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Atlantic Slave Trade

In 1502, Spanish colonists asked the king of Spain for permission to bring African slaves to the New World to provide labor for their large farms, or plantations. The colonists occupied the West Indies, the islands in the Caribbean Sea on which explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) had first landed ten years earlier. In their first decade in the West Indies, the Spanish colonists had forced Native Americans to do their labor, but the native Caribbean people were dying in large numbers from overwork and from the infectious diseases brought to the New World by the Spanish. The Spanish king gave his approval for the colonists to import Africans, and the Atlantic slave trade began.

Trade on the African coast

The Portuguese, who claimed the exclusive right to trade on the west coast of Africa, had started the African slave trade in the early fifteenth century. While they were trading other goods with the Africans, the Portuguese noticed that slavery was an accepted part of life there. The most common form of slavery occurred when one tribe forced prisoners of war from other tribes to become their domestic slaves. Portuguese traders soon learned to buy slaves from the African coastal rulers. They also rented land from the local rulers and built a series of great forts that looked like castles along the coast of Africa. These forts, called barracoons, were designed to temporarily confine the Africans who had been purchased by the Europeans and were awaiting transport to Europe.

One of the African coastal kingdoms from which Portugal obtained slaves was Benin, located in the forests of Nigeria. Benin was a large empire with a powerful army. Like many other coastal kingdoms, Benin came to accept the slave trade as a fast way to increase its wealth and maintain its status with Europeans. The Portuguese slave traders later developed a slave trade in southern Africa in Kongo, virtually destroying the once-powerful civilization by taking so many of its people into slavery. When profits failed there, they moved on, turning their attention to Angola, farther south. Using black mercenaries (paid soldiers) equipped with firearms, they began a long war in Angola, capturing many Africans in battles that were truly slave hunts. The Portuguese slave traders then found sources for more captives in the prosperous Swahili coastal cities of East Africa.

The Atlantic slave trade thrived as the plantations of the New World grew. By the eighteenth century the actual slave catching was done mainly by inland groups, such as the Ashanti and the Dahomey, while the coastal tribes acted as middlemen between the slave catchers and the European slave traders. The captives usually came from regions 200 to 300 miles inland, often much farther. African slave traders marched the captives in coffles, or gangs, to the coast. To prevent escape, two slaves were often linked together by means of a stick with a fork at each end into which the slaves’ necks were fastened. Once they reached the coast, the captives were kept in a barracoon. When enough people had been collected, they were ferried out by canoe to the ships waiting offshore.

British slave trade

The Portuguese claim on the slave trade was soon challenged by French, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Prussian, and English slave traders, or slavers. By 1713, England had a virtual monopoly (exclusive right to the trade) on the slave trade north of the equator. Around that time, there was a great boom in the slave trade due to the increasing demand for slaves in the West Indies, where large tobacco and sugar plantations demanded a tremendous amount of physical labor.

Unfortunately for the slaves, the profits on the Caribbean plantations were so high that many people were worked to death within a year or two of arriving. With profits made from the work of one slave in less

than a year, the plantation owners were able to purchase another person to replace one who had died. The English city of Liverpool was built largely on money made from this inhuman, but booming, trade. The people of Africa became convinced that white men were cannibals who ate nothing but human flesh, as they could think of no other explanation for the enormous demand for African people.

Slave trade begins in the colonies

In the early days, English colonies in North America depended on European indentured servants for labor. Indentured servants were individuals who were committed to working for someone for a fixed number of years, usually in exchange for the price of their passage to the colonies. Indentured servants had few rights during their period of service, but after it was over they were free. By the seventeenth century, the supply of indentured servants began to run short, and the colonists sought African slaves to meet labor demands.

The first black slaves landed in Jamestown, Virginia , in 1619. They were treated as indentured servants. Although they were not treated as well as their European counterparts, at least some of the early African slaves gained their freedom at the end of their contract. Some went on to become property owners and professionals. But within a few decades African slaves in the colonies had come to be considered human property rather than indentured servants.

Initially all the original thirteen colonies had slaves. Small farms in New England, however, had much less use for physical labor than the plantation system in the South, which relied heavily on slave labor. When demand grew for sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton , the number of slaves in the South grew as well, and slaves became concentrated there. (See Slavery in the Antebellum South .) Slavery was abolished in most northern colonies at the end of the eighteenth century, but the New England colonies continued to take an active part in the slave trade itself by providing ships and crews and selling the slaves in the South.

Triangular trade and the Middle Passage

The Atlantic slave trade developed into a triangular, or three-legged, trade in the mid-eighteenth century. A captain in Europe or New England would load up with rum and other goods to trade and sail to Africa, where the goods would be exchanged for slaves. He would then take his slaves to the West Indies or the Americas and sell them, taking on a cargo of molasses, which he would transport to New England to be made into rum. In this way, a captain was never forced to sail with an empty hold and could make a profit on each leg of the voyage.

The base of the triangle, the two- to five-month voyage in which the African captives were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, became known as the Middle Passage. (See Slave Ships and the Middle Passage .) The captives were packed into tiny spaces and forced to live in unbearable conditions for the voyage. Many died on the way.

Scholars believe between twelve and fifteen million Africans were brought across the ocean during the four-hundred-year history of the African slave trade between 1500 and 1900. The great majority of them went to the West Indies and Brazil. By comparison, what became the United States imported relatively few slaves, about five hundred thousand

people. Many of the slaves who came into the United States were purchased from the West Indies, not directly from Africa.

Prohibiting foreign slave trade

By the end of the eighteenth century, opposition to the slave trade grew strong in Europe and the United States. Great Britain abolished the trade in 1807, and the United States did the same in 1808, prohibiting the import of slaves from foreign countries but continuing to allow the sale of slaves between states. (See Abolition Movement .)

The Atlantic trade continued to increase despite the prohibitions against it. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the development of the power loom created an almost unlimited demand for cotton and resulted in fresh demands for slaves. The value of a prime field hand rose from $500 to $1,500. The records of one slave smuggler showed that on a single successful trip he made a net profit of $41,439. Two or three such voyages could make a man wealthy for life.

The illegal slave trade

The slavers started using fast ships that were rarely caught by the much-slower British patrol ships on the African coast. As slavery was still legal in Africa, the native rulers continued to erect barracoons along the coast and await cruising slavers. Arriving slave traders would signal from their ships, usually by flags, that they were in the market for a certain number of slaves. The captives were then ferried out and quickly loaded onto the slave ships; the slaver would then sail for the West Indies at high speed. Unless a frigate (a type of warship) was able to catch a slaver in the act of loading, capture was highly unlikely.

In 1840, the British Navy, tired of seeing the barracoons packed with slaves along the coast, finally burned them after freeing the captives. As a result, the barracoons had to be relocated far inland, which made loading the slaves onto ships much more difficult. Meanwhile, slaves continued to be run into southern ports of North America.

The end of the slave trade

With the abolition of slavery in the United States and the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) in 1865, the Atlantic slave trade largely came to an end. (Brazil continued its trade in slaves until 1888, when it became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery.) For Europeans and Americans, the Atlantic trade and slave labor had resulted in prosperity, at least for a time. For Africans, the slave trade was decimating. It bled dry great sections of the continent, leaving communities so weak that they could not harvest crops. The slave trade also encouraged local wars and discouraged the development of Africa's resources because the trade was so enormously profitable that nothing else could compete with it.

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