The Atlantic slave trade was the capture and transport of black Africans into bondage and servitude in the New World. The slaves were one element of a three-part economic cycle—the Triangular Trade and its infamous Middle Passage—which ultimately involved four continents, four centuries and the lives and fortunes of millions of people.
Records of the era were kept erratically, if at all, but contemporary historians estimate some 12 million individuals were taken from west Africa to North, Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands by European colonial powers.
The slave trade originated in a shortage of labour in the new world. The first slaves used were Native American people, but they were not numerous enough and were being decimated by European diseases. It was also impossible to convince enough Europeans to immigrate to the colonies, despite attempts at coercive tactics such as indentured servitude. The massive amounts of labour were needed for mining, but especially for the growing of sugar. Sugar could not be grown profitably in Europe, but the prized commodity grew well in the warmer areas of New World. Growing sugar was an extremely labour intensive process. To meet this demand for labour European traders thus turned to Western Africa, especially Guinea as a source of slaves.
There Europeans tapped into the African slave trade that saw slaves transported to the coast of Guinea where they were sold at European trading forts in exchange for muskets, manufactured goods, and cloth. There they were loaded into extremely cramped ships and given only minimal amounts of food and water. It is estimated that fifteen percent of slaves died in the voyage over the Atlantic.
The first slavers were Portuguese who desired workers for their mines and sugar plantations in Brazil. When the Dutch seized much of Brazil and became the dominant trading power in seventeenth century they became the leading slavers selling slaves to both their own colonies and to British and Spanish ones. As Britain rose in naval power and controlled more of the Americas they became the leading slaver traders, mostly operating out of Liverpool and Bristol. By the late 17th century, one out of every four ships that left Liverpool harbour was a slaver. They were highly profitable ventures and played very important economic roles in those two cities.
The slave trade was part of the triangular Atlantic trade, which was probably the most important and profitable trading route in the world. Ships from Europe would carry a cargo of manufactured trade goods to Africa. They would exchange the trade goods for slaves which they would transport to the Americas. In the Americas, they would sell the slaves and pick up a cargo of agricultural products, often produced with slave labour, for Europe. The value of this trade route was that a ship could make a substantial profit on each leg of the voyage. The route was also designed to take full advantage of prevailing winds and currents. For example, the trip from the West Indies or the southern US to Europe would be assisted by the Gulf Stream. The outward bound trip from Europe to Africa would not be impeded by the same current.
The immorality of slavery was excused by economics. Slavery was involved in some of the most immensely profitable industries of the time. 70% of the slaves brought to the new world were used to produce sugar, the most labour intensive crop. The rest were employed harvesting coffee, cotton, and tobacco, and in some cases in mining. The West Indian colonies of the European powers were some of their most important possessions and they went to extremes to protect and retain them. For example, in 1763, France agreed to lose the entire vast colony of New France in exchange for keeping the minute island of Guadeloupe.
By far the most successful West Indian colonies in 1800 belonged to the United Kingdom. After entering the sugar colony business late, British naval supremacy and control over key islands such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados gave it an important edge over all competitors. This advantage was reinforced when France lost its most important colony, St. Dominigue, to a slave revolt in 1791. The British islands produced the most sugar, and the British people quickly became the largest consumers of sugar. West Indian sugar became ubiquitous as an additive to Chinese tea. Products of American slave labour soon permeated every level of British society with tobacco, coffee, and especially sugar all being indispensable elements of daily life for all classes.
Abolition of the Atlantic slave trade
In Britain, and in other parts of Europe, opposition developed against the slave trade. Led by Quakers such as William Wilberforce the movement was joined by many and began to protest the trade. They were opposed by the owners of the colonial holdings; despite this Britain banned the slave trade in 1807, imposing stiff fines for any slave found aboard a British ship. That same year the United States banned the importation of slaves. The Royal Navy, which then controlled the world's seas, moved to stop other nations from filling Britain's place in the slave trade and declared that slaving was equal to piracy and could be punished by death.
For the British to end of the slave trade, significant obstacles had to be overcome. In the 18th century, the slave trade was an integral part of the Atlantic economy. The economies of the European colonies in the Caribbean, the American colonies, and Brazil required vast amounts of man power to harvest the bountiful agricultural goods. In 1790 the British West Indies, islands such as Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad had a slave population of 524 000, while the French had 643 000 in their West Indian possessions. Other powers such as Spain, the Netherlands, and Denmark had large numbers of slaves as well. Despite these high populations more slaves were always required. Harsh conditions and demographic imbalances left the slave population with well below replacement fertility levels. Between 1600 and 1800 the English imported around 1.7 million slaves to their West Indian possessions. The fact that there were well over a million fewer slaves in the British colonies than had been imported to them illustrates the conditions in which they lived.
How did the abolition of the slave trade occur if it was so economically important and successful? The historiography of answers to this question is a long and interesting one. Before the Second World War the study of the abolition movement was performed primarily by British scholars who believed that the anti-slavery movement was probably among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages in the history of nations.
This opinion was controverted in 1944 by the West Indian historian, Eric Williams, who argued that the end of the slave trade was a result of economic transitions totally unconnected to any morality.
Williams' thesis was soon brought into question as well, however. Williams based his argument upon the idea that the West Indian colonies were in decline at the early point of 19th century and were losing their political and economic importance to Britain. This decline turned the slave system into an economic burden that the British were only too willing to do away with.
The main difficulty with this argument is that the decline only began to manifest itself after slave trading was banned in 1807. Before then slavery was flourishing economically. The decline in the West Indies is more likely to be an effect of the suppression of the slave trade than the cause. Falling prices for the commodities produced by slave labour such as sugar and coffee can be easily discounted as evidence shows that a fall in price leads to great increases in demand and actually increases total profits for the importers. Profits for the slave trade remained at around ten percent of investment and showed no evidence of being on the decline. Land prices in the West Indies, an important tool for analyzing the economy of the area did not begin to decrease until after the slave trade was discontinued. The sugar colonies were not in decline at all, in fact they were at the peak of their economic influence in 1807.
Williams also had reason to be biased. He was heavily involved in the movements for independence of the Caribbean colonies and had a motive to try to extinguish the idea of such a munificent action by the colonial overlord. A third generation of scholars lead by the likes of Seymour Drescher and Robert Anstey have discounted most of Williams arguments, but still acknowledge that morality had to be combined with the forces of politics and economic theory to bring about the end of the slave trade.
The movements that played the greatest role in actually convincing Westminster to outlaw the slave trade were religious. Evangelical Protestant groups arose who agreed with the Quakers in viewing slavery as a blight upon humanity. These people were certainly a minority, but they were a fervent one with many dedicated individuals. These groups also had a strong parliamentary presence, controlling 35-40 seats at their height. Their numbers were magnified by the precarious position of the government. Known as the "saints" this group was lead by William Wilberforce, the most important of the anti-slave campaigners. These parliamentarians were extremely dedicated and often saw their personal battle against slavery as a divinely ordained crusade.
After the British ended their own slave trade, they were forced by economics to press other nations into placing themselves in the same economic straitjacket, or else the British colonies would become uncompetitive with those of other nations. The British campaign against the slave trade by other nations was an unprecedented foreign policy effort. Denmark, a small player in the international slave trade, and the United States banned the trade during the same period as Great Britain. Other small trading nations that did not have a great deal to give up such as Sweden quickly followed suit, as did the Dutch, who were also by then a minor player.
Four nations objected strongly to surrendering their rights to trade slaves: Spain, Portugal, Brazil (after its independence), and France. Britain used every tool at its disposal to try to induce these nations to follow its lead. Portugal and Spain, which were indebted to Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, slowly agreed to accept large cash payments to first reduce and then eliminate the slave trade. By 1853 the British government had paid Portugal over three million pounds, and Spain over one million in order to end the slave trade. Brazil, however, did not agree to stop trading in slaves until Britain took military action against its coastal areas in and threatened a permanent blockade of the nation's ports in 1852.
For France, the British first tried to impose a solution during the negotiations at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but Russia and Austria did not agree. The French people and government had deep misgivings about conceding to Britain's demands. Not only did Britain demand that other nations ban the slave trade, but also demanded the right to police the ban. The Royal Navy had to be granted permission to search any suspicious ships and seize any found to be carrying slaves, or equipped for doing so. It is especially these conditions that kept France involved in the slave trade for so long. While France formally agreed to ban the trading of slaves in 1815, they did not allow Britain to police the ban, nor did they do much to enforce it themselves. Thus a large black market in slaves continued for many years. While the French people had originally been as opposed to the slave trade as the British, it became a matter of national pride that they not allow their policies to be dictated to them by Britain. Also such a reformist movement was viewed as tainted by the conservative backlash after the revolution. The French slave trade thus did not come to a complete halt until 1848.
- Breaking the Silence: Learning about the Transatlantic Slave Trade (http://www.antislavery.org/breakingthesilence/index.shtml)