The Transatlantic Slave Trade
(1) The Atlantic Triangle
The idea of the transatlantic slave trade was initially developed by the Europeans in order to get cheap labour to harvest cotton, sugar, and tobacco in the "New World". This Triangular Trade con- sisted of three sea routs (building a triangle on the map) between the "New World", Europe and Africa. The trade ships sailing along those routs carried goods each only produced in one of the continents and not elsewhere, and were therefore considered highly valuable for the other conti- nents and also highly profitable for the seamen.
This is how it worked: Europeans sent trading ships to Africa with cargoes of wool or cotton materials, rum, brandy, iron bars, knives, axes, firearms, gunpowder etc. to be exchanged for po- tential slaves being shipped to the Americas, there in exchange for cash, sugar, coffee, tobacco, gold, and timber for sailing masts. With the ship bellies filled with those American goods, the slav- ers sailed for their homeports in Europe.
American slavers also participated in this triangular trade, crossing the Atlantic with fish, whale oil, candles, timber, and especially rum to exchange for slaves in Africa, which they took to the West Indies in exchange for molasses. After trading their slaves, these American ships then voy- aged back home with supplies to make into more rum.
According to Philip Curtin,1 between 1500 and 1900, approximately 11.7 million people were removed mostly from West (about 80%), Central, and southern Africa in the intention of settling them as slaves in Europe, islands off the African coast or – the Americas, although 'only' 4.5 to 5 percent of them ended up in the United States. Only about 9.8 to 10 millions made it to their des- tination; the rest perished in port, at sea, or upon arrival in a new land.
The number of people taken from their homelands varied over the centuries (and it also varies from source to source):
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It is worth noting that the total number parallels the nearly twelve million Africans who were sent east- and northward by Arab slave traders during the much longer period of 650-1900.
The following map (source: <www.slaveryinamerica.org>) depicts the forced movement of mil- lions of enslaved Africans to the Americas over a span of four centuries. It is estimated that as many as 15 million people were transported as slaves, with unknown numbers dying en route.
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Almost all of the enslaved Africans worked as plantation labourers or else in mining, and most of those in the Caribbean and Central and South America died from the harshness of the work and the brutality of their living conditions. Only in North America did the slave population reproduce itself, with individuals having a life expectancy equal to that of the white population.
The vast majority of the enslaved were youths between 10 and 24 years old. 56% were men, 30% were young women, and 14% were children. American demand rejected older slaves as diffi- cult to train and unlikely to survive.
Slaves were taken from all classes of African society; many nobles among them. Many of them lost their freedom after being taken prisoner during African wars. Up to 5% of enslaved Africans died before they even left Africa, since the Portuguese crammed hundreds of slaves into dun- geons, the so-called forts, where the slaves were kept until being taken away from their homeland by ships. But many of them died because the loading process in the ports took up to six (!) months.
But also white men died both, on land and on sea due to poor conditions, inadequate food and water, exhausting work, but most of them of tropical diseases. During their first year in residence, some 60% of the European traders died in the foreign regions of the coast. Africa was therefore called the 'white man's grave'.
All things considered, the Atlantic Slave Trade was one of the most devastating events in world history.
(2) On the History of the Slave Trade
Slavery and slave trading were well-developed systems in West Africa before Europeans estab- lished contact.Muslim slave traders from Arabia and Turkey, for example, had transported en- slaved Africans and Europeans into South East Asia and the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, but less in an exploiting manner (like in the Atlantic slave trade), rather as a hierarchy of peasants and bourgeoisie.
Europe's conquest of the Americas had opened up a treasure trove of minerals and fertile agri- culture lands. The major issue was to find skilled labourers capable of working profitably in the new climate. The white traders already had tried to meet their labour needs with Native Ameri- cans who had been enslaved during the wars of conquest. But far too many of them succumbed to disease and cruel treatment. Also, white workers were sent out from Europe. But not only had there been far too few who were willing to emigrate into the American wilderness, also only some of those had the agricultural skills and physical endurance to handle the challenge.
At the same time, due to their isolated geographical position on the Atlantic coast, far from the rich Mediterranean commerce, it was the Portuguese who first learnt to sail down the Atlantic to West Africa. Initially, their intention was to turn the Moorish flank by sailing around the continent to the riches of Asia. But since their first journey to the East took the lives of two thirds of the seamen and half of the ships, they were forced to bypass hundreds of land-based middlemen and taxing units on future journeys. Like this, they were able to turn a profit 60 times the cost of the journey. In future, more and more ships began arriving off the African coasts. There, they built extensive political connections with African leaders and made trade, which until then was centred on the rivers due to local settlement, work in their interest. The establishing of a West African kingdom, in return, often depended on the access to European firepower, which they received in exchange for slaves who were shipped as relatively cheap labour to the Americas. So Europeans exploited the political and linguistic divisions between Africans. Africans, on the other hand, often assumed to exploit Europeans by selling them unwanted captives from rival groups.
So African slaves proved to be a bargain in the Americas, because their labour in the mercan- tile systems of the New World was worth so much more than it was in tropical Africa, where hoe agriculture produced little in the way of surplus wealth. Also: since the African slaves were shipped abroad on shorter sea routes and possessed superior resistance to tropical fevers, died at only one-third the rate of Europeans who were brought to New World plantations.
In 1493, the Catholic Church awarded Portugal the exclusive right to exploration and trade with Africa. But by the middle of the 16th century, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Swedes, the Danes, and the Prussians would challenge Portuguese dominance of the slave trade, and they would build forts along the West African coast beside the Portuguese forts. Later, Spain and Por- tugal granted licenses that permitted the direct shipment of Africans to specified destinations; those licenses were highly priced, since they guaranteed their owners’ huge profit.
In Africa, European traders dealt with African suppliers, seldom capturing the slaves them- selves. As a matter of fact, it was mainly Africans who captured and sold Africans. From their per- spective, the people they sold away were not countrymen but outsiders, prisoners of war, crimi- nals or kidnap victims from other societies. Thus, it was considered both, reasonable and profit- able. Also, they saw no immorality in selling foreign African slaves to white Europeans, since the coastal peoples did not organise their world in racial categories. In all, for those on the coast, e. g. Ghana, selling foreigners was a lucrative business. Such countries grew materially rich on selling their people at high profit to the seamen who would bring those Africans to the "New World" – but on the other hand they grew less self-sufficient and much more dependent on foreign trade because of their loss of human capital. The city of Liverpool also grew big due to supplying the slave trade with almost half the number of required ships by the end of the 18th century.
1 Philip Curtin published these figures in his book The Atlantic Slave Trade in 1969, which was the first modern quantita- tive study of the slave trade, according to Stewart (1996).