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Lesson 2: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (1492-1807)

Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:


  • examine the origins and economic motives behind the trans-Atlantic slave trade

  • describe the experiences of captive Africans in the Atlantic slave trade, specifically the dangers they faced

  • examine the experiences of enslaved Africans in the Americas, particularly the role they played in colonial economies and the seasoning process they endured

  • analyze the trading process of goods and human cargo along the routes of the triangular trade

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Introduction



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Between 1500 and 1900, Europeans forcibly sent 10 to 12 million African people to the Americas. Millions more died in captivity in Africa, trying to escape, or on the ships that carried them across the Atlantic. Some Africans arrived in the Americas as free people. Others entered as indentured servants required to work for a set period before earning freedom. However, the vast majority of Africans who came to the Americas were forced into enslavement.

Enslavement began as a byproduct of European exploration in Africa and the Americas. Europeans began enslaving people to work plantations growing tropical crops. The first enslaved Africans in the Americas arrived at Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, on Spanish ships in 1502. Over the next 300 years, the slave trade became a wildly profitable business for Europeans and colonists in the Americas, at the expense of countless African lives. The trade eventually shaped an entire era of world history.

This lesson explores how Europeans arrived in Africa and how trading in sugar and rum led to enslavement. In their own words, enslaved Africans such as Olaudah Equiano describe their experiences on slave ships and in seasoning camps in the Americas. The lesson concludes with an analysis of the impact of the slave trade on African societies.

European Exploration



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Two fateful voyages in the 1490s set the stage for African American history: Vasco da Gama's trip around Africa to India and Christopher Columbus's first trip to the Americas. Ironically, neither journey had reaching either Africa or America as its goal.

Europeans, particularly in Portugal and Spain, wanted to make money from spices in Indonesia and other parts of Eastern Asia. These spices were expensive and were traded by land and sea routes through India, the Middle East, and Arabia. Any European country that could find a direct sea route to the spices would become rich. The quest began with Portugal, a small European kingdom. In the 1400s, the Portuguese began exploring the southern regions along the West African coast.





Portuguese sailors were the first to navigate around Africa.

The first Portuguese expeditions reached the northwest coast of Africa, the AzoresMadeira, and the Cape Verde Islands. Explorers claimed this land for Portugal. These islands also brought them closer to Africa. The Portuguese soon established trading posts in West Africa to trade for ivory and gold.

In 1497, the explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and the southern tip of Africa. He continued his journey up the eastern coast of Africa. The following year he reached India. Finding this water route was important because sea trade with India was cheaper than trading by land. It also allowed the Portuguese to dominate the spice trade.

A few years earlier, another explorer named Christopher Columbus led Spanish ships on what he thought was a western route to India and China. However, Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492 becoming the first European to arrive in the Americas. He found a new land but did not find Indian spices or luxury goods. The Spanish king and queen had given Columbus money for his journey because he had promised he would bring wealth and increased trade to Spain. But the Americas had none of these valued spices or trade routes. Columbus and his associates realized they needed to repay the Spanish crown by some other means than trade.

Drugs, Land, and Labor


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Columbus and da Gama were not the only Europeans searching for spices and other valuables. European powers were driven by the idea that there was a limited amount of wealth in the world. If a country increased its wealth, it also increased its power. Many early explorations were driven by the pursuit of wealth. Private merchants worked for companies that were officially chartered by European governments. Some sought new trade routes for existing goods, while others looked for land.

In the 1400s and 1500s, European explorers traveled the globe in search of new and faster routes to find profitable goods. To make money during these trips, they shipped spices and other luxury goods because sea travel was too expensive to transport only food or common items. During this period, ships returned with wares from regions that had developed trades. They returned with tea from China and India and coffee from Ethiopia and Arabia. They also brought opium from India, which became a popular and expensive drug. These goods could be shipped compactly and safely. If prices went down, the merchandise could be stored for long periods until the price went up again.Because these goods were a luxury, they became popular and fashionable among wealthy Europeans, and there was a constant demand for them.






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