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.
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.
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.
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.
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