The Atlantic Slave Trade

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The Atlantic Slave Trade

During the 17th and 18th century, the demand for slaves was at its peak. European slave traders quickly provided the labor needed. The potential of earning a small fortune in the slave trading business was enough of a profit for traders to put aside the fact that Africans were humans. In 1760, in some markets, a trader could sell a male slave for 50 pounds, which was enough to live comfortably for one year. With the promise of making a more than a decent living from the slave trade, it became a profitable career.

Traders could not have been successful without the formation of a relationship with the Africans who provided them with other Africans to enslave. African captors kidnapped their countrymen and brought them to slave factories on the west coast of Africa. The journey was long and it is estimated that of 20 million slaves, half did not make it to the coast.

Captured Africans could spend as little as a few weeks and to up to a year in a factory. In return for providing human cargo to the slavers, African kidnappers received guns, textiles, iron bars, and other products.

African slaves were placed on ships and began the long journey to the Americas. It was known as the Middle Passage because it was the middle leg of a three-part voyage. The voyage began in Europe where the ship was packed with goods to bring to Africa. These items were exchanged for African slaves. The slaves were sailed to North America, South America, and the Caribbean and exchanged for sugar, tobacco, and other products that were shipped to Europe.

The trip from Africa to the Americas took at least six weeks. A ship often had 30 crewmen and carried about 300 slave men, women, and children. For the slaves, it was a long horrible trip. Not only did they worry about what the future held for them, but also they endured inhumane conditions on the ship. Each slave had both feet shackled to other slaves. The sleeping area, which was below the deck, was composed of un-sanded plank floors that had only 18 inches or less of headroom. The narrow space, lacked light and fresh air, sitting was impossible, and it was difficult to change positions without hurting one's neighbor.

Things were worse when bad weather was encountered. During these times, slaves stayed below for extended periods. After the storm, seamen often found dead Africans intertwined with others who were still alive. Because the journey was so long and disease was easily contracted, about 10 to 20 percent died on the way to the Americas.

Not all Africans went without a fight. Some wanted to die rather then face an unknown fate. It was not uncommon for a desperate man or woman to try to jump overboard. Others took a more slow approach by refusing to eat. This method often caught on and other Africans followed. Crewmen reacted quickly to prevent them from starving to death. In these cases, they forced them to eat by beating and torturing them, force feeding, or using thumbscrews. Because slaves were thought of as valuable property, it was important to keep them alive. Therefore, crewmen tried not to cause death or permanent harm.

In 1807, the British Parliament banned the Atlantic slave trade. Not long after, the United States banned it in 1808. In 1815, after pressure from the British, France and the Netherlands agreed to ban the slave trade and Portugal agreed to end it after a few years. In 1817, Spain signed a treaty agreeing to immediately end the slave trade north of the equator and south of the equator in 1820. Despite agreements and legislation, some slave trading still continued

Depending on which colony slaves lived in, the way they were treated and the work they performed varied. Slaves in southern colonies typically worked under harsh conditions, while slaves in the middle and New England colonies were fewer, had more freedom, and were treated more humanely.


While slavery in Virginia eventually became quite large, in its early beginnings the colony did not depend upon slave labor. In 1619, there were 20 Africans in Jamestown, who held positions similar to indentured servants. By 1651, census records indicate that Africans who finished their indentured servitude were assigned land and were considered free.

While this system ensured the growth of the free black population, it also contributed to the need for laborers. Work in the field was labor intensive and could be expensive, especially when indentured servants eventually were granted their freedom.

To offset a portion of the expense, some Africans were made into servants for life and Indians were used as laborers. However, the colonists soon learned that this did not work and began to look toward slavery. Virginians became convinced that slavery was the answer to their labor problems after they heard about the success of slavery in the Caribbean. From thereafter, there was movement toward implementing it.

In 1661, Virginia officially recognized slavery by statute. A year later, a Virginia statute declared that children born would have the same status as their mother. With the lawful support of slavery, slaves were brought into the colony by ship. By the end of the 17th century, more than a thousand slaves per year were brought. In 1708, there were 12,000 blacks and 18,000 whites. By 1756, the black population had increased to 120,156 and the white population was 173,316.

Because of the harsh labor conditions, male slaves were brought more often than female slaves were. However, by the 18th century, this view changed. Women were brought just as often and were required to perform the same labor as men.

As the slave population increased, so did the fear of slave insurrections. In order to prevent revolts, Virginia enacted slave codes. Slave codes restricted the movement of slaves and dictated the punishment for offenses. For example, slaves were not allowed to leave the plantation without written permission from their master, robbery and other major offenses was punishable by 60 lashes and placement in a pillory where the slave’s ears were cut off, and for the commission of petty offenses, the individual was whipped, branded, or maimed.


Unlike in Virginia, Maryland had slaves shortly after the establishment of its first settlements in 1634. Although slavery existed, it was not recognized by law until 1663. The first statute enacted attempted to enforce a law that all blacks, even those who were free, would be slaves and all blacks born would be slaves regardless of the status of their mother. In 1681, a new law changed this and established that children born to free black women and black children of white women would be free.

In order to ensure that slaves would maintain their status as slaves, a law declared that slaves who converted to Christianity would not become free. With the enactment of this new law, slave owners felt secure, and the importation of slaves increased. In 1750, there was a population of 40,000 blacks and 100,000 whites.

As the slave population increased, the fear of slave insurrections also became a concern. Like in Virginia, Maryland enacted laws that restricted the movement of free blacks and slaves. One law declared that slaves would be punished by death, branding, or whipping if found guilty for murder, arson, larceny, association with whites, insolence, and traveling without permission.

North and South Carolina

From the beginning of the existence of the Carolina colony, slavery was encouraged. The four proprietors of the colony were members of the slave trading company, the Royal African Company. In 1663, the proprietors encouraged settlers to have slaves by promising that they would be given 20 acres of land for every black male slave and 10 acres for every black female slave brought to the colony within the first year.

This encouragement worked. By 1683, the black population was equal to the white population. South Carolina, which became a separate colony in 1712, relied heavily on slave labor. By 1715, blacks outnumbered whites by 10,500 to 6,250. Less then ten years later, in 1724, there were three times as many blacks as whites.

Like the other slave holding colonies, because of the sizeable slave population, South Carolina was in fear of slave insurrections.

In order to help keep slaves from revolting, slave codes prohibited the sale of alcohol to slaves. In addition, to prevent cruelty to slaves, thereby dissuading rebellion, owners were prohibited from working slaves more than 15 hours between March 25 and September 25 and not more than 14 hours between September 25 and March 25.

North Carolina, on the other hand, had a large Quaker population that was opposed to slavery. Even though the slave population was small, Quakers established regular religious meetings for slaves and urged slaveholders to treat them well. In 1770, Quakers sought the prohibition of slavery. Unlike other slaveholding colonies, North Carolina did not have a concern about slave insurrections. There was not a slave rebellion until the 19th century.

New York

New York, originally called New Netherland by the Dutch who settled it, did have plantations that used slave labor. By 1638, it was common to have slaves. Slavery under the Dutch was different from in the South. Treatment of slaves was more humane and manumission was commonly granted to slaves who served loyally for a long time.

In 1664, New Netherland was taken over by the English. After slavery was recognized as legitimate in 1684, the slave population grew. In 1698, there were 2,170 blacks out of the total population of 18,067. By 1723, the slave population had grown to 6,171 and in 1771, there were 19,883 blacks out of a total population of 168,007.

Like its southern counterparts, New York had slave codes. Their concern was also on ensuring that slaves did not escape or become free because of conversion to Christianity. In 1706, according to one slave code, a slave who was baptized did not become free as a result. In 1715, to deter slaves from escaping to Canada, slaves that were caught 40 miles north of Albany would be executed based upon the oath of two credible witnesses.

Despite attempts to control slaves with slave codes, insurrections did happen. In 1712, 23 slaves in possession of guns and knives, set fire to the home of a slaveowner. The slaves then killed nine and injured six whites. The slaves responsible were captured and put on trial. Twenty-one of the slaves were found guilty and executed.

New Jersey

New Jersey also encouraged their citizens to own slaves, especially once the English came to dominate the colony. Unlike southern states, their slave population was never large and grew slowly. In 1726, the black population was 2,581, in 1738, it had only grown to 3,981, and in 1745, and there were 4,606 blacks out of the total population of 61,000.


The slave population in Pennsylvania grew extremely slowly, largely because of Quaker opposition. In 1721, the black population was 2,000 and by 1751, it had only grown to 3,000. In 1790, there were 10,274 blacks, and of these, 6,537 were free and 3,737 were slaves.

Pennsylvania was unique in that there was an early manumission movement. The colony was also distinctive in its belief in the humanity of blacks. Schools, churches, and marriage were open to the black population. The black family achieved some level of stability, and the community was generally free from violence.

While the treatment that colonial slaves endured could vary depending upon location, the desire for freedom was a commonality all slaves wanted. Colonists also had some commonalities. Most colonists were concerned about their investment in slaves and sought to prevent escape and slave insurrections with slave codes. Even though Pennsylvania took the lead in the manumission movement, the freedom of all slaves would not come until the Civil War.

For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract labourers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). During the eighteenth century however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor - responsible for almost 2.5 million. (A fact often forgotten by those who regularly cite Britain's prime role in the abolition of the slave trade.)

The triangular trade

Expanding European empires in the New World lacked one major resource -- a work force. In most cases the indigenous peoples had proved unreliable (most of them were dying from diseases brought over from Europe), and Europeans were unsuited to the climate and suffered under tropical diseases. Africans, on the other hand, were excellent workers: they often had experience of agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines.

Africans had been traded as slaves for centuries -- reaching Europe via the Islamic-run, trans-Saharan, trade routes. Slaves obtained from the Muslim dominated North African coast however proved to be too well educated to be trusted and had a tendency to rebellion.

Between 1450 and the end of the nineteenth century, slaves were obtained from along the west coast of Africa with the full and active co-operation of African kings and merchants. (There were occasional military campaigns organised by Europeans to capture slaves, especially by the Portuguese in what is now Angola, but this accounts for only a small percentage of the total.) In return, the African kings and merchants received various trade goods including beads, cowrie shells (used as money), textiles, brandy, horses, and perhaps most importantly, guns. The guns were used to help expand empires and obtain more slaves, until they were finally used against the European colonisers. The export of trade goods from Europe to Africa forms the first side of the triangular trade.

Trans-Atlantic exports by region


Number of slaves
accounted for





Upper Guinea



Windward Coast



Gold Coast



Blight of Benin



Blight of Biafra



West Central



South East






Data derived from tables 1.1, 3.2, 3.4, 4.1 and 7.4
as presented in:
Transformations in Slavery
by Paul E. Lovejoy
Cambridge University Press, 2000,
ISBN 0-521-78430-1

The transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas forms the middle passage of the triangular trade. Several distinct regions can be identified along the west African coast, these are distinguished by the particular European countries who visited the slave ports, the peoples who were enslaved, and the dominant African society(s) who provided the slaves.

So, for example, Senegambia includes the Wolof, Mandinka, Sereer and Fula; Upper Gambia has the Temne, Mende, and Kissi; the Wndward Coast has the Vai, De, Bassa, and Grebo. (A forthcoming article will look in more detail at the people and kingdoms involved in the slave trade.)

Slaves were introduced to new diseases and suffered from malnutrition long before they reached the new world. It is suggested that the majority of deaths on the voyage across the Atlantic - the middle passage - occurred during the first couple of weeks and were a result of malnutrition and disease encountered during the forced marches and subsequent interment at slave camps on the coast.

Conditions on the slave ships were terrible, but the estimated death rate of around 13% is lower than the mortality rate for seamen, officers and passengers on the same voyages. (Again, a forthcoming article will discuss 'mortality rates of the trans-Atlantic slave trade'.)

Trans-Atlantic imports by region


Number of slaves
accounted for





Spanish Empire



British West Indies



French West Indies



British North America and United States



Dutch West Indies



Danish West Indies



Europe (and Islands)






Data derived from table II as presented in:
The Slave Trade
by Hugh Thomas
Simon and Schuster, 1997,
ISBN 0-68481063-8

As a result of the slave trade, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas than Europeans. Slaves were needed on plantations and for mines and the majority was shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. Less than 5% travelled to the Northern American States formally held by the British.

The third, and final, leg of the triangular trade involved the return to Europe with the produce from the slave-labour plantations: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.

The statistics presented in this article are derived from various tables published in the following books:

Transformations in Slavery by Paul E. Lovejoy, Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-521-78430-1, 367 pages.

The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, Simon and Schuster, 1997, ISBN 0-68481063-8, 908 pages.
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