The development of what was known as the Atlantic Slave Trade began to arise in the fifteenth century, as the expansion of Western Europe’s influence began to be felt in other parts of the world. West Africa would serve as the primary source of slave labor for much of the Atlantic Slave trade, though it was not the developments of European expansion that created the existence of a slave trade in Africa. For many centuries before the European need for slave labor in its colonies became a driving force of the expanding slave trade, there already existed a thriving slave trade in West Africa. The eventual slave trade that fed the labor needs of colonies in the Americas was based primarily on race, as Native American Indians and Blacks from Africa were those who were primarily enslaved. Before this time, however, Arab slave traders in West Africa enslaved Europeans, Berbers, and sub-Saharan Africans. The shifting economic conditions in the Americas and other areas would eventually change the slave trade significantly.
The interest of European nations in colonization and international trade led many of them to travel by ship to other parts of the world. Nations such as Portugal were expanding their trade routes as early as the 1400s, as they involved themselves with trade with nations in Africa, and with countries such as India, China, and other parts of Asia. This expansion was followed by the Dutch, the British, the French, the Spanish, and other countries, who were all interested in colonization and trade expansion. It was Portugal that financed the exploration done by Christopher Columbus; his “accidental” discovery for the Europeans of the Americas would prove to be enormously significant (Hine, Hine and Harrold). This discovery led to the development of colonies in the Americas by the several European nations, as crops such as sugar, tobacco, and rise were all being grown for shipping back to the colonies’ home countries or for the purpose of using for international trade. As Western European countries colonized these regions of South, Central, and North America, there was a growing need for labor in these regions.
Colonies and plantations were established in various parts of the Americas, from Brazil all the way up to the eastern coast of North America. Colonies and plantations were also established in the Caribbean Islands, with various European nations controlling the different colonies. The Portuguese controlled the colonies in Brazil and the Caribbean, while the British controlled the colonies in North America. There was a constant need for a steady supply of labor in these colonies; in some cases the original European colonists captured and enslaved American Indians to work in the plantations, and also purchased slaves through the growing Atlantic slave trade. Many European colonists got sick or died in the early years and decades of colonization in North America, making then need for slave labor that much more urgent (Hine, Hine, and Harold).
As the slave trade in the Atlantic between Africa and the European colonies grew, countries such as Spain sought to establish themselves alongside Portugal as successful slave traders. While the slave trade in Africa that existed before the rise of the Atlantic slave trade was not based on race, the new growth of this trade enslaved primarily Blacks from Africa, along with a smaller number of American Indians. Believing that men and boys made better laborers than girls and women, it was mostly males who were enslaved and sent to work in the European colonies (Hine, Hine, and Harrold). These slaves were considered chattel, or property, of their masters, and were often treated quite harshly both while being transported on slave ships and once they arrived in the colonies to be sold to their new owners.
In the section of the course readings entitled “An African Captive Tells the Story of Crossing the Atlantic in a Slave Ship in 1789,” a Nigerian slave named Olaudah Equiano describes what it was like to be captured and enslaved. Like many other slaves who were captured, Equiano was unsure of what was going to happen to him, and believed that his captors intended to eat him and the other slaves (Equiano, 1791). Other slave’s accounts of this period describe equal amounts of fear and confusion about what was going to happen to them (Smith, 1798). While onboard the slave ships, these boys and men suffered incredible torment, as they were chained, beaten, and often starved while on the slave ships. Many of those who were captured would become ill and even die of disease during transit, and most were kept in poor conditions with little food, water, or adequate waste facilities (Equiano).
While it was primarily Portugal and Spain who were driving the growth of the Atlantic slave trade in the early stages of its growth, the profits made by these nations, coupled with the always-growing demand for slave labor in the European colonies, prompted other countries to get involved as well. By the early 16th century British and Dutch slave traders were getting in on the action, sending slave ships back and forth between Africa and the Americas. By the 1550s the Dutch would become the most prominent players in the Atlantic slave trade (Hine, Hine, and Harrold).
Between the 15th and 19th centuries the Atlantic slave trade would grow significantly. Thousands of slaves were captured in Africa and sent to the Americas and other colonies every year. Over the centuries, over 11,000,000 Africans were enslaved into the Atlantic slave trade, with over half of those slaves going to the colonies in Brazil that were run by Portugal and to colonies owned by Spain (Hine, Hine, and Harrold). Shifting economic forces in the colonies would continue to drive the demand for slaves higher and higher, as new cash crops demanded more labor to plant and harvest them. The development of tobacco as a major cash crop in Virginia and other British colonies drove the demand for African slaves upwards, making Britain as significant a part of the Atlantic Slave trade as Portugal and Spain had been.
The question of whether the Atlantic slave trade needed to be as harsh as it was is a difficult one to answer. Slavery is an inherently harsh business, and the mindset of the day among European slave traders was that Africans who were enslaved were nothing more than property. There was no motivation other than profit to consider, so the only concerns about treatment of slaves would have to do with keeping them alive to work, while also making sure they did not escape or revolt. The business of the slave trade was driven by greed and profit, and the only thing that eventually ended it was when people began to see slaves as human beings instead of property. With that in mind, there is likely nothing that would have or could have made the slave trade any different than it was.
Hine, D.C., Hine, W.C., and Harrold, S. The African-American Odyssey (combined volume), 5th edition (New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall).
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasa, The African (New York: n.p., 1791).
Smith, Venture. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture (New London: n.p., 1798).