A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

Early Slaving Voyages

With the key forces shaping the traffic briefly described, we can now turn to a short narrative of the slave trade. The first Africans forced to work in the New World left from Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, not from Africa. There were few vessels that carried only slaves on this early route, so that most would have crossed the Atlantic in smaller groups on vessels carrying many other commodities, rather than dedicated slave ships. Such a slave route was possible because an extensive traffic in African slaves from Africa to Europe and the Atlantic islands had existed for half a century before Columbian contact, such that ten percent of the population of Lisbon was black in 1455,(2) and black slaves were common on large estates in the Portuguese Algarve. The first slave voyage direct from Africa to the Americas probably sailed in 1526. Before mid-century, all trans-Atlantic slave ships sold their slaves in the Spanish Caribbean, with the gold mines in Cibao on Hispaniola emerging as a major purchaser. Cartagena, in modern Columbia, appears as the first mainland Spanish American destination for a slave vessel - in the year 1549. On the African side, the great majority of people entering the early slave trade came from the Upper Guinea coast, and moved through Portuguese factories initially in Arguim, and later the Cape Verde islands. Nevertheless, the 1526 voyage set out from the other major Portuguese factory in West Africa - Sao Tome in the Bight of Biafra – though the slaves almost certainly originated in the Congo.

The slave traffic to Brazil, eventually accounting for about forty percent of the trade, got underway around 1560. Sugar drove this traffic, as Africans gradually replaced the Amerindian labor force on which the early sugar mills (called engenhos) had drawn over the period 1560 to 1620. By the time the Dutch invaded Brazil in 1630, Pernambuco, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro were supplying almost all of the sugar consumed in Europe, and almost all the slaves producing it were African. Consistent with the earlier discussion of Atlantic wind and ocean currents, there were by 1640 two major branches of the trans-Atlantic slave trade operating, one to Brazil, and the other to the mainland Spanish Americas, but together they accounted for less 7,500 departures a year from the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, almost all of them by 1600 from west-central Africa. The sugar complex spread to the eastern Caribbean from the beginning of the 1640s. Sugar consumption steadily increased in Europe, and the slave system began two centuries of westward expansion across tropical and sub-tropical North America. At the end of the seventeenth century, gold discoveries in first Minas Gerais, and later in Goias and other parts of Brazil, began a transformation of the slave trade which triggered further expansion of the business. In Africa, the Bights of Benin and Biafra became major sources of supply, in addition to Angola, and were joined later by the more marginal provenance zones of Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast, and South-east Africa. The volume of slaves carried off reached thirty thousand per annum in the 1690s and eighty-five thousand a century later. More than eight out of ten Africans pulled into the traffic in the era of the slave trade made their journeys in the century and a half after 1700.

African Agency and Resistance Empire and Slavery
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