Atlantic Slave Trade
Africans as the Labor Source

New World plantation owners sought labor that was abundant and inexpensive. Native Americans were the obvious choice, but they died rapidly from such diseases as smallpox, mumps, and measles, which the Europeans introduced into the region and to which the Native Americans lacked immunity. They also could run away with ease: Their homes were usually close by, they were familiar with the land, and they knew how to survive on indigenous plants and animals. European indentured servants—criminals sentenced to labor or men obligated to work for a set time in exchange for ocean passage—also fell victim to diseases, mostly tropical malaria and yellow fever. They could also escape and easily blend in as members of the colony’s white ruling class.

But Africans were different: They came from an environment where those who survived into adolescence acquired some immunity to such “Old World” diseases as smallpox, mumps, and measles, as well as to such tropical maladies as malaria and yellow fever. This meant they lived three to five times longer than white laborers under the difficult conditions on plantations, and longer still than Native Americans. Also, when Africans ran away they could neither go home nor be mistaken for members of the planters’ society. Through most of the years of the Atlantic trade, prices for Africans remained favorable in relation to the price of the crops they produced. They were, thus, the best economic solution for plantation owners seeking inexpensive labor.
The Atlantic slave trade began as a trickle in the 1440s and grew slowly through the 17th century. By 1700, 25,000 slaves, on average, were crossing the Atlantic every year. After 1700 the trade grew much more rapidly to a peak in the 1780s, when an average year saw 80,000 African slaves arrive on American shores. Then the trade fell off more slowly and after 1850 quickly declined.
Most of the slaves transported in the Atlantic slave trade were adult men. About twice as many African men as women crossed the Atlantic, and only one in ten slaves traded to a European was under age ten. Africans tended to retain women slaves, whom they valued as agricultural workers and bearers of offspring. Children were less economical to trade: They cost as much to enslave and transport, yet brought lower prices.

Nearly all persons transported across the Atlantic in the slave trade came from the coast and interior of west and west central Africa, between the Sénégal River in the north and southern Angola in the south. A smaller number came from the Mozambique coast or the island of Madagascar along the southeastern side of Africa. Some areas supplied especially large numbers: Perhaps one-third of all slaves came from 800 km (500 mi) on either side of the Congo River and another one-third from the area that today is Benin and Nigeria.

IV   Conduct of the Slave Trade

The first Europeans to sail down Africa’s west coast in the mid-15th century attempted to steal Africans from their homes. Several violent confrontations showed Africans’ strength, however, and African boycotts proved how dependent Europeans were for such necessities as food and water. It became evident that the only practical way to obtain slaves or other commodities was to bring items the residents wanted in exchange. Within a short time, Europeans and Africans established a systematic way of trading that changed little over several centuries.

A basic tenet of the slave trade was that Europeans were the shippers only. They were not welcome inland and were generally forbidden to become involved in African politics. Consequently Europeans established outposts on islands or coastal ports where they dealt with neighboring African merchants and rulers.
Inland, Africans developed various commercial networks for supplying slaves and moving them to the coast. Across the interior of West Africa, Muslim families organized slave caravans and moved them from the interior to the coast. Along the Gold and Slave coasts (an area now comprising the nations of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria) the rulers of large states such as Ashanti, Dahomey, and Oyo obtained slaves through tribute, which was provided by the rulers of less powerful states in exchange for protection or as a symbol of allegiance. East of the Niger Delta, African commercial associations (known as trading houses) controlled slave procurement and delivery. Along the Angolan coast, officials of the Portuguese crown first organized inland slaving, but by the 18th century private Portuguese, mulatto (individuals of mixed African and European descent), and African traders were taking trade goods to interior markets and returning with slaves.

At various points along the coast, buyers and sellers met and struck deals. Europeans examined slaves; Africans looked over merchandise; and then the parties haggled to set the values of each. The assortment of the Europeans’ trade goods was always an important factor. Any notion that Africans were duped into accepting trinkets of little value is incorrect. Most knew what they wanted and could hold out for good terms. Typical commodities exchanged for slaves included cloth, metals and metalware, firearms and gunpowder, spirits, cutlery, coins, decorative wear, horses, salt, cowrie shells, and paper. The prices Europeans paid for slaves rose steadily through the years. An English buyer could obtain a healthy slave for 5.5 pounds worth of commodities in 1690 and 14 pounds worth in 1760. The same slave sold in Virginia for 15 pounds in 1690 and 45 pounds in 1760.

Slaves were not distributed evenly around the Atlantic. Roughly 40 percent of the total went to the Caribbean islands; another 38 percent went to Brazil; and Spanish America accounted for 17 percent. Only about 6 percent entered what would become the United States. Mortality factors affected the various populations’ abilities to reproduce, however, so the geographical distribution of African slaves does not correspond to today’s population of African descent in the western hemisphere. Slaves working on Caribbean and South American sugar plantations faced higher mortality rates as a result of harsh labor conditions and exposure to tropical diseases. As a result, slave populations in many sugar-producing areas grew steadily only because planters imported a continuous supply of new slaves from Africa. Slaves in what were the British North American colonies tended to live longer, healthier lives due to less brutal working conditions and a climate less hospitable to tropical diseases. As a result, slave populations in those areas continued to grow even after Britain and the United States abolished the importation of slaves in the early 1800s.


The Portuguese transported the greatest number of slaves in the early years of the slave trade, exercising a near monopoly well into the 17th century. Portugal had several advantages because of its early expansion into Africa and the ease of transporting slaves over the relatively short distance from Africa to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. The annexation of Portugal by Spain, from 1580 to 1640, tightened the Portuguese hold over the slave trade. Phillip II of Spain granted Portuguese merchants a monopoly on the importation of slaves to Spain’s colonies in America.
Portuguese influence declined after it gained independence from Spain in 1640. This coincided with the establishment of sugar plantations in the West Indies by the British, French, and Dutch. These nations began to claim larger parts of the slave trade during the 1640s, and by the 18th century the British were the dominant slave traders.
The Atlantic slave trade became part of a prosperous trading cycle known as the triangular trade. In the first leg of the triangle, European merchants purchased African slaves with commodities manufactured in Europe or imported from European colonies in Asia. They then sold the slaves in the Caribbean and purchased such easily transportable commodities as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Finally the merchants would sell these goods in Europe and North America. They would use the profits from these sales to purchase more goods to trade in Africa, continuing the trading cycle.


V   Middle Passage

The voyage from the African coast to the Americas was called the Middle Passage. For the human cargo of slaves, it was among the most difficult sea passages ever undertaken. On average, 16 percent of the men, women, and children involved perished in transit.

The typical ocean crossing might last from 25 to 60 days, depending on origin, destination, and winds. Slaves were kept below at night on decks four or five feet high. They had less than half the space allotted convicts or soldiers transported by ship at the same time. Captains kept slaves above deck through as much of the day as weather permitted. Men remained shackled; women and children were freer; crews encouraged movement and activity. Two meals per day were the norm. The food varied according to purchases at departure: corn and rice from the less-forested regions on the northern and southern extremes; yams from the Niger delta to the Zaire River. Sometimes dried beans from Europe were standard fare. Each person received about a pint of water with a meal.
Shipboard hygiene was primitive. Captains made reasonable efforts to guard food and water from contamination and to isolate the sickest slaves, but sanitary facilities were inadequate and slave ships harbored a wealth of diseases. Dysentery was the biggest killer. Mortality rates declined after the mid-18th century. By that time ships had become faster (meaning less time for contamination of food and water and spreading of diseases), and captains had learned how to prevent scurvy with citrus fruits and how to produce fresh water by boiling and evaporating salt water.


VI   Final Destination

Dangers were not over with landfall in the Americas. Africans were entering new disease environments, eating new foods, drinking different water. Mortality rates through an assimilation period were high—10 percent on British islands in the Caribbean, for instance.

Slaves faced a variety of experiences in the Americas, but nearly all involved heavy physical labor, poor housing, and insufficient medical care. Sugar plantations were the norm from northeastern Brazil through the Caribbean islands and plantation conditions brought the highest mortality rates. For example, British planters imported about 264,000 slaves into the Caribbean between 1640 and 1700, but high mortality rates reduced the number of slaves on the islands to about 100,000 by the time of the 1700 census. In the French colony of Saint Domingue, about 860,000 slaves arrived between 1680 and 1791, but the black population was only 480,000 in 1791. Slaves also worked mines in Peru or Mexico and labored to produce tobacco, indigo, rice, or cotton on the British North American mainland. In the few places where plantation agriculture was not profitable, they did a variety of tasks for their masters, from working as house servants to practicing a trade.