Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of:

The Slave Trade




After this assignment, you should be able to define and discuss:

In addition, you should have considered the following matters and be able to discuss the principles involved:

Although we will not be discussing these matters to any great extent at present, you should be thinking about:


Someone once wrote an interesting article stressing the difference between Heritage and History. His basic point was that History was society's attempt to find out what had actually happened in the past as a guide for its present and future conduct, while Heritage is a past created by a society to emphasize and explain for itself its essential character and practices. The residents of many cities and towns throughout the American Southwest will tell the story of how, long ago, an Indian princess having lost her lover, went to a hill overlooking their town and there killed herself, but not before blessing the place where her lover lay buried. They then say that the princess's blessing protected the town, which is why it has never experienced a tornado. The historian who goes looking for the name or tribe of that Indian princess long ago is a fool, since the princess is part of the town's heritage, not its history. In much the same way, the scholar may demonstrate how elements of the Book of Genesis were derived from earlier myths and religions of the ancient Near East without changing people's belief in the Biblical account. Difficulties arise, however, when people treat their heritage as though it were historical fact, or when some people attack the heritage of another by attempting to show that it is not historically accurate. It is also why historians are sometimes accused of being interested only in discrediting the great men and women of the past and of treating their accomplishments with contempt.

This is certainly the case with Africa. The official seal of the African nation of Zimbabwe shows the great stone ruin found in that country. Scholars continue to argue about when that monument was constructed, and propose dates ranging from 1000 BC to about 1450 A.D. The problem is that the Africans regard it as a symbol of the past greatness of the peoples of the continent, while many non-African scholars have no sense of its value as a symbol. Again, it is clash between heritage and history. It is not easy to sort out what has been asserted about Africa and what has been proposed after objective study, but I shall attempt to do so.

In the first place, the geography of Africa is not well-suited for the development of great and stable states. Mountains, jungles, swamps, and deserts more or less compartmentalize the continent into small units among which travel and communications are difficult and unification almost impossible. The region north of the Sahara Desert is part of the Mediterranean world, and its peoples and cultures have generally been part of that world. The plain through which the Niger River flows if large and fertile, and great cultures have arisen in that region, such as the Ghanan empire about 900-1100 A.D., and the Mandingo (1250- 1450) and Songhoy (1250-1550) empires. The northeastern part of the continent, Nubia and Abyssinia, saw the rise of secondary kingdoms during the era of the Bronze Age Empires, and the Nubians even dominated Egypt for a time, while the Kingdom of Abyssinia endured until the overthrow of its monarchy some twenty years ago. The east coast of Africa was part of the Indian Ocean culture, first absorbing influences, and immigrants, from India, and then being dominated by the Muslims. The Southern part of the continent was rich and fertile region, but -- because it was relative free of diseases of stock animals -- it was fought over by a long series of semi-nomadic cattle-raising peoples of whom the Zulu were one of the most recent and best known.

This leaves the interior of the continent, a great plateau thick with jungle and its rivers flowing through wide marshes. It was the home of the anopheles mosquito, carrier of malaria and the tsetse fly that spread the deadly Sleeping Sickness. Consequently, trade and development occurred along the periphery rather than in the center of the continent.

It is difficult to determine when slavery became an important economic factor in African history. Certainly African enslaved each other from an early date; this is a common feature of most societies pursuing an agriculture based on manual labor. By about 900 A.D., however, a regular slave-trade had developed between the Niger River valley and the Muslims of Spain. With Negroes brought from West Africa and Slavs from Russia, the Spanish Muslim capital of Cordoba became one of the greatest slave-markets in the world. With the decline of Muslim Spain, this bulk of this trade shifted to East Africa. By this time, some peoples of Africa had come to depend upon the slave trade, and Zanzibar had become the great slave emporium. Wars between African tribes were not fought to kill, but to take prisoners who could be exchanged with Arab slave-traders for imported goods. It has been estimated that 25% of the slaves taken out of Africa ended up in Muslim lands. Even more important, this centuries-old trade had rooted the institution in the African economy and had established the general pattern of that trade.

When the Portuguese began exploring the West African coast and establishing the forts and trading posts that were eventually taken over by the Dutch, they found that trade in spices, gold, ivory, and other luxury goods was profitable, but that slaves were the basis of trade and that they could have disposed of much more of their trading goods if they accepted slaves in exchange. Nevertheless, they did not develop this commerce, preferring to concentrate on their original goal of gaining control of the market in Eastern spices. Although the Spanish began entering into the slave trade early in the sixteenth century, it was still a relatively small-scale operation.

This changed significantly when the Europeans began what might best be called the botanical re-ordering of the globe. Plants were moved from their native habitats and established as staple crops elsewhere. The Spanish began to raise sugar cane from the Near East in their Caribbean possessions, and the Portuguese took the coffee tree, native to Arabia and Abyssinia, and planted great groves in Brazil. This large-scale agriculture required a great deal of labor. The Indian population had been greatly reduced by disease, and the fevers common in the lands being cultivated turned them into graveyards for the Europeans. This where the Africans came in. Many of the inhabitants of Africa possessed a genetic "defect" that made them vulnerable to sickle-cell anaemia, but this same sickle-cell anaemia also made them resistant to sleeping sickness and other fevers, and, most particularly to malaria. The same factor that had contributed to their survival in the fever-ridden regions of Africa now made them valuable as laborers in the fever-ridden lands being exploited in the Americas. After 1550, the slave trade began to increase steadily in volume and importance. The Spanish and Portuguese bought slaves to transport to their western colonies, and other European nations, such as England, France, the Netherlands, and even Prussia, soon made the slave trade an international effort.

Since Europeans did not fare well in the interior of Africa, they established their trading posts along the coast and, for the most part, bought their slaves from native slave-traders, or even Arab slavers, who ranged throughout the interior of the continent, kidnapping, capturing, and buying prisoners from those tribes who also participated in this complex business. The captives were then marched to a European station and sold to a European agent. After a wait, they were packed into sailing ships and conveyed to the Americas, where they were sold to local slave agents who then conducted auctions, selling their slaves off to those who needed and could afford them.

There are various estimates of the number of Africans who were taken into slavery in the Americas, but fifteen million is perhaps the highest number that has been put forward. Of course, one must remember that some 20% of the captives died on their way to a trading station, and another 20% died while being transported to the plantations. So it would seem that over twenty million Africans were consumed by the slave trade to the Americas.

Most of these went to Brazil and the Caribbean islands. Only about half a million were carried to North America, and the new United States, in 1808, was one of the first Western nations to outlaw the importation of slaves. By the early nineteenth century, most Western naval powers were committed to ending the slave trade, and many were considering ways of eliminating slavery from their possessions. The United States did so only after a bloody civil war was fought, at least partly over this issue. In 1888, Brazil was the last Western nation to outlaw slavery. The slave trade continued but was restricted to commerce with the Muslims as it had been in the beginning.

This massive movement of forced laborers, called by many The African Diaspora, provided the human lives that were required to develop some of the lands of the Americas and to feed a growing Western need for sugar, cotton, coffee, indigo, and tobacco, as well as great quantities of raw materials to feed the growing Western industrial economy. It is important, however, to realize that the African Diaspora was only one aspect of a global shift of populations. During the same period in which the slave trade was at its height, some sixty-five million people left Europe and about twenty million left India and China. In some places these migrations wiped out entire peoples and, in others, such as North America, the population of the previous residents decreased markedly.

One must remember how much unhappiness this movement -- which is still going on - - caused and is causing. Historians and demographers debate the forces that effect such movements and discuss the question of push or pull. By "push" they mean forces that drive people from their homelands, such as religious persecution, famine, enforced military service, deportation for crime, ethnic discrimination, and the systemic poverty of the lower classes. "Pull" refers to the attractions of a new land, such as free land to cultivate, better job opportunities, a chance to exercise political power, healthier climes, the desire to join relatives and the like. It is generally agreed that a combination of push and pull shapes these great migrations. The desire to escape religious persecution is obvious a push, but the freedom from religious persecution in a new land can be seen as a pull. In some of these movements of peoples, push seems to have been more important than pull, and in other cases the situation is reversed. In the case of the African Diaspora, however, there is no doubt. Force was the engine that drove this great migration.



There is an excellent Map of the West African Slave Trade that provides some idea of the volume of the trade and where the slaves were taken. At the present time, the motion picture Amistad, the story of a rebellion aboard a slave ship, is attracting a good deal of attention and critical of attention. The Mystic Seaport (MA) Museum has mounted an excellent exhibition, Exploring Amistad: Race and the Boundaries of Freedom in Antebellum Maritime America that provides a wealth of information on the slave trade geenrally.


To follow up the story of the Amistad, you might wish to read the actual decision of the United States Supreme court in THE AMISTAD, 40 U.S. 518 (1841). There is also the simulation offered by the African Slave Trade Research Project. It is complex to use, but those who have some experience with the web might care to investigate it. Finally, one should note that there were efforts to free and repatriate slaves to Africa, a subject discussed in Remarks on the Colonization of the Western Coast of Africa.

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
2 March 1998
Lawrence KS