Essay On The Atlantic Slave Trade

From the seventeenth century on, slaves became the focus of trade between Europe and Africa. Europe’s conquest and colonization of North and South America and the Caribbean islands from the fifteenth century onward created an insatiable demand for African laborers, who were deemed more fit to work in the tropical conditions of the New World. The numbers of slaves imported across the Atlantic Ocean steadily increased, from approximately 5,000 slaves a year in the sixteenth century to over 100,000 slaves a year by the end of the eighteenth century.

Evolving political circumstances and trade alliances in Africa led to shifts in the geographic origins of slaves throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slaves were generally the unfortunate victims of territorial expansion by imperialist African states or of raids led by predatory local strongmen, and various populations found themselves captured and sold as different regional powers came to prominence. Firearms, which were often exchanged for slaves, generally increased the level of fighting by lending military strength to previously marginal polities. A nineteenth-century tobacco pipe (1977.462.1) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola demonstrates the degree to which warfare, the slave trade, and elite arts were intertwined at this time. The pipe itself was the prerogative of wealthy and powerful individuals who could afford expensive imported tobacco, generally by trading slaves, while the rifle form makes clear how such slaves were acquired in the first place. Because of its deadly power, the rifle was added to the repertory of motifs drawn upon in many regional depictions of rulers and culture heroes as emblematic of power along with the leopard, elephant, and python.

The institution of slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans and was widespread at the period of economic contact. Private land ownership was largely absent from precolonial African societies, and slaves were one of the few forms of wealth-producing property an individual could possess. Additionally, rulers often maintained corps of loyal, foreign-born slaves to guarantee their political security, and would encourage political centralization by appointing slaves from the imperial hinterlands to positions within the royal capital. Slaves were also exported across the desert to North Africa and to western Asia, Arabia, and India.

It would be impossible to argue, however, that transatlantic trade did not have a major effect upon the development and scale of slavery in Africa. As the demand for slaves increased with European colonial expansion in the New World, rising prices made the slave trade increasingly lucrative. African states eager to augment their treasuries in some instances even preyed upon their own peoples by manipulating their judicial systems, condemning individuals and their families to slavery in order to reap the rewards of their sale to European traders. Slave exports were responsible for the emergence of a number of large and powerful kingdoms that relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans. The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo on the Guinea coast, founded sometime before 1500, expanded rapidly in the eighteenth century as a result of this commerce. Its formidable army, aided by advanced iron technology, captured immense numbers of slaves that were profitably sold to traders. In the nineteenth century, the aggressive pursuit of slaves through warfare and raiding led to the ascent of the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin, and prompted the emergence of the Chokwe chiefdoms from under the shadow of their Lunda overlords in present-day Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Asante kingdom on the Gold Coast of West Africa also became a major slave exporter in the eighteenth century.

Ultimately, the international slave trade had lasting effects upon the African cultural landscape. Areas that were hit hardest by endemic warfare and slave raids suffered from general population decline, and it is believed that the shortage of men in particular may have changed the structure of many societies by thrusting women into roles previously occupied by their husbands and brothers. Additionally, some scholars have argued that images stemming from this era of constant violence and banditry have survived to the present day in the form of metaphysical fears and beliefs concerning witchcraft. In many cultures of West and Central Africa, witches are thought to kidnap solitary individuals to enslave or consume them. Finally, the increased exchange with Europeans and the fabulous wealth it brought enabled many states to cultivate sophisticated artistic traditions employing expensive and luxurious materials. From the fine silver- and goldwork of Dahomey and the Asante court to the virtuoso wood carving of the Chokwe chiefdoms, these treasures are a vivid testimony of this turbulent period in African history.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

October 2003









From the 17th century until the 19th century, almost twelve million Africans were brought to the New World against their will to perform back-breaking labor under terrible conditions. The British slave trade was eventually abolished in 1807 (although illegal slave trading would continue for decades after that) after years of debate, in which supporters of the trade claimed that it was not inhumane, that they were acting in the slaves’ benefit, etc. The rationalizations and defenses given for slavery and the slave trade were absurd and self-serving. Slavery was a truly barbaric, and those who think that they can control what another group of people eat, where they sleep, whether they are to live or die, or even whether they are to be bought or sold, are acting on a totally inhumane level. But just as important as the critique of the slave trade is that need to discover how the enslaved themselves reacted: through submission; or through resistance? From the African coast to the West Indies, and up to the abolition of the slave trade, we can discover many forms of resistance.

The country of Portugal was one of the first countries to start selling slaves. Portugal found out about selling slaves for profit by sheer luck. The first slave purchase is said to have taken place in 1441 when the Portuguese caught two African males while they were along the coast. The Africans in the nearby village paid them in gold for their return.

Slave traders used many slave forts to protect themselves and their shipments. This was a way of guarding themselves against any attackers. It was also a way of holding slaves until they could be sold and shipped to the New World.

The Africans were sold in many ways. They were sold to traders by other Africans, and eventually forced into slavery by men with guns. From here, slaves were placed aboard ships to be taken across the Atlantic on a voyage that was eventually coined "the middle passage."

The middle passage of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade consisted of immeasurable brutality. Africans were chained and packed into quarters unfit for movement or proper breathing. The only hope of escape rested in suicide by jumping overboard. With the British Parliament's outlaw of the slave trade in 1808, the naval superpower set sail to enforce total European abolition. The Society of Friends, along with other such concerned parties, published accounts of the horrific middle passage to distribute amongst still practicing nations. These accounts, supported by memoirs such as Oladuah Equiano's, who survived the journey, informed the masses and catalyzed the destruction of slavery. The atrocities continued once the Africans arrived in the West Indies, but resistance began to grow once on the plantation.

In the West Indies, slaves searched for an outlet to vent their frustrations. To be successful in alleviating their frustrations and resisting in some way, slaves had to unite. One of the more popular ways slaves accomplished this was through the Christian religion. When it was allowed by the planters, Christianized slaves could resist the institution of slavery by looking to God. The ideals that Christianity held were easy for Africans to understand and adapt. Doing so meant that the slaves would lose some of their African heritage, but the plusses far outweighed the minuses. Slaves "Africanized" Christianity in the West Indies and thus created a new culture among them. Those who chose, or who were allowed, to be baptized were successful at resisting slavery and uniting together with a common interest in God. However, the road to Christianity was often bumpy and dangerous. The missionaries from Europe regularly faced opposition by whites and indifference by blacks. In the end, the effort proved to be worth the time and energy invested. The Christianization of slaves was a major factor in bringing an end to the oppression that was the slave trade.

Great debate exists even today over just how and why the British Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade. By the late 1700's, the abolition movement had become strong enough to exert considerable pressure on Parliament, and an array of differing arguments were being made for abolition. Former slave Olaudah Equiano presented both a moral and an economic case for abolition, in the latter sounding a great deal like Adam Smith. Religious groups such as the Providence Society presented a fiery moral case based on their interpretation of the scripture. In Parliament, William Wilberforce became the leading abolitionist and, interestingly enough, would argue in a similar fashion as Equiano did, appealing to the people's conscience and using free trade ideas to convince Parliament that abolition would benefit the British Empire commercially. In the end, it might be best to assume that Parliament's vote to abolish slavery was a result of years of resistance on the part of slaves such as Equiano finally making an impact.

As the account of Equiano demonstrates, slavery as an institution was in trouble under the pressure of a general resistance by the slaves. These slaves were finally making breakthroughs by the late 18th century. Despite the brutal, repressive nature of slavery, the efforts of resistance by the slaves and the abolitionists proved strong enough to overcome this institution.




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