A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

The African Side of the Trade

On the African side, the sheer human and environmental diversity of the continent makes it difficult to examine the trade from Africa as a whole. The slave trade did not expand, nor, indeed, decline, in all areas of Africa at the same time. Rather, a series of marked expansions (and declines) in individual regions contributed to a more gradual composite trend for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Each region that exported slaves experienced a marked upswing in the amount of slaves it supplied for the trans-Atlantic trade and, from that point, the normal pattern was for a region to continue to export large numbers of slaves for a century or more. The three regions that provided the fewest slaves – Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast – reached these higher levels for much shorter periods.

By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, all regions had undergone an intense expansion of slave exports. A cargo of slaves could be sought at particular points along the entire Western African coast. As the Brazilian coffee and sugar boom got under way near the end of the eighteenth century, slavers rounded the Cape of Good Hope and traveled as far as southeast Africa to fill their vessels’ holds. But while the slave trade pervaded much of the African coast, its focus was no less concentrated in particular African regions than it was among European carriers. West Central Africa, the long stretch of coast south of Cape Lopez and stretching to Benguela, sent more slaves than any other part of Africa every quarter century with the exception of a fifty-year period between 1676 and 1725. From 1751 to 1850, this region supplied nearly half of the entire African labor force in the Americas; in the half century after 1800, West Central Africa sent more slaves than all of the other African regions combined. Overall, the center of gravity of the volume of the trade was located in West Central Africa by 1600. It then shifted northward slowly until about 1730, before gradually returning to its starting point by the mid-nineteenth century.

Further, slaves left from relatively few ports of embarkation within each African region, even though their origins and ethnicities could be highly diverse. Although Whydah, on the Slave Coast, was once considered the busiest African slaving port on the continent, it now appears that it was surpassed by Luanda, in West Central Africa, and by Bonny, in the Bight of Biafra. Luanda alone dispatched some 1.3 million slaves, and these three most active ports together accounted for 2.2 million slave departures. The trade from each of these ports assumed a unique character and followed very different temporal profiles. Luanda actively participated in the slave trade from as early as the 1570s, when the Portuguese established a foothold there, through the nineteenth century. Whydah supplied slaves over a shorter period, for about two centuries, and was a dominant port for only thirty years prior to 1727. Bonny, probably the second largest point of embarkation in Africa, sent four out of every five of all the slaves it ever exported in just the eighty years between 1760 and 1840. It is not surprising, therefore, that some systematic links between Africa and the Americas can be perceived. As research on the issue of trans-Atlantic connections has progressed, it has become clear that the distribution of Africans in the New World is no more random than the distribution of Europeans. Eighty percent of the slaves who went to southeast Brazil were taken from West Central Africa. Bahia traded in similar proportions with the Bight of Benin. Cuba represents the other extreme: no African region supplied more than 28 percent of the slave population in this region. Most American import regions fell between these examples, drawing on a mix of coastal regions that diversified as the trade from Africa grew to incorporate new peoples.

Empire and Slavery The Middle Passage
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