A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

The Ending of the Slave Trade

When the trans-Atlantic slave trade came to an end, it did so rather suddenly. When Brazilian authorities began arresting slave ships at the end of 1850, the volume of the traffic of the traffic slipped back to levels not seen for two centuries, and the last trans-Atlantic slave expedition – to Cuba and probably from the Congo River – completed its voyage in 1867. For the last two decades of the traffic, only the Bight of Benin and the Congo region were heavily engaged in the trade. Nevertheless, over the whole period of the trade, some 12.5 million slaves had been shipped from Africa, and 10.7 million had arrived in the Americas, likely the most costly in human life of all of long-distance global migrations. Why the rather sudden end to a business which, despite its high morbidity and mortality, had been seen as no different from any other until the late eighteenth century? This is a very large question which it would be presumptuous to attempt to answer here given the massive literature on the topic. One point is clear, the traffic did not fade away; rather, it was suppressed at a time when the prices of slaves were rising to levels that had never previously attained. The economic imperatives clearly pointed to a continuation of the trade and without attempts to suppress it, the majority of the millions of people who crossed the Atlantic between 1820 and 1920 might well have been African rather than European, and enslaved rather than free. As it was, by the 1850s, for most in the Atlantic world, the slave trade had become a despised and illegal traffic. By the 1840s, the British had committed ten percent of their naval resources to suppressing the trade; a scant half century earlier they were the leading slave trading nation.

One contributing factor to this shift is an extension of an argument made earlier in this essay. In one sense, abolition was a shift in conceptions of who was eligible for enslavement. The definition of eligibility had certainly included other Europeans prior to the thirteenth century, as a thriving slave trade within Europe saw people from the North captured by other Europeans and carried for sale in the South, many, ultimately, to the prosperous Islamic areas. This situation was little different from what existed in Africa, but, as already noted, by the time of Columbian contact, eligibility had come to exclude other Europeans. Africa was a much larger land mass and home to human populations of more diversity than could be found in any other area of similar size on the globe. It is not surprising that Africans did not have a continent-wide conception of insidership – that is, peoples whom one could not enslave. In one sense, the massive and unprecedented flow of racially-exclusive coerced labor across the Atlantic is perhaps the result of the differential pace in the evolution of a cultural pan-Europeanness on the one hand, and a pan-Africanism on the other. An interlude of two or three centuries between the former and the latter provided a window of opportunity in which the slave trade rose and fell dramatically. For four centuries from the mid-fifteenth century to 1867, Europeans were not prepared to enslave each other, but were prepared to buy Africans and keep them and their descendants enslaved. Given that “Africa” scarcely existed as a concept for Africans in any sense before the nineteenth century, most people living in the sub-continent south of the Sahara (as in Europe) were prepared to enslave others from adjacent or distant societies. The corollary of this is that all peoples in history – even the most energetic of slave traders - have had strict definitions of eligibility – and thus ineligibility. “Ineligibility” implies that some basis for abolition has always existed. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europe and Africa simply had different conceptions of the peoples for whom slavery (and the slave trade) were inappropriate.

The Middle Passage The Trade’s Influence on Ethnic and Racial Identity
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