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European Slave Trade in Historical Documents


Slavery and the slave trade are some of the most inhumane practices the world has ever witnessed. The European Slave Trade was one of the three stages involved in the triangular transaction, otherwise known as the Trans-Atlantic trade (Prince 11). In the Trans-Atlantic trade, Europeans shipped arms, textiles, and wines to Africa. In contrast, slaves were dispatched to the Americas, and the Caribbean, and sugar, coffee, and tobacco from America were shipped to Europe, and the cycle continued. The business took place during the 16th century and 19th centuries (Equiano 15). Millions of enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas to work on plantations during this period. The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was referred to as the Middle passage (Lamb 12), and during this period, several atrocities were committed by the slave owners. The captives were abused physically and sexually while on the voyage to America; those who were dying were thrown into the sea (Equiano 78). This paper will be tackling the historical perspective of the abolition of Slavery and the slave trade.

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The Portuguese were the pioneers of the slave trade among the European countries that participated in the exchange. As early as the 1480s, their merchant ships were already transporting slaves to work in their plantations in Cape Verde and Madeira Islands (Prince 18). The Dutch dominated the trade during the 1600s, whereas the English and the French controlled and regulated the trade in the 1700s and early 1800s (Equiano 42). The English and French captured the most significant number of slaves during the 18th century when the trade was at its peak. Most of the slaves taken at this time went to work in sugar and tobacco plantations in West Indies and America.

The European slave trade had some devastating effects on the African continent. Among these effects was: Depopulation of Africa; as already highlighted above, millions of Africans were transported across the ocean to the Americas to work as slaves. Human resources’ loss also impeded the region’s economic growth as the non-disabled men and women were captured and enslaved. The weak and the elderly were left in poverty and suffering. There was also the promotion of violence through the economic incentives granted to the warlords who captured the slaves.

Abolition of Slavery and Slave Trade

Towards the end of the 18th century, the demand for slaves started declining. Many factors precipitated this occurrence, but the most significant one was the United States of America’s independence in 1776, which meant that the British could no longer own plantations in the region independent of their control. Consequently, anti-slavery movements propped up in Great Britain to agitate for the freedom of the serfs and abolition of subjugation in its totality. Two prominent revolutionaries led the abolitionist movement: Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, who successfully led a British parliamentary campaign to end servitude and the slave trade (Yearsley 30). These were major factors for the abolition of Slavery and the slave trade.

Economic views from leading economists such as Adam Smith on Free-market ideology also helped abolish the slave trade and Slavery. These economists insisted on the superiority, enhanced productivity, and efficiency of free labor over slave work. Moreover, they argued that wage effort was more profitable than forced exertion of subjugated individuals. Consequently, with the rise of the industrial revolution in Europe, the need for human labor began to decline as machines could work faster than humans and produce more and higher quality products. Therefore, the slave trade and Slavery ceased to be as profitable as it once was.

Resistance by the slaves, mainly in the Caribbean, also contributed to the end of Slavery. For instance, slaves in the French Colony of Saint Domingue revolted seized the island’s control and established Haiti’s republic. There were also other revolts by captives in Barbados in 1816 and British Guyana in 1823 (Prince 34). The largest of those rebellions happened in Jamaica, where more than sixty thousand slaves looted the scorched properties of slave owners. This marked the end of Slavery in these colonies.

Consequently, the writings of former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince helped in the abolition of the slave trade. Olaudah Equiano was captured from Africa at eleven, bought his freedom from his Master Robert King, and later wrote an autobiography about his experiences as a slave (Equiano 65). Mary Prince, a slave, born in Bermuda, also wrote an autobiography of the harsh treatment she underwent under the slave owners in the West Indies (Yearsley 63). These writings catalyzed the Abolition campaigns and gave the anti-slavery crusaders more reasons to fight for abolishing Slavery and the slave trade.

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At the beginning of a new century, most European countries committed to ending Slavery. Denmark was the first country in Europe to outlaw Slavery and the slave trade in 1803 (Lamb 23). In 1807 the British Parliament developed legislation that made the purchase or selling of slaves illegal (Wordsworth 38). However, that did not mark the end of the slave trade; British ships carrying slaves often evaded the British navy under the guise of the Spanish or Portuguese flag until 1834, when the British parliament enacted the British Emancipation act that sought to end Slavery in totality. The abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the US in 1965 witnessed the final exportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas (Wordsworth 42). In Cuba and Brazil, the slavery and slave trade continued until 1888, when the enfranchisement was abolished altogether (Yearsley 23). These legislations signified the end of Slavery and the slave trade in the world.


Slavery and the Slave trade remain some of the most inhumane practices in the history of humanity. The trade, which began in the 16th century and ended towards the end of the 19th century, had some devastating effects on the African continent. Among these effects were depopulation of the continent, retarded economic growth, increased conflicts, and violence, among many other impacts. However, with the Industrial Revolution’s rise, slave labor demands declined as wage labor proved more profitable. Consequently, abolitionists led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson were at the head of the campaign to abolish slavery and the slave trade. Most significantly, the role of slaves in the struggle to end slavery and the slave trade was crucial in realizing the dream. Through the writings of former slaves and the constant rebellion of slaves, Slavery and the slave trade were realized.

Works Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiabo or Gustavus Vassa, The African.” London, 2005, pp. 65-225

Lamb, Charles. Detached thoughts on books and reading. Priv. Print. For H. Copeland and FH Day and their friends, Christmas, 1894.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave. University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Wordsworth, William. The prelude. Dent, 1904.

Yearsley, Ann. A poem on the inhumanity of the slave-trade. Humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable and Right Reverend Frederick, Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, &c. &c. By Ann Yearsley. London: unknown, 1788.

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