The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most devastating events recorded in human history. Between the 15th and 19th Centuries, more than 12 million Africans were stripped from their homes and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas.
The slave trade began after Portugal, and subsequently other European nations, developed seafaring technology enabling them to travel to Africa. In need of a workforce, the Portuguese invaded the western coast of Africa and commenced to kidnap men, women, and children. Africans were considered ideal workers because they had experience with cattle herding and farming, could withstand the tropical climate, and were resistant to tropical diseases unlike Europeans.
Contrary to popular belief, slavery was nothing new to Africa. In fact, slavery was a traditional part of African societies where both kingdoms and states used the practice. For example, Africans could become enslaved as punishment for a crime, as payment for a family debt, or by becoming a prisoner of war.
At the onset of the transatlantic slave trade, rich and powerful Africans and merchants alike traded enslaved Africans for European firearms, gold, and other consumer goods. This occurred without total destruction of social or economic operations. However, such was not the case towards the end of the 17th century when the demand for the enslaved was so great that Europeans resorted to raiding and warfare to acquire their resources.
So, how exactly did the transatlantic slave trade work? In sum it occurred in three phases.
First, manufactured goods, such as cloth, tobacco, metal goods, and guns were transported from Europe to Africa. These commodities were delivered and exchanged for African slaves.
Second, the enslaved were shipped to the Americas to work on plantations. During the “middle passage,” or transit from the continent of Africa to the “New World,” thousands of Africans died due to dehydration, malnutrition, disease, and violence inflicted in response to any form of resistance.Conditions aboard the ships were inhumane and atrocious, with captives packed on top of one another amidst urine, feces, vomit, and horrendous odors. The journey to the Americas took more than seven weeks and resulted in an estimated 2 million deaths – resulting in a death rate that reached nearly 25%.
After disembarking in the Americas, the enslaved were sold to the highest bidders as plantation workers. Ship captains were rewarded for successfully delivering healthy and saleable slaves, and often sought insurance money for those who died along the way. Of the slaves sold, nearly two-thirds were forced to harvest sugar – one of the most in-demand commodities in Europe for use in tea and coffee. With a ship deplete of the enslaved, the vessel returned to Europe filled with the product of their labor: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses, and rum. This triangular trade took up to 18 months from start to finish.
While African rulers and powerful merchants benefited from the transatlantic slave trade, the continent as a whole suffered greatly. The loss of population contributed significantly to Africa’s economic underdevelopment while those stolen human resources built the foundations for the booming wealth acquired by Europe and the Americas.
A diabolical combination of colonialism and racism facilitated the unequal exchange between Africa and these predominantly white nations following the slave trade. By subscribing to the belief that Africans were inferior, these nations converted human beings into commodities, rendering them nothing more than products to be sold and purchased. For that reason, the transatlantic slave trade is arguably one of humanity’s greatest tragedies and represents the biggest deportation in human history.