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A Liverpool Slave Ship by William Jackson. Merseyside Maritime Museum. Source : A Public Domain

Atlantic slave trade or Trans-Atlantic slave trade was a period in the history of the world from about 1500 to 1800, in which black Africans were purchased by the European slave traders and transported them to Americas and Europe where they worked as a slave laborers in farms and homes.

Atlantic slave trade was possible as result of the European being successful in exploring the Americas where they carved out large territories and made plantation farms where sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, and wheat were grown. Therefore, in order to provide work force for the plantation farms, an idea of purchasing black Africans as slaves laborers occurred to the Europeans.

Earlier, the European traders have already established trade contacts with the west African coastal traders since around 1520s, in which different commodities were exchanged between them. However, as the demand of getting a workforce arose, the Europeans start purchasing African slaves in exchange of the finished goods they brought to Africa. The Portuguese being the European leaders in maritime activities then, took the lead in this regard by being the first European traders to purchase Africans from the west African slave traders of the Benin Kingdom in 1526, and transported them to Brazil in the Americas.

Thus, from the Portuguese initiation in 1526, a door was open through which other European nations followed, and from then onwards, European slave traders have engaged in purchasing and enslaving thousands of Africans until the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in the early 1800s.

Origin of the Atlantic Slave Trade

The origin of the Atlantic slave trade can be traced back to the early 15th century when European nations, specifically Portugal and Spain were concentrated in finding a sea route to India and China for trade. In the process, the sailors of these two nations explored the coast of west Africa. Again, the European explorers discovered the American continent all in search of a sea route to India, which they eventually found in turn linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

After the discovery of the West African coast, the Europeans established trade relations with the African traders in the coastal kingdoms such as Benin and Asante. Also, as the Europeans have already discovered the Americas, large number of plantation farms were carved out (notably in Brazil and the Caribbeans) in which farm products like sugarcane, coffee, tobacco, and cotton were grown.

Initially, the Portuguese and the Spanish used the native Americans as laborers in those plantation farms. But, gradually due to maltreatment and some diseases, the population of the native Americans reduced to a large extent, and the remaining population could not satisfied the workforce needed in those plantation farms. Therefore, the Europeans decided to start purchasing black Africans for the purpose of working in those plantation farms.

Fortunately to Europeans, the African coastal kingdoms were in needs of the European manufactured goods like foodstuffs, firearms, textiles, and ironware. Therefore, an agreement was reached between the European slave traders and the Africans in which European finished goods were to be exchanged with the African slaves.

Benin Kingdom (which is in the present day Nigeria) became the first to start selling their fellow Africans in 1526, to the Portuguese slave buyers who transported them to their plantation farms located in the overseas colonies of Sao Tome and Brazil. Gradually, other European slave traders from countries such as Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and others entered the trade.

As the trade was firmly established, the European traders established trading stations along the west and central African coastal areas. The African slave traders on the other hand used the firearms purchased from the Europeans and went into unnecessary wars, and raiding activities for the purpose of obtaining slaves. The captured slaves were usually marched in numbers, shackled with chains and rope, while armed guards watched over them until they arrive at the coastal slave trading stations. As soon as arrived, the selling activities usually began.

The ships usually sailed out from the European ports notably Liverpool, Bristol, Bordeaux, Lisbon, and Cadiz carrying goods such as textiles, beads, iron bars, firearms, and alcohol. As soon as the they reached Africa, they sold or bartered these goods with African slaves, gold, and palm oil. Then all of the ships were loaded with the African slaves and raw materials for sailing to the Americas, and some of the ships to Europe.

The nature of the Atlantic Slave Trade

The Europeans rarely travelled to the interior of Africa as at the time of Atlantic slave trade. Therefore, they relied on the African slave traders to secured the slaves for them.

The west and central African slave traders as the main sellers of their fellow Africans to the Europeans, usually obtained the slaves through the following ways :

  • The slaves can be obtained through the tribal wars. In the process, the victorious side captured many people from the defeated side, and the captives have automatically became slaves.
  • The slaves also were obtained through raiding by the slave traders. Because, many of the slave traders raided their neighbors and captured people as slaves.
  • The slaves in some ways might be obtained as some free-born Africans were made slaves and sold due to punishment for a civil or criminal offences.

After the slaves were obtained through the above ways or the others, the African traders who owned them would tied them either with chain or rope next in line, and set them out to the coastal trading stations where Europeans were busy purchasing black Africans.

Once they arrived at the trading stations, the bargaining will began between the owner and the buyer. If the prices had been agreed upon, the selected slaves would be checked up by a European surgeon doctor in order to confirmed their health status. Whoever found unhealthy, were usually removed out, while the healthy ones were confined inside a small rooms to await shipment to the Americas. The usual criteria was that, more men aged 10 to 35 were taken. While less women were purchased, and if we’re to be purchased, their ages usually were required to not exceeds 30.

Living condition of the slaves

As we have mentioned, the ways of obtaining slaves during the Atlantic slave trade was in its self a harsh and cruel. As agreed by many historians, the living conditions of the slaves espeacially in the plantation farms was very harsh which involved maltreatment of humanity as most of the time the African slaves were treated worse than animals.

In the field of the work, the slaves had to do their work in whatever condition or weather, and if any slave refused to do or skip his work, definitely he would be punished in an inhuman way. For example, a slave could be punished by not allowing him to eat or drink for the whole day.

Positive Effects were for the Europeans

The Europeans as the buyers of the slaves and sellers of their finished goods in Africa, have enjoyed or benefitted 95%/ of the Atlantic slave trade as argued by many scholars.

Firstly, the Europeans have made Africa as their source of getting cheap labor for their large American plantation farms as well as other activities in homes back in Europe.

Secondly, Africa became source of raw materials and the market for the European finished goods. Because, by 16 century, European nations specifically Portugal have already established trade contacts with west African coastal traders. The Europeans usually brought their finished goods such as textiles, firearms, beads, and others. While the African traders sold or exchange those European goods with their goods usually raw materials such as gold, timber, and palm oil.

Negative Effects were for the Africans

Many scholars have clearly stated that the Atlantic slave trade was the worst ever among other slave trading the history of the humanity. In the trade, the Africans suffered the negative effects.

In the first instance, the Atlantic slave trade have opened ways of unnecessary tribal wars purposely to obtained slaves. In turn, this brought insecurity which sabotaged the African development.

Secondly, the Atlantic slave trade have depopulated Africa. Because, it was estimated that almost 10 million black Africans were transported to the Americas and Europe. Statistically, 55.9% were from west Africa, 39.4% from central Africa, 4.7% from southern Africa, and 1.5 million were said to have died.

Thirdly, the Atlantic slave trade brought or increased the issue of racism between Europeans and the Africans. Because, as a result, Europeans have developed a stereotype notion that they were better than the Africans.

Decline of the Atlantic slave trade

For about 4 centuries, that is from 15th to the 19th century, the European traders have engaged in buying, transporting, and enslaving black Africans. However, by late 18th century and early 19th century, many of the European nations have officially abolished the trade. Many scholars have theorized reasons for the abolishing of the slave trade.

In the first place, many have argued that by the end of the 18th century, there was a change on how work is done from the use of hands to the use of machines. Therefore, this change known historically as ‘Industrial Revolution’ have decreased the needs of human labor, and in turn the needs of slave labor was no longer needed.

While, some have argued that, the Atlantic slave trade has been abolished due to the agitation of human rights activists in Europe who pressurized the European nations to abolish it. For example, in Britain, opposition to the Atlantic slave trade have came from a group called the ‘abolitionists’ led by Parliamentarian called William Wilberforce. The group struggled and pressurized the government until in 1807 when the British Parliament passed an act which abolished the Atlantic slave trade.


Atlantic slave trade as we have read, has been a trade in which over 10 million black Africans were transported from their homelands in Africa to Americas as slave laborers and in Europe as house servants.

In a nutshell, the Atlantic slave trade helped the European economy and sabotaged the growth of the African economy.


3 Responses

  1. […] the year 1530, purchasing black African slaves from the African slave traders known as the ‘Atlantic slave trade’ became the main feature of the European contacts with Africa for almost four hundred […]

  2. […] Bayi na Atalantika (Atlantic Ocean) wanda a turance ake kira da Atlantic Slave Trade wani zamani ne a tarihin duniya daga misalin Karni na 15th zuwa Karni na 19th, wanda yan kasuwa masu […]

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