The earliest known English slave trading voyages to Africa and America were the London-owned ships Salomon, Swallow, and Jonas in 1562. The last known voyage was the Liverpool ship Kitty’s Amelia in 1807. Over the 245 years, more than 11,000 other slaving voyages left from English ports to Africa for slaves, carrying some 3.3 million enslaved Africans from their homeland to the Americas. The numbers of enslaved Africans carried by English ships represented up to a third of all the Africans forcibly carried to the Americas during the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Initially the largest shippers of enslaved Africans were the Portuguese, who continued to carry slaves from Africa for almost half a century after the English outlawed their slave trade in 1807. But after 1660 the English were the main slave carriers in the western world. The other major carriers of slaves across the Atlantic were the French, the Dutch, the Spanish and, in 1783-1808, the Americans.
The Triangular Trade
Most of the slave ships that carried enslaved Africans went from ports in Europe to Africa. After loading enslaved Africans at the Atlantic coast of Africa, ships from these ports went directly to the Americas, where they sold the African slaves who had survived the Atlantic crossing. This crossing was known as the Middle Passage. Most European ships ranged in size from 50 to 300 tons. Each carried between 200-450 enslaved Africans. On average, one in six slaves died during the Middle Passage. But in some cases many more Africans died from disease and shipboard rebellion, sometimes more than one in two slaves.
After the surviving enslaved Africans had been sold in the Americas, ships returned to Europe, usually to the same port they had left from. This completed the triangular voyage that the Transatlantic Slave Trade is now usually identified with. These voyages normally took between 12 and 18 months, much of the time was spent either in Africa collecting and enslaving Africans or in the Americas selling and recovering payment for them. The goods that slave ships brought back to Europe were sugar, tobacco, precious metals (or bullion), and African goods such as ivory, dyewoods, and gum.
The numbers of Africans who died during the trans-Atlantic crossings were horrendous. Such was the greed of the slave traders in their desire to carry as many Africans as possible on each voyage that they packed their prisoners into the holds of the slave ships like sardines in a tin, with often fatal consequences. The records of the High Court of Admiralty reveal some appalling losses. In 1652 the ship Constant Ruth lost 90 out of a cargo of 207 slaves. The Fortune lost 132 out of 320 in 1678, and the Hannibal in 1693 lost 320 out of 700.
Between 20-30% of the enslaved Africans died slaves on the Atlantic crossing. Estimates of the number of slaves actually delivered alive to purchasers in the Americas vary widely, from as low a nine or ten million to as high as thirty million. Losses of life at sea were not however the end of this tragic story. During the “seasoning” of newly purchased slaves on the plantations, the average death rate was 33 percent. Seasoning was a process which lasted between one and three years and involved slaves being familiarized with plantation routines and discipline and taught to use tools that they may not have used before.
In addition to the slave ships that sailed from Europe to Africa, many sailed from Brazil, Cuba and the USA, returning directly to the Americas with their African captives. The trade in slaves between Africa and the Americas became especially important after Britain ended its slave trade in 1807. Whether carried in European or American ships, the vast majority of enslaved Africans were sold in Brazil and the West Indies, though sizeable numbers were also sold in other parts of the Americas, including the USA.
England’s Slave Trade, 1600-1800
When England entered the slave trading business in 1560 it did so with the support and encouragement of London merchants, the Queen, and members of her court. In the eighteenth century, when the trade in enslaved Africans reached its peak, the vast majority of slave trading voyages was simply for profit.
Economics of sugar and slave labor
The scale of slave trading by Europeans was largely determined by demand for enslaved Africans in the Americas. The conquest of America by Europeans after 1492, was associated with a decline in the number of native Americans as a result of disease and other factors. This in turn created a large demand for imported servile labor among new white settlers, who wanted to make money on the rich natural resources of the Americas.
Henry Coor worked on plantations in four Jamaican parishes for 15 years. He testified before Parliament that:
“I have heard many overseers say, I have made my employer 20, 30 or 40 more hogsheads per year than any of my predecessors ever did; and although I have killed 30 or 40 Negroes per year more, yet the produce had been more than adequate to the loss”.
John Newton (former slave trader) stated in 1751:
“That calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was ...the more saving method of managing slaves: whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment as might enable them to protract their lives to old age? Or, By rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless and unable to do service, and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?” He calculated that it was cheaper to work them to the death.
Over half a century later, an 1829 survey made on eleven plantations in Jamaica showed that the average life span of slaves born in Jamaica was approximately 26 years, while slaves who had been born in Africa was about 53 years.
Sugar and Slavery
The introduction from Brazil of sugar cane cultivation in the tiny English colony of Barbados in the West Indies in 1645 resulted in a significant increase in demand for slaves as a result of rising demand for sugar in England, and the spread of sugar cultivation to other English colonies in the West Indies such as Jamaica. This story was repeated in other parts of the Americas colonized by the Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Enslaved Africans were also employed in producing other crops, notably coffee, rice and tobacco, as well as gold and silver, most of which was shipped to Europe. The English sweet tooth therefore caused death and misery for increasing numbers of Africans after the sugar revolution in Barbados in the 1640s.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
When the Portuguese first sailed down the Atlantic coast of Africa in the 1430's, they were interested in one thing - gold. Ever since the king of Mali made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325, with 500 slaves and 100 camels (each carrying gold) the region had become known for its wealth. There was one major problem: trade from sub-Saharan Africa was controlled by the Islamic Empire which stretched along Africa's northern coast. Muslim trade routes across the Sahara, which had existed for centuries, involved salt, kola, textiles, fish, grain, and slaves.
The Portuguese brought copper products, cloth, tools, wine, horses, guns, and ammunition. In return, the Portuguese initially received gold, pepper, and ivory. There was also a very small market for African slaves as domestic servants in Europe. However, because of the brutal working conditions, where the average worker only lived a couple of years, there was a huge market for slaves in the Caribbean and in South America working in Spanish mines and on sugar plantations. The Portuguese found they could make a lot of gold shipping slaves across the Atlantic and to the Muslims (where they had an unending appetite for slaves, whom they used to carry the goods on the trans-Saharan routes).
The Portuguese found Muslim merchants controlled the African coast as far south as the Blight of Benin, better known as the Slave Coast, so they had to establish their trading “forts” further south. The first of the major European trading 'forts' was built on the Gold Coast in 1482. This first fort became a major trading center for slaves purchased along the slave rivers of Benin. Soon there were forty such forts operating along the coast. The forts acted as trading posts, supplying products into Africa, and as protection against other Europeans trying to take over the slave trade from that particular area.
In the early 1600s, slaves for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade came mostly from Senegambia. This area had had a long history of providing slaves for the Islamic trans-Saharan trade. Around 1650 the Kingdom of the Kongo, which had a relationship with Portugal, started exporting slaves. Thus, most of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade moved to here and neighboring northern Angola. Kongo and Angola continued to be large suppliers of slaves until the nineteenth century. Senegambia would provide a steady trickle of slaves through the centuries, but never on the same scale as the other regions of Africa.
The Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin (Slave Coast) became large exporters of slaves by the 1740s. These two areas dominated the Trans-Atlantic slave trade until it’s essentially ended in the mid-1800’s., and accounted for two-thirds of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the first half of the 1800s.
During the 17th and 18th century, the demand for slaves was at its peak. The potential of earning a small fortune slave traders were willing to overlook the fact that Africans were humans. In 1760 a trader could sell one male slave for enough money to live comfortably for a year. However, the export of slaves (from Africa) dropped significantly when Britain abolished (outlawed) slavery in 1808 and began anti-slavery patrols along the coast.
While Europeans dominated the trans-Atlantic slave trade they could not have been successful without the support of other Africans who provided them with other Africans to enslave. Africans kidnapped their countrymen and brought them to slave pens on the west coast of Africa. The journey was long and of the approximately 20 million slaves more than half did not make it to the coast. Captured Africans could spend as little as a few weeks to a year in slave pens waiting to be sent across the Atlantic. In return for the slaves African kidnappers received guns, textiles, iron bars, and other products.
Questions to be answered on your Study Guide:
What percent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade actually went to North America?
What role did the British and Portuguese play in the slave trade?
What areas of Africa did most of the trans-Atlantic slaves come from?