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Summary Article: The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1750–1900
from World History Encyclopedia

The flow of slaves across the Atlantic to meet the demand for labor in the New World was an integral part of the expanding global economy in the early modern period. The slave trade further integrated Africa into the global economy, although not on an equal footing with Europe. The trade and the slavery on which it was based reduced people to commodities, stripped them of freedom, and classified them by race, fostering a racism that still persists in the United States and other parts of the world. The slave trade was the largest forced migration in history.

The print "Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brooke" was produced in 1789 by English abolitionists to show the inhumane conditions on a slave ship that carried the maximum number of slaves permitted by the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. (Library of Congress)

The discovery of the Americas created new economic opportunities, especially in agriculture and mining. In 1493 only a year after his first voyage, Christopher Columbus introduced into the Caribbean sugarcane, the crop on which Europeans built the first plantations in the New World. Sugarcane demanded, particularly at harvest, a large labor force. Europeans sought to meet the demand for labor by using criminals, orphans, and indentured servants and supplemented these sources with Native Americans. But none of these expedients sufficed. Native Americans succumbed to Old World diseases, and the supply of European laborers met only a fraction of the demand. In the midfifteenth century the Portuguese had solved the problem of labor by enslaving Africans to grow sugarcane on São Tomé and the Madeiras, islands off Africa's Atlantic coast. The Spanish introduced African slaves to the New World when they imported the first slaves to Hispaniola (now the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1502.

The institutionalization of slavery in the New World led directly to the slave trade due to the fact that demand for slaves outpaced the growth in supply by natural increase nearly everywhere in the Americas. By 1750 Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and France transported just over 51,000 slaves a year from Africa to the Americas. The dominant slave traders were Portugal and Britain, each of which tal-lied more slaves than the Netherlands, Denmark, and France combined.

The European powers established fortresses on the western coast of Africa. Tropical diseases and the lack of manpower prevented them from penetrating the continent's interior. Instead they depended on Africans to deliver slaves to them. Poorly fed and confined in close quarters on the coast and aboard ship, Africans were vulnerable to disease. Mortality increased with the length of a voyage, from less than 10 percent for a crossing of fewer than 20 days to nearly 25 percent for a crossing of more than 2 months. Malaria, yellow fever, and intestinal disorders caused two-thirds of all deaths, and smallpox, scurvy, and suicide caused the remaining one-third. Once a ship set sail slaves, crammed 100 to 1,000 per ship depending on its size, were at the mercy of the weather. Rain often prevented them from getting fresh air on deck and increased the likelihood of disease. Storms occasionally sank ships. In these instances crews frequently abandoned slaves, kept below deck, to their fate. The vagaries of wind could lengthen a crossing. The voyage from the Guinea Coast required a ship to cross the doldrums twice, each time risking a prolonged calm. Ship captains, who seldom had more than three months of food on hand at the beginning of a voyage, reduced slaves' rations at the first inkling that a crossing might take longer than expected.

Once a ship landed, an inspector checked slaves for transmissible diseases. The detection of a sick slave lengthened slaves' confinement aboard ship in quarantine. Disembarkation at last gave slaves access to fresh food and water but also confronted them with the ordeal of sale. Slave traders felt no compunction about separating family and friends and disrobing slaves for inspection by potential buyers. Sellers usually auctioned slaves, the young and old first, followed by men and then women who appeared to be fertile. Women of childbearing age commanded a higher price than prepubescent and postmenopausal women because buyers, despite denials, appreciated the potential of these women to reproduce. As an alternative to auction, a seller specified the price of slaves of similar age and physical condition and permitted buyers to pick from this group, much as buyers select a car from a dealer's lot.

By the nineteenth century the slave trade had fallen out of favor. The planters in the United States and Barbados, with a self-sustaining slave population, did not need to import slaves. Enlightenment thinkers branded slavery and by implication the slave trade as inhumane and wasteful. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and other religious reformers declared slavery and the slave trade contrary to the tenets of Christianity. Denmark in 1802, Great Britain in 1807, the United States in 1808, the Netherlands in 1814, France in 1817, Spain in 1820, and Portugal in 1819 (north of the equator only) ended the slave trade. Slaves continued to be smuggled into Cuba and Brazil until Britain pressured Cuba to abandon the slave trade in 1867. Brazil followed in 1888, ending four centuries of commerce in humans.

In the short term the end of the slave trade left the nations of North and South America to grapple with the legacy of slavery. The United States fought a civil war over slavery, although other nations in the Americas assimilated the former slaves without tumult. The degree of interbreeding in some societies made it difficult to determine whose ancestors had been slaves and whose had been free. Often, as in Brazil, one's pedigree was a mix of both slave and free, negating the stigma of the slave trade. Over the long term the slave trade reduced Africa to an appendage of Europe, first as a network of colonies and today as an economic dependent of both Europe and the United States.

  • Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
  • Eltis, David, Behrendt, Stephen D., David, Richardson, and Klein, Herbert S., eds. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD ROM. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Inikori, Joseph E., and Engerman, Stanley L., eds. The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.
  • Klein, Herbert. The Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Postma, Johannas. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.
Christopher Cumo
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

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