Transatlantic Slave Trade

Article by Neha

Edited by Madeleine and Audrey

The transatlantic slave trade is a key factor in the rampant systemic racism present in modern-day US. It is also responsible for having a detrimental impact on Africa. To understand how it came about, we must look to the beginning. 

In the mid-15th century, Africa entered a trade relationship with Europe which left its partner wealthy and contributed to depopulation and poverty in Africa. Europeans established a trade of African captives from then till the late 19th century. 

Human trafficking was a preexisting system in Europe and Africa. The only difference was that countries enslaved their populations instead of trafficking in other enslaved populations. Later, just before the mid-15th century, a few enslaved Africans were present in non-African continents due to some trade. 

The transatlantic slave trade truly began during the 15th century. Portugal was able to expand its might overseas. When the Portuguese first reached Africa, they abandoned trading ideals and kidnapped people from the west coast of Africa. They enslaved these people and spurred on human trafficking. The naval armies of other European countries followed suit and reached Africa. 

 Before the invasion of other European countries, African rulers set up trade relations with Portuguese monarchs. One such ruler was King Afonso I of Kongo. King Afonso initiated these trade relations at first because he perceived them as a strength to his rule. However, the Portuguese abused the nature of what was supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship and began depopulating Kongo. Noblemen and sons of noblemen were snatched arbitrarily and taken to Europe.

King Afonso sent twenty-four comprehensive responses to his fellow monarchs, solidifying his stance on the issue. In one of his letters, he detailed, “to avoid such a great evil we passed a law so that any white man living in our Kingdoms and wanting to purchase goods (ie., slaves) in any way should first inform…our court…who should investigate…[the rights of the captives] but if the white men do not comply with it they will lose the aforementioned goods,” furthering that no enslaved people shall be taken without consent. When looking at this letter in particular, historians agree the King of Kongo attempted to fight for his people while still allowing slave trade, perpetuating the system.

The transatlantic slave trade grew when demand for labor spiked upon the discovery and gradual colonization of the Americas, then thought to be India.  The earliest transport of African captives was documented in 1503 by the Spanish. The majority of these captives were taken from the coast of West Africa and modern-day Benin, Cameroon, and Nigeria. 

By 1518, a direct shipping system of African captives to America, soon to be known as the transatlantic slave trade, had rooted its way into the European economy. This was a period where Europeans grew very wealthy—labor and profits had grown exponentially, along with European reach and control of land.  By the early 16th century, an estimated 10% of Lisbon's population was of African descent (BBC 2012). 

Through the 17th and 19th centuries, an estimated 12.5 million Africans were displaced, out of which only 10.6 million survived passage (History 2019).

The thorough exploitation of several African countries over the centuries left them depopulated, victims of unfair trade, and devastated.

Kidnapped captives were subjected to inhumane treatment—branding, humiliation, physical torture, being marked as property, and worse.  

Today, it would be impossible to recompense the losses Kongo and other African countries, along with their kidnapped inhabitants, suffered.

However, understanding the truth of the transatlantic slave trade can help.


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