Portuguese mariners began patrolling the west coast of Africa in the fifteenth century, primarily in search of gold. In the process, they encountered and either purchased or captured small numbers of Africans, with the first shipload of 235 captives landing in Lagos, Portugal, in 1444. Then, after the 1470s, gold from the Akan area inland from the so-called Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) financed a second, larger stage of Atlantic slaving. The Portuguese purchased captives from the Benin area just east of the Niger River delta and sold them to labor in the gold mines of the Akan. On their way back to Europe, the Portuguese left other enslaved Africans on the small islands of the eastern Atlantic, especially Madeira and the Canaries. The Portuguese and Spaniards held these islands for geostrategic reasons and paid the costs of military occupation by putting Africans to work, turning small farms into large sugar plantations. In this way, gold begat slaving and slaves begat sugar, which, in turn, supported increased commercial investments in the Atlantic world.
Shortly after 1500, the Portuguese transferred the plantation model to the equatorial island of São Tomé, which boasted good rains and rich volcanic soils ideal for growing sugar. Most of the captives taken there initially came from the nearby central African mainland, a region known as the Kongo. At first they stopped on the island only for refreshment along the lengthy sailing route to the mines of the Gold Coast. But the island’s residents took advantage of their presence by putting them to work carving plantations out of the forests. By the mid-sixteenth century they had invested heavily in enslaved labor and made São Tomé the world’s leading producer of raw sugar.
Meanwhile, small numbers of enslaved Africans, mostly acculturated individuals who had been taken to Habsburg Spain, traveled to the New World with the conquistadores. The Spanishand opened silver mines in the Andes Mountains of South America, using . Because transporting enslaved Africans across the Atlantic proved relatively costly, they arrived only in modest numbers. They were mostly men, hailing from relatively nearby western Africa, and tended to serve in cities as domestic and skilled laborers. Spain’s American territories never relied, other than sporadically, on the mass enslavement of Africans for the production of commodities, at least before the Cuban sugar and coffee boom of the nineteenth century.
From Local to Transatlantic Trade
The first great wave of captive Africans swept across the Atlantic only in the 1590s. Prior to then, the trade in captives had been relatively small because African authorities strongly preferred to sell extracted commodities, such as gold, ivory, and other natural resources, rather than their own people. The small communities living along the west coast of Africa valued their members especially for the insight and knowledge they could impart to their groups in the absence of writing, while large numbers of people constituted power. Their communities were tightly knit, and giving up one’s own members or even one’s neighbors—among whom they exchanged women as wives—compromised the survival of all.
Conflicts did not result in much violence or produce many captives. An exception to this involved Saharan traders who, beginning in the tenth century, introduced horses to sell for gold from the region adjoining the desert. The Africans who bought the horses then deployed them to wage wars of a much greater intensity. As conflicts escalated, their demand for horses exceeded the supply of gold to pay for them, and they used their mounts to capture Africans to then sell as slaves in order to buy more horses. These captives followed trade routes across the western desert to markets in North Africa, some of them even reaching the Christian Mediterranean. Along the way, the desert traders diverted some of their human cargoes to Portuguese buyers, who then sold them in established Iberian markets. This use of the trans-Saharan trade was how the first cargo came to be sold at Lagos.
The trade remained relatively small until a series of unrelated events converged in the area south of the Kongo, transforming the early stream of captives for sale in the Old World into a flood of slaves destined for the Americas. In 1575, the Portuguese sent a military expedition to a bay near the mouth of the Kwanza River. Their intention had been to seize what they incorrectly believed to be mountains of silver in the interior. They arrived in the midst of a prolonged drought, which had caused many African communities to disperse in search of food. Some younger men survived by forming armed gangs to prey on the few communities still with crops, and some of these bandits joined the Portuguese in attacking the area around the lower Kwanza River, then under the influence of a military leader called the Ngola.
At the same time, the death of King Henry, of Portugal, in 1580 led to a dynastic union with Spain. The Portuguese in West Africa suddenly became Spanish subjects with the authority to trade in Spain’s American markets. By this time, the chaos in what came to be known as Angola had produced thousands of refugees who were easily captured, even by the weak Portuguese military forces on the ground, for dispatch to the Spanish Indies. The cost of buying these desperately vulnerable Africans was low. As a result, European investors were able to cover the financial losses that came from so many deaths during the Middle Passage by selling the survivors in America for Spanish silver.
Dutch and English privateers, neither of them friends of the Habsburgs in Spain and Portugal, preyed on these ships. In 1619, two of them—the White Lion and the Treasurer—attacked the Portuguese ship São João Bautista, robbing it of its cargo of about fifty enslaved Africans. A few months later, the White Lion arrived in Virginia carrying thesurvivors, likely the in the new colony.
Brazil and the Caribbean
Portugal had claimed Brazil in April 1500 and within a century had managed to establish sugar plantations in the northeast corner of South America. These sizable enterprises required large capital investments in machinery, draft animals, and, most significant, labor to cultivate the cane. The Portuguese in Brazil had few financial resources, however. To save money on labor, they tried to enslave Native Americans but had little ability, beyond sheer brutality, to control local people who knew the territory well. At the same time, enslaved Africans for sale in Spanish port cities were far too expensive. Instead, the Brazilian Portuguese bought a few enslaved Africans from ship captains stopping along their course to the Caribbean, while also organizing their own slaving ventures in West Africa. By the 1620s they had established African-cultivated canebrakes on significant scales, replacing São Tomé as the world’s largest producer of sugar. These growing plantations represented a prototypical use of African slaves to produce sugar in the Americas.
Portuguese sugar production grew only moderately from these beginnings and was interrupted when the Dutch seized northeast Brazil’s plantations from 1630 until 1654. When eventually expelled, the Dutch turned to supplying captive Africans to the early English sugar estates in Barbados and Jamaica in the West Indies. By the end of the seventeenth century the English were competing with them on even larger scales. Slaves reaching Virginia were byproducts of this growth in West Indian sugar planting. The French eventually occupied the western end of Spain’s Santo Domingo, called Saint-Domingue in French until rechristened as independent Haiti in 1804. Enslaved Africans —brought to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade and exploited to produce sugar, indigo, tobacco, and coffee—were essential in all of these European colonies.
Between 1517 and 1867, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were forced onto ships to begin the Middle Passage to America. Fewer than 11 million men, women, and children survived the journey. Of these, about 40 percent, mostly from Angola, landed in Brazil, where the trade continued until 1850. About 35 percent of enslaved Africans went to the non-Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and a bit more than 20 percent were sold in Spanish colonies. Less than 5 percent were sent to British North America and the United States, which lay well north of the major sailing routes, where the sugar at the heart of the Atlantic mercantile economy could not be cultivated.
Every national community of European merchants participated in the transatlantic slave trade, including Swedes, North Germans, and Danes. Because of Brazil’s early start and late finish, in addition to successive commodity booms in sugar, gold, and coffee, Portugal was the largest overall transporter of enslaved Africans. Great Britain became the dominant slaving power in the eighteenth century, accounting for about 25 percent of the total, including up to half of the relative few delivered to North America. Spain, which entered the trade directly only in the nineteenth century in order to support the belated development of sugar and coffee in Cuba, eventually accounted for about 15 percent of the total. The French transported about 12 percent—mostly to its West Indies islands during the eighteenth century and before the Haitian Revolution of 1791—and the Dutch less than 5 percent. North Americans, led by Rhode Island merchants in the years between the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the legal banning of the trade in 1807, accounted for less than 3 percent. (Both the United States and Great Britain passed laws in 1807 prohibiting their citizens’ further transportation of slaves. The American law went into effect in 1808.)
The highest volumes of the transatlantic slave trade came in the 1700s. During this century more than half of the total, amounting to an average of about 50,000 enslaved Africans per year, was transported, mostly from the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 until the end of the British trade in 1807. Prior to 1700, the numbers of Africans transported had been significantly smaller, with Europeans spending more in Africa acquiring gold than in buying people. The trade continued after the British and American bans, in spite of Britain’s treaties limiting it and growing naval surveillance, and in peak decades returned to average nearly 50,000 people annually.
The source for these quite precise numbers is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a collection of the known details of almost 36,000 slaving voyages, about 80 percent of the total, which allow reasonable estimates for the undocumented remainder. It shows that nearly 400,000 Africans landed alive in North America and that 75 percent of the voyages bringing them arrived during the eighteenth century. A burst of late arrivals came through Charleston, South Carolina, after 1800, as cotton production in the state took off and anxious planters anticipated the end of U.S. imports in 1808. In all, Charleston took slightly more than half of the North American total. The Chesapeake Bay region was second, with about a third, or an estimated 130,000 survivors of some 160,000 men, women, and children taken from Africa. Some of these enslaved Africans, particularly before 1700, came to North America not directly from Africa but through the Caribbean, where Virginia planters purchased them with provisions and other materials valued in the sugar islands.
Financing, Sales, and Profits
The tens of thousands of voyages that comprised the transatlantic slave trade were structured as business ventures. Elite European merchants and merchant bankers provided funding and capital transfer services to British, French, and Dutch operators of ships, while the Portuguese left their trade in the southern Atlantic to underfinanced traders in Brazil, who in turn passed on ownership of the dying captives aboard their ships to their suppliers in Angola. Madrid, through its Real Casa de la Contratación de Indias in Seville, started the transatlantic trade by authorizing investors to issue licenses, or asientos, to shippers to sell slaves in its American ports. The asiento contracts were granted to Portuguese investors from 1580 to 1640, then to Dutch and French bidders, and, after 1713, to the British South Sea Company. Such licenses were attractive to investors in Europe less because of the profitability of slaving than for the opportunity to smuggle goods and take advantage of Spanish American buyers’ ability to pay for slaves in silver.
All ships, in addition to being armed to ward off pirates and other enemies, were insured, at first in the large financial centers of Europe and later through firms based in the primary slaving ports. These included Bristol and Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Middelburgh in the Netherlands, and Newport, Rhode Island, in the British North American colonies. Insurance premiums ranged from 5 to 10 percent of the cost of the ship, not counting crew and cargo, but could more than triple during the frequent international conflicts of the period.
Spanish buyers usually paid for slaves in silver, and this liquidity helped make mainland ports such as Cartagena and Vera Cruz popular early destinations. Elsewhere in the Americas, planters or their brokers paid for slaves on credit secured by future deliveries of sugar or other commodities. Some slave captains were reluctant to accept sugar or tobacco out of concern over the price they might receive when they then tried to sell it in European markets, and bills of exchange drawn on merchant-bankers in financial centers such as London covered this risk. Generally, American buyers of captives paid captains about a quarter of what they owed immediately in cash or commodities—sugar, tobacco, and others—and sent the rest over the next year and a half. As a result of these delayed payments in kind, some slave ships returned to Europe largely empty of cargo. The so-called Triangular Trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas was in fact a complex series of separate trades, spread over several vessels sailing on each of its three legs. Once home, slave-ship captains sold what commodities they carried, and the investors in the voyages waited to collect the rest in payments on the credit extended. Some steps in these complex series of transactions proved to be unprofitable—so many, in fact, that John Newton, a British captain who publicly turned against the trade, described the whole enterprise as “a sort of lottery in which every adventurer hoped to gain a prize.”
for which they carried no immunities. According to one survey made between 1784 and 1790, more than 21 percent of British crew members on tripartite slave voyages died. Enslaved Africans, meanwhile, on the single, relatively short, “middle” segment on which they traveled. Often they were loaded onto ships only after enduring weeks or months of forced marches, deprivation, and brutality on their way to the sea, leaving them vulnerable once onboard the ships to traumatic stress and communicable diseases. While chained below decks, they could barely move, even to attend to bodily functions, and were subject to routinely rough, sometimes brutal treatment by anxious members of the crew, whom they outnumbered by ten or more to one. Malnutrition and dehydration, both aggravated by dysentery, smallpox, and many other afflictions, produced mortalities at sea that could sometimes rise above 50 percent. Losses at sea, on voyages much shorter than those endured by the crews, averaged above 20 percent in the first decades of the transatlantic trade, dropped to 10 percent by 1800 or so, and dipped as low as 5 percent by the trade’s last decade.
Royal African Company
Most of the European monarchies entered the trade either by supporting privateers to attack rival monarchs’ shipping or by chartering private companies of investors to spread the financial risk. The Dutch formed the West India Company in 1621 to trade in Africa and the Caribbean but used it to conquer northeastern Brazil. In 1690, the Portuguese founded the Cacheu and Cape Verde Company to defend its trade in this region from English encroachment. Portugal later chartered two companies, the Grão Pará and Maranhão General Company in 1757 and the Pernambuco and Paraíba General Company (1759) to provide slaves who might develop the far northern parts of Brazil in order to replace the declining gold exports from southern Brazil. The French created a number of companies to fill similar gaps in their colonial development strategies. The United States, itself a set of colonies, had no similar strategic interests and so created none, leaving North America–based slaving to merchants in Rhode Island.
In 1660, King Charles II of England chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, granting its investors a monopoly on English trade in West Africa, then mostly for gold. After falling into debt, it reorganized and obtained a new charter in September 1672 as the Royal African Company. Again structured around the quest for gold, the company carried slaves to the Americas largely as a concession to the interests of the Crown in securing strategic island anchors in Barbados and Jamaica in the Caribbean. The company purchased its enslaved Africans from Senegambia and on the Gold Coast and established direct routes from these areas in Africa to English colonies in the Caribbean and North America, occasionally extending to Virginia.
Prior to 1672, direct shipments to the Chesapeake Bay were rare. Beginning in 1673, however, the company offered to sell adult slaves to Virginia planters for £18 sterling each. Thewere not made at public auction or directly to planters. Instead, the company did its business through intermediaries, usually local merchants buying captives on behalf of planters or through factors of their own in charge of selling arriving human cargoes. As a result, nearly all enslaved Africans ended up in the hands of the . These planters paid in and, after receiving their slaves, claimed headrights, or land grants, of 50 acres each on them. The headright system awarded land to anyone who paid the cost of transporting an to the colony and was extended to cover slaves imported as well. Headrights for slaves were terminated in 1699.
Though the number of enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia increased during the Royal African Company’s monopoly, it remained relatively small. Two to three ships, carrying 200 to 300 captives each, arrived over the several years prior to 1670. In the following decade that number tripled to between seven and nine arrivals, perhaps as many as 2000 slaves. About eleven ships carrying approximately 3,200 slaves landed in Virginia between 1681 and 1690. Five ships carrying about 1,100 slaves arrived in the next decade, a decrease that was probably related to King William’s War (1689–1697) with France. In 1698, the Crown withdrew the Royal African Company’s monopoly after it had sold slaves on credit to startup planters in Barbados, who paid their debts too slowly for the company to continue to operate. The Royal African Company remained in business until 1750, principally on the Gold Coast. But with its monopoly gone, private traders swooped in to build up the trade in slaves. In part because more independent traders were involved and selling to more planters around the Chesapeake, the number of enslaved Africans coming to Virginia rose eightfold in 1701–1710, to 8,600, dipped slightly to 6,200 in 1711–1720, and more than doubled to 13,000 in 1721–1730. From 1700 to 1775, 90 percent of the enslaved Africans brought into Virginia went to work in the tobacco-rich Tidewater region.
Post-Monopoly British Trading
The independent traders, mostly based in remote Bristol and Liverpool, were aided by the increasing liquidity provided by guinea coins minted from the Royal African Company’s gold and held by the Bank of England, founded in 1698. (The term “guinea” was a nod to the gold’s African origins, as was the elephant on the front of the coin.) On the Gold Coast of Africa, meanwhile, a series of wars were intensified with financing, including weaponry, gained through the selling of slaves. These wars resulted in even larger numbers of captive Africans whom a powerful warrior regime in the interior, known as Asante, then sold, mostly to the Dutch but also to the British. Slaves from this region came to be known in Virginia as Coromantees, after a minor British trading fort in the area.
In order to escape Dutch and increasingly also French competition on the Gold Coast, smaller British traders moved east to regions beyond the Niger River delta, particularly in the Bight of Biafra. By the nineteenth century, well-armed traders there, known as Aro, purchased goods from British traders on credit, which they loaned to buyers in the interior, again on credit, to be paid later with slaves. They developed a shrine and associated oracles, which served as a kangaroo court to condemn whole communities to slavery for defaulting on their loans. These captured men and women were labeled in Virginia as Igbo, or sometimes Eebo, a name that derived from a pejorative ethnic stereotype in the region.
The ensnaring of whole communities there, as opposed to just male prisoners of war, meant that substantial numbers of women and children from the Bight of Biafra made the Middle Passage, which produced higher mortality at sea and led to an American stereotype of Igbo being weak. More women arriving in Virginia meant that the slave population in the Chesapeake quickly reached a point where it increased naturally, which is to say through births rather than entirely from new arrivals from Africa. This demographic success gradually reduced planters’ dependence on the transatlantic trade, and imports after the Seven Years War never returned to earlier levels, leaving the Rhode Islanders to supply mainly Charleston.
In the Bight of Biafra British traders favored trading towns known as Old and New Calabar, and in Virginia the slaves from this region became known as Calabars. After 1763, the British moved south of the equator, as far as the mouth of the Congo River, or to what was called the Loango Coast. There they competed with the Dutch and, more intensely, with the French, who were building up a large sugar and coffee industry in Saint-Domingue. In Virginia, slaves from this region came to be known as Angolas, from the Portuguese term for the region.
End of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
A second triangular pattern of trading developed in British North America and the United States, as merchants from Rhode Island sold naval stores and other New England provisions to sugar plantations in the West Indies and returned to Rhode Island with molasses. There they distilled the molasses to very high-proof rum, which they took to parts of Africa outside the European slavers’ primary investments—Upper Guinea, mostly, an area also referred to as Senegambia, and the Windward Coast—to sell for slaves. They then carried these captive men, women, and children to the West Indies to sell to sugar planters for more molasses.
The significant economic benefits this trade created for Rhode Islanders and early southern cotton planters became part of the debate during the American Revolution and the subsequent Constitutional Convention over ending the Atlantic trade in slaves. The abolition movement that had begun with British Quakers had spread to the United States, including Virginia. It aroused popular alarm against the transatlantic trade byof the Middle Passage and, among other strategies, spreading far and wide an iconic image of the British slave ship Brookes, one of several slaving vessels in the 1780s measured to demonstrate the extreme crowding of the captives on the slave deck. In 1788, the British Parliament restricted the number of enslaved Africans who could be transported in given spaces on the ships, and in 1806 Westminster banned trade to foreign territories, including the new United States. On March 25, 1807, Parliament ended British participation in the trade altogether.
In Britain, the stakeholders in the trade were primarily merchants invested in the goods and ships. In the United States, they were planters, whose profits from owning slaves were often substantial and who seldom found slavery to be in conflict with their Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality., in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, criticized Britain’s practice of selling slaves to colonists at inflated prices, and debate over the civil standing of individuals enslaved in the new United States resulted in a constitutional compromise allowing limited additional numbers to be sold into the country. Without referring specifically to enslaved Africans, Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution ceded temporary control over imports to the states by prohibiting Congress from interfering with the “Migration or Importation such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” for twenty years.
However, at its first opportunity, Congress passed an “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” on March 2, 1807, effective January 1, 1808. Elite Virginia planters supported the prohibition of further imports of slaves, but not because they opposed slavery. Rather, many of them had transitioned from tobacco to production of less labor-intensive wheat, and for three generations or more their holdings of enslaved Africans had been increasing naturally, creating a surplus of hands. Around the same time, the invention of the cotton gin and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution created a cotton boom in the southern states. Virginia slaveholders thus found themselves positioned to become the suppliers of the hands needed to cultivate cotton, in part by vigorously supporting the 1808 ban on the transatlantic slave trade. Absent new supplies of enslaved laborers from Africa, planters from Georgia west to Texas would be forced to purchase captives from Virginians. Between 1790 and 1860, more than 1 million enslaved men, women, and children were transported in a large and very profitable domestic trade from the Upper South—mostly Virginia—to what came to be known as the Deep South.
Elsewhere, the French gradually gave up slaving in the wake of the 1789 Paris revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The Danes and the Dutch dropped out. The Portuguese legally participated in the South Atlantic slave trade until Brazil banned it in 1831. (Brazil became independent in 1822.) The trade survived illegally for two decades after that. A northern branch, supplying Cuba’s booming sugar and coffee estates, often with United States ships and financial connections, defied increasing British diplomatic and naval suppression until 1867. The human toll of the slave trade in terror, death, and widespread social disruption, is difficult to fathom.