Roots The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The transatlantic slave trade began at the beginning of the 1500s and was initially dominated by Portuguese and Spanish, who sent West African slaves to their South American and Caribbean colonies, where they were primarily worked in the fields with high mortality rates.

By the 1600s, slaves were being transported at a higher rate and to other colonies besides those of the Portuguese and Spanish, including those of the French, English, and Dutch. Half of the approximately 12 million total slaves taken from Africa were taken in the 18th century, with the English being responsible for the most trading of slaves in that century. Britain and the United States banned transatlantic slave trading in 1808.

The vast majority of African slaves were taken from West Africa, along the coast from Senegal and Gambia to Angola, and every country in between. Slavery had origins earlier in African history as many people had been traded as slaves throughout the Muslim world. Huge empires had included slavery as part of their economic system.

Europeans captured and bought slaves from Africa, often with the full cooperation of local leaders and merchants, who would capture people from enemy tribes and sell prisoners of war to fuel European slave interests. Yet slavery undoubtedly served Europeans far more than it did Africans, since they were able to engage in the triangular trade and controlled the whole economic system of slavery, which the Africans were largely excluded from.

The triangular trade was a three-way system of trade that involved Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Manufactured goods from Europe like cloth, tobacco, firearms, and other weapons were sold in Africa in exchange for slaves. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic and produced plantation goods like cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses, and rum. These goods were then transported to Europe.