The transatlantic slave trade: introduction


The transatlantic slave trade was responsible for the forced migration of between 12 - 15 million people from Africa to the Western Hemisphere from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century. The trafficking of Africans by the major European countries during this period is sometimes referred to by African scholars as the Maafa ('great disaster' in Swahili). It's now considered a crime against humanity.

The slave trade not only led to the violent transportation overseas of millions of Africans but also to the deaths of many millions more. Nobody knows the total number of people who died during slave raiding and wars in Africa, during transportation and imprisonment, or in horrendous conditions during the so-called Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to the Americas.

The kidnapping of Africans occurred mainly in the region that now stretches from Senegal to Angola. However, in the 19th century some enslaved Africans were also transported across the Atlantic from parts of eastern and south-eastern Africa.


The trade

All the major European powers were involved in this enterprise, but by the early 18th century, Britain became the world's leading slave trading power. It's estimated that British ships were responsible for the forced transportation of at least 2-3 million Africans in that century.

So dominant were British ships and merchants that they carried away African captives not only to British colonies in North America and the Caribbean but even to the colonies of their main economic rivals, the French and Spanish, as well as to others'.


Geographical spread

The majority of kidnapped Africans weren't already slaves in Africa. They were free people who were kidnapped to provide the labour that the European powers required to build their colonies in the Americas. The largest numbers of Africans – almost 5 million – were imported into Brazil, but enslaved Africans were sent to most of the colonies of South and Central America and the Caribbean, as well as to what became the United States.

Some Africans were transported to Europe and lived in such countries as Portugal and France as well as in England.


The Triangular Trade

The transatlantic slave trade is sometimes known as the 'Triangular Trade', since it was three-sided, involving voyages:

  • from Europe to Africa
  •  from Africa to the Americas
  •  from the Americas back to Europe.

It's generally seen as a 'trade' since it revolved around transactions, or a form of exchange, between the African sellers and the European buyers of captives. Indeed, it would have been impossible for European slave traders to venture into Africa and procure African captives without some African involvement – African kingdoms and societies were too strong and well organised. Even when Europeans built forts on the coast of West Africa, this was on land given, or rented, from Africans for this purpose.


Unequal relationship

However, African kings and merchants were engaged in an unequal trade, since African societies gained little of permanent value, certainly nothing that led to significant economic development.

Europeans, on the other hand, generally exported manufactured items such as alcohol, textiles and guns to Africa to be exchanged for African captives. The production of such items, as well as the construction of ships, shackles and other items connected with the slave trade, certainly contributed to the development of manufacturing in Europe.

The African labour purchased with manufactured goods was then used in the Americas to produce luxury items and other things that were valuable and in great demand in Europe, such as sugar, tobacco and cotton. In addition, the slave trade contributed to the growth of banking and insurance in Europe and provided the finance to develop European capitalist economies further.

Africa may have supplied the human labour that was central to these developments in Europe, but it didn't benefit from them itself. Instead, it lost millions of people, many of its societies were ravaged and it placed itself in an enduring unequal relationship with Europe that created the conditions for colonial conquest and its legacy.


While the slave trade had a major impact on the economic development of the modern world, it also contributed to the emergence of a new African diaspora, particularly the spread of people of African origin to the Americas. Today there are tens of millions of people of African origin who, as a consequence of the forced removal of their ancestors, live in the Caribbean, the United States, Brazil and other countries in the Western Hemisphere, as well as elsewhere outside Africa.

When these millions of people were physically removed from their homelands, they took with them their languages, beliefs, craftsmanship, skills, music, dance, art and other important elements of culture. As a result, today we're surrounded by the legacy of the slave trade in a multitude of forms.


Another legacy of the slave trade is the continued existence of a body of ideas initially formulated to justify it and which now underpins modern anti-African racism in all its forms. These harmful ideas have no basis in fact but were and are designed to suggest that Africa and Africans are inferior to Europe and Europeans in a variety of ways.

These views permeated the centuries of the slave trade and the enslavement of Africans and continued to be expressed during the post-slavery colonial era. They still exist today in the form of racial stereotypes and prejudices and racist violence, as well as Eurocentric views about Africa, its peoples and their cultures.


Protests and resistance

The slave trade finally came to an end due to a variety of factors, including the protests of millions of ordinary people in Europe and the United States. Its abolition was also brought about by millions of Africans who continually resisted enslavement and rebelled against slavery in order to be free.

Resistance started in Africa, continued during the so-called Middle Passage and broke out again throughout the Americas. The most significant of all these acts of resistance and self-liberation was the revolution in the French colony of St Domingue, now Haiti, in 1791. It remains the only successful slave revolution in history and led to the creation of the first modern black republic. Haiti's constitution was the first to recognise the human rights of all its citizens.


The end of the slave trade

First Denmark in 1803, and Britain in 1807, and then other countries in Europe and the Americas abolished the transatlantic slave trade for a variety of reasons including changes in their economic requirements. However, an illegal trade continued for many years, and slavery itself was not abolished in some countries until the 1880s. In Brazil for example, slavery continued to be legal until 1888.




tn_mapfranceOn the eve of the transatlantic slave trade, France had a large and growing population: between the early 17th and mid-18th century it increased from 24 million to 26 million. Read more...


tn_maphollandThe Dutch were to become key figures in the story of the slave trade and slavery. Even before the establishment of the Dutch Republic in 1581. Read more... 


tn_mapspainThe establishment of African slavery in the Americas and the flow of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic were factors in changing the nature and balance of power in Europe. Read more... 



Map of PortugalPortugal, which pioneered the opening of the wider world to European trade and conquest, seems an unlikely country to have exercised such remarkable influence. Read more..