Since ancient times, slavery has been present throughout the globe, diversely impacting the economics and social institutions of various states. The transatlantic slave trade was a considerable fragment of the global slave trade that involved approximately 15 million enslaved Africans, including men, women, and children, and formed the longest forced movement of people in history. The Atlantic slave trade comprises many continents, such as Western Europe, Central, and West Africa, but with the reduction of the Amerindian population, the most rapid growth of the slave trade was in North America. This paper aims at examining the development of the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences and effects on the countries and the African ethnic groups that participated in this process. Besides, the paper shows the conditions in which African slaves had to live, how they were treated, and for what purposes they were exploited. For a better illustration of the results of the Atlantic slave trade, all the necessary and relevant data are included.
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Currently, despite its complexity, the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been profoundly explored by numerous scholars. Mainly, the Atlantic slave trade dates back to the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century. At those times, the Portuguese were shipping African slaves for work on their sugar plantations in the eastern Atlantic, namely, in the Madeira Islands and Cape Verde (Lewis). Similarly, after 1502, Spanish conquistadors transported Africans for use as slaves to the Caribbean. They executed the opening transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil in 1526, after which many European states followed their example (Warber 191). However, it should be specified that before 1600, presumably, only several hundred thousand Africans were imported to the Americas as slaves.
Soon, during a considerable part of the 1600s, the Netherlands became the dominant slave trader. The sharp growth in demand for slave labor was in the 17th century, which was caused by an increase in tobacco plantations in North America and sugar plantations in the Caribbean (Lewis). In that century, French and English merchants run nearly half of the slave trade. Most of the slaves were brought to the American continents in the 18th century when about three-fifths of the Atlantic slave trade occurred (Lewis). It is an excellent indicator of how rapidly the transatlantic slave trade had been developing.
The First and Second Atlantic systems and Triangular trade
To be more accurate, the Atlantic slave trade traditionally consists of two periods, namely the First and Second Atlantic systems. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese empires formed the First Atlantic Systems, transporting enslaved Africans to their sugar plantations in South American. Other states, such as England and France, also take part in the slave trade in that era, but they did not have immediate relation to it. This system was insignificant, constituting about 3% of the total Atlantic slave trade, and it lasted by 1580 until Portugal and Spain were united (Olumide 908). Overall, the First Atlantic system was only a transitional phase that laid the basement for the further amplification of African labor exploitation.
The Second Atlantic system was much expanded in terms of direct participants and included Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French traders. In this case, since European states developed commercially slave-dependent settlements in the New World, African slaves were delivered to Brazil and the Caribbean colonies. During this stage, 16% of all enslaved Africans were exported in the 1700s (Olumide 908). Hence, the Second Atlantic system played a critical role in the process of the transatlantic slave trade.
Besides, it is pertinent to mention the Triangular trade that lasted almost three centuries, namely, from the late 16th to early 19th centuries, and substantially contributed to the Atlantic slave trade. The first part of the triangle was the delivery of commodities from Europe to Africa. In this regard, African kings and traders actively participated in the slave trade, exchanging their captives for different valuable goods, such as ammunition, guns, and manufactured commodities (Olumide 908). The second way of the triangle was the export of enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Islands. The final part of the Triangular trade related to delivering goods produced in slave-labor plantations from the Americas to Europe. Thus, the slave trade, in this case, was an indispensable component of the Atlantic international trade.
The Number of Slaves
According to some historians, the approximate number of Africans shipped from the African east coast is estimated between 12 million and 14 million during 400 years (Meredith 191). Moreover, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database indicates that 12.5 million African people were transported through the Middle Passage in the Atlantic to the New World as a labor force. However, the amount purchased by the merchants was much higher since around 2.5 million died during the voyage, and other millions perished in the Caribbean’s seasoning camps after they arrived at the New World (Eltis and Richardson 95). In other words, “for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, another 40 had died in Africa or during the Middle Passage” (Bakaly 283). This situation was the primary cause of why the African population experienced prolonged stagnation between the 1500s and 1900s.
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The Portuguese, the Spanish, the British, the Dutch Empires, and the French were the central Atlantic slave trading countries. For instance, in 1672, the foundation of the Royal African Company legalized the Slave Trade under a royal charter and provided a monopoly for London’s port. The number of slaves brought from Africa by Britain was about 6,700 per year in the 1660s, and, by 1760, the British Empire was the prime European country involved in the Atlantic slave trade. It is also worth noting that the participation of these countries was stipulated by that these nations had unimpeded access to the ocean and were intensively engaged in overseas trade. However, Africans also significantly contributed to the development of the slave trade, selling their prisoners and captives gained in wars to Europeans.
The activity concerning the slave trade and the distribution depended on the areas and could differ considerably. Europeans used eight principal regions for buying and delivering African slaves to the Americas, including Upper Guinea, Gold Coast, West-Central Africa, Southeastern Africa, Bight of Biafra, Senegambia, Windward Coast, and Bight of Benin (Lovejoy 81). Among them, the most inactive region was the Windward Coast, where were sold about 1.8% of the total number of slaves, and the most intensive area was West-Central Africa, where this rate comprised 39.4% (Lovejoy 81). It also should be indicated that the sold prisoners and captives included people who came from enemies or neighboring ethnic groups since the majority of slaves were captured during military conflicts between local tribes.
Regarding the African ethnos affected, it should be noted that many of the ethnic groups that were carried to the American continents belonged to the areas of the most active slave trade. In this regard, more than 45 different ethnic groups were brought to the Americas, the most famous of which were the BaKongo, Gbe, Yoruba, Chamba, and Mandé, among others (Epps 67). However, the precise number of these groups cannot be determined because many written records have disappeared.
Effects and Consequences
Outcomes from the Slave Trade
Unquestionably, the transatlantic slave trade brought enormous profits to European traders. Between 1492 and 1776, approximately 6.5 million immigrants who passed the Atlantic settled in the Western Hemisphere, and 5.5 million of them were African. The majority of slaves who arrived from Africa worked on plantations, mainly harvesting sugar, cotton, rice, coffee, tobacco, and wheat. Nevertheless, more than 70 percent were engaged in sugar production. While farmers in Kentucky, Virginia, and Missouri grew hemp and tobacco, wheat was an essential crop in Virginia and Maryland. South Carolina’s and Georgia’s farmers harvested rice, and Louisiana focused on growing sugar. Primarily, owners of plantations produced crops for the market, not for domestic consumption.
The leading state that reaped benefits from the slave trade was the British Empire. Between 1630 and 1807, British slave traders gained a profit of nearly £12 million on the sale and purchase of Africans. After the cancellation of the Royal African Company’s monopoly in 1698, the British grow into the biggest and most advantageous slave deliverer transporting African people to the New World, especially to North America. In 1775, the British Empire held much more land in the Americas than its two principal northern European competitors, the Dutch or the French, that battled for world power and distinction. It also should be added that cotton production played a critical role in the prosperity of the Western Hemisphere. For example, the volume of cotton harvested daily by an enslaved person raised to 400 percent from 1801 to 1862 (Lockhart). The profits the US yielded from cotton lifted it to a position of the prominent economies in the world.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the increase in the demand for slave labor was firmly connected with the growing production of sugar. During the 1600s and 1700s, Brazil was in a dominant position regarding sugarcane production. In the 18th century, Haiti, or Saint Domingue, overcame Brazil concerning sugar production, and the number of slaves carried to this small island accounted for twice the number brought into the US. Thus, enslaved Africans who worked in plantations in the New World significantly stimulated the progress of European economies, thereby boosting the Industrial Revolution both in Britain and the United States.
Effect on Demographics
Although the question of the demographic impact of the Atlantic slave trade is still controversial, the majority of the scholars are inclined to the idea that the changes in the African demography were enormous and dramatic. For instance, Lovejoy et al. argue that in 1600, sub-Saharan Africa consisted of 18 percent of the total world’s population, but in 1900, only 6 percent of this rate, which shows a significant decline in the Africa population (335). Besides, African countries experienced a considerable shift in sex ratios towards women since most of the slaves brought to the Americas were male. In this regard, historians suggest that in the most affected areas, there were only 40-50 men per 100 women due to the slave trade (Teso 2). The demographic shock also reflected on domestic activities since, because of the shortage of men, women had to perform the work that customarily was not typical for females. In addition, the European slavers usually left dependent peoples, namely, disabled or elderly, who made a scarce contribution to the prosperity of the local community.
The Conditions of African Slaves
The Atlantic passage, the so-called Middle Passage, was famous for its cruelty and unbearable conditions on slave ships. Sometimes, Africans who were captured had to march around 400-500 kilometers to the coast, during which two captives were chained together at the ankle. According to some historical estimates, 10 to 15 percent of the prisoners did not reach the coast (Lewis). Those who survived the voyage to the beach had to sail about 8,000 kilometers on the ships that were tightly packed by many slaves. Since the ceilings of these ships were low, people could not sit upright. In addition to this, because of the intolerable heat and the closed room, the oxygen level was so small that the candles did not burn. “Historians estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of the African slaves bound for the Americas died aboard slave ships” (Lewis). The slaves were regarded as the property of their holders, and slaves accused of murder, rebellion, or other illegal actions were often put to death or severe punishment.
Violence, atrocities, beatings, and sexual abuse were characteristic features of slave treatment, and only their commercial value restrained the merciless attitude of the slave traders to captives. Diseases such as smallpox, typhus, malaria, diphtheria, and even bubonic plague were widespread on ships because of unsanitary conditions and the absence of medical treatment. For example, to stop an infectious illness that spread on the board, captain Luke Collingwood commanded to throw 130 Africans overboard (Lewis). Similar incidents were typical at that time, and seldom could prisoners defend their rights or defend themselves against such atrocious decisions.
The End of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The abolitionist movement played the most substantial role in the termination of the slavery practice. The first shoots of the campaign appeared in Europe, namely Britain, Portugal, and Denmark. Denmark, which intensively participated in the slave trade, was the first state forbidding the trade via legislation in 1792, which came into force in 1803. In Britain, slavery opposition was organized by the Religious Society of Friends, called Quakers, and William Wilberforce, a leader of Evangelicals. In 1783, the Quakers submitted a petition in Parliament against the slave trade, which was signed by 273 friends, but it was not accepted. Finally, in 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act obtained royal permission, prohibiting the transportation of enslaved people in British ships and canceling the slave trade in the British colonies, overall. Later, in 1810–1814, Great Britain reached the agreement with Sweden, Portugal, and Denmark, under which participants consented to finish or limit their trading. Through passing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, the United States banned the import of slaves from Africa, but the domestic slave trade was prosperous until the 1960s.
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