The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
Jennifer Scott

The evolution of slavery is crucial to understanding the importance of currently standing issues. Slavery began in 1440 when Portugal started to trade slaves with West Africa. By the 16th century, Western Europeans developed an organized system of trading slaves. However, the slave trade did not run as smoothly as expected. Slaves were revolting and tried to flee the hardships of labor. Regardless of these attempts, slavery expanded, leading to the "Triangle Trade."   This trade, between Europe, Africa and the Americas, is held responsible for the dispersal of Africans in the Western hemisphere. This organized system lasted until the 1800's. Shortly after the War of Independence there was an intended law to abolish slavery. This law was stalled when the United States allowed the slavery to continue until 1800. A federal law, which was passed in 1793, allowed for the Fugitive Slave Act, which continued the slave trade and prohibited the freedom of the Africans.

I n order to understand the origins of the Middle Passage one must know its purpose. The Middle Passage was a systematic process of retrieving Africans for the "Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade," as workers in the Atlantic world. This process combined the organization of voyages in Europe and the United States. In this time period, the slaves were transported to slave factories and were held captives of their own freedom.

Before the Middle Passage began a slave trade already existed in Africa, but this slave trade was much different than the one that Europe would create for the Africans as the Atlantic World developed. The difference was, in Europe the slaves were dehumanized and viewed as property while in Africa, humans were still humans. Also some of the reasons that the Africans were enslaved in their own country traced back to their current status. If a person had committed a crime, were prisoners of war, or had a debt that was unpaid then they were enslaved by a greater force. David Brion Davis, in his book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, states:

The most gradual changes are often the most destructive. If Europe and Africa began their ill-fated relationship as near equals, the influx of European goods, particularly of firearms, slowly disrupted the equilibrium of West African cultures. To Europe improved technology brought power and wealth, but to Africa it brought only more efficient means to capture slaves for the American market. The religious and political power structure of West African states was peculiarly susceptible to the corrosive effects of the slave system. In the Niger delta, where the priests had traditionally imposed heavy fines on men who offended an oracle, it was relatively easy to discover an increasing number of offenses which could be expiated only by a payment of slaves, who could then be sold profitably to European traders. Believing in divine kingship and divided by intense religious loyalties, the forest peoples of Guinea looked upon one another as contemptible heretics who deserved death or slavery; accordingly, their religious wars were well adapted for procuring captives who could be exchanged for guns. And since the tribes which captured the most slaves received the most European goods, and were thus best equipped in the struggle for survival, it was only natural that certain groups in the interior, such as the Ashantis and Dahomeans, should rise to power as specialists in the art of enslaving. Initially cut off from the Europeans by coastal tribes who were able to act as middlemen, these forest kingdoms eventually pushed toward the sea, extending the zone of terror as their power increased. Hence in 1727 John Atkins complained that the triumph of Dahomey had destroyed the orderly pattern of the slave trade; the Negro who sold you slaves on one day might be sold himself a few days later. And the chaos brought by the emergence of specialized slaving states was matched, on the side of the Europeans, by the arrival of independent traders who looked only for quick profit. Unrestrained by the long-term interests of the major companies, these merchants cared little how slaves were acquired, and did not scruple at kidnapping or inciting raids on peaceful villages."(Davis, 182-183)

The difference here is that the European nation captured innocent Africans for their own purposes. Unfortunately the Africans had adapted to the slave trade and begun to sell themselves to the European nations. The question is did the Africans take part in their own downfall or was it strictly the Europeans that conquered their freedom?

The slave trade was a very controversial issue. Many have argued and debated the purpose of the trade. The question raised is why Europeans needed this labor. The answer to this question is very broad and complex. One assumption is that Europeans needed this labor to flourish as nations. There was a vast amount of free land that needed to be tended too. Other assumptions made to validate the purpose of the slave trade were produced by Colin Palmer, professor of history at the New York Graduate Center. He proposes that Europeans possibly went back home abandoning their conquests. They could have used paid labor, or they could have enslaved other Europeans. The best result, for tfiem, came from free labor which was forced on the African, Palmer also questions why Europeans used African labor in the Americas.("Origins") This large event raised ideas of racism and the rise of the "white supremacist," The idea which developed was that religionwas a cornerstone to understanding the curse on Ham to be forever slaves. Whites developed the belief that Africans had no "souls." They were the symbol of indifference and hatred. Whites saw the individual as inferior creating stereotypes and hardships which were infricted upon the Africans by the other nations, because, in their theories, justifiable. It is no coincidence that these stereotypes allowed whites to ignore the finer points of the Christian religion.

Sugar cane was the number one crop that produced the growth for Europe. It was brought to the New World from Spain by Christopher Columbus, later shipped to the rest of Europe. The growing sugar industry called for the usage of African slaves. Also the African slave labor and the plantations are what formed the Americas. The work that was performed on the plantations which, produced large quantities of sugar, created an even greater need for slaves, by the enslaved Africans brought to the Atlantic World by the Middle Passage.

Regardless of these facts, extensive research proved that the slave trade was productive to European growth. Sugar trade was extremely important to the development of the Atlantic world.The slave labor resulted in the plantations production of large quantities of sugar cane. This resulted in the growth and flourishment of Europe. The origins of the Middle Passage are connected to Europe's need for "free" labor. Without this labor, the European nation would not of flourished, like it did.

The issue at hand concerning the Middle Passage is why 25-30 million people were taken from their homeland to a foreign country to work. One of the questions raised is to what extent were the Africans involved on the slave trade? The Doloman tribe became wealthy from the traffic of slaves-their tribe's enemies were the subjects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Africans had become captives in their own country and later slaves in other nations. There were unjustly robbed of their freedom, dignity and happiness. These inevitable events were the factors that later created racism and the marginalization of black people.

Works Cited

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

"Origins of the Middle Passage," The Middle Passage Web Site. Accessed:  3-27-98

Related Web Sites

The Modern African Slave Trade The continuing practice of the enslavement of Africans in the modern Islamic states of Sudan and Mauritania.

Slavery In Our Time In the East, especially in the Arab-dominated nations of Sudan and Mauritania, slavery abounds. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of black Africans have been captured by government troops and free-lance slavers and carried off into bondage. Often they are sold openly in ``cattle markets,'' sometimes to domestic owners, sometimes to buyers from Chad, Libya, and the Persian Gulf states.

The Progress Report:  Slavery Exists Even Today An article originally appearing as an Op-Ed in the New York Times, July 13, 1994.

The American Anti-Slavery Group The first national conference on the abolition of slavery since the Civil War meets February 25, 1999.  Online petition to end slavery world-wide.

The Redemption of Slaves:  Cash For Slaves - Photographic documentation of slaves bought back, out of slavery, by members of Christian Solidarity International from an Arab middleman who has secretly brought enslaved Africans back to their villages.






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Slave factory
on the coast of  west Africa

Update on African Slavery Today

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