The Atlantic Slave Trade and West Africa
(with some asides on East Africa)

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I. [ Introduction ] [ Zones ]
II. [ African Art ] [ African Rituals ] [ Women ] [ Afro Beat ]
III. [ Diaspora Slave Trade ]
IV. [ Scramble ]
V. [ South Africa ]
VI. [ Decolonization ]
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Optional (Capoeira) < >

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This excerpt is from the recent film, Amistad < >
Henry Louis Gates traces the African ancestry of Tony Dumas < >
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" < >
Paul Robeson performing "Go Down, Moses" < >
Elvis Presley sings "Amazing Grace " < >
SOWETO chorus < >
From the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, another version < >

Historians define the Great/Columbian Exchange as a 15th century global commercial network that placed Western Europe for the first time at its core. Slavery and the slave trade pre-existed the Great Exchange and comprised a major component of the Trans-Sahara gold-salt-slave trade; another caravan route that included slaves wound its way to Cairo and then to the Middle East. African and other debtors, criminals, prisoners-of-war found themselves enslaved in domestic service, agricultural labor, in the Saharan salt mines, and as rowers in the galleys that plied the Mediterranean.

image source/galley slave < >

Europeans who had direct (or indirect) contact with West Africa owned African slaves from as early as the 15th century. Elites, such as Louis XIV and Peter the Great, owned African slaves. The German artist, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528,) sketched Katharina, a slave in the service of Joao Bradao, a Portuguese merchant operating in Antwerp in the 16th century (Craig, et al. 346).

Slavery expanded in Renaissance Italy. Spanish entrepreneurs sold their Muslim captives (during the Reconquista) to interested buyers in Italy. An incipient plantation economy, based on the production of sugar in the eastern Mediterranean islands, developed in the 14th century. As the Black Death decimated the ranks of European workers, the demand for workers/slaves (from wherever) "skyrocketed". European merchants imported slaves from Africa, the Balkans, and other Black Sea or Mediterreanean lands. "By the end of the 14th century, there was hardly a well-to-do household in Tuscany without at least one slave: brides brought them as part of their dowry, doctors accepted lieu of fees--and it was not unusual to find them in the service of a priest" (Craig, et al. 346).

The Iberian nations--soon followed by the Netherlands, France, and England--competed to establish outposts in Asia, Africa, and the New World. The Portuguese arrived in coastal West Africa in the 15th century; they introduced the cultivation of sugar and the plantation system to Madeira and Sao Tomé. In their escalating need for labor, they dealt with African middlemen who captured the slaves and transported them to coastal "factories" (Craig et. al. 537). In the "Great"/"Columbian Exchange," Europeans brought the cultivation of sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton, wheat to the Americas, as well as their lethal diseases of measles, chicken pox, small pox, to name just three; from the New World, they took back to Europe and Africa potatoes, corn, peanuts, squash, tobacco.

Sugar--its production and distribution--kicked of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,
comprised a major component of global commercial networks from the
15th - mid-19th centuries.

Visit < /users/pmckee/culture_civilizations/greatexchange.html >
for the "sugar story." Scroll down past the "spice story" to where discussion of sugar begins.

In a demographic revolution of unprecedented magnitude, Europeans took millions of Africans across the "middle passage" to work as slaves in the mines and on the plantations of the Americas (Esler 450-453). Many of the slaves did not survive the infamous "Middle Passage." Sick ones were thrown overboard. This seems to be what happened in the infamous Zong Affair, 1781.

All slavery, even that regulated by law (as the institution was practiced in the world of Islam) "involved the forceful exploitation and degradation of some human beings for the profit of others, the denial of basic freedoms, and...the sundering...of even the closest family ties" (Craig et. al. 536).
In the same way that Muslim Tuareg-Berber traders dominated the gold-salt trade that criss-crossed the Sahara, they carried slaves from sub-Sahara Africa North to work in the salt mines, or to be transported up to Cairo and from there across the Mediterranean, to be sold in the slave markets of the Middle East. (site has flown away)

In the era of the gold-salt trade across the Sahara, African slaves from the Sudanic kingdoms (Ghana, Mali, Songhay) labored in salt mines of the Sahara.

(note salt slabs)

In the New World, African slaves supplanted indigenous peoples on the sugar and cotton plantations (left image) and in the sugar refineries (right image.)
Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were probably the most aggressive in procuring slaves for transport, but, on the whole because Africa was "the White Man's Graveyard," most European and later American slavers, dealt with African chiefs or kings to do their procurement in exchange for textiles, weapons, spirits, tobacco, luxury items, guns. Europeans (left) negotiated for a sale or trade. Later in the period (18th century,) it would be more accurate to depict a stash of guns rather than what looks like cowries. (flown away)

Maya Angelou presents slave narratives, the first is the story of Olaudah Equiano
< >

In the 19th century, Leopold, King of the Belgians, built a vast empire in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Belgian treatment of their African labor force, in the "harvesting" of ivory and rubber, as well as in railroad construction, mining, and other activities, was among the most heinous in Africa, forming the basis of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and more recently of Adam Hochshield's King Leopold's Ghost.

Statistics on the Atlantic slave trade are shocking by any calculation, even the most conservative estimates. Recent studies argue that approximately 13 million slaves arrived in the Americas between 1450 and 1870; this figure does not count those who died in Africa before transport or those who lost their lives on the Middle Passage. Perhaps an additional 5 million slaves ended up in the Middle East (Craig et. al. 538).


British North America 523,000
Spanish America 1,687,000
British Caribbean 2,443,000
French Caribbean 1,655,000
Dutch Caribbean 500,00
Danish Caribbean 50,000
Brazil (Portuguese) 4,190,000
Old World 297,000
TOTAL 11,345,000

(Craig, et. al. 539--calulated by J. A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1981, 428)
follow link to map of escalating slave trade < >

Some areas of West and Central Africa were decimated by the slave trade, while others such as Dahomey (present-day Benin) waxed wealthy as procurers and traders. Asante/Ashanti rode the crest of the slave trade to enormous wealth and power while the Yoruba Federation declined. The insatiable demand for slave labor in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil (see table above) stimulated ferocious intra-African warfare and spread it deep into the African interior (Craig, et. al. 540). What began with sugar came to encompass the entire plantation complex that produced as well coffee, tobacco, and finally cotton.

New World foodstuffs, on the other hand, made a significant impact on West African diet and nutrition, causing, ironically, a mini-population boom in some areas, at least according to the "Redeemer" school. Maize, not what North Americans today call "sweet corn," but a sturdier and starchier variety, thrived and produced high yields per acre. The cassava (or manioc) plant proved to be even more significant: of Brazilian origin, cassava "had the highest yield of calories per acre of any staple food...." Both its roots and leaves could be eaten. African farmers pounded or ground the root into a kind of meal or flour that could be made into bread. Peanuts, also indigenous to the New World, provided a source of protein and became in later years a major African export (Bulliet, et al. 595).

The African kings of Oyo, Dahomey/Benin, Asante/Ashanti collaborated with European slavers; they negotiated effectively to secure "prestige" trade goods. Beads and trinkets comprised only 3% of African demand (Bulliet, et al. 588). Cowrie shells remained popular; by the 18th century, African elites wanted weapons, rum, and tobacco. The Africans drove a hard bargain as the "natural law" of supply and demand worked in their favor, i.e. the insatiable demand for slaves to work the plantations. The steady supply of guns and gunpowder enabled Dahomey/Benin, for example, to maintain a disciplined army and to absorb its smaller neighbors. Oyo and Asante/Ashanti expanded as well; these three kingdoms maintained internal networks and participated in interior slave markets. The gun trade contributed to the expansion of warfare ever more deeply into the African interior.

(Bulliet, et al. 589)

As noted, the growing demand for labor on the plantations and in the mines of the New World not only strengthened Oyo, Asante/Ashanti, and Dahomey/Benin, but it had a ripple effect that spread into the African interior. In the 18th century, the people of the Bight of Biafra (see map) were immediately and directly affected; eastward from there, gigantic fairs and inland markets served as entrepots for slaves and other goods from all over Africa. In present day Angola, the Portuguese remained primarily at their coastal "castles" at Luanda and Benguela, while their Afro-Portuguese or African middlemen brought slaves to the coast from as far away as 600 to 800 miles.

(Bulliet, et al. 586)

For centuries the medium of exchange in intra-African commerce was expressed in cowries, the highly desirable and valuable Indian Ocean shell that Africans used for adornment, decoration, and money. In the early days of the slave trade, bags of cowries always comprised part of what Europeans paid to African elites for slaves. The ratio of cowries to guns went down as the centuries wore on. The sale of a male slave on the "Slave Coast" might include a 25 pound bag of cowries in combination with 2 guns. By the 18th century, cowries were less prized, and a slave might cost more than 30 guns.


In the 17th c, Queen Nzingha resisted Portuguese incursions. Powerful inland rulers, such as Queen Nzingha, actually prevented the Europeans from establishing permanent interior bases. Shown in a contemporary illustration, Queen Nzingha negotiates with the Portuguese, using one of her ladies-in-waiting as a stool.


(Bulliet, et al. 591)
Exacerbating the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, the wars and forays into the hinterland, climate and weather combined to make matters worse. In the 18th century, drought and famine struck, creating conditions for warfare and demographic shifting unrelated to the European demand for slaves. As the savanna dried into sahel and sahel encroached on desert, refugees fled to wetter more fertile areas. Many sought protection in kingdoms like Angola. The kings kept the women and children but sold off the potentially fractious men at the fairs and markets designed expressly for that purpose. In a colossal understatement, it is safe to say that while a few Africans benefited from the Atlantic slave trade, many, many, many more suffered.

The sites below are optional:
For a discussion of the "Black Holocaust" (Maafa) visit the very powerful site/link
< >
or < >

European demand for slaves and African demand for guns made slaves ever more expensive. By the 18th century, British textile mills had the same insatiable demand for cotton that drove the 16th and 17th century sugar plantation owners. Inventions such as the "spinning jenny" made cotton cloth more accessible and cheaper, but exacerbated the demand for slaves to work the cotton plantations. However, by the middle of the 18th century, the European climate of opinion began to change. A sugar "glut," the Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment ideas, and a religious revival caused European elites, especially Quaker women, to agitate against first the slave trade by boycotting sugar and and then slavery itself.

image source < >


Abolitionists like William Wilberforce waged a relentless campaign against the slave trade and slavery. He and his supporters--Olaudah, Ramsay Clark, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and the entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood--kept their "eye on the prize"--abolition. Wedgwood commissioned the medallion (right) in 1787. Abolitionists wore it on their lapels. The Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd made a compelling Wilberforce in the 2007 movie, Amazing Grace.

image source < >
Olaudah Equiano tells his story < >
Gruffudd sings "Amazing Grace" < >--gone, alas
Paul Robeson sings "Amazing Grace" < >

In the last quarter of the 18th century, a growing demographic cohort of Africans, and those of African descent, competed for jobs in the Industrial Revolution labor market, especially in textiles. In a complicated court case, not unlike that of Brown v. Board of Education in the United States in 1954, the Somersett decision (1772) established a new legal precedent. William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, and Lord Chief Justice, ruled that slavery "is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law," which did not exist in either statute or common law. No slaves in England! It was an important moment and precedent for the abolitionists. The details and ramifications would be argued for another generation in and out of the courts. More slaves in England successfully sued their owners (financed and supported by the abolitionists); the lower courts followed Mansfield's lead as slaves in England secured their freedom. According to the "law of unexpected consequences," the outcome was the "back to Africa movement"--not part of the present story.

image source <,_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield >
The exhibit, "London, Sugar, and Slavery" < >


The Zong Massacre (1781) provided the inspiration for Turner's The Slave Ship (1835.) The abbreviated version of the controversial story that galvanized abolitionists in England in the 1780s describes how Captain Collingwood of the slave ship Zong threw 142 sick slaves overboard to save water and to preserve profits for the syndicate that owned the ship: the syndicate would be able to collect insurance on its lost "property." The insurance company refused to pay; the syndicate sued. Olaudah Equiano and other abolitionists took up the cause as the case wound its way through the courts, the press, and public discourse (coffee houses, salons, etc.) The case catalogued in graphic detail the horrors of the Middle Passage and the whole apparatus of the slave trade. William Murray, Lord Mansfield, ruled in 1783, that the insurance company did not have to pay. Although he did not say so explicitly, the implication was that the "property" or "cargo" were human beings, not chattel. In 1807, Parliament outlawed the slave trade and in 1833 abolished slavery. Turner produced his painting shortly after the abolition of slavery.

image source < >
The Zong case < >

A recent flurry of interest in Lord Mansfield has been sparked by the 2014 movie, Belle, based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle--the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African and a British admiral, Mansfield's nephew, John Lindsay (Rickey 26). Lord Mansfield was the guardian of both of his great-nieces, Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle. They grew up as "sisters" and companions in Lord Mansfield's country house, Kenwood. Historians speculate that Dido Belle's presence in Mansfield's life and family influenced his decisions in the Somersett and Zong cases. Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in its colonies in 1833.

image source < >
for more on Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth, visit
< >
Trailer for Belle < >
discussion of the movie < >

The Republican government of Robespierre abolished slavery in the French
colonies in 1793, although the Directory re-established it (unsuccessfully
as it turned out in Haiti.) The Second Republic (1848-1852) abolished slavery.


Less well known in the West than the Trans-Atlantic Triangular trade and its trafficking
in human beings is the"Oriental" slave trade that captured Africans from
the East Coast hinterland for sale in the Middle East, North Africa, and India.

While the Trans-Atlantic trade preyed on men to work in the plantations and mines of the New World, the Oriental trade targeted women for domestic service and/or the harems of eastern potentates. In the 17th century, as many as 10,000 Africans per year were caught up in this commerce, 30,000 per annum by the 18th century. From Zanzibar, the Sultan of Oman masterminded or oversaw the trade. Historians estimate that between 750 CE and the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, 12,000,000 Africans were taken in the Oriental trade.

image source < >

Beautiful women--African, European, Asian--were captured and sold into the harems of eastern potentates. Women captives were highly valued; the African male in the image was a eunuch. The French artist Jean Léon Gerome (1824-1904) painted a harem series (see link below); Gerome's work was popular and brought him financial success in the 19th century. Many of his works featured mythological and exotic topics.

image source < >


The East African/Oriental trade fed off of the need for workers to perform the harsh labor on the clove plantations on Zanzibar set up by Omani sultan Seyyed Said. Portuguese merchants, with their insatiable demand for labor on the coffee and sugar plantations of Brazil, and the French who had established coffee plantations in Mauritius and Réunion. Tippu Tip was a notorious slaver who roved deep into the hinterland to provide slaves for the Omani sultan's clove plantations. Hollywood presented an interesting depiction of Tippu Tip in the movie, Mountains of the Moon.

image source < >

David Livingstone, Scottish Christian/medical missionary and abolitionist, devoted his career and life to ending the Oriental slave trade. Regarding the trade, he wrote, "To overdraw its
evils is simply an impossibility" ("African slave trade"). More on Livingstone in the Scramble.

image source "David Livingstone" < >


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"African slave trade." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
< >

background--"The African American Odyssey." The Library of Congress, 09/02/98. word: slavery

"David Livingstone." Wikipedia, the free encylopedia. Online available.
< >

kente cloth line--

Brians, Paul and Richard Law. "Resources for the Study of World Civilizations." Spokane: Washington State University, 2000.

Craig, Albert, et. al. The Heritage of World Civilizations. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Esler. Anthony. A World History. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996.

"The East African Slave Trade." Africa: The Story of Slavery. BBC World Service. Online available.
< >

"The East African Slave Trade." Port Cities Bristol. Online available.
< >

Everett, Susan. History of Slavery. (the site has flown away)
(a religion-based site relating to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; only used for the graphic)

Jones, Christine Kenyon. "Ambiguous Cousinship: Mansfield Park ad te Mansfield Family."
Jane Austen Society of America. vol. 31, #1, 2010. Online available.
< >

Madany, Shirley. Arabs and Slave Trade. Online available.
< >

Rickey, Carrie. "A Portrait and the History It Holds." The New York Times. 27 April 2014.

Scott, Jennifer. "The Slave Trade." African-American History through the Arts. Online Available.
< >

Sharma, Akhil. "Looking at a Legacy in the Slave Trade." The New York Times. 15 June 2014.

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How to cite (McKee "The Atlantic Slave Trade and West Africa").