The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage


The transatlantic slave trade involved the purchase by Europeans of enslaved men, women, and children from Africa and their transportation to the Americas, where they were sold for profit. Between 1517 and 1867, about 12.5 million Africans began the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, enduring cruel treatment, disease, and paralyzing fear aboard slave ships. Of those, about 10.7 million survived, with about 40 percent of them going to work on sugarcane plantations in Brazil. Most others labored in the Caribbean, while about 3.5 percent ended up in British North America and the United States. In total, an estimated 388,000 Africans landed alive in North America and about 140,000 of these came to the Chesapeake Bay region. Most enslaved people reaching the Chesapeake Bay region before the 1670s were purchased from the English West Indies. The Royal African Company then brought about 7,000 Africans directly to Virginia between 1670 and 1698. The number of enslaved Africans imported to the colony rose steeply after 1698, when the Royal African Company lost its monopoly. The number of enslaved Africans imported into the Chesapeake Bay region peaked in the decade between 1721–1730, when 13,000 men, women, and children arrived, although it continued at robust levels until around 1780. The abolitionist movement, which began in Great Britain, helped end the British trade to the United States. The United States outlawed the importation of enslaved people through the transatlantic trade beginning in 1808. Virginia planters supported these bans, which due to a surplus of enslaved laborers positioned them as suppliers in a new, domestic slave trade.

Origins of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Portuguese Map of West Africa

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. 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 area. 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 strategic 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 off the coast of what is now Gabon, which boasted good rains and rich volcanic soil ideal for growing sugar. By the mid-sixteenth century the island’s residents had invested heavily in enslaved labor and made São Tomé the world’s leading producer of raw sugar.

From Local to Transatlantic Trade

The first large wave of captive Africans swept across the Atlantic 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. At the time, conflicts between African peoples 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 these horses deployed them to wage wars of a much greater intensity. As conflicts escalated, the demand for horses exceeded the supply of gold to pay for them, and the mounts were used to capture Africans to sell as slaves to buy more horses. These captives were destined for markets in North Africa, but along the way the desert traders diverted some of their human cargo to Portuguese buyers, who then sold them in established Iberian markets, which was how the first cargo of enslaved people came to be sold at Lagos, Portugal.

The trade remained relatively small until a series of unrelated events converged in the area south of the Kingdom of Kongo (present-day northern Angola) to transform the early stream of captives for sale in the Old World into a flood of enslaved people 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.

King Henry of Portugal

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 became Spanish subjects with the authority to trade in Spain’s American markets. By this time, the chaos in Kongo had produced thousands of refugees who were easily captured for dispatch to the Spanish Indies. The cost of buying these desperately vulnerable Africans was low, so European investors were able make a profit selling these captives in America for Spanish silver.

Dutch and English privateers, neither of them friends of Spain or Portugal, preyed on the ships transporting these captive Africans. 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 the “20. and odd” survivors—the first Africans in the new colony.

The Production of Sugar

By the 1620s Portugal had established sizable sugar plantations in Brazil, which it had claimed in 1500, replacing São Tomé as the world’s largest producer of sugar. These plantations required enslaved labor on a large scale to do the back-breaking work of cultivating sugar cane. However, enslaved Africans for sale in the Spanish port cities were far too expensive. Instead, the Brazilian Portuguese bought enslaved Africans from ship captains stopping along their course to the Caribbean, while also organizing their own slaving ventures in West Africa.

Portuguese sugar production was interrupted when the Dutch seized northeast Brazil’s plantations from 1630 until 1654. When they were eventually expelled, the Dutch turned to supplying captive Africans to the early English sugar plantations in Barbados and Jamaica in the West Indies.

The Middle Passage

The so-called triangular trade that subsequently developed between Europe, Africa, and the Americas was in fact a complex series of separate trades, sometimes spread over several vessels sailing on each of its three legs. On the first leg, manufactured goods from Europe were transported for sale or trade in Africa. These goods included wine and spirits, various metals such as iron and copper, and ammunition and cheap muskets. (The Portuguese avoided and eventually banned the sale of firearms in Angola.) The category of goods most in demand in Africa, however, was cloth, mostly Indian cottons and Chinese silks.

Inhumanity and Horrors of the Middle Passage

On the second, middle leg of the trade, goods were replaced with human cargo for the journey to the Americas, where the captives were sold in the European colonies to produce the sugar, tobacco, cotton, and other raw materials that would be shipped to Europe on the final leg of the triangle. Captive Africans suffered terribly on this Middle Passage, often loaded onto slave ships 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. When chained below decks, they could barely move, even to attend to bodily functions, and they were routinely subjected to rough, sometimes brutal treatment by members of the crew, whom they outnumbered by ten or more to one. As the writer known only as “Dicky Sam” recounted in Liverpool and Slavery (1884): “The captain bullies the men, the men torture the slaves, the slaves’ hearts are breaking with despair; many more are dead, their bodies thrown into the sea, more food for the sharks.” Malnutrition and dehydration, both aggravated by dysentery, smallpox, and other afflictions, produced mortality among the captives that averaged above 20 percent in the first decades of the transatlantic trade, which dropped to 10 percent by 1800 or so, and to about 5 percent in the last decade of the trade.

Marché Désclaves

Between 1517 and 1867, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were forced onto ships to begin the Middle Passage to America. About 10.7 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. About 3.5 percent were sent to British North America and the United States, which lay well north of the major sailing routes and where the sugar at the heart of the Atlantic mercantile economy could not be cultivated.

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 traders in Brazil. High losses due to slave mortality on the Middle Passage were a primary reason that many Triangular Trade voyages failed to turn a profit. 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.”

Every national community of European merchants participated in the transatlantic slave trade. 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 those enslaved people delivered to North America. Spain, which entered the trade directly only in the nineteenth century 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 of enslaved Africans—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 were relatively minor players in the transatlantic slave trade, accounting for less than 3 percent of the total trade. Most of the North American trade was conducted by Rhode Island merchants, who exported lumber and pine resin, meat and dairy products, cider, and horses to the West Indies and returned with molasses, which they distilled into very high-proof rum. This they exported to Africa, primarily Upper Guinea and the Windward Coast, to sell for enslaved captives, which they then transported to the West Indies to sell to sugar planters for more molasses.

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. (The source for these 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.)

Slightly more than half of the 388,000 enslaved Africans who landed alive in North America came through the port of Charleston, South Carolina. A burst of arrivals came through Charleston after 1800 as cotton production in the state took off and anxious planters anticipated the end of slave imports in 1808. The Chesapeake Bay region was second, with about a third, or an estimated 130,000 men, women, and children disembarking there. Some of these enslaved people, particularly before 1700, came to North America not directly from Africa but from the Caribbean, where Virginia planters purchased them to work in tobacco fields.

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 such as sugar or tobacco and sent the rest over the next year and a half. As a result of these delayed payments, some slave ships returned to Europe largely empty of cargo. 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.

Virginia and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

English Trade Monopoly in West Africa

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 1672 as the Royal African Company. Again structured around the quest for gold, the company carried enslaved captives to the Americas as a concession to the interests of the Crown in securing strategic island anchors in Barbados and Jamaica. The company purchased African captives from Senegambia and on the Gold Coast and established direct routes to English colonies in the Caribbean and North America.

Prior to 1672, direct shipments of enslaved captives to the Chesapeake Bay region were rare. Beginning in 1673, however, the company offered to sell adult slaves to Virginia planters for £18 sterling. These sales were not made at public auction or directly to planters but to intermediaries, usually local merchants who served as sales agents. As a result, nearly all enslaved Africans ended up in the hands of the richest Virginians. These planters paid in tobacco and claimed headrights, or land grants, of fifty acres each on each of them. (The headright system awarded land to anyone who paid the cost of transporting an indentured servant to the colony and was extended to cover enslaved laborers. Headrights for enslaved laborers were terminated in 1699.)

Though the number of enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia increased under the Royal African Company, it remained relatively small. In the years prior to 1670, only two to three ships, carrying perhaps 200 to 300 captives each, arrived. In the following decade, that tripled to between seven and nine arrivals, totaling as many as 2,000 enslaved captives. Between 1681 and 1690, about eleven ships carrying approximately 3,200 enslaved Africans landed in Virginia. That number decreased the following decade to five ships carrying about 1,100 enslaved Africans, 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 enslaved Africans on credit to startup planters in Barbados, who paid their debts too slowly for the company to continue to operate. With the monopoly gone, private traders swooped in, increasing the slave trade. About the same time, a series of wars on the Gold Coast and the rise of the slave-trading Aro Confederacy in southeastern Nigeria resulted in more enslaved Africans available for export to the Americas. As a result, the number of enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia rose from about 1,100 in the 1690s to 8,600 between 1701–1710 and to 13,000 between 1721–1730. Imports of enslaved Africans remained robust for the next several decades, although after about 1730 the enslaved population in the Chesapeake Bay region became naturally self-sustaining due to births to enslaved women, which would gradually lessen the importance of the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia.

End of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The abolition movement that had begun with British Quakers spread to the United States. It aroused popular opinion against the transatlantic trade by reporting on the horrors of the Middle Passage by, among other strategies, spreading an iconic image of the British slave ship Brookes 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 goods and ships. In the United States, they were plantation owners, whose profits from owning slaves were substantial and who seldom found slavery to be in conflict with their Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality. Thomas Jefferson, 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.

Cotton Gin Patent

At the first opportunity, on March 2, 1807, Congress passed an “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves,” which became effective on 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 growing 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 enslavers thus found themselves positioned to become the suppliers of the enslaved labor needed to cultivate cotton, as absent new supplies of enslaved laborers from Africa, planters from Georgia west to Texas would be forced to purchase enslaved people from Virginia and other long-time slave-holding states. 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 to the Deep South. Whether the transatlantic trade or the domestic trade in enslaved people, the human toll of the slave trade in terror, death, and widespread social disruption is difficult to fathom.

A shipload of 235 enslaved Africans lands in Lagos, Portugal, marking the start of a slave trade from Atlantic Africa.
ca. 1500
Enslaved Africans arrive on the equatorial island of São Tomé, eventually turning this Portuguese outpost into the world's leading producer of sugar.
April 22, 1500
Sailing far to the west in an attempt to pick up the best winds down the west coast of Africa, Pedro Alvares Cabral sights what is present-day Brazil in South America. He claims it for Portugal.
November 20, 1542
King Charles V of Spain issues the New Laws, which the prohibit enslavement of Indians in New Spain.
The Portuguese send a military expedition to the mouth of the Kwanza River in central Africa in search of silver.
The death of King Henry, of Portugal, leads to a dynastic union with Spain and Spanish access to Portugal's sources of slaves in Africa.
Spain grants the Portuguese asientos, or licenses to sell slaves in its American ports.
July—August 1619
Two English ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, both sailing out of the Netherlands, intercept the Portuguese slaver São João Bautista off the coast of Campeche in present-day Yucatán. After stealing about sixty enslaved Africans, the ships sail to Virginia with the intention of selling them.
Late August 1619
The White Lion, captained by John Colyn Jope, arrives at Point Comfort, where Jope sells "20. and odd Negroes" in exchange for food. These are the first Africans to enter the Virginia colony. Four days later, the Treasurer arrives and its captain, Daniel Elfrith, sells two or three of the enslaved Africans aboard.
The Portuguese build Brazil as a major producer of sugarcane.
The Dutch form the West Indian Company to acquire colonies in the New World and control the gold coming from Elmina, on the Gold Coast in Africa.
The Dutch company seizes northeast Brazil, and its profitable sugar plantations, from the Portuguese.
King Charles II of England charters the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, which enjoys a monopoly on English trade in West Africa.
Two or three ships arrive in Virginia with enslaved Africans.
Seven to nine Royal African Company ships deliver enslaved Africans in Virginia.
September 1672
King Charles II of England charters the Royal African Company, with exclusive authorization to buy gold and captives in Africa.
About eleven Royal African Company ships carrying approximately 3,200 enslaved Africans arrive in Virginia.
The Portuguese found the Cacheu and Cape Verde Company, which participates in the transatlantic slave trade.
Five ships carrying about 1,100 enslaved Africans arrive in Virginia.
The English Crown withdraws the Royal African Company's monopoly on trade in Africa, including purchases of enslaved Africans.
Free traders deliver about 8,600 enslaved Africans to Virginia.
Free traders deliver about 6,200 enslaved Africans to Virginia.
After 1713
Spain grants the British South Sea Company asientos, or licenses to sell slaves in its American ports.
About 13,000 enslaved Africans arrive in Virginia.
The Royal African Company dissolves.
The Portuguese found the General Company of Grão Pará and Maranhão to sell slaves in far northern Brazil.
The Portuguese charter the General Company of Pernambuco and Paraíba to sell slaves in northeastern Brazil.
The British Parliament passes the Slave Trade Act, also known as Dolben's Act, which restricts the number of enslaved Africans who can be transported in British ships.
May 23, 1806
The British Parliament passes the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Act, which bans the transportation of enslaved Africans to foreign ports, including the United States.
March 2, 1807
The U.S. Congress passes an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.
March 25, 1807
The British Parliament passes the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
January 1, 1808
The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1807, goes into effect.
Brazil bans the slave trade.
Brazil ends the importation of enslaved people, which had been illegal since 1831.
The last ship plying the transatlantic slave trade reaches Havana.
  • Coombs, John C. “The Phases of Conversion: A New chronology for the Rise of Slavery in Early Virginia.” William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 3 (July 2011): 332–360.
  • Eltis, David and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Harms, Robert. The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • Miller, Joseph C. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730­–1830. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
  • O’Malley, Gregory E. Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619–1807. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
  • Thornton, John K., and Linda Heywood. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
APA Citation:
Miller, Joseph. The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage. (2022, July 08). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/transatlantic-slave-trade-the.
MLA Citation:
Miller, Joseph. "The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (08 Jul. 2022). Web. 29 Nov. 2022
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.