The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets

Larry Holzwarth - August 15, 2021

Thanks to the 1619 Project, it is widely believed the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America, at the British colony of Jamestown that year. They were the first slaves in Virginia, but not in what later became the United States. Those arrived with the failed Spanish settlement attempt near Winyah Bay in 1526, nearly a century earlier. The colony failed for many reasons, among them the first slave uprising in North America. There are few details regarding the rebellion and the fate of the slaves involved, though some research indicates they escaped after the colony relocated to the Georgia coast to live among the Indians. The earlier arrival of African slaves in what became the United States, well ahead of the arrival of the first British settlers, is just one of many misunderstandings about the slave trade in world history.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Slavery among African nations and tribes existed long before contact with the Europeans. Wikimedia

Long before Columbus arrived in the New World, Africa had a robust slave economy. Slaves were captured and traded by various African tribes and rulers. These were sold to Muslim and European traders in African ports, in exchange for goods which included dyed cloths, firearms, tools, and sometimes gold. Portugal became the European leader in the slave trade. Its ships and traders allied itself with the African Kingdom of Kongo in 1571, allowing them to control most of the area of Angola. Some argue the trade between Europeans and Africans was forced upon the latter, with advantageous terms for the former. Evidence suggests otherwise, with several African tribes dictating the terms of trade to the Europeans, enforced by occasional armed combat. As Portugal and Spain began to exploit their colonies in the New World they needed a labor force. They decided to buy one from Africa.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal helped make that country a leader in trade and exploration, including in Africa. Wikimedia

1. The transatlantic slave trade began in the 16th century

Spain and Portugal competed to develop their colonies in what is now Mexico, South and Central America, and the Caribbean Islands. In the 16th century, that meant the development of crops, including sugar cane, as well as working the gold and silver mines. The vast majority of the slaves shipped from Africa arrived in Mexico in the 1500s. By mid-century, the Portuguese held a near-monopoly on the transatlantic trade, with its ships carrying captives purchased from its African allies. Besides Mexico, slaves were carried to Brazil, Hispaniola, and other New World ports. Spain, its ships denied access to African ports by treaty, relied on its rival to supply slaves to its colonies. Because of Spain’s colonial politics and the influence of the Catholic Church its ships did not carry slaves directly, at least not officially.

The trade became quite lucrative for Portuguese traders and shippers. Financed by a banking consortium in Genoa, they arrived at their established ports in West Africa. There they regarded the slaves captured by their African partners and bartered for them. Often the Africans had been imprisoned for months since their rulers wanted to ensure a ready cargo when the ships arrived. This was because no trader wanted an extended stay on the disease-laden West African coast. For the same reason, few sailors were allowed ashore, and parties of Europeans seldom ventured into the interior. The image of European slave traders hunting down Africans and capturing them is largely a myth, created by Hollywood. The captured slaves were held in a prison called a factory, manned usually by a representative of the trading company. He arranged the trade between ship and African ruler.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
There was often less room overhead than depicted in this 1846 sketch of a slave ship. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

2. The death rate on voyages was appalling

A voyage from equatorial West Africa to South or Central America took 10-12 weeks in the 16th century. As ships improved in size and speed, the time spent at sea was reduced, but it still presented a lengthy crossing. To the traders, slaves were cargo. A perishable cargo. Each person lost during the long voyage meant a reduced profit for the traders. Therefore, it was in the best interests of every trader to ensure his entire cargo arrived safely at its destination. Yet the Africans suffered miserably during the passage. They were carried in the same manner as livestock, and so regarded by the Captain and crew. No sanitation facilities existed for their use. Packed in as tightly as possible, disease grew rampant on the ships. Slave ships could be smelled almost as soon as they came into sight if they were upwind.

Deaths among the Africans reached upwards of 25% on some voyages. On average over the centuries of the trade, they were 15%, probably over 1 million people according to some estimates. In the 16th century, they were the highest per voyage, due to the length of the voyage and the harsh conditions. Scurvy, dehydration, dysentery, diarrhea, and suicides all added to the death rate. Many Africans, weakened by the voyage, died shortly after reaching their destination. The death rate among sailors manning the ships also was high, with sailors dying from the effects of harsh punishments, and diseases contracted from either the Africans aboard or while in equatorial Africa. Most common sailors hated the slave ships. Some Captains provided better food for the Africans than their crew, reasoning the more which survived meant higher profits. Conversely, crewmen who died did not need to be paid at voyage’s end.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Dutch slave ships in the Leeward Islands, bound for its colony in St. Eustatius, mid-17th century. Wikimedia

3. The Dutch entered the slave trade in the early 17th century

On January 20, 1648, the long periods of war between the Netherlands and Spain came to an end with the Treaty of Munster. It marked the recognition of the independent Dutch Republic. It also allowed the Dutch to enter into the increasingly lucrative slave trade. Both the Dutch and the British by then had extensive New World colonies. Dutch Brazil, and the British West Indies were important centers of sugar production, and Europe had a seemingly insatiable sweet tooth. The production of sugar was highly labor-intensive and a perpetual labor shortage existed on the plantations. The growing tobacco and rice plantations in British North America also demanded more and more workers. A new Atlantic system of trade began to replace the former monopoly held by waning Portugal. Dutch, British, and French ships began to trade between West Africa and the colonies.

Nearly all of the colonies in the New World, other than New England and the middle colonies, developed economies which depended entirely on forced labor. The Dutch ships used the same facilities developed by the Portuguese and built others on the African West Coast. British mercantile interests viewed the rise in Dutch wealth with considerable alarm. In 1660 the Duke of York, brother to King Charles II and heir to the throne joined with City of London merchants. They formed the Royal Africa Company. Their stated purpose was to mine the gold fields in the region of the Gambia River. The company held a Royal Charter which gave them a monopoly over British trade in Africa. Though they met limited success in the gold fields, they found another, highly profitable opportunity. Shipping slaves to the colonies proved highly lucrative.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The future King James II and VII of England and Scotland helped form a slave trading company as the Duke of York. Wikimedia

4. The Royal Africa Company prospered between the Anglo-Dutch Wars

In the 17th century, as Europe convulsed in a series of religious and dynastic wars, trade with the colonies became even more important. Ships carrying cargoes of gold, silver, spices, sugar, and other desired products became the frequent targets of pirates, privateers, and enemy fleets. Ships carrying slaves, for the most part, did not (though a few did). The Royal Africa Company, by the 1680s, carried approximately 5,000 Africans, purchased as slaves, to the colonies in the Caribbean and North America per year. They were not only treated as livestock cargo, they were branded. Most were branded, men, women, and children, with the initials RAC. A significant number were branded instead with the letters DoY, which represented the Duke of York, who later became King James II and VII of England and Scotland.

Under the Royal Africa Company and its successor, the Royal Africa Company of England, the company transported over 210,000 Africans from its factories to the colonies. While most of them went to the labor-hungry sugar plantations of the Caribbean, some did arrive in North America. Changes in the British government (Glorious Revolution) and the wars with the Dutch weakened the company, and in 1731 it abandoned the transatlantic slave trade, preferring to concentrate on exploiting gold and ivory from Africa. The company played a major role in transferring the bulk of the slave trade to British merchants and shippers, effectively helping to end the Dutch Golden Age. For the rest of the 18th century, Great Britain dominated the transatlantic slave trade and its triangular trade routes.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Due to their unsuitability for bulk cargo, most slave ships returned to their homeports in ballast. Wikimedia

5. The myth of the triangle trade routes for slave ships

Over the years, an image has emerged of slave ships engaging in what is known as a triangle trade route. In this telling, ships departed from European ports, such as Bristol in Britain or Brest in France. Laden with goods such as arms, gunpowder, trinkets and beads, cloth, copper, and other items desirable by African rulers, they journeyed to their African factories. There the goods were exchanged for African enslaved people. As quickly as possible they departed for the Americas, bound for the Caribbean due to favoring currents and winds. Arriving in the Caribbean or North America they discharged the slaves and took on cargo bound for Europe. Using the Gulf Stream and the favoring winds, they returned to their homeport, or other European port, completing the triangle with all three legs being lucrative for the owners.

Slave ships did follow such a route, but by the middle of the 18th century, few returned to Europe with large cargoes of the produce of the colonies. Slave ships by then were built to crowd as many people as possible into their decks. They included several decks, all with low overheads. They simply weren’t intended to carry bulk cargo, such as the sugar, rum, molasses, tobacco, and other items shipped by the colonies to Britain and Europe. Frequently they arrived at their colonial destinations out of season for that year’s produce. Most slave ship captains purchased what little cargo they could find, and put the rest of the vessel into ballast. Taking on heavy stones and gravel served to stabilize the vessel sufficiently to return home. There the ship would prepare for another voyage to Africa.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Slaves in Africa were often captured in wars or raids by slavers on neighboring tribes. Wikimedia

6. The process of becoming a slave in the Americas began in Africa

Nearly all of the Africans destined for the transatlantic voyage came from the West Coast or West Central Africa; Senegambia, Upper Guinea, the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, West Central Africa, and Southeastern Africa. Over 45 distinct ethnic groups were taken from Africa, the most prominent being the BaKongo and the Mande. For all of them, it began by capture by enemies, or conviction of a crime by tribal elders. Bound or shackled, they were force marched to the port where their captor’s rulers maintained a prison, often a fort, known as a factory. A European representative of the trading company operated there as a factor. His job was to obtain the best terms for the ships arriving with goods with which to purchase the slaves. Captors were held until a ship arrived.

Those not purchased by the Europeans, and later Americans, often remained as slaves of the tribe or nation which captured them. Many were summarily killed. Those purchased were packed into the decks of the ships, shackled and chained. There they remained, in stifling heat until the ship achieved its full complement. With no knowledge of the words they overheard, what they were in, and where they were going, they remained in the ship for at least ten weeks, often longer. In later years of the trade, some enlightened captains brought them on deck, in shifts, in order to dance, still shackled. It was their belief that the exercise extended life, an idea first practiced by Captain James Cook on his crew during his voyages of discovery. Cook believed the exercise beneficial to health, though his crews did not dance wearing shackles.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
Slaves were traded to the Europeans and Americans for goods, weapons, trinkets, and other items. Wikimedia

7. The voyage became known as the Middle Passage

In reference to the transatlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage refers to the actual voyage, not a region of the ocean itself. The First Passage was the capture and forced march to the factor where the Africans were held until boarding ship. Usually, the Middle Passage ended with the ship discharging the Africans in a Caribbean port. There other traders purchased slaves for shipment to North American ports such as New Orleans, Charleston, Mobile, and Richmond. For some though the Middle Passage ended at the docks of Charleston, Baltimore, and other American East Coast ports. For the arriving Africans, it made little difference. They had no idea where they were. Often their families were split up in the process. Nearly all were weak from hunger and thirst, and few, if any, understood one word of the language being shouted at them.

One of the worst recorded Middle Passages took place in 1781, aboard the British slave ship Zong. A former Dutch slave ship captured by the British, Zong operated as part of a Liverpool-based syndicate. It assigned a surgeon by training as its captain, a man with little experience in navigation and less in controlling a ship’s crew. The crew consisted of 17 sailors, far too few for the mission on which the vessel departed. Zong arrived in Accra, in modern-day Ghana, in the summer of 1781. There the captain, Luke Collingwood, used his experience as a surgeon to evaluate the physical conditions of the Africans offered for trade. On August 18, 1781, Zong departed Accra on a voyage to complete the Middle Passage for 442 Africans, more than twice the safe number on a vessel of its tonnage.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The main deck of a slave ship at sea circa mid-18th century. Wikimedia

8. The massacre aboard Zong

Zong stopped at Sao Tome Island to replenish its drinking water, from whence it departed for Jamaica on September 6. It had a slow passage. During the voyage, Captain Collingwood became severely ill. Several of the crew, as well as more than 60 Africans died before the ship sighted Jamaica on November 27. When it did, the crew misidentified the island, believing it to be Hispaniola. They continued on their voyage until, over three hundred miles from Jamaica, realizing their mistake. By then the ship was critically low on drinking water, without enough to make Jamaica. Maritime insurance law allowed a captain to jettison a portion of his cargo in order to protect the remainder, claiming insurance compensation on the jettisoned cargo. Zong’s cargo was insured by its owners. On November 29 the ship’s crew unanimously agreed to have some of the Africans thrown overboard.

About 54 women and children were thrown into the sea that night. Two days later 42 men were callously tossed into the sea, and an additional 36 followed as the ship worked back towards Jamaica. By the time the ship arrived there, 142 Africans had been “jettisoned” as cargo. Zong finally arrived in Jamaica on December 22, with 208 Africans remaining aboard. Collingwood died of his illness two days later. The ship’s owners filed an insurance claim when word reached Britain. Eventually, after two trials and numerous legal hearings, the claim was denied. It seems that on the day of the 42 males being thrown overboard, heavy rains had allowed the filling of six water casks, enough for ten days. The courts ruled it had been unnecessary to kill the Africans, but not illegal. Nobody was ever punished for the murder of the Africans.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
The Jamaican Royal Gazette May 19, 1781, offers slaves for lease or sale, as well as rewards for runaways. Wikimedia

9. The seasoning period differed among the colonies

Some, but by no means all, Africans transported to the colonies underwent a period euphemistically called seasoning. Seasoning prepared the enslaved people for their life and work in the colonies. It included discipline, often severe punishment, and exposure to their jobs. In some cases, particularly in the American South, seasoning was skipped with the slaves sent directly to the fields, where they received instructions in the form of brutal manual labor. In others, including Jamaica, seasoning was an organized and structured time period. Slave owners in Jamaica learned that seasoned Africans survived the rigors of the cane fields and refining plants better than those who had not been acclimated. Many resisted seasoning, and suffered for it. Whippings, canings, imprisonment, and other even more harsh punishments awaited them. Their owners considered them like horses, requiring breaking to the plow.

In Jamaica and other British colonies, seasoning included learning the English language, taught by other Africans who had done so on their own. The requirement to offer blind obedience to the will of the master was part of the indoctrination. For many, that aspect of seasoning began during the Middle Passage, when they were subjected to beatings from sailors for failing to follow instructions. Captains and traders quickly learned that an African who appeared docile and healthy attracted a far better price than those who appeared surly and disobedient. For that reason, many of the beatings on ship were severe enough to kill the rebellious slave, in order to make an impression on the others. Yet throughout the Americas, resistance by Africans to their enslaved status continued for hundreds of years.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
This woodcut of Africans being thrown into the sea originally appeared in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1832. Wikimedia

10. Captains and ship builders began to improve conditions aboard ship in the mid-18th century

By 1750, with the transatlantic slave trade nearing its peak, shipbuilders and captains, driven by investors, looked for ways to improve conditions aboard their ships. Their reasons were far from altruistic. By 1750 American slave owners paid between $800 and $1,200 for enslaved Africans at auction (equivalent to $32-$48 thousand today). The shippers and investors of the day did not consider the enslaved Africans as human, nor did they care about their comforts. But they did care about delivering profitable cargo to market. Since most slave ships were relatively small, in order to navigate African rivers, they could not increase the size of the cargoes profitably. Instead, they sought ways to lower the mortality rate among those making the Middle Passage. One way was to improve conditions aboard the ships.

In the second half of the 18th century many British and French slave traders began to reduce the number of Africans carried on their ships. The storage decks, as they were called, were divided into smaller sections, each holding smaller groups of Africans. Open lattices created the sections, allowing improved airflow. Ports through the ship’s sides provided additional fresh air and could be closed in heavy weather by the ship’s crew. As noted earlier, some Captains initiated the requirement for exercise among the captives, though these were often met with defiance. The overriding concern among those involved in the slave trade was profit. None were particularly concerned with the conditions endured by the enslaved Africans beyond ensuring they remained profitable upon arrival in the Americas. Alleviating the conditions of the Middle Passage was part of that goal.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Held the Darkest Secrets
An American slave-trading ship in port at Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1836. Wikimedia

11. The Americans joined in the slave trade while still British colonies

By the mid-18th century, the British Colonies in North America boasted a substantial merchant fleet. New England merchants traded salted fish, manufactured goods, and produce with its southern neighbors and other British colonies, under license from the Mother Country. Another trade triangle developed, from Northeast coast to the Caribbean colonies, the Southern ports, and back home. Before the American Revolution American ships sailed to Britain with goods, returning by way of Africa and carrying slaves to British ports in the Caribbean, as well as in the American South. From there they usually returned home with small cargoes, in ballast. Ships involved in the slave trade required deep cleaning and fumigation before taking on additional cargoes, such as grains, flour, and other produce. New England seaports thrived, as did those in Philadelphia and Charleston.

American slave traders prior to independence operated under more or less the same lines as their British counterparts. After all, they sailed under British flags and considered themselves under British law. Yet many were not above smuggling. Yankee captains smuggled slaves from French and British colonies and from Africa itself, a practice which continued up until the American Civil War. Both the Americans and the British outlawed the importation of African slaves in the early 19th century, but smuggling occurred with such frequency that both nations had antislavery patrols along Africa’s coast for decades. Both also patrolled the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico for slave smugglers who continued to flaunt the law into the age of steam.

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