A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

The Enslavement of Africans

But why were the slaves always African? One possible answer draws on the different values of societies around the Atlantic and, more particularly, the way groups of people involved in creating a trans-Atlantic community saw themselves in relation to others – in short, how they defined their identity. Ocean-going technology brought Europeans into large-scale face-to-face contact with peoples who were culturally and physically more different from themselves than any others with whom they had interacted in the previous millennium. In neither Africa nor Asia could Europeans initially threaten territorial control, with the single and limited exception of western Angola. African capacity to resist Europeans ensured that sugar plantations were established in the Americas rather than in Africa. But if Africans, aided by tropical pathogens, were able to resist the potential invaders, some Africans were prepared to sell slaves to Europeans for use in the Americas. As this suggests, European domination of Amerindians was complete. Indeed, from the European perspective it was much too complete. The epidemiological impact of the Old World destroyed not only native American societies, but also a potential labor supply.

Every society in history before 1900 provided at least an unthinking answer to the question of which groups are to be considered eligible for enslavement, and normally they did not recruit heavily from their own community. A revolution in ocean-going technology gave Europeans the ability to get continuous access to remote peoples and move them against their will over very long distances. Strikingly, it was much cheaper to obtain slaves in Europe than to send a vessel to an epidemiologically coast in Africa without proper harbors and remote from European political, financial, and military power. That this option was never seriously considered suggests a European inability to enslave other Europeans. Except for a few social deviants, neither Africans nor Europeans would enslave members of their own societies, but in the early modern period, Africans had a somewhat narrower conception of who was eligible for enslavement than had Europeans. It was this difference in definitions of eligibility for enslavement which explains the dramatic rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slavery, which had disappeared from northwest Europe long before this point, exploded into a far greater significance and intensity than it had possessed at any point in human history. The major cause was a dissonance in African and European ideas of eligibility for enslavement at the root of which lies culture or societal norms, not easily tied to economics. Without this dissonance, there would have been no African slavery in the Americas. The slave trade was thus a product of differing constructions of social identity and the ocean-going technology that brought Atlantic societies into sudden contact with each other.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade therefore grew from a strong demand for labor in the Americas, driven by consumers of plantation produce and precious metals, initially in Europe. Because Amerindians died in large numbers, and insufficient numbers of Europeans were prepared to cross the Atlantic, the form that this demand took was shaped by conceptions of social identity on four continents, which ensured that the labor would comprise mainly slaves from Africa. But the central question of which peoples from Africa went to a given region of the Americas, and which group of Europeans or their descendants organized such a movement cannot be answered without an understanding of the wind and ocean currents of the North and South Atlantics. There are two systems of wind and ocean currents in the North and South Atlantic that follow the pattern of giant wheels - one lies north of the equator turns clockwise, while its counterpart to the south turns counterclockwise. The northern wheel largely shaped the north European slave trade and was dominated by the English. The southern wheel shaped the huge traffic to Brazil which for three centuries was almost the almost exclusive preserve of the largest slave traders of all, the Portuguese.(1) Despite their use of the Portuguese flag, slave traders using the southern wheel ran their business from ports in Brazil, not in Portugal. Winds and currents thus ensured two major slave trades – the first rooted in Europe, the second in Brazil. Winds and currents also ensured that Africans carried to Brazil came overwhelmingly from Angola, with south-east Africa and the Bight of Benin playing smaller roles, and that Africans carried to North America, including the Caribbean, left from mainly West Africa, with the Bights of Biafra and Benin and the Gold Coast predominating. Just as Brazil overlapped on the northern system by drawing on the Bight of Benin, the English, French, and Dutch carried some slaves from northern Angola into the Caribbean.

Introduction African Agency and Resistance
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