king granted the English slave trade to a succession of British companies until 1689, when all English traders were granted the right to trade enslaved people. After that, shipbuilding cities like Liverpool supplied the slave ships.

As the demand for enslaved workers rose, a strong countermovement to end the practice of slavery developed. Many white people and runaway slaves spoke out against the British government buying and selling human beings. In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave formed to end the slave trade. Though those with vested interests in the trade opposed the abolitionists, they persisted. The British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, and in March 1807 the act became law. The new law made engaging in the slave trade illegal throughout the British colonies. Nevertheless, slave trading between the Caribbean islands continued until 1811.

Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was part of one of the biggest forced mass migrations in history.

Slavery reached into the villages of Africa's interior. Africans were captured in their villages and marched to the west coast of Africa. Many did not survive the forced march, and it is estimated that half the captives died on these treks. On the coast, slave traders had built dungeons to house people awaiting shipment to the Americas. Sometimes they languished months in the dungeons. There were worse conditions to come in the Middle Passage.

The prisoners were eventually crowded into ships with little idea where they were going or what to expect. A 1789 autobiography by former slave Olaudah Equiano details his feelings as a young boy. He wrote that when he boarded the ship in shackles and saw a "furnace of copper boiling." He wondered if "we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair."

Conditions on the ships were horrific. Slavers usually branded and shackled captives and chained them to low-lying sleeping platforms in the hold belowdecks—or underneath the ship's main deck. The shelflike spaces for captives were so cramped people were unable to turn over or stand up. Ventilation belowdecks was poor, and frequently there was not enough space for waste buckets. If good weather prevailed, captives were brought up on deck for exercise, a forced kind of jumping in place.

Slave ship captains had two options for the voyage to the Americas. They could load their ships with as many captives as possible and, despite the overcrowding, hope to keep them alive. Or they could take fewer captives, improve conditions belowdecks, and hope fewer would die. But given the nightmarish conditions, it is estimated that 13 percent of the captives died on each voyage. Because so many bodies were thrown overboard, sharks followed the slave ships on their voyages.
The British slave ship Brookes had the capacity to transport 422 shackled people.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-44000
Africans resisted the brutally cruel conditions of the Middle Passage. Many refused to eat, preferring to starve to death instead of enduring captivity. Some even jumped overboard. In some rare cases, Africans were able to free themselves from their shackles and revolt.

In 1807 Congress passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves. The ban went into effect on January 1, 1808. This law did not end the practice of slavery in the United States. That would endure until 1865 in states that allowed it. However, the ban did halt the importation of human beings to be sold into slavery.