The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Instructor: Jason McCollom
From the 16th through the 19th century, the transatlantic slave trade linked Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Through the bondage of millions, the trade created unprecedented wealth for Europeans and contributed to their global rise.

King of the Kongo Receives Visitors

In 1482, strange explorers arrived in the Central African kingdom of Kongo. Trying to find a new route from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, Portuguese mariners traveled the Congo River. Years later they made trade connections with Manikongo ('lord of the Kongo') Nzinga Mbemba. Through this interaction, the Kongo king adopted Christianity and became known as King Afonso I, ruling from 1506 until his death in 1543. Afonso enjoyed the European trade goods that came his way, for they made life easier and enhanced his power. But that soon changed.

Portuguese slave catchers began kidnapping Afonso's men and selling them into slavery across the Atlantic in the Americas. His kingdom became depopulated. A distraught Afonso wrote to the Portuguese king that slave raiders 'are taking every day our natives.' We don't know if the European king ever responded. But we do know that the situation of Kongo was repeated many times over hundreds of years, as Europeans first made trade connections in West Africa, and then turned to enslave millions to work on plantations in the New World. The transatlantic slave trade devastated West Africa, but at the same time made Europe fabulously wealthy and powerful on the world stage.

Origins of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Demand for sugar initially drove the slave trade system. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans set up sugar plantations in the humid subtropics of coastal Brazil and the Caribbean islands. The harvest and processing of the sugarcane, however, demands constant and intensive labor, the type one would have to force another human being to perform. No one would volunteer to work on a sugar plantation! European and indigenous workers were not suited to the labor, so Africans were enslaved and taken to the Americas. The Portuguese were the first to ship large numbers of enslaved Africans from Angola to their colony of Brazil, beginning in the late 16th century.

Growth of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

From here, the English, French, and Dutch got involved, and soon large parts of West Africa, the Gulf of Guinea coast, and the Congo River basin were major areas of human exports to the Americas, mostly to sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

By the late 17th century, the so-called Triangle Trade developed. European ships loaded up with guns, textiles, tobacco, and manufactured goods sailed to African slave ports and traded those goods for captives. European slave traders then took those Africans to the New World where they were sold. With that money, the Europeans purchased staples such as sugar, tobacco, rum, and coffee, which were then sold for enormous profit back in Europe. That profit was often reinvested in other goods to be traded for captives back in Africa, and so on.

The Triangle Trade
triangle trade

How did Africans end up on the coasts as captives to be sold to European slave traders? Most were captured during war or other conflicts, while others were punished in a court of law and ordered sold. Still others were kidnapped. From there, the slave coffle, slaves shackled together by chains around their necks, were marched from the African interior to the slave coasts. After their sale to Europeans, the captives began the horrific Middle Passage, called such because it was the 'middle passage' in the three passages of the Triangle Trade. This voyage from Africa to the New World was unimaginably hideous: hundreds of human beings packed together in filthy conditions below deck where they were chained and diseased and at the mercy of violent slave traders, endured a month-long journey across the Atlantic.

During the Middle Passage, captives were crammed into the hold of the slave ship
slave ship

Through these means, the transatlantic slave trade boomed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Overall, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas. Probably only 10 million arrived alive after the brutality of the Middle Passage.

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