- For more than 2,000 years, people have enslaved other people. They took away their freedom and made them work for them.
- In West Africa and West-Central Africa, Europeans took millions of people against their will to Europe and the Americas between 1500-1900.
- The “triangular trade” means a three-stage trade where Europeans traded their goods in Africa for slaves. The slaves were brought back to America, and sugar, tobacco, and other products were brought back to Europe.
The triangular slave trade was the most massive and concentrated mass deportation of people in history, taking place over more than four centuries.
We recognize today that slavery and the slave trade, including the triangular slave trade, were horrendous catastrophes in humanity’s history not just for their cruelty but also because of their scale, organization, and especially because they denied the victims’ essence.
To refer to the Africans who were enslaved simply as “slaves” disregards their individuality. They farmed, traded, served in the clergy, fought in wars, worked with gold, and performed music. They were married couples, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, among others. They might be Yoruba, Igbo, Akan, or Kongolese.
Slave Trade Begins
The slave trade began when Portuguese and Spanish explorers kidnapped Africans from African tribes they had conquered in the 15th century. Approximately 350,000 Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves in this manner.
In the 16th century, pirates from England started selling slaves to Spanish colonies. Sir John Hawkins was the first Englishman to sell slaves in these colonies. Other nations soon joined in, and they sold slaves too.
The Treaty of Utrecht
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. Spain agreed to give British slave traders a contract called the Asiento. This contract allowed the traders to sell 144,000 slaves a year to Spanish South America. After 1700, more and more people were transported as slaves.
A third of the African slaves sailed on British vessels. It’s been estimated that around 12 million Africans were captured and sent to the Americas as slaves over several centuries. Until 1807, when slavery was ended in the United Kingdom, British trading ships exchanged goods for humans throughout western Africa.
The First Part of the Triangular Trade
A British ship set sail from Britain with trade goods. The traders were going to go to West Africa.
Between 13 and 15 million people were taken from their homes to the Americas, primarily from West Africa. The continent’s largest population transfers took place on its shores: East Africa, Mozambique, and Madagascar supplied slave labor to Europe. The term “Slave Coast” was coined for this region.
European slave traders couldn’t capture an entire African kingdom by themselves. The terrain was too challenging, and with most native tribes being quite powerful, they would have had difficulty capturing any slaves on their own accord.
Most of these slaves were sold on through trade with neighboring tribes or villages. Many bought their freedom after purchase as well. When African states began trading their slaves for goods, they became more powerful and fought wars against neighboring tribes.
Europeans set up permanent trading camps on the West African coast. They would collect slaves to sell to passing ships. These places became known as “slave factories.”
British factories had the job of buying slaves from African chiefs. They would go to a village and buy slaves from the people who had captured people from another village. The slaves were held in prisons called factories on their way to the coast.
The British captured the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. It had underground dungeons for up to up to 1,000 slaves that were waiting to be taken away.
A surgeon examined the African people who arrived at the factory. Those who were judged to be healthy and strong were bought by the company that owns the factory. To prevent African merchants from switching purchased slaves for unfit ones, they were branded on the chest with a hot iron to reveal their status.
The British traded slaves for goods. The British chained the slaves together and put them on a boat. A slave cost around $3 of traded goods in 1700 (cloth, guns, gunpowder, and brandy).
The goods used to buy slaves included:
- iron bars
Portugal mounted the most slaving operations and deported more than 5.5 million people. The Portuguese colony of Angola, in Africa, was the place where most people were brought to be slaves. The colony of Brazil was the destination for 40% of the slaves from Africa.
When Europeans stopped trading slaves, merchants in America built on their own long experience to keep the trade going.
The Second Part of the Triangular Trade
The slave ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies. The voyage from Africa to the New World was called the Middle Passage. Slave ships took around six to eleven weeks to get there. The slaves were sold at auction there.
It was expected that a few Africans would perish during the passage while a large number would survive. A ship’s hold was tiny – only five feet high, and there was a shelf around the edge to carry even more slaves.
The people were loaded very closely together. One captain said they were like books on a shelf.
The conditions were inhuman. They were not able to go to the toilet. They had to lie in their filth. Sickness spread quickly. If someone died, they could lay there for hours while still chained to other living slaves.
The European crew was carrying food that slaves could not digest. Many slaves died because they were too sick. Slaves who got ill were sometimes not given food and left to die.
Slaves were forced to dance on deck for an hour a day. The crew would punish people who did not want to dance. Others threw themselves into the sea rather than enduring any more. It is estimated that 15% of slaves died on the Middle Passage.
For every captive that arrived alive in the Caribbean and America, historians estimate that five others died before they got there. This is because some people died while they were captured or on their way to the coast. And while some people survived the Middle Passage, many of them still died in the transatlantic journey.
In 1700, a slave in the West Indies was worth £20. This meant there was a nice return on investment, making the dangers worthwhile.
The Zong Massacre
The Zong was a slave ship that had a lot of slaves on it. The ship went across the Atlantic Ocean, but it missed its destination in the Caribbean and had to stay at sea for three more weeks. There was not enough water to drink, and people who were sick got even sicker.
About 131 African captives were thrown overboard and died because the crew could not get money for them if they died on the ship.
The crew members were tried in 1783. The case was not about murder but about insurance. The case was important because it symbolized the horrors of slavery and made people want to end slavery even more.
The Third Part of the Triangular Trade
Once the ship made it to the Caribbean, slaves would be sold at auction. They were examined to make sure they looked healthy.
People rubbed them with oil, so they looked healthier. And when the slaves did not obey, their backs got whipped. So they would put tar on their back wounds so you could not see them. Older slaves also had their heads shaved, so they did not have any grey hair, making them look younger.
Different factors determined the price of slaves. This included the condition of captives upon landing, where they were taken, and how many other ships there were in port at that time for sale.
The first way to sell a slave was through an auction. The slaves would be individually or in groups. They were bought at that point by whoever bid higher on them.
Another option was scrambling, where all of those who had been captured during wartime came together into one enclosure with only their captor paying upfront before anything happened between them. This often didn’t include women because most weren’t able-bodied enough to do physical labor like fieldwork.
Slaves left behind were called ‘refuse.’ They were often considered nothing more than an expense and would be sold cheaply to anyone who could afford them – leading many of those unfortunate souls on a quick death sentence from starvation or disease within months afterward.
Slaves who tried to resist or fight back faced the risk of being sent to ‘seasoning camps.’ It was estimated that up 50 percent died in these training centers for slaves, which were more like concentration camps than anything else.
The British ports that took part in the slave trade made a lot of money. Some ships were filled with sugar and rum to be sold in Britain.
Many other cities became rich because of industries that depended on materials made by slaves. These cities sent out many ships each year, and they made a lot of people in those cities wealthy by selling tobacco, cotton, and other materials. Some of those ports were Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow.
The Port of Liverpool
During the 18th century, Liverpool made about half a million pounds. The other British slave-trading ports together made about the same amount again.
Merchants in Liverpool traded other things, but they also traded slaves. Most of the citizens and merchants of Liverpool were involved in trading slaves. Many mayors were also involved.
The town made a lot of money because of its slave trade. It helped to make the city’s docks even more profitable. That money also helped make trading and industry in the northwest of England and the Midlands region better.
The slave trade not only provided work for thousands but also fueled Liverpool’s economic growth. The ships needed to be built and equipped; carpenters were in demand with their expertise in construction.
Ropemakers created new materials that would become important on shipboard, like hempen rigging ropes. Others found work with banking or insurance companies because Liverpool was prosperous at this time.
Some historians think that the slave trade in Africa ruined it because of wars and the loss of many Africans. They also think that this is why European countries colonized Africa in the 19th century.
Some historians say that the slave trade made the ruling elite of African Kingdoms prosper. They wanted it to continue. When Britain stopped the slave trade in 1807, the King of Bonny wrote to Parliament and complained.
The Atlantic slave trade was one of the most important sources and expressions of racism, racial prejudice, xenophobia, and related hatred, as well as being a major cause of suffering for Africans and people of African descent, Asians, and people of Asian descent, and indigenous peoples.