Transatlantic Slave Trade

Timeline for Slave Trade

Many world historians mark the beginning of the "modern age" with the emergence of the transatlantic slave trade. Between 1441 to 1888 the transatlantic slave trade initiated a forced migration of approximately 12 million people from many diverse societies and cultures in west and west central Africa to European colonies in the Caribbean Islands, in Central and South America, and in North America. At it height during the 18th century (1701-1800), there were approximately 6,090,000 slaves transported from Africa to worldwide destinations. (click here to read more about the origins and view a statistical chart). While the Portugese (from 1441) are usually cited with being the first to engage in the the transatlantic slave trade, most major European maritime empires participated including Spain (from 1479); Great Britain (from 1562), North America (from 1619); Holland (from 1625); France (from 1642); Sweden (from 1647); and Denmark (from 1697).

While the emerging transatlantic slave trade is a complex phenomenon, its economic roots lay in the need for labor within expanding European empires in the New World. Many native workers had died due to diseases brought over with the European conquest and most Europeans were unsuited to the labor it such tropical climates. Since Africans were more accostomed to hard work in tropical conditions, they were resistant to tropical diseases and had experience in herding and agriculture. They proved excellent workers on planations and mines in the New World.

While scholars debate the nature of slave captivity, most slaves were originally captured on the west coast of Africa with the cooperation or assent of African kings and merchants. Of course, there were European expeditions in from the coast to capture slaves directly. In return for slaves, the African kings and merchants received various trade goods including beads, cowrie shells (used as money), textiles, brandy, horses, and, of course,, guns. The guns were essential in expanding empires and continuing conquest of Africans.

These early trade patterns evolved into a larger system of trade often times referred to as the "triangular trade." Triangular trade refers to the three legs of the trade system.

-The first leg was the of trade was from Europe to Africa where goods were exchanged for slaves.

-The second or middleleg of the trade was the transportation of slaves to the Americas.

-The third leg of the trade was the transportation of goods from the Americas back to Europe.
(See additional maps).


Most representative of the systematic and brutal exchange of human being was the "Middle Passage." This refers to the second leg of the triangular trade in which thousands of Africans were forced into the hulls and storage of ships for the nighmarish voyage to the "New World." The slaves were kept under inhuman conditions including being branded with hot irons and restrained with chains or shackles. "During the passage they lived on a deck inside the ship that had less than five feet of headroom -- and throughout a large portion of the deck, sleeping shelves cut this limited amount of headroom in half."(Africans in America, Part 1, PBS)

The area had little or no ventilation and neglible resources for the removal of human waste. According to the slave Equiano, "The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. "(quoted in Africans in America, Part 1, PBS). Visual slide show representing the middle passage.