Slavery in various manifestations is an abhorrent social injustice practiced by all human beings during various stages of human history. But the transatlantic trade in African captives for enslavement in the Americas was the greatest crime against humanity. The transatlantic trade in African captives, which lasted from 1501 to1866, formed the backbone of European (especially British, Danish, Portuguese, French, and Spanish), industry and commerce for centuries until its legal abolition. Denmark started the process in 1803, and then Britain in 1807; (although, in the case of the British, the trade continued until the Act was effected in 1808). Clandestine trading also continued.
This devastating trade, says the leading scholars, led to the forced removal of over 12.5 million Africans from the Senegambia region in the northwest to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. But most accept that this is an under-estimation. While there is evidence that some African kings were complicit in facilitating the sale of African captives, one should be reminded that Africa’s net gain relative to Europe’s, was negative; Africa’s long-run development was severely damaged. It is also important to highlight the fact that the social structure within most African communities allowed for slave systems and methods unlike the horrific chattel slavery practiced by European enslavers. Most notably, it permitted the emancipation of Africans within the continent and facilitated the maintenance of kinship and other social structures that allowed for the incorporation of enslaved people into society.
Often prisoners of war and or banditry, Africans could not envision the brutality of a European promoted system that was so ruthlessly driven by economic quests and the goal of world domination. The brutality of chattel slavery resulted in the death of millions of the captives, and one should not forget that men, women and children lost their lives at every stage of the enslavement process; from capture in Africa to the period of seasoning in the Americas. This system resulted in noteworthy historic factors that speak to the brutality and widespread practice of the institution.
• The Transatlantic Trade in African captives is sometimes called the Maafa meaning, “the Great Suffering, Great Disaster; or holocaust,” in Kiswahili. The trade spanned 4 continents (Europe, Africa, North and South America). As stated earlier, the trade involved the forceful removal of over 12.5 million Africans over 4 centuries. This figure does not account for the millions who died between capture and embarkation in Africa, or the thriving illegal trade, which would have put the figure closer to the 20 million mark. Often disputed, some scholars have revised upwards the estimates of those forcibly removed to 25 million.
• Roughly 12-13% perished during the Middle Passage, resulting in 10.7 million Africans landing in the Americas.
• Accurate figures are still not available but at a conservative estimate, using the figures that have been generated by the latest Slave Trade Database, of the estimated millions transported, Portugal dominated the trade with 5.8 million or 46% , while Great Britain transported 3.25 million or 26%, France accounted for 1.38 million or 11%, and Spain 1.06 million or 8%. So it is unmistakable, that the 4 leading colonial powers accounted for a combined total of 11.5 million Africans or 92 % of the overall trade. The remainder was transported by the US 305,326, the Netherlands 554,336, and Denmark/Baltic 111,041.
• There were several stages to the trade. During the first phase between 1501 and1600, an estimated 277,509 Africans or just 2 % of the overall trade, were sent to the Americas and Europe. During the 17th century, some 15 % or 1,875,631 Africans embarked for the Americas. The period from 1701 to the passage of the British Abolition Act in 1807 was the peak of the trade. Here an estimated 7,163,241 or 57% of the trafficking in Africans transpired, with the remaining 26 % or 3,204,935 occurring between 1808 and 1866.
• Geographically, the trade was vast. Of the overall trade, the Senegambia Region (Senegal, Gambia), Upper Guinea (Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone), Gold Coast (Ghana), the KwaKwa, Windward or Ivory Coast (Central Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire); Togo, Benin, western Nigeria known as the Slave Coast or the Bight of Benin; the Bight of Biafra (consisting of eastern Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon); West Central Africa (Rep. of Congo, Dem. Rep. of Congo, Angola), and finally Southeastern Africa (Mozambique, Madagascar).
• The Transatlantic Trade in African captives was primarily an economic system supported by an extensive arrangement of inexpensive labor that eventually became exclusively race-based by the 15th century. A close examination of the earlier form(s) of slavery in Africa and Europe reveal its multiethnic nature: it was never confined to any one group or race of people. Overtime, the racialized nature of chattel slavery became evident as it was exclusively associated with Africans or people of African descent. The costs of purchase varied greatly with adult males fetching between US$1250 – $1450 in the Americas in the nineteenth century.
• Africans were traded for a variety of goods including manufactured items, guns and ammunition. In addition, their labor was critical to the plantation system that produced sugar coffee, cotton, rum, tobacco, rice, and the gold and silver mines in Latin America.
• In the Americas, Brazil was the largest importer of Africans, accounting for 5.5 million or 44%, the British Caribbean with 2.76 million or 22 %, the French Caribbean 1.32 million, and the Spanish Caribbean and Spanish Mainland accounting for 1.59 million. The relatively high numbers for Brazil and the British Caribbean is largely a reflection of the dominance and continued expansion of the plantation system in those regions. Even more so, the inability of the enslaved population in these regions to reproduce meant that the replacement demand for laborers was significantly high. In other words, Africans were imported to make up the demographic deficit on the plantations.
• The trade included varying ages of enslaved people with 14% arriving in the Americas being children under age 14 and 56% of the enslaved African population being adult male, and 30% females.
• The legislative environment of the Americas allowed for the victimization of Blacks who arrived. These legislative initiatives, or “Black Codes” (Code Noir, Codigo Negroes] were imposed throughout the Americas by the English, the French, the Portuguese and the Spanish and allowed ordinary Whites to act with impunity against Blacks.
• However, the enslaved Africans were innovative in their quest for freedom. They led numerous revolts on sea and on land with notable acts of resistance and heroism. They also developed unique cultures within the Americas including their own distinct religious practices, music and artistic expression, and intellectual and moral norms.
• Although countries such as Denmark, Britain, and the US legislated against the trade between 1803 and 1808, the transactions in human commerce did not cease. In fact, Brazil was the last country to formally end the Transatlantic Trade in African captives in 1850; nonetheless illicit human cargoes were brought to Brazil and Cuba until the 1860s.
• Therefore we must honor those Africans and the ancestors whose lives have been generationally touched by one of the most inhumane periods in human history. UNESCO has designated 23 August as International Day for the Remembrance of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its Abolition. The UN has also declared March 25, as the “International Day for Remembering the Victims of the Slave Trade.. In 2001, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance declared:
“We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences”
Written by Ms Dowoti Desir, DDPA Watch Group and edited by, Prof Verene Shepherd, University of the West Indies; Prof Joseph Inikori, University of Rochester; and Dr Ahmed Red, Georgia College and State University.