The African Slave Trade: The Europeans

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Figure 1.--Here we see a depiction of African slaves being hearded into a slave market. We do no know who the illustrator was or when it was drawn. Notice the ship in the background, leaving the impression that they are Africans who have just made the Middle Passage. The way thdy are dressed, however, is not the way newly arrived slaves would have been dressed.

A new outlet for Aftrican slaves appeared in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers began voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Portuguese were looking for a route to Asia, but as they moved south they began setting up trading posts. First the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of West Africa, but gradually moved further south along the coast. Other European maritime powers followed suit. This was the beginning of the African slave trade. The Europeans differed from the Arabs in that they did not normally conduct raids themselves, but usually bougth slaves from Arab slave brokers and African chiefs. Europeans built trading post and forts all along the coast of West Africa. From Senegal south to Cameroons there were about 60 forts that served as trading posts for the slave trade. The Europeans exchanged rum, cloth, guns, and other trade goods for their human cargo. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean primarily to Brazil, the West Indies and the English colonies in North America. Imense fortues were made in the trade. As the demand for slaves expanded, whole areas of Africa were depopulated. Scholars estimate that 10-15 million Africans were transported to the New World. The European African slave trade began during the mercantalist era. It continued well into the industrial era. In fact because African slaves played a major role in the industrial revolution in Europe. The ememse profits from West Indian sugar islands helped to finance the industrial revolution. And the raw material for the first real modern industry, cotton textiles, was produced by slaves. The slave trade was finally ended by the Royl Navy in the mid-19th century.

The African Political Structure

The African political structure is difficukt to describe over the very long period in which the Arab slave trade in Africa took place. The rrade was conducted over 12 centuries, roughly from 650-1900. It is important, however, to roughly sketch the political structure to understand the environment in which both Europeans and Arabs conducted the slave trade. The Arabs conquered North Africa from a very early stage of the Islamic expansion. Arab traders penetrated into sub-Saharan Africa through desert caravans, the Nilr River, and by estanlish trading postas along the Indian coast of the continent. The black African kingdoms they encountered as they moved into the interior varied over time. Europeans had little access to Africa, blocked for centuries by Arab control of North Africa. This only began to change in the 15th cenntury with the European voyages of discovery with the Portuguese edgeing their way down the African coast. Like the Arabs along the Indian Ocean coast, European influence along the Atlantic coast was first limited to coastal regions.

European Voyages of Discovery

A new outlet for Aftrican slaves appeared in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers began voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Portuguese were looking for a route to Asia, but as they moved south they began setting up trading posts. First the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of West Africa, but gradually moved further south along the coast. Other European maritime powers followed suit. While the Europeans were primarily interested in trading with Asia, they found some profits to be had from Africa. This was the beginning of the African slave trade. Initially there was only a minor imact on Africa. The primary interest of the Europeans was gold. Slaves were initially of only minor importance.

The Portuguese

Histories of the Atlantic slave trade commonly begin with Columbus and the discovery of the Americas (1492). The trade actually begun earlier. The Portuguese began moving south along the copast of Africa (early 15th centurty). As they moved south they set of trading posts and among the goods traded was captived Afreicans who they enslaved. These voyages were done in great secrecy. Some historians believe that it was the Portuguese who really discovered the America, but kept it secret. Note how Brazil juts out into the Atlsntic Ocean. It seems likely that they would have signted Brazil. As this is not even considering the Portuguese fishermen operating in the North Atlantic. Whether they actually discovered the Americas can not be proven, but it us clear that their movement south along the coast of Africa was the origin of the slave trade.

Columbus and the the New World

While the Portugues sailed south, Christopher Columbus convinced Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand to finance a voyage west. The result was the discovery of the Americas (1492). The Spanish were interested primarily in gold and found immense quantities in Peru and Mexico. South America was divided between Spain and Portugal. The Spanish suceeded in turning the Native Americans in Mexico and Peru into a basically enslaved labor force. In the West Indies, however, the Spanish largely exterminated the Native population. As a result they began importing Africans as slave labor. The Portuguese did the same. The islands of the West Indies assumed emense economic importabce when sugar was intrduced. Other European naval powers seized ilands from the Spanish (Denmark, England, France, and the Netherlands). The profitability of sugar created a huge demand for African slaves.

Sugar

Sugar is not needed for proper nutition, but for some reason man is geneticall programed to seek out sugar. It is one of the five tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami (savory or mearty) that human taste buds detect. Sugar is found in small quantities in many foods. Man was not gentically engineered to consume large quantities of sugar. And doing so in our modern world has caused all kinds of health problems. For most of human existence, this is how sugar was ingested, supplement by occassion bee hive finds. It was the Polynesians who are believed to have discovered sugarcane. Indian traders operating in Polynsia brought it back to India where processes for manufacturing refined sugar were first developed. When the Persian Emperor Darius invaded northwestern India (6th century BC), the Persians encountered sugar bringing it further west. The Arab Islamic outburst resulted in the creation of a vast empire--the Caliphate (7th century AD). The Arabs encountered sugr in Persia and spread it througout their empire as far west as Spain. It was during the Crusades, however, that European elites first became aware of sugar. The Arabs continued to control the sugar trade for several centuries after the First Crusade. The word surgar (azucar in Spanish) is of Arab origins. Arab control meant that quantities were limited in Europe ad hugely expensive. Only a few areas in Europe were suitble for growinging sugar cane. This changed with Colunbus' discovery of the Americas ad the colonization of huge areas in the tropical zone that were suitable for growing cane. This set in motion both a sugar boom and the Atlantic slave trade. Large scale production began in Brazil (17th century), but soon spread to the Caribbean. The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islabds some of the most valuable realestate in the world.

European Traders

The Portuguese built the first fort in Africa at Arguin in present day Mauritania (1448). The profits achieved by the Portuguese attracted the interest of other larger European powers. Traders from other countries in the 16th century estanlished rival trading stations and in some cases seized the Portuguese trading stations. Spain began the slave trade (1479). England entered the slave trade (1562). Other countries gradually joined in the rade: the Netherlands(1625), France (1642); Sweden (1647); and Denmark (1697). From Senegal south to Cameroons there were about 60 forts that served as trading posts for the slave trade. The Europeans differed from the Arabs in that they did not normally conduct raids themselves, but usually bougth slaves from Arab slave brokers and African chiefs. Europeans built trading post and forts all along the coast of West Africa. The Europeans exchanged rum, cloth, guns, and other trade goods for their human cargo. Imense fortues were made in the trade.

Origins

Most Afro-Americans have, however, have descended from peoples brought to America by force as part of the Atlantic slave trade. The great majority thus came from West and Central Africa. Some of the first slaves came from what is modern Senegal and Gambia. Gradually slaves were accessed from locations further south alonf the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. And finally slaves began flowing in from cental Africa (Kingdom of the Kongo). This included some slaves from Angola. [Lovejoy] Slaves from southern Africa largely went to Brazil, in part becuse of geography and also because Angola and Mozambique were Portuguese colonies. Some Angolans did reach America, but most cme from West Africa. Slaves frm East Africa were mostly involved with the Arab slave trade network. Slave masters in certain areas durng the 18th century often had preferences as to the origins of slaves. These oprefereces varied from place to place. For the most part such references gradually declined with the ending of the slave trade in Britain and the United States (1807). By the time of Emancipation in the United states (1863), few slave masters or slaves had any idea about orgins. Here Alex Haley's ground-breaking book Roots helped to raise interest anong Afro-Americans as to their origins. Here DNA work can provide indicators, however, most modern Afro-Americans are descended from ancestos who have intermarried without any concern for origins and thus have mixed tribal backgrounds.

Triangular Trade

The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islands some of the most valuable realestate in the world. The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Sugar Boom became two sides of a trianglar trade that became central to the colonial maritime economy--sugar (often shipped as molasses) and other raw materials to Euope, manufactured goods to Africa, and slaves to the Americas. Planters in Brazil ad the Caribbean shipped sugar to Europe or New England. Much of it was distilled into rum. Some of the profits were then used to purchase manufactured goods that were then shipped to West Africa and used to bartered for slaves. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to Brazilian and Caribbean sugar planters. This enable the planters to produce more sugar to continue the trianguar trade. The basic pattern was somewhat complicated by colonial trade regulations and the developing North American colonial economy.

The Middlle Passage

Perhaps the The greates horror of the Atlangtic slave trade was the Middle passage. The Middle Passage was the sea route taking African captives across the Atlantic for sale in the Ameican colonies/United States, the Caribbean sugar islands, amd South America, mostly Brazil. The journey was horrific with many of the captive dieing. Slavers tightly packed chained men, women and children together. There were different theories ob how tom load the Africans. Some believes in tight packing, calculating that the greater number would make up for the resulting deaths. Some slavers opacked as many as 300-400 cgained Africans into the holds. Others believed that looser packing would allow for more healthy conditiins and thuus more would survice. The chains kept the Africans from rebelling or chosing suicide by jumping overboard. Many died in the crossing from disease, murder, starvation, suicide, asphyxiation and severe depression. Some of the whirte white crewman also died. A great deal of information exists on the Middle Passage, abolitionist publications as well as accounts from crewmembers, There are only a few accounts from the slaves themselves. One slave kidnapped as a boy from what is today Nigeria, writes, " was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me." He goes on to illustrate the journey: "The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was to crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. .... The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable." [Equiano] Another acoount comes from a slave captured near the Niger River in 1840 as the Atlngtic slave trade was winding down was sold in Brazil. He gave this account to author Samuel Moore in 1854. It is one of the few accounts in the words of one of the slaves who experienced the Middle Passage. "The only food we had during the voyage was corn soaked and boiled. .... We suffered very much for want of water, but was denied all we needed. A pint a day was all that was allowed, and no more; and a great many slaves died upon the passage. There was one poor fellow so very desperate for want of water, that he attempted to snatch a knife from the white man who brought in the water, when he was taken up on deck and I never knew what became of him. I suposed he was throwb overboard .... When ever one of us became refractory, his flesh was cut with a knife, and peper or vinegar was rubbed in to make him peaceable (!) I suffered, and so did the rest of us, very much from sea sickness at first, but that did not cause our brutal owners any trouble .... Some were thrown overboard before breath was out of their bodies; when it was thought any would not live , they were got rid of in that way." [Baquaqua, p. 27 ]

Dimensions

The numbers of Africans tranported to the New World is not known with any accuracy. Scholars debate the actual numbers. The American Constitution included provisions ending the slave trade and the British Royal Navy played a major in supressing it in the 19th century. Thus by about 1840 the slave trade to the New World had been reduced to relatively small numbers. Scholars believe, however, that about 10-15 million Africans were transported to the New World. While scholars may debate the actual figure, most will estimates fall in the 10-15 million range. This is a staggering figure as it far exceeds the number of Europeans who came to the New World. (The number of Europeans increased substantially beginning in the 1840s with the Irish because of the Potato Famine and many other countries after the Civil War.) What is staggering about this figure is that European immigration before 1840 titaled only about 2 million. Here figures are again not precise, but much more reliable than data on African slaves. The obvious question is why was the European population in the Americas so much higher if in fact so many more Africans were transported to the New World. The answer is unavoidable. Huge numbers of Africans died both in the passage to America and as a result of overwork and abuse as slaves in America. No fact more eloquently puts to lie the long held myth that slavery in the American south was benign. (Conditions on Caribbean and Brazilian plantations were often even worse.)

Chronology

The dinmensions and destinations of the Atalanyic slave trade varied substantially over time. The early era or 15th and 16th centuries (1451-1600) involved very few Africans, perhaps 3 percent of the total. Mmore than half went to Europe or European controlled islands off Africa. The 17th century saw the The numbers increased substantially from the low base, but still amounted to less than 15 percent of the total. The increase resulted from the beginning of the sugar indusry in Brazil and the Caribbean. The 18th century saw the peak of the slave trade, nearly 65 oercent of the total. Almost all went to Brazil and the Caribbean. The numbers sold in North America were minisule. The slave trade declined substantially in the 19th century after the Naopoleonic Wars. Only about 20 percent of the slaves we transported furing this period. Both Britain and America outlawed the slave trade, but not at first slavery. This was the era in which American southern planters developed cotton agriculture with slave labor on plantations, but they had to do it with the existing slave poplation and natural increases. Only 3 percent of the slaves shipped across the Alantic were sold in the United States. [Lombardi and Lombardi]

Destination

The slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean primarily to Brazil, the West Indies and the English colonies in North America. Most African slaves were transported to Brazil and the West Indies. About 90 percent are believed to have been trasported to these two areas. Only about 10 percent were tansported to North America. Brazil was the major importer in the America of Africans. On scholar writes, "Bring two-thirds of Brazil's recorded history it was an established and nearly unquestioned practice to uproot black people from their native societies and transport them across the Atlantic to Brazil, there to be sold to planters, miners, and town dwellers to do harsh work of a frontier society." [Conrad, p. 3.] The Brazilian relaince on slaves as a labor force wa neraly total through the mod-19th century. And in ciontrast to North America, the main metho of replemishing gthe slave population as through the Altantic slave trade, not naturalm reproduction. Brazilian slaves had alow rate of reproduction and a high mortality rate. [Meade, p. 34.]

The Indian Ocean

The Europen African slave trade was primarily a trans-Atlantic traffic. The Indian Ocean slave trade was dominated by the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar. Europeans (the French abd Portuguese) were also involved to a lesser degree. Most of the slaves taken were worked in EastAfrican plantations by the Sultan. Most of the remaunder were sold in Middle Eastern markets. The Mozambique slaves weresold to French plantation owners. Some of the India Ocean traffic, especially the Mozambique slaves entered the Atlantic slave trade. Many were transported to Brazil.

Slavery in the Americas

The Portuguese as they pushed south along the coast of West Africa were the first Europeans to come into contact with the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. Thus when Portugal and Spain established the first American colonies, they first introduced Africans as a labor source in the New World. It was sugar that first made slavery important and Caribbean sugar islands became enormously important. The European countries which conquered native American civilizations in the 16th century enslaved millions in Brazil and South America to work in mines and the tremendously profitable sugar plantations. The conditions were so brutal and European disesases so virlulent that native American populations were descimated. The Spanish and Portuguese turned Africans. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans.

Impact on Africa

The impact on Africa is difficult to assess because there are so few historical recirds. The slave trade profoundly affected the structure of African political organization. Established trade routes shifted. Important trade routes went north to the Sahara and east to Arab-controlled Indian Ocean ports. The demand for slaves by Europeans redirected trade west to the new European trading stations along the Atalntic coast. As a result, the African states of the savanna declined as coastal states increased in wealth and importance. Conflict escalated among coastal peoples trying to control trade routes. Of great importance was access to European firearms. Captives taken in war could be readily sold to the Europeans. As the demand for slaves expanded, there are reports of whole areas of Africa being depopulated. There was no African country that was not affected by the slave trade. Different countries were affected in different wauys and odiffering dgree. We have several pages on East Africa, in oart becaue of Islamic support for skavery in continued there into the modern era and there is photographic evidence. We are now beginning to work on West African countries like Sierra Leone.

Economic Impact

The European African slave trade began during the mercantalist era. It continued well into the industrial era. In fact because African slaves played a major role in the industrial revolution in Europe. The ememse profits from West Indian sugar islands helped to finance the industrial revolution. And the raw material for the first real modern industry, cotton textiles, was produced by slaves.

The French Revolution (1789)

African slavery became well estanlished in European colonies, including French colonies, during the 17th century. African slavery was an important economic institition by the 18th century, especially important for the Caribbean sugar islands which were a major element in Western European economies. France lost most of its empire to the British, but retained imporant Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the frameing of the Constitution would have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to redlect the bouergoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy. While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverbreations, both in the Caribbean and in England which affected slavery. Neither the Revolutionaries or Napoleon moved yoward abolition. Neither did the restored French momarchy after the Naoleonic Wars. This in fact posed a problen for Britain which after abolishing slavery gave the Royal Navy the task of ending the Atalantic slave trade.

Ending the Atlantic Slave Trade

The United States banned the importation of slaves (1808). There was, however, only minimal enforcement. It was the Royal Navy that eventually ended the slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New Wiorld and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgur (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cesation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to persue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operartions abour 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be persued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Eventhough thecslave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggresively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Cuban trade ended (1866).

Sources

Baquaqua, Mahommah Gardo in Robert E. Conrad, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 1983).

Conrad, Robert E. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 1983).

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London: 1789, reprinted Coral Gables: 1989).

Lombardi, Cathryn L. and John V. Lombardi. Latin American History: A Teaching Atlas (University of Wisconsin Press, 1983).

Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Meade, Teresa A. A Brief History of Brazil (Facts on File: New York, 2010), 280p.






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Created: 5:05 AM 4/29/2006
Last updated: 6:45 AM 2/18/2016