The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets

Larry Holzwarth - August 15, 2021

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Many Africans chose suicide by various means as a form of resistance against their captors. Library of Congress

12. Suicides were common among the captive Africans

Most captured Africans remained relatively peaceful while still in Africa, though many attempted to escape and flee back to their homes. Even while in the factories many retained the hope of regaining their freedom. But once aboard the ships carrying them away from their homeland, they reacted in different ways. Some became despondent, others angrily resistant. Both led to different behaviors during the voyage. Some simply refused to eat, either from despair or as a means of committing suicide. Others resisted by fighting with crewmen, resulting in severe beatings and often death. Still, others resisted by committing suicide, through a variety of means, including jumping over the side. Some ships dispatched a boat to recover the jumper, others simply watched him or her drown. Still, others shot them while they were in the water.

One West African ethnic group, the Kru, made themselves undesirable as African slaves. They were known to kill themselves within hours of capture, if not sooner. Many killed themselves rather than submit to capture. Aboard the slave ships, crews trained in the methods of preventing suicides and force-feeding those who refused their rations. Safety nets were spread along the sides of the ship when Africans were on deck, and some captains simply kept their cargo battened down for the length of the voyage. Still, many Africans succeeded in killing themselves during the voyage, avoiding a life of slavery in a strange land. Enough so that investors and shippers rated captains for, among other things, the number of suicides lost under his command. To them a suicide, by any means, represented a loss of valuable cargo.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Portuguese Brazil imported more African slaves than any other European colony. Wikimedia

13. Most of the Africans were not destined for North America

Despite bearing British flags before the Revolutionary War, and United States’ colors after, the majority of the slave ships bound for the Americas did not deliver their cargo in the United States. The sugar plantations of the Caribbean and Brazil demanded an almost continuous influx of new labor. Conditions at the sugar plantations were brutal, the work equally so. Life expectancy for the newly arrived slaves was short. Throughout the British holdings in the Caribbean, resistance to slavery by the Africans continued. Africans in Jamaica outnumbered the white citizens there by the late 18th century, making fear of rebellion a constant in Jamaica’s plantations and settlements. Harsh conditions to control against insurrection fed further resistance, in a vicious cycle which lasted for decades.

Healthy African slaves drew premiums when delivered to the islands, as well as to Spanish Cuba and Portuguese Brazil. American and British traders, drawn by profits, made voyages to the island plantations a priority. Another reason for their reticence in delivering slaves directly from Africa to the United States was the growing reluctance of Southern planters to purchase them. By the late 1700s, the planters’ society in the South preferred slaves born in British America, fearful of the “negative” influence on their slaves from those arriving directly from Africa. They routinely suppressed African culture and musical instruments, especially drums, and strove to inculcate a more familiar culture among their slaves. Those slaves which did arrive directly from Africa in the American South usually went to work in the fields immediately. Among the slaves, the field hand occupied the lowest rung in their societal ladder.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The harbor of Port au Prince, Saint Domingue, in the mid to late 1700s. Wikimedia

14. French traders participated in the transatlantic slave trade as well

During the latter half of the 18th century, France and Great Britain opposed each other in several wars, all of which affected their possessions in North America and the Caribbean. During the early 19th century, the wars continued as both France and Great Britain sought to establish global empires. Throughout the periods of war and the interim periods of peace, French traders followed the pattern of the British and others. French ships carried goods to Africa, traded them for slaves, and carried the slaves to their island plantations in the Caribbean. They also established a large trading center in New Orleans, North America. The French slave-trading business never became as large as that of the British, but they carried a significant number of Africans to their own possessions, as well as to those of their Spanish allies. Most though, went to Saint Domingue (Haiti).

Of all the European colonies in the New World, Saint Domingue proved the most profitable for its French owners and investors. As with British Jamaica, St. Kitts, and other islands, Saint Domingue’s cash crop was sugar. As more and more sugar was produced its prices in Europe declined. Plantation owners had to produce more to continue to generate profits. More production meant more labor, and more labor meant more slaves. As with the British on Jamaica, conditions in the French sugar colonies for the slaves were abysmal. Life expectancies were short, and slavers found an inexhaustible market for African men and women. After the Portuguese and the British, French slavers transported the third-highest total of Africans into slavery in the Americas, with just over half of the 1.3 million men, women, and children sent to Saint Domingue.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Captives endured forced marches and imprisonment while awaiting purchase and transfer to the Europeans and Americans. Library of Congress

15. The African factories and forts were often as brutal as the ships

Although the Middle Passage was undeniably brutal, so was the First Passage, when captured Africans were taken to the forts and factories erected to support trade. Approximately twelve and a half million Africans boarded the slave ships along the African coast. Thousands did not survive the journey of the Middle Passage. But untold thousands more did not survive the First Passage, the capture, forced march, and imprisonment in the factories and forts. By the mid-18th century, the European powers, through treaty with local leaders, established stone fortresses to hold the factories, as well as protect their trade station from enemy nations. Nearly all of the European Wars of the 18th century saw naval raids by one nation on the African holdings of another. The raids demonstrated the slave trade’s importance to the economies of the European nations.

The trading centers were where captive slaves were led to await transport. The European nations sought to maintain local monopolies in slaves. In this, they were often thwarted by the African leaders, who recognized the advantages to them of establishing bidding wars. Thus, in times of peace, French ships stopped at British factories, and vice versa. At most factories, captives passed over for purchase by the Europeans were usually killed by their African captors. The number of Africans who died during the forced march or at the factories can only be estimated. Some scholars place their numbers above 1 million, others are more conservative. As with the Middle Passage, the length of time which the slaves had to endure to conditions in the factories contributed to their mortality rate. So did resistance and the inevitable punishment.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Most sailors didn’t like slave ships and tried to find other ways to ply their trade at sea. Wikimedia

16. Sailors were reluctant to crew the slave ships

Throughout the period of the transatlantic slave trade, most sailors tried to avoid sailing on slave ships. Their reasons for doing so varied. One was the initial destination, the West Coast of Africa, a region known for its pestilential diseases and other dangers. The Middle Passage presented another danger, one well known to sailors by the beginning of the nineteenth century. About ten percent of all slave ships making the Middle Passage suffered some sort of insurrection during the voyage, often with injuries or death among the ship’s crew. Sailors on slave ships also served as jail guards, and were responsible for administering punishments as ordered by the Captain and other officers. For the most part, common sailors received little pay from the long, arduous voyages. And the mortality rate on slave ships was about the same as it was for the slaves.

On the other hand, Captains and shipowners received lucrative remuneration for their voyages, with some becoming quite wealthy. This led them to use whatever means they could find to recruit crews for their vessels. The threat of debtor’s prison pressured sailors into signing on for a voyage. Often ship officers used guile to lure a sailor into debt, and then offered the unemployed sailor a choice of imprisonment or sailing on a slave ship. Few merchant ships hired sailors with a prison record, though the British Navy had no such qualms. Once a sailor participated in the transatlantic slave trade, he found it difficult to obtain employment out of it. Captains would blacklist them as unreliable, mutinous, and the like. This left them with no choice but to remain in the trade or find another profession.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
HMS Brisk capturing the slave ship Emanuela, a former American clipper ship, in 1854. Wikimedia

17. Britain and the United States outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in the early 19th century

In 1807 the United States enacted a law which made the transatlantic slave trade illegal, with the law taking effect on January 1, 1808. Nearly a year earlier, Great Britain outlawed all slave trading within the British Empire. France abolished the trade during its revolution, re-established it in 1802, revoked it again in 1815, and finally abolished it in 1826. Yet slavery continued in the colonies of France and Britain, as well as in the United States. In the latter, a brisk domestic slave trade continued, often by sea between the slave-holding states. The sea was preferred because it was more difficult to escape from a ship than during a forced march on land. Spain and Portugal continued the transatlantic trade, as well as trade between their holdings in the Americas. With so many ships carrying slaves a smuggling trade became inevitable.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars Britain and the United States attempted to prevent transatlantic crossings, but they continued. Nearly three million Africans crossed the Atlantic following the abolition of the trade, mainly in ships from Portugal, Spain, and smuggling groups. One famous American smuggler both before and following the outlawing of the trade was Jean Lafitte. Another was James Bowie, later to gain fame at the Alamo. Smugglers did not hesitate to dispose of slaves overboard when encountering authority on the high seas. Following the American and British outlawing of the transatlantic trade, more than 2,000 ships were stopped on the high seas, their African cargoes freed, the ship seized as a prize.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The Kings of Dahomey profited from the slave trade for centuries, and argued for it to continue. Wikimedia

18. As Europe and the United States abolished the trade, some African leaders argued for it to continue

In 1853 Brazil outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, the last slave importing nation to do so. It did so in the face of growing opposition to ending the trade among some rulers in Africa. King Gezo of Dahomey, a nation which exported hundreds of thousands of slaves, called the trade, “…the ruling principle of my people”. Prior to initiating the trade with the Europeans in the early 18th century, Dahomey regularly executed war prisoners in a ritual known as the Annual Customs. The slave trade offered the Kings of Dahomey a profitable means of expanding and strengthening their realms, through the use of the weapons they received in exchange for their slaves. Across Africa, the same changes among the more the 170 kingdoms and tribal organizations altered the face of the continent.

When Britain abolished the trade in 1807 the King of Bonny argued “We think this trade must go on”. He called the practice, “…a trade ordained by God himself”. Some African rulers realized as much as a quarter of a million British pounds per year in the value of goods received, many of which strengthened their rule. Yet they did not realize what their descendants came to learn. The slave trade established footholds for the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese in Africa. They served the Europeans during the Great Scramble for Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period, the European powers carved all of Africa into colonies and protectorates, establishing colonial rule, and destroying the ethnic nations of Africa, and the African empires within.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Trade in the New Orleans market, including the sales of slaves smuggled into the country, continued until 1862. Wikimedia

19. Slaves to the New World outpaced European settlers during the transatlantic trade

During the three hundred years which preceded 1820, when the British and American Navies struggled to suppress the trade, three times as many African slaves reached the Americas as did Europeans. Nor were they the only people taken into slavery. France and Great Britain routinely enslaved captured members of the indigenous tribes taken during wars. These slaves were also transported far from their homes to the valuable sugar plantations. Colonial settlers also took indigenous peoples as slaves, though the practice decreased with the growing availability of African slaves in the 18th century. By far, the majority of slaves which reached the shores of the Americas arrived in Portuguese Brazil, nearly 39%. Part of the reason for this is Brazil was among the first destinations for slaves in the Americas. It was also last to abolish the practice.

Just under 10% of the Africans taken from their homelands arrived in the British North American colonies and the later United States. The reasons for the relatively few were both economic and demographic. During the colonial period, the island sugar plantations were far more valuable to the British than the tobacco, rice, and goods of North America. By the late 18th century, slaves made available by their expanding population were more desirable to slave traders than those arriving from Africa. An adult African-American knew the language, what was expected of him, and what to expect if he failed to deliver or resisted. None of those traits were presented by those who recently arrived from Africa. When the transatlantic slave trade officially ended, the buying and selling of human beings continued unabated in the American South, throughout the Caribbean, and in South America.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The Portuguese, Dutch, British, anf French, all continued to exploit their footholds in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wikimedia

20. The damage done to Africa is nearly incalculable

The sale of slaves by Africans to Europeans did not present the only markets for the African rulers. Other slave routes existed, overland across the Sahara, for instance. Slaves purchased by traders from the Muslim world used such routes during the forced marches into slavery. Ships touched at Madagascar to collect and transport slaves, including, somewhat ironically, into the Dutch colony near the Cape of Good Hope. About 13,000,000 African men, women, and children departed the factories of West Africa destined for the Americas. About 10,000,000 survived to enter into slavery. Many died shortly after, weakened or sickened by the journey, according to some sources. Numbers vary widely, but there can be little doubt the trade altered the demographics of Africa immeasurably. The trade also set the course for racism across the world.

In modern Jamaica, once the pride of the British sugar industry, 92% of the population are descendants of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1999 the President of Benin (once the Kingdom of Dahomey), issued a formal apology for the role played by Africans during the period of the slave trade. Approximately 3 million Africans were taken into slavery in the regions surrounding Benin, taken by the Kings of Dahomey and sold to Europeans over three centuries. Numerous nations and cities across the world have issued formal apologies for their roles in the slave trade, though apologies seem somewhat insufficient. No one involved in the Atlantic slave trade is alive today. None of its victims can be compensated, nor can any of its perpetrators be punished. Yet its impact continues to be felt today across four continents and scores of island nations.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

“African Laborers for a New Empire: Iberia, Slavery, and the Atlantic World”. Article, Low Country Digital History Initiative. Online

“Slave Ships and the Middle Passage”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and abolition”. Article, African Studies Center Leiden. Online

“What Was the Royal African Company?” Sarah Pruitt, August 22, 2018. Online

“The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Origins of the African Diaspora in Texas”. Dr. Glenn Chambers, Prairie View A & M University. Online.

“A brief guide to the transatlantic slave trade”. James Walvin, BBC History Extra. June 8, 2020

“The story of the Zong slave ship: A mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim”. Catherine Baksi, The Guardian. January 19, 2021.

“Arrival in the Americas”. Article, Liverpool Museums. Online

“Liverpool’s Slave Trade Legacy”. Claire Shaw, History Today. March 3, 2020. Online

“Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States After 1808”. Robert Gudmestad, Civil War Book Review. Fall, 2008. Online

Dying on their own terms: suicides aboard slave ships”. Aaron Jaffer, Royal Museums Greenwich. August 16, 2017. Online

“The Slave Trade”. Article, National Library of Jamaica. Online

“Slavery and Marronnage in Saint Domingue”. Article, Haitian Marronnage: Voyages and Resistance. Online

“African Participation and Resistance to the Trade”. Article, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI). Online

“Royal Navy sailors were appalled by conditions on slave ships, but those they ‘rescued’ rarely experienced true freedom”. Mary Wills, The Conversation. March 6, 2020. Online

“The Royal Navy and the Battle to End Slavery”. Huw Lewis-Jones, BBC History. February 17, 2011. Online

“In Brazil the wounds of slavery will not heal”. Article, Online

“Jamaica’s best kept secret: Black’s owned slaves”. Dudley C. McLean II, Jamaica Observer. December 29, 2019