The Transatlantic Slave Trade: 5 Facts About Slavery in the Americas

Slave Shackles
Slave Shackles. National Museum of American History/Flickr.com

Slavery is a topic that never leaves the public consciousness; films, books, art, and theater have all been created about the institution. Yet, many Americans still know far too little about the transatlantic slave trade. They can't say when it began or ended or how many Africans were kidnapped and enslaved against their will. It's difficult to discuss current issues related to slavery, such as reparations, without first understanding how the slave trade left its imprint on Africa, the Americas, and the world.

Millions Shipped to the Americas

While it’s common knowledge that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, the number of West Africans shipped to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade from 1525 to 1866 remains a mystery to much of the public. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were loaded up like human cargo and forever separated from their homes and families. Of those Africans, 10.7 million managed to live through the horrific journey known as the Middle Passage.

Brazil: Slavery's Epicenter

Slave traders shipped Africans all over the Americas, but far more of the enslaved population ended up in South America than any other region. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, ​estimates that a single South American country—Brazil—received 4.86 million, or about half of all slaves brought to the New World.

The United States, on the other hand, received 450,000 Africans. According to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau report, roughly 45 million blacks live in the United States, and most of them are descendants of the Africans forced into the country during the slave trade.

Slavery in the North

Initially, slavery wasn’t just practiced in the Southern states of the United States, but in the North as well. Vermont stands out as the first state to abolish slavery, a move it made in 1777 after the U.S. liberated itself from Britain. Twenty-seven years later, all of the Northern states vowed to outlaw slavery, but slavery continued to be practiced in the North for years. That’s because the Northern states implemented legislation that made slavery’s abolition gradual rather than immediate.

PBS points out that Pennsylvania passed its Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, but "gradual " turned out to be an understatement. In 1850, hundreds of Pennsylvania blacks continued to live in bondage. Just more than a decade before the Civil War kicked off in 1861, slavery continued to be practiced in the North.

Banning the Slave Trade

The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1807 to ban the importation of enslaved Africans, and similar legislation took effect in Great Britain the same year. (The U.S. law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1808.) Given that South Carolina was the only state at this time that hadn’t outlawed the importation of slaves, Congress’ move wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. What’s more, by the time Congress decided to ban the importation of slaves, more than four million enslaved blacks already lived in the United States, according to the book "Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves."

Since the children of those enslaved people would be born into slavery, and it wasn’t illegal for American slaveholders to trade those individuals domestically, the congressional act did not have a marked impact on slavery in the U.S. Elsewhere, Africans were still being shipped to Latin America and South America as late as the 1860s.

Africans in the U.S. Today

During the slave trade, about 30,000 enslaved Africans entered the U.S. yearly. Fast forward to 2005, and 50,000 Africans annually were entering the U.S. on their own volition. It marked a historic shift. “For the first time, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade,” the New York Times reported.

The Times estimated then that more than 600,000 Africans lived in the U.S., constituting about 1.7 percent of the African-American population. The actual number of Africans living in the United States might be even higher if the number of unauthorized African immigrants without documentation was tallied.