The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

A review of the triangular trade with reference to maps and statistics

Enslaved people being chained by enslavers aboard a ship and forced below deck
Captives being brought on board a ship used to transport enslaved people on the West Coast of Africa (Slave Coast), c1880. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began around the mid-fifteenth century when Portuguese interests in Africa moved away from the fabled deposits of gold to a much more readily available commodity—enslaved people. By the seventeenth century, the trade was in full swing, reaching a peak towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was a trade which was especially fruitful since every stage of the journey could be profitable for merchants—the infamous triangular trade.

Why Did the Trade Begin?

Enslaved people being chained by enslavers aboard a ship and forced below deck
Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa (Slave Coast), c1880. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Expanding European empires in the New World lacked one major resource—a workforce. In most cases, the Indigenous peoples had proved unreliable (most of them were dying from diseases brought over from Europe), and Europeans were unsuited to the climate and suffered under tropical diseases. Africans, on the other hand, were excellent workers: they often had the experience of agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines.

Was Enslavement New to Africa?

Africans had been enslaved and traded for centuries—reaching Europe via the Islamic-run, trans-Saharan, trade routes. Enslaved people obtained from the Muslim-dominated North African coast, however, proved to be too well educated to be trusted and had a tendency to rebellion.

Enslavement was also a traditional part of African society—various states and kingdoms in Africa operated one or more of the following: total enslavement in which enslaved people were considered to be the property of their enslavers, debt bondage, forced labor, and serfdom.

What Was the Triangular Trade?

Triangular trade
Wikimedia Commons

All three stages of the Triangular Trade (named for the rough shape it makes on a map) proved lucrative for merchants.

The first stage of the Triangular Trade involved taking manufactured goods from Europe to Africa: cloth, spirit, tobacco, beads, cowrie shells, metal goods, and guns. The guns were used to help expand empires and obtain more enslaved people (until they were finally used against European colonizers). These goods were exchanged for enslaved Africans.

The second stage of the Triangular Trade (the middle passage) involved shipping enslaved Africans to the Americas.

The third, and final, stage of the Triangular Trade involved the return to Europe with produce from plantations on which enslaved people were forced to work: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses, and rum.

Origin of Enslaved Africans Sold in the Triangular Trade

Regions of Enslavement in Africa
Regions of Enslavement for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Alistair Boddy-Evans

Enslaved Africans for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade were initially sourced in Senegambia and the Windward Coast. Around 1650 the trade moved to west-central Africa (the Kingdom of the Kongo and neighboring Angola).

The transport of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas forms the middle passage of the triangular trade. Several distinct regions can be identified along the west African coast, these are distinguished by the particular European countries who visited the ports used for moving enslaved people, the peoples who were enslaved, and the dominant African society(s) who provided the enslaved people.

Who Started the Triangular Trade?

For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of enslaved Africans. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work formerly enslaved people as contract laborers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved people, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total).

How Did the Europeans Obtain Enslaved People?

Between 1450 and the end of the nineteenth century, enslaved people were obtained from along the west coast of Africa with the full and active co-operation of African kings and merchants. (There were occasional military campaigns organized by Europeans to capture and enslave Africans, especially by the Portuguese in what is now Angola, but this accounts for only a small percentage of the total.)

A Multitude of Ethnic Groups

Senegambia includes the Wolof, Mandinka, Sereer, and Fula; Upper Gambia has the Temne, Mende, and Kissi; the Windward Coast has the Vai, De, Bassa, and Grebo.

Who Has the Worst Record for Trading Enslaved People?

During the eighteenth century, when the trade of enslaved people accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor - responsible for almost 2.5 million. This is a fact often forgotten by those who regularly cite Britain's prime role in the abolition of the trade of enslaved people.

Conditions for Enslaved People

Enslaved people were introduced to new diseases and suffered from malnutrition long before they reached the new world. It is suggested that the majority of deaths on the voyage across the Atlantic - the middle passage - occurred during the first couple of weeks and were a result of malnutrition and disease encountered during the forced marches and subsequent internment at enslavement camps on the coast.

Survival Rate for the Middle Passage

Conditions on the ships used to transport enslaved people were terrible, but the estimated death rate of around 13% is lower than the mortality rate for seamen, officers, and passengers on the same voyages.

Arrival in the Americas

As a result of the trade of enslaved people, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas as Europeans. Enslaved Africans were needed on plantations and for mines and the majority were shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. Less than 5% traveled to the Northern American States formally held by the British.