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

Slave Shackles
Slave Shackles. National Museum of American History/

Although many Americans learn about slavery in history class, watch films about the peculiar institution and read slave narratives, the public remains hard-pressed to name even basic facts about the subject. Few, for example, know when the transatlantic slave trade began or how many African slaves were imported to the United States. Familiarize yourself with the topic with this overview of interesting facts about slavery and its legacy.

Millions of Africans Shipped to New World During Slavery

While it’s common knowledge that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, it’s not as well known how many Africans were shipped to the New World during the transatlantic slave trade that took place from 1525 to 1866. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, the answer is 12.5 million. Of those, 10.7 million managed to live through the horrific journey known as the Middle Passage.

Half of All Slaves Brought to the New World Were Taken to Brazil

Slave traders shipped Africans throughout the New World—to North America, South America, and the Caribbean. However, far more Africans ended up in South America than in North America. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute 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. Today, roughly 45 million blacks live in the United States. Most of them are descendants of the Africans forced into the country during the slave trade.

Slavery Was Practiced Throughout the U.S.

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.

The International Slave Trade Was Outlawed in 1907

Congress passed a law in 1807 to ban the importation of African slaves to the United States. Similar legislation went into effect in Great Britain that 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 slaves already lived in the United States, according to the book "Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves."

Since the children of those slaves would be born into slavery and it wasn’t illegal for slave-owning Americans to trade slaves among themselves, the congressional act did not have a marked impact on slavery in the United States. Elsewhere, slaves were still being imported. African slaves were shipped to Latin America and South America as late as the 1860s.

More Africans Reside in the U.S. Now Than During Slavery

African immigrants don’t generally receive a great deal of press, but in 2005 the New York Times reported, “For the first time, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade.” Just under a half-million, Africans were shipped to the U.S. during the slave trade. Annually, during that time, about 30,000 enslaved Africans came to the country. Fast forward to 2005, and 50,000 Africans yearly were entering the U.S.

The Times estimated that year more than 600,000 Africans lived in the U.S., constituting about 1.7 percent of the African-American population. The Times suspected that the actual number of African immigrants living in the United States might be even higher if the amount of unauthorized African immigrants—those with expired visas and such—were factored into the equation.