Evolution of Slavery Across the Atlantic


If historians were compelled to name one of the historical phenomena or institutions that most determinedly shaped the creation of the Atlantic world by linking the four continents adjoining the Atlantic Ocean, majority would unquestionably name slavery. From the first arrivals of African-slaves in Europe in 1441 via the Atlantic slave trade, to the abolition of the Brazilian slavery in 1888, slave trade connected Africa, Europe, South America and North America through the chains of human enslavement. Between around 1500 and 1870, Europeans transported millions of African slaves across the Atlantic to provide labor in their American colonies. According to UNESCO, slavery forced the deportation of between 25 and 30 million from their homes in Africa (Old World) across the Atlantic to New World destinations. Given the significance of the slavery in shaping the colonization of North and South America, as well as in connection the Atlantic world through people and trade, this research explores the evolution of slavery across the Atlantic. This exploration covers the beginning of Atlantic slavery; its motivations; how it affected the regions where slaves were important; and its termination in New World.


The Beginning of Atlantic Slave Trade

Slavery across the Atlantic arose after the European made trade contacts with West Africa and the Americas in the mid-fifteenth century. These contacts were motivated by advancement in naval technology and availability of slaves as commodities of trade. In the 15th century, advancements in naval technology and ship building made it possible to traverse the Atlantic Ocean. This development as well as the need to explore new trade routes other than the trans-Saharan network controlled by Muslim Empire, which was viewed as religious, political and economic threat to the European Christendom motivated the Portuguese to make contact with West Africa. In doing so, Europeans created the first arm of the Atlantic slave trade, where European traders set out of Europe with goods which were used commodities of trade to be exchange for sub-Saharan African slaves.

Upon arrival in West Africa, European traders exchanged their goods for slaves. Merchandise included gun powder, weapons, pears, textile and other manufacture goods. The second arm of the trade entailed transportation of the slaves to the New World where they were auctioned. The last arm connected Americas and Europe, whereby European traders transported back agricultural products produced by slaves. Some of the products imported from America to Europe included sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee and rice. Soon enough, other European powers, including the Dutch, Spaniard, French and English became interested in the profitable enterprise. Besides raiding Portuguese ships, these new entrants could also go into the mainland Africa to exchange their merchandise for slaves. Besides these three arms, Tibble noted that there were also bilateral voyages between Africa and Brazil, especially after the official abolition of slave trade in the 19th Century

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Why Colonies Needed Slaves

Expanding European colonial powers in North and South American lacked manpower to further their colonial activities. In most scenarios, the native communities had proved to be unreliable as they were dying from diseases believed to have been brought by colonials. Additionally, Europeans workers were unsuited to the climate in the New World colonies. Besides the climate, European workers were suffering from the tropical diseases. In contrast to the indigenous American-Indians, African were reliable workers because they had experience win crop and animal agriculture. Furthermore, Africans had proved to be hardworking in mines and plantations from the first contact in mid-fifteenth century. Prior to the Atlantic Slave trade, African slaves had reached Europe via the Trans-Saharan trade route, where they were obtained from North Africa. According to Klein, Africans were also suited for the climate in the Americas, as they were resistant to tropical diseases. When colonials began to explore the America, African slaves were integral part of most expedition in the New World. For instance, in early 16th century, the Spaniard brought with them African slaves to work on gold mines and sugar plantation in the present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti. The slave trade grew in the 17th century, as the colonies expanded their plantations, which increased the demand for cheap labor. Further, as a highly profitable crop, the demand for sugar grew in the Americas, translating into high demand for slaves. All colonial powers were involved in slave trade, but by early 18th century, Britain became the leading slave trade power. The British needed people who could work in their plantations and mines in the Caribbean and North America. Besides these two destinations, the British transported over 2 million slaves from Africa to colonies of their major economic rivals, including the Spanish and French to counter competition.

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Regions That Had More Slaves

In the first three centuries of slavery across the Atlantic, slave trade was largely tapped into the internal slave markets of Africa. This included the coastline of West African and Central West Africa. In addition, slaves were mostly war captives who filled the forts of the American slavers. However, there were some Africans convicted to slavery within their societies for various reasons. In the same context, some slaves were victims of small-scale raids of unprotected peasant groups. Within these first three centuries of slave trade, the people who were taken across the Atlantic were living within coastline of Africa. Majority of these slaves were transported to South and North America. As the demand for sugar grew alongside the introduction of large-scale production of cotton, tobacco, rice and coffee in the America, approximately 1.3 and 6 million slaves were exported to the Americas in the 17th and 18th century respectively. Rose noted that by the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, Brazil had received over 4 million African slaves, which was over four times greater than any other destination in the Americas. This assertion is also attributed to the fact that slavery lasted longer in Brazil than any other New World destination in the Americas. In fact, slave trade was abolished in French and British Caribbean, Spanish America and the United States over half a century before its abolition in Brazil.

The Impact of Slavery in the New World 

The effects of slavery across the Atlantic in the in the Americas and the Caribbean include growth of economic activities and socio-political activism. For example, mid-sixteenth century, sugar plantations expanded in the Northeast region of Brazil, where sugar thrived. Following the unreliability of the enslaved Indians due to their high mortality rates second to European diseases, the Portuguese imported more African slaves to Brazil. While slaves were initially transported to the New World to work in mines and sugar plantations, the resulting surplus of African slaves led them to be used by the colonials in virtually all sectors of colonial economies. Slavery across the Atlantic, which allowed for the stable importation of cheap labor in North and South America allowed the colonies to develop several industries and fill their need for the then manual labor in nearly every profession. Haiti became Frenchs most profitable economy in terms of sugar production. With the growing resistance to slavery, as well as fights amongst working class colonialist and rich plantation owners, revolutions and civil wars emerged. Socially, the impact of slavery in the Caribbean and Americas can be seen in their music, dance and religion. In regards to the impact of slavery across the Atlantic on West-Africa was massive, especially with respect to demographics. In other words, West African populations were significantly reduced to a scenario where slave traders moved further into the continent to obtain slaves. Additionally, slave trade caused slave raids and wars, which resulted in additional deaths and environmental destruction.

The Termination of Slavery in Colonies

Slavery across the Atlantic came to an end due to various factors, including religious pressure, and protests and resistance of millions of slaves in the United States and Europe. According to Adi, millions of African continually resisted slavery and rebelled against slavers. Resistance begun in African and continued in the Americas. The end of the Atlantic slave trade began in the early nineteenth century, with the formalized ban on slave trade in Britain and the United States in 1807. Additionally, British blockades of slave ships and international pressure led to decline of slavery across the Atlantic, which had largely subsided by 1850s. By the time Brazil was gaining independence in 1822, slaver was deeply embedded in its socio-economic systems that the drafters of its Constitution did not give it a serious debate. The late abolition of slavery in Brazil created its cultural connection to Africa.


Slavery across the Atlantic began around mid-15th century when European traders, particularly the Portuguese made contact with West Africa. Advancements in navigation and shipbuilding technologies, as well as the need for an alternative trade network and readily available commodity of trade motivated European traders to traverse the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, expanding colonies in New World lacked human resource to further their colonial activities. As it can be seen from the research about the evolution of slave trade across the Atlantic, Atlantic slavery evolved relatively slowly over a period of four centuries. The volume of shipments within the first centuries was low and slave trade was largely tapped into the slave markets of Africa. By the 17th century, slavery across the Atlantic was in full swing, ceiling at the late stages of the 19th century. The trade ended due to resistance and protests from millions of slaves and ordinary people in Africa and Americas.