Slavery appeared hundreds of years ago and became an integral part in the development of civilizations. The Atlantic Slave Trade, or Transatlantic Slave Trade, was a unique phenomenon in the history due to its duration and the number of countries participating in it. In the course of time, it turned into a massive enterprise that yielded enormous sums of money to slavers and slaveholders. By the time the Atlantic slave trade declined, more than 9 million of Africans were sold and transported to the New World. This paper explores the Atlantic Slave Trade, including its motivation, cultural realities, and the problems from the viewpoints of slave traders and captives.
The Motivation of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The Atlantic Slave Trade lasted from the 15th to the 19th century. Many countries supported and committed that crime against the Africans. The Portuguese are considered the first to be engaged in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Initially, they started exploring Africa as they were interested in the quest for gold; however, the situation changed with the colonization of the New World, known as the Americas (North and South America, the Caribbean). European colonizers needed much labor force in the New World to do work in mines as well as on sugar and tobacco plantations. Since the very beginning, they had planned to use the Native Americans as the main source of work, but the indigenous population died of various diseases and harsh treatment. Due to the rapid increase of deaths among the Native Americans who were unable to work hard, the Portuguese began to sell the captured Africans. There were many reasons why the Portuguese chose that nation for the slave trade. Firstly, the enslaved Africans were very fit as they had been exposed to many European diseases and built up a strong immunity. Secondly, they were skilled in agriculture; therefore, they could be easily taught to work on plantations. Moreover, African slaves were less likely to escape because they did not know the new territory and could not find their way home. Lastly, it was easy to catch them in case they escaped due to their skin color.
Since the Spanish colonized some territories in the Americas, they imported African slaves there and made them work in silver and gold mines as well as on plantations. By 1650, about 300,000 of African slaves were sold by the Spanish. After some time, as the British navy rose and took control over many American areas, the United Kingdom dominated the Atlantic slave trade and became the leading slave trader. It is estimated that by the time the slave trade declined, more than 1.7 million of slaves were sold by the British.
The Cultural Realities of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The slave trade was a part of the triangular Atlantic trade which was the main trading route at that period. Loaded ships carried manufactured goods from Europe to Africa. Thereafter, slavers exchanged goods for African slaves later transported to the New World. In the Americas, they sold the Africans, bought agricultural products such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco and sailed with them to Europe.
The life of enslaved people was extremely difficult. At first, the Europeans captured the innocent Africans, but soon the African rulers realized that it was a profitable business and decided to participate in it. African slavers gained access to many European goods through kidnapping and selling the slaves. Being brought to the trade forts, the caught people were either held in confinement or sold immediately to European traders. At European trade forts, slavers displayed captives and made them perform different acts to demonstrate their physical abilities. Buyers usually inspected slaves themselves and paid special attention to teeth to indicate the slaves’ age. African captives were exchanged for cloth, muskets, alcohol drinks, tools, manufactured goods, and horses. Before boarding, the traders examined and branded the slaves to designate their ownership. Loaded with the Africans, ships sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the European colonies in the Americas. This route was known as the Middle Passage. Since the European traders sought to receive as much profit as possible, the slaves were kept in the crawl space. The overcrowding caused poor ventilation and made the Africans suffer from the unbearable heat. In some cases, female slaves and children were allowed to wander around the deck. During the voyage that lasted from several weeks to several months, slaves experienced severe beatings and whippings as well as diseases such as dysentery, ophthalmia, and smallpox. Furthermore, they were given the negligible amount of food and water; therefore, many of them died without reaching the destination. The suicide rate was high as enslaved people preferred to die rather than to endure such a harsh treatment. In addition to physical pain, the Africans suffered emotional abuse. Sailors often raped female slaves aboard the ship. Moreover, some slaves were publically killed and thrown into the water. However, the cruelest fact was that the crew made captives eat the flesh of the rebellious slaves. This act caused physiological pain and resulted in the death of depression among the slaves.
The Problems from the Slaves’ Viewpoint
In case the slaves survived the voyage, they could face many problems in the unknown land, and their life was very difficult. They had to perform hard labor in fields and mines or work as domestic servants. The living conditions were extremely poor since slaves lived in small run-down huts. Moreover, they suffered malnutrition and endured beatings. The African slaves had no families because children born to a slave became slaves, as well. The slaveholders always encouraged reproduction among enslaved people because in such a way they obtained the labor force for free. The owners did not care about the age; therefore, female slaves had to bear children as long as they could. Many women had abortions to prevent their future children from slavery, physical abuse, and hard labor. The slaveholders did not recognize any relationship between slaves. The reason for this was that the masters regarded the Africans as the “property” but not as people. Consequently, slaves had no rights and were not allowed to act without the owner’s permission.
The relationship between slaves was strained as they were divided into the ones with the lighter and darker skin. Light-skinned slaves had more privileges and tended to work in the house whereas dark-skinned ones performed hard labor in the fields.
It is a common fact that not all people accepted the situation. Thus, they rebelled damaging tools and working slowly. Moreover, many revolts broke out throughout the colonies.
Slavery was excused by the fact that slaves contributed much to the economy as they were involved in many profitable industries. The majority of them worked on plantations and produced sugar that required much labor force. The rest of the slaves were engaged in harvesting tobacco, coffee, and cotton. Consequently, African slaves supplied the European colonizers with the products that were indispensable components of the daily life.
The Problems from the Slave Traders’ Perspective
At the beginning of the 19th century, slave traders faced some problems. European economists, playwrights, and intellectuals started campaigns against slavery. The movements evolved, found support and spread to North America and Great Britain. Eventually, the international efforts to eradicate slavery benefited. In 1807, England became the first country that declared the Atlantic Slave Trade illegal. Afterwards, Brazil, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden recognized the inhumanity of slavery and outlawed it. Despite the illegality of the slave trade, it continued existing for many years. The abolition of the slave trade yielded losses to the slavers; consequently, they trafficked the enslaved Africans illegally. The ships were remolded to hide captives. The slavers forced people to lie on top of each other to make more space. The captains were afraid of being arrested; therefore, they boarded as many people as possible. In such a way, the abolition of slavery placed the enslaved people in a more life-threatening situation.
The Consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade were extremely terrible as many African cultures lost their members. Slave trade ruined many families and separated relatives that could not meet again. Moreover, slavers introduced guns into Africa. Nevertheless, the Atlantic slave trade had a positive influence on the economic and cultural development of the Americas. Firstly, without the African labor force, many colonies would not have survived. Secondly, slaves brought their skills and experience, especially in agriculture. Their music, food, art, and religion are still present in the American society. Thirdly, enslaved Africans had an impact on the population. Currently, many nations of the Western Hemisphere have African-American populations. Finally, the colonies of the Americas brought many items from Europe, Asia and Africa to the New World.
In conclusion, the Atlantic Slave Trade was a terrible phenomenon in the history of mankind. It was driven by the need for personal gain that made many Africans suffer. The countries sought to receive more money, the African chiefs wanted to have access to European goods, and the slaveholders wanted to get profit on plantations. Consequently, they used innocent people and destroyed their lives. The entire world turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the Africans and made the Atlantic Slave Trade legal. Over time, people realized their mistakes and changed the situation. Nowadays, it is extremely important to learn and remember this chapter of history not to repeat it again.