The Slave Trade: From Europe to the Americas

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

For centuries, people saw slavery not as an abomination and a crime, but simply as part of the way things had always been, a seemingly permanent feature of human society. But how did the slave trade come about in the first place?

Stone relief showing two collared slaves in loincloths being led by another man pulling on a rope.
Slavery was common in the ancient world, as depicted in this Roman-era marble depiction of two chained slaves. (Image: Ashmolean Museum/CC BY-SA 2.0/Public domain)

Historical Slavery

Most premodern societies had some form of slavery or forced labor. Even the Greeks and Romans divided humanity into two categories: slave and free. The slave trade in these times consisted mainly of prisoners of war.

In medieval Europe, slavery was common in towns. Often these were people from Eastern Europe. Indeed, the word ‘slave’ in English originally comes from the word ‘Slav’, the major family of peoples in Eastern Europe. From 1200 to 1500, the trading empires Venice and Genoa did a brisk trade in slaves from the Caucasus mountain region who were sold in the slave markets of Cairo in Egypt.

Later, in the Middle Ages, slavery mostly disappeared in northwestern Europe, but serfs and peasants were subject to conditions of harsh servitude. In Eastern Europe, serfs were bought and sold for a long time; in fact, serfdom was only abolished in Russia in 1861.

The Colonial Slave Trade

Slavery became common again after the European encounter with the American continents after 1492. Columbus seized Native Americans to bring them back to Spain to show off to his royal patrons. Then, when Native Americans were decimated by European diseases, the Spanish began to bring slaves from Africa to Hispaniola around 1500.

This established a new pattern of slavery: slaves from Africa were forcibly taken to the plantations of the Americas. This pattern endured for 350 years: on the vast plantations in the New World, sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee were grown, as global commodities, by slaves.

Image of slaves working on a plantation in the British West Indies.
Slaves were brought to work on plantations, such as this one in the British West Indies. (Image: British Library/CC0 1.0/Public domain)

The Numbers of Slaves

The numbers involved in the slave trade are vast. From 1500 to 1820, it is estimated that between 12 and 15 million Africans were torn from their homes and shipped across the Atlantic. Moreover, it is estimated that two to six million slaves did not survive the crossing itself.

In the early 1600s, the Portuguese dominated this trade, but then other competitors such as the Dutch and the British took over. These were big ventures with multiple investors. In the British case, it was the Royal African Company which had received a royal charter for this trade, and the slaves they transported were branded with the letters ‘R.A.C.’.

From 1640 onward, the British carried some 40 percent of the total slaves. The French were next, with some 20 percent. At the peak, British ships were carrying 40,000 slaves every year.

Learn more about the millions of Africans who were torn from their homes to be slaves.

The Slave Trade and Business

European ports grew rich on slavery. A vast economy was built up around the slave trade, including those who made the goods which were traded for human beings, those who built and outfitted the slave ships, and those who resold the colonial commodities that came back from the Americas.

This vast pattern of shipping came to be called the triangle, or triangular trade. Slave ships carried goods from England and Europe to West Africa, loaded up with human cargo there, and then moved across the Atlantic to America. Disgorging those who survived, the ships then loaded up with sugar, tobacco, and coffee, and sailed back to northwestern Europe.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Triangular Trade

The slave ships headed to the coasts of West Africa. Slaves were usually brought to the coast by African middlemen. Such prisoners were usually captives of wars or had been reduced to slavery because they were unable to pay their debts.

European traders mostly paid for slaves with items such as cloth, bars of iron, glass beads, manufactured goods like pots and pans, alcohol, and guns and gunpowder.

One slaver inspects a slave, another displays alcohol and guns to slave traders, while a third sits on a crate with an open book.
Slave traders would pay for slaves in guns, rum, and other commodities. (Image: Brantz Mayer/Public Domain)

For weeks, the ships waited at the coast, until, as the terrible expression went, “fully slaved”. Then began the horrors of the Atlantic crossing; what was called the Middle Passage. Aboard crowded ships, slaves had only about four square feet of space. Chained together so that it was harder for them to revolt, it was difficult for the Africans to move about. Yet, desperate slaves tried to resist: Over 300 mutinies took place on the slave ships.

The trip typically took about a month from Africa to Brazil, or two months from Africa to the Caribbean or North America. It’s estimated that an average of 15 percent of the slaves died en route. Slave ship crews also experienced very high mortality rates, due to yellow fever and malaria.

Learn more about Southern society and the defense of slavery.

The Sugar Industry

Those who survived were put to work in the plantations of the colonies, especially the sugar plantations in the Caribbean Islands. Almost half of all Africans shipped across the Atlantic were sent to the Caribbean; to Barbados, Jamaica, or Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti.

Sugar proved to be a deadly industry. Work conditions were backbreaking and dangerous: the cutting of the cane, the fast turnaround time needed to process the cut cane into sugar, the furious heat of the boiling houses where the sugar was processed. Most slaves were simply worked to death, often in about 10 years, and then replaced.

About 40 percent of the slaves were shipped to Brazil. North America received only some five percent of the total traffic, and actually saw a natural increase in the African population, which was unusual.

All of this reached its peak in the 1790s. Up to this point, there had been isolated criticisms of slavery, but a general condemnation of slavery was only just gathering steam.

Common Questions about the Origins of the Slave Trade

Q. Why did slavery become common after the discovery of the New World?

When Native Americans were decimated by European diseases, the Spanish began to bring slaves from Africa to Hispaniola around 1500. From this point, it became common practice to bring Africans as slaves to the Americas.

Q. Who was involved in the Colonial Slave Trade?

Initially, the Portuguese dominated this trade, but soon others such as the Dutch and the British took over. These were big ventures with multiple investors. From 1640 onward, British slave ships carried 40 percent of the total slaves. At the peak, British ships were carrying 40,000 slaves every year.

Q. What was the Triangular Trade?

The Triangular Trade was the name given to the sailing pattern of many slave ships. They carried goods from Europe to West Africa, loaded up with human cargo there, and then delivered them across the Atlantic to America. The ships then loaded up with sugar, tobacco, and coffee, and sailed back to northwestern Europe.

Q. Where were the maximum African slaves taken, and why?

Most African slaves, almost half, were taken to the Caribbean islands to work on the sugar plantations; to Barbados, Jamaica, or Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti.

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