The transatlantic slave trade was the capture, forced transportation, and sale of native Africans to Europeans for lifelong servitude in the Americas. It lasts from the 16ththe to 19the For centuries, it is responsible, more than any other project or phenomenon in the history of the modern world, for the creation of the African diaspora: the dispersal of black people out of their places of origin on the African continent.
As a result of the transatlantic slave trade, there are currently 51.5 million people of African descent living in North America (United States, Mexico, and Canada), approximately 66 million in South America, 1.9 million in Central America, and more than 14 .5 million million in all the Caribbean islands. Over centuries of transformation and upheaval, these diaspora peoples have developed rich cultural traditions, distinct societies, and independent nations, all sharing elements of a common African heritage.
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The transatlantic slave trade was one part of a three-part system known as the triangular trade. The formation of the triangle began when European ships, carrying firearms and manufactured goods, sailed to Africa, where basic goods were traded for enslaved men, women, and children. The same ships then carried the human cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.
This horrible journey was called the Middle Passage. Completing the triangle, the ships, having disembarked the enslaved Africans, reloaded with cotton, sugar, tobacco, and other cash crops produced by slave labor and returned to Europe.
The triangular trade generated incredible wealth for the European and American nations that participated in it, at the cost of millions of human lives. It is estimated that 1.8 million Africans perished during the Middle Passage.
The countries that enslaved the largest number of Africans, from largest to smallest, were Portugal, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, and Denmark, which sent a total of 12.5 million enslaved Africans to work in what which was considered the “New World.”
Other European nations, such as Germany and Sweden, participated in the trade indirectly or for a short period of time. Canada, often omitted from the history of slavery, was in fact involved in slave-holding, first as a French colony and later as part of the British Empire.
“Little is known about Canadian slavery, both inside and outside the nation,” says Charmaine A. Nelson, director of the newly founded Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University in Halifax. “It’s a national amnesia.”
The role of fellow Africans in the slave trade
Another downplayed factor is the central role that ruling African states play in the capture and sale of fellow Africans to European traders, roughly 90 percent of all captives. The main motivation behind these transactions was the acquisition of weapons for use in inter-ethnic wars. Enslaved people were kidnapped from as far north as what is now Senegal to southern Angola, and transported to destinations as far south as Argentina and as far north as New England.
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Dehumanizing everywhere, the practice of slavery could still vary from place to place. This variation accounts for demographic, cultural, and even genetic distinctions among black populations in the modern diaspora.
A July 2020 genetic study found that enslaved women contributed more than enslaved men to the modern gene pool of people of African descent in the Americas. The findings also show that Caucasian men contributed more than Caucasian women, confirming the well-documented practice of rape of enslaved women.
African communities beyond the Americas
Predating the transatlantic slave trade were the slave trading ventures to the east and north, known loosely as the Arab slave trade. They contributed significantly to the creation of an African diasporic presence in the Old World.
“People from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and the Swahili coast were deported as slaves to the Indian peninsula,” says Sylviane A. Diouf, historian of the African diaspora and co-curator of the 2013 exhibition, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
“From the 13th century, many of these Africans and their descendants became generals, admirals, architects, high officials, prime ministers and rulers, immortalized in numerous portraits. They also founded the states of Janjira and Sachin, where they ruled over the Hindu and Jewish majorities.”
The Arab and transatlantic slave trade inevitably coincided, if not in their commercial dealings, then in their human exploitation. Mainland Africans are known to have been brought to the island of Madagascar by Arab slavers as early as the 10th century.the century. in the 18the century, European slavers began operating on the island, transporting some 6,000 people in chains to American slave markets. Although these Malagasy made up a small percentage of the total enslaved population, their DNA is identifiable to this day among their living descendants, such as actor Maya Rudolph and director Keenan Ivory Wayans.
To satisfy different European fascinations, enslaved Africans were also brought to Europe.
“Among British royalty, nobles, sea captains, and merchants, there began a trend of keeping Africans as entertainment, curiosities, and sometimes surrogate children,” says Monica L. Miller, author of Slaves to fashion: black dandyism and the style of black diasporic identity. “In almost every case, these black men were extravagantly dressed in the latest fashions or liveries: forced vanity.”
role of resistance
For nearly four centuries before its abolition by all nations involved, “the transatlantic slave trade not only influenced the composition of slave communities in the Americas, but also powerfully shaped slave resistance,” According to Marjoleine Kars, author of Blood in the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast.
“Take, for example, the Berbice slave rebellion of 1763-1764. Lasting more than a year, the rebellion took place in a small Dutch colony on the Caribbean coast of South America in February 1763. The slaves, led by a man named Coffij, or Kofi, rose up, put to flight the Dutch and took control of the colony.”
READ MORE: 7 famous revolts of enslaved people