The Atlantic slave trade: What too few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard


Slavery, the treatment of human beings as property,
deprived of personal rights, has occurred in many forms
throughout the world. But one institution stands out for
both its global scale and its lasting legacy. The Atlantic slave trade, occurring from the late 15th
to the mid 19th century and spanning three continents, forcibly brought more than 10 million Africans
to the Americas. The impact it would leave affected
not only these slaves and their descendants, but the economies and histories
of large parts of the world. There had been centuries of contact
between Europe and Africa via the Mediterranean. But the Atlantic slave trade
began in the late 1400s with Portuguese colonies in West Africa, and Spanish settlement
of the Americas shortly after. The crops grown in the new colonies,
sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton, were labor intensive, and there were not enough settlers
or indentured servants to cultivate all the new land. American Natives were enslaved,
but many died from new diseases, while others effectively resisted. And so to meet the massive
demand for labor, the Europeans looked to Africa. African slavery had existed
for centuries in various forms. Some slaves were indentured servants, with a limited term
and the chance to buy one’s freedom. Others were more like European serfs. In some societies, slaves could
be part of a master’s family, own land, and even rise
to positions of power. But when white captains came offering
manufactured goods, weapons, and rum for slaves, African kings and merchants
had little reason to hesitate. They viewed the people they sold
not as fellow Africans but criminals, debtors,
or prisoners of war from rival tribes. By selling them, kings enriched
their own realms, and strengthened them
against neighboring enemies. African kingdoms prospered
from the slave trade, but meeting the European’s massive demand
created intense competition. Slavery replaced other criminal sentences, and capturing slaves
became a motivation for war, rather than its result. To defend themselves from slave raids, neighboring kingdoms
needed European firearms, which they also bought with slaves. The slave trade had become an arms race, altering societies and economies
across the continent. As for the slaves themselves,
they faced unimaginable brutality. After being marched
to slave forts on the coast, shaved to prevent lice, and branded, they were loaded onto ships
bound for the Americas. About 20% of them
would never see land again. Most captains of the day
were tight packers, cramming as many men
as possible below deck. While the lack of sanitation
caused many to die of disease, and others were thrown
overboard for being sick, or as discipline, the captain’s ensured their profits
by cutting off slave’s ears as proof of purchase. Some captives took matters
into their own hands. Many inland Africans
had never seen whites before, and thought them to be cannibals, constantly taking people away
and returning for more. Afraid of being eaten,
or just to avoid further suffering, they committed suicide
or starved themselves, believing that in death,
their souls would return home. Those who survived
were completley dehumanized, treated as mere cargo. Women and children were kept above deck
and abused by the crew, while the men were made to perform dances in order to keep them exercised
and curb rebellion. What happened to those Africans
who reached the New World and how the legacy of slavery
still affects their descendants today is fairly well known. But what is not often discussed is the effect that the Atlantic slave trade
had on Africa’s future. Not only did the continent lose
tens of millions of its able-bodied population, but because most of the slaves
taken were men, the long-term demographic
effect was even greater. When the slave trade was finally
outlawed in the Americas and Europe, the African kingdoms whose economies
it had come to dominate collapsed, leaving them open
to conquest and colonization. And the increased competition
and influx of European weapons fueled warfare and instability
that continues to this day. The Atlantic slave trade also contributed
to the development of racist ideology. Most African slavery had no deeper reason
than legal punishment or intertribal warfare, but the Europeans
who preached a universal religion, and who had long ago
outlawed enslaving fellow Christians, needed justification for a practice so obviously at odds
with their ideals of equality. So they claimed that
Africans were biologically inferior and destined to be slaves, making great efforts
to justify this theory. Thus, slavery in Europe and the Americas
acquired a racial basis, making it impossible for slaves
and their future descendants to attain equal status in society. In all of these ways, the Atlantic slave trade
was an injustice on a massive scale whose impact has continued
long after its abolition.

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