Images of Enslavement and the Slave Trade

Captives Being Brought On Board A Slave Ship On The West Coast Of Africa (Slave Coast) C1880
Although Britain outlawed slavery in 1833 and it was abolished in the U.S. after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1865, the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved African people continued. The main market for enslaved people was Brazil, where enslavement was not abolished until 1888.

Print Collector / Getty Images

These images depict scenes from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They illustrate the capture, confinement, and inhumane conditions experienced by enslaved African people as they were kidnapped by slave traders and forcibly transported to the Americas on the Middle Passage.


Indigenous African Slavery

"Journey of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile" by John Hanning Speke, New York 1869

The enslavement of Indigenous people in West Africa was known as pawnship. The practice of pawnship was a type of debt bondage in which an individual paid off a debt either through their own or a relative's labor.

Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which kidnapped and enslaved African people far from their homes and culture, those enslaved under pawnship remained in their own community. However, they were still restrained from escape.

"A Slaver's Canoe"

A Slaver's Canoe

"Boy Travelers on the Congo" by Thomas W Knox, New York 1871

Captives were transported considerable distances down river (seen here, the Congo) by slave traders to be enslaved by Europeans.

African Captives Being Sent Into Enslavement

African Captives Being Sent Into Slavery
"Tipo Tib's Fresh Captives Being Sent Into Bondage – Witnessed by Stanley".

Library of Congress (cph 3a29129)

This engraving records part of Henry Morton Stanley's journeys through Africa. Stanley also hired porters from Tippu Tib, who was considered a "king" in the Zanzibar slave trade.

Indigenous Slave Traders Traveling From the Interior

Indigenous African Slavers Traveling From the Interior

"Voyage à la Côte Occidentale d'Afrique" by Louis Degrandpré, Paris 1801

Indigenous African slave traders from coastal regions would travel far into the interior to capture and enslave African people. They were generally well armed, having obtained guns from European merchants. As seen in this image, captives were yoked with a forked branch and fixed in place with an iron pin across the back of their necks. The slightest tug on the branch could choke the captive.

Cape Coast Castle, Gold Coast

Cape Coast Castle, Gold Coast

"Thirty Different Drafts of Guinea" by William Smith, London 1749

The Europeans built several castles and forts, along the coast of West Africa, including Elmina and Cape Coast. These fortresses were the first permanent trading stations built by Europeans in Africa. For enslaved people, these fortresses were the final stop before being loaded onto slave trade ships and crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

A Barracoon

A Barracoon holding enslaved African people.

"Boy Travelers on the Congo" by Thomas W Knox, New York 1871

Captives could be held in barracoons (also called "slave sheds") for several months while awaiting the arrival of European merchants. Here, enslaved men, women, and children, are shown hobbled to roughly hewn logs (on left) or in stocks (on right), while a guard sits nearby (far right). Enslaved people would also be be fastened to the roof supports by ropes attached around their necks or interweaved into their hair.

Enslaved East African Woman

Female East African Slave

"Africa and its Explorations as told by its Explorers" by Mungo Park et al., London 1907.

This image depicts an enslaved East African woman with a coffle rope around her neck.

Young African Boys Captured for Slave Trade

Young African Boys Captured for Slave Trade

Harpers Weekly, 2 June 1860.

Children were perceived as valuable by enslavers because of the expectation that they would live longer.

Inspection of an Enslaved African Person

Inspection of an African Slave

"Captain Canot: Twenty Years of an African Slaver" by Brantz Mayer (ed.), New York 1854

This engraving depicts an enslaved African man being inspected by a slave trader. It appeared in the detailed account of a former slave ship captain, Theodore Canot.

Testing an Enslaved African Person For Sickness

Testing an African Slave For Sickness

"Le commerce de l'Amerique par Marseille", engraving by Serge Daget, Paris 1725

This engraving depicts four scenes of enslavement, including enslaved people at a public market, being examined by an enslaver, and wearing an iron wrist shackle. In the middle scene, an enslaver licks sweat from an enslaved man's chin to test for illness.

Diagram of the Slave Ship Brookes

Diagram of the Slave Ship Brookes

Library of Congress (cph 3a44236)

This illustration shows deck plans and cross sections of the British slave ship Brookes.

Plans of the Slave Ship Brookes

Plans of Slave Decks, Slave Ship Brookes

Library of Congress

This drawing of the slave ship Brookes shows the plan for packing 482 captive people onto the decks. This detailed cross sectional drawing was distributed by the Abolitionist Society in England as part of their campaign against the slave trade, and dates from 1789.

Enslaved People on the Deck of the Wildfire

Slave Decks on the Slave Bark Wildfire

Library of Congress (cph 3a42003) also Harper's Weekly, 2 June 1860

This engraving from 1860 depicts enslaved African people on the deck of the Wildfire. The ship was captured by the U.S. Navy as it had broken U.S. law against the importation of enslaved people from overseas.

The image shows a separation of sexes: African men crowded onto a lower deck, African women on an upper deck at the back.

Forced Exercise on a Trans-Atlantic Slave Ship

Exercising Slaves on a Trans-Atlantic Slave Ship

"La France Maritime" by Amédée Gréhan (ed.), Paris 1837

Enforced exercise was common on trans-Atlantic slave ships. Captives would be forced to "dance" by crew members holding whips.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Images of Enslavement and the Slave Trade." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, August 27). Images of Enslavement and the Slave Trade. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Images of Enslavement and the Slave Trade." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 27, 2023).