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

Slave Shackles

National Museum of American History / Flickr

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 know little about the transatlantic slave trade. In order to discuss current issues related to enslavement, such as reparations, it’s important to understand how the slave trade left its imprint on Africa, the Americas, and the world.

Millions Shipped to the Americas

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million African people were forcibly separated from their families, taken to the Americas, and enslaved between 1525 to 1866. Of those African people, 10.7 million managed to live through the horrific journey known as the Middle Passage.

Brazil Was the Epicenter of Enslavement

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 4.86 million enslaved people were taken to Brazil—half of all who survived the trip to the New World.

In comparison, 450,000 African people were transported to and enslaved in the United States. According to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau report, roughly 45 million Black people live in the United States, and most of them are descendants of the African people forced into the country during the slave trade.

Enslavement in the North

Enslavement was practiced in both the Northern and Southern states until 1777, when Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery after the U.S. liberated itself from Britain. Twenty-seven years later, all of the Northern states vowed to abolish slavery, but it continued to be practiced in the North for years. That’s because the Northern states implemented legislation that made 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 Black people in Pennsylvania continued to live in bondage. Just more than a decade before the Civil War began in 1861, enslavement 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 African people, 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 enslaved people, Congress’ move wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. What’s more, by the time Congress decided to ban the importation of enslaved people, more than four million enslaved Black people 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 enslavement, and it wasn’t illegal for American enslavers to trade those individuals domestically, the congressional act did not have a marked impact on enslavement in the U.S. Elsewhere, African people were still being forcibly shipped to Latin America and South America as late as the 1860s.

African People in the U.S. Today

During the slave trade, about 30,000 enslaved African people entered the U.S. yearly. Fast forward to 2005, and 50,000 African people 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 that more than 600,000 African people lived in the U.S. in 2005, about 1.7 percent of the Black American population. The actual number of African people living in the United States might be even higher if the number of undocumented African immigrants was tallied.