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A segment of the global slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade transported between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Black Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century.
The transatlantic slave trade was the second of three stages of the so-called triangular trade, in which arms, textiles, and wine were shipped from Europe to Africa, enslaved people from Africa to the Americas, and sugar, tobacco, and other products from the Americas to Europe.
When Portugal and Spain began establishing colonies in the New World about 1500, they initially forced the local Indians to work their plantations. The violence of conquest, however, combined with the impact of European diseases, devastated Indian populations. The result was a labor shortage that caused the Europeans to look to Africa for a solution. In the Spanish West Indies and in Portuguese Brazil enslaved Indians were gradually replaced by Africans.
As the English, French, and Dutch colonized the smaller West Indian islands in the 17th century, they also created plantations. At first the bulk of manual labor was done by poor whites, some of whom were indentured servants, but Black slavery eventually surpassed white servitude in these colonies. The Dutch became the foremost slave traders during parts of the 17th century. In the following century English and French merchants controlled about half of the transatlantic slave trade.
Many of the enslaved people were taken from the region bordering the Gulf of Guinea. In fact, a section of the African coast in what are now the countries of Togo, Benin, and Nigeria became known as the Slave Coast. Many more enslaved people were taken from west-central Africa, centered on the Portuguese colony in what is now Angola. A smaller number came from Portuguese-controlled parts of southeastern Africa.
During the early years of the transatlantic slave trade the Portuguese generally purchased Africans who had been taken as slaves during tribal wars. As the demand for enslaved people grew, the Portuguese began to enter the interior of Africa to forcibly take captives. As other Europeans became involved in the slave trade, generally they remained on the coast and purchased captives from Africans who had transported them from the interior. At the coast captives were put on slave ships bound for the Americas. This trip became known as the Middle Passage.
The Middle Passage was notorious for its brutality and for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on the ships. The trip took a few weeks to several months. The captives were packed tightly into tiers below decks and were typically chained together. The almost continuous dangers faced by the captives included epidemic diseases, attack by pirates, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse at the hands of their captors. Historians estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of the enslaved Africans bound for the Americas died aboard slave ships.
Occasionally, the African captives successfully revolted and took over the ships. The most famous such incident occurred in 1839 when an enslaved African named Joseph Cinqué led a mutiny on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, killing the captain and two members of the crew. The ship was intercepted off New York state. An 1841 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court freed the Amistad rebels.
The effect of the transatlantic slave trade in Africa was devastating. The loss of so many people and the frequent slave raids and violence weakened many societies there.
After arriving in the New World enslaved Africans were typically sold at auction. They were then put to work on plantations.
At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), there was widespread support in the northern American colonies for prohibiting the importation of more slaves. However, after the Revolution, at the insistence of Southern states (whose plantation-based economy relied on slave labor), Congress waited until 1808 before making the importation of enslaved persons illegal. Caribbean smugglers, however, frequently violated the law until it was enforced by the Northern blockade of the South in 1861 during the American Civil War.
In Great Britain religious and humanitarian leaders and organizations had brought the issue of abolition to the forefront by the turn of the 19th century. The British had abolished the slave trade with their colonies in 1807. Great Britain had outlawed slavery throughout most of its empire in 1833. Thereafter, the British navy diligently opposed the slave trade in the Atlantic and used its ships to try to prevent slave-trading operations.
Brazil outlawed the slave trade in 1850, but the smuggling of enslaved people into Brazil did not end entirely until the country finally enacted emancipation in 1888.