A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

Empire and Slavery

In the second half of the eighteenth century six imperial systems straddled the Atlantic each one sustained by a slave trade. The English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Danish all operated behind trade barriers (termed mercantilistic restrictions) and produced a range of plantation produce - sugar, rice, indigo, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, and some precious metals - though with sugar usually the most valuable. It is extraordinary that consumers’ pursuit of this limited range of exotic consumer goods, which collectively added so little to human welfare, could have generated for so long the horrors and misery of the Middle Passage and plantation slavery. Given the dominance of Portuguese and British slave traders, it is not surprising that Brazil and the British Americas received the most Africans, though both nations became adept at supplying foreign slave systems as well. Throughout the slave trade, more than seven out of every ten slaves went to these regions. The French Americas imported about half the slaves that the British did, with the majority going to Saint-Domingue. The Spanish flag, which dominated in the earliest phase of the trade before retreating in the face of competition, began to expand again in the late nineteenth century with the growth of the Cuban sugar economy.

Yet, in the next century - between 1750 and 1850 – every one of these empires had either disappeared or become severely truncated. A massive shift to freer trade meant that instead of six plantation empires controlled from Europe, there were now only three plantation complexes, two of which—Brazil and the United States—were independent, and the third, Cuba, was far wealthier and more dynamic than its European owner. Extreme specialization now saw the United States producing most of the world’s cotton, Cuba most of the world’s sugar, and Brazil with a similar dominance in coffee. Slaves thus might disembark in six separate jurisdictions in the Americas in the eighteenth century, but by 1850 they went overwhelmingly to only two areas, Brazil and Cuba, given that American cotton planters drew on Africa for almost none of their labor needs, relying instead on natural population growth and a domestic slave trade. Indeed, overall the United States absorbed only 5 percent of the slaves arriving in the Americas. This massive reorganization of the traffic and the rapid natural growth of the US slave population had little immediate impact on the size of the slave trade. The British, Americans, Danish, and Dutch dropped out of the slave trade, but the decade 1821 to 1830 still saw over 80,000 people a year leaving Africa in slave ships. Well over a million more – one tenth of the volume carried off in the slave trade era - followed in the next twenty years.

Early Slaving Voyages The African Side of the Trade
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