The Atlantic Slave Trade:
crime of the millennium

by David A. Granger
Stabroek News
October 17, 1999

Last week Guyanese descendants of Africans paid tribute to their foreparents by marking African Holocaust Day. Today Sunday Stabroek publishes a feature on the Atlantic Slave Trade by David Granger, giving the origins and evolution of the trade.

The global economy really got going five and a half centuries ago with the systematic capture of Africans and their transportation and enslavement in the 'Americas' by 'Europeans' in the pursuit of profits through the cultivation of an 'Asian' agricultural crop - sugar-cane. The Atlantic slave trade, as this commerce was called, lasted over 400 years from about the middle of the 15th, to the last quarter of the 19th, century and may have claimed as many as 50 million victims, based on estimates of Africans killed in raids and by disease, and including 10 million who survived to be sold into bondage.

At different times, most of the Western European maritime states were involved in trading human beings from the Western African states, but "...the European nation which may claim the discredit for initiating the Atlantic Slave Trade is Portugal."

Road to hell
That process began in August 1415 when the Portuguese captured the fortress-town of Ceuta from the Moslem Moors in North Africa and embarked on maritime exploration along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts of Africa.

The second step in the process followed soon afterwards. A Portuguese navigator, Antao Goncalves, seized the first Africans in 1441 at Cabo Branco (located in the modern state of Mauritania). Two years later, another navigator, Nuno Tristao, reached Arguin and seized another 29 captives. In 1444, a full-scale expedition under Lancarote de Freitas and Gil Eannes captured 235 Africans who were taken back to Lagos in southern Portugal.

From time to time thereafter, the Portuguese acquired Africans from the West African coast by simply raiding nomad encampments and villages. They soon realized, however, that Africans could be obtained much more easily by peaceful barter with Moslem merchants and local chiefs and they therefore turned from raiding to trading. During the first half-century (1450-1500) about 350,000 Africans were transported to Europe, mainly Spain and Portugal, to perform menial and domestic chores.

The first 'factory' (feitoria) or trading post was established in 1445 at Arguin. This was the prototype for a chain of fortified 'factories' which were eventually established along the African coast and were imitated by other Europeans who came later. In the trading language of the West African coast, a 'factory' was a place where European and African goods could be stored under the control of a European who lived there and conducted trade. These goods could be exchanged for humans until they embarked for the Atlantic voyage; solid walls could be constructed, cannon mounted and soldiers hired to protect commercial activities and interests. Large 'factories' frequently acquired territorial rights and became the keystone of colonial domination of the African hinterland in later centuries.

Sugar arrives
In those times, sugar was a scarce luxury and fetched very high prices in Europe. It was manufactured from the sugar cane, an Asian plant which had been introduced into southern Europe by the Arabs and its cultivation reached the Atlantic island of Madeira by the middle of the 15th century. It was on the Portuguese island of Madeira that the marriage between enslaved African labour and sugar cane was to be consummated, spawning, eventually, the plantation system of the New World. This was the third step in the consolidation of the slave trade.

By 1485, Portugal had seized and settled several islands of the Gulf of Guinea where the rich volcanic soil and high rainfall facilitated the cultivation of tropical crops. Here, the Portuguese introduced sugar cane from Madeira island to Sao Tome, O Principe and other African islands. The cultivation of this crop was highly labour-intensive, particularly at harvest time when the cane, once cut, must be collected quickly and milled. Abundant labour was thereby provided by Africans who had been enslaved from the nearby mainland.

During the first quarter of the 16th century, Sao Tome and Principe absorbed an average of 2,500 labourers per annum and nearly 2,000 more per annum thereafter, during the next half-century. By the 1570s, the number of Africans on the islands had grown so large that control was becoming difficult so, sugar cultivation was transferred to Brazil which had been claimed by Pedro Alvares Cabral (1500) and had become Portuguese property. The 'African' Sao Tome thereby became a 'stepping stone' between 'European' enterprise and the development of the sugar industry in the 'Americas'.

The European colonisation of the Americas was the fourth step in the process of the evolution of the Atlantic slave trade. Christopher Columbus claimed the territories he came upon for the Crown of Castille, believing he had reached the fabulous Indies. Attempts at settlement started from his second voyage (1493) when sugar, already being grown in the Spanish Atlantic (Canary) islands, was taken to the Caribbean.

The enslavement of the indigenous Amerindians under the repartimiento system was halted by the Spanish monarchy as early as 1501. Instead, the encomienda system was introduced, but this only slowed, and did not stop, the decimation of the Indian population by hunger, murder, disease and overwork, at the hands of the Spanish colonists. New resources of labour were found in Africa and the first shipment of Africans took place from Seville to Espanola in 1505. Five years later, (1510), direct shipments from Africa to America started.

Portuguese ascendancy
The fifth, decisive step in the evolution of the Atlantic slave trade was the action of the Papacy in the demarcation of spheres of exploration and exploitation between the two Catholic Iberian countries - Spain and Portugal. After Portugal's capture of Ceuta from the Moslem Moors in 1415, the Papacy was petitioned and a series of bulls was promulgated in response, by Pope Nicholas V and later by his successor, Pope Calixtus III.

In the most important of these, Dum Diversas (18 June, 1452), the King of Portugal was authorized to attack, conquer and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other unbelievers, to capture their goods and territories and "...reduce their persons to perpetual slavery..." When applied to sub-Saharan Africans, the implications were ominous.

In Romanus Pontifex (8 January, 1455), the King of Portugal was authorized to subdue and convert pagans found anywhere between Morocco and the Indies; the Pope explicitly recognized the "...legitimacy of any measures taken by the Crown of Portugal to safeguard this monopoly...all other nations [being] strictly prohibited from infringing or interfering in any way with the Portuguese monopoly of discovery, conquest and commerce."

And finally, in Inter Caetera (13 March, 1456), the Papacy conceded "...spiritual jurisdiction of all regions conquered by the Portuguese now or in the future..." from Capes Bojador and Nun by way of Guinea and beyond to the Indies."

Equally important to Portuguese claims of suzerainty was the Treaty of Tordesillas (7 June, 1494), effectively partitioning the 'New World' between Portugal and Spain, giving to the former, Brazil, Africa and Asia.

Few correct records exist anywhere and it is impossible to determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy the numbers of Africans who were seized, and who survived and were transported across the Atlantic to be sold over the four and a quarter centuries of the trade

European rivalry
The cumulative effect of this treaty and these bulls was to provide papal sanction for the religious and racial oppression of Africans by Europeans, and to permit, for a few decades at least, the unimpeded exploitation of West Africa by the Portuguese, to the exclusion of the Spanish and other Europeans.

Relentless waves of Western European settlers - English, French, Dutch, Danish and Swedish - flocked to the Spanish Caribbean during the 17th century, seizing more land on which plantations were established. By then of course, for all intents and purposes, there was no longer a reservoir of indigenous labour available to European colonists and, if they wished to embark on commodity production, their choice of labour was reduced to the employment of immigrants - either indentured Europeans or enslaved Africans.

It was the introduction of sugar cultivation, the acquisition of the islands, the creation of plantations and the simultaneous and insatiable demand for cheap labour that were to provide the main stimuli for the European enslavement of Africans and was eventually to turn the trickle of involuntary immigrants into a flood.

At this time, a major economic change occurred in the Americas and Africa as a result of political events in Europe. Dutch merchants had been the principal distributors in Northern Europe of the Asian, African and American tropical produce already flowing from the seaborne empires of Spain and Portugal, but the Netherlands revolted against Spanish (Habsburg) domination. When Felipe II, King of Spain, became King of Portugal as well in 1580, he closed Iberian ports to Netherlands ships in order to punish and weaken the rebels.

Dutch ascendancy
The merchants and government of the United Netherlands responded by creating overseas companies " engage directly in commercial ventures on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and to attack and destroy Spanish and Portuguese power on them..." As a result, the Dutch East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC) were founded in 1602 and 1621, respectively.

In the first decade of the 17th century, the EIC crippled Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean and, between 1637 and 1642, the WIC succeeded in seizing all the major Portuguese factories on the West Coast of Africa. "It was these initiatives rather than the early Portuguese ventures...which led to the incorporation of tropical Africa into the dynamic world trading system dominated by Western Europeans."

The Dutch conquest of Portuguese northeastern Brazil had a more direct and immediate impact on the economy of the Caribbean. The dominant economic activity there was still the plantation production of sugar and other tropical goods for the European market. These plantations were entirely dependent on the supply of African labour and it was for this reason that Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, the (Dutch) Company's governor in Brazil, embarked on a programme to seize Portuguese slaving stations on the West African coast.

Portugal regained its independence from Spain, however, and with a surge of imperial energy, attempted to repossess its vanishing territories. Its efforts were only partly successful in Africa, but they were able to expel the Dutch from Brazil in 1654.

At this stage, the Dutch turned their attention and technology to the Guianas and Caribbean colonies where, with their knowledge of cultivation, transportation, supply of slave labour and access to financial credit, they were able to establish the slave-based cultivation of sugar. Although sugar had been introduced to the Caribbean by Columbus a century and a half earlier, this Dutch effort was the true start of the 'sugar revolution' in the New World.

English ascendancy
At first, the 'revolution' was confined to Barbados, but the wealth to be gained seemed so great that all of the English and French islands followed the example of Barbados, converting from European peasant economies to African slave societies.

European countries started to create national trading companies to compete with the Dutch and Portuguese in acquiring Africans. The English had established themselves in the trade under John Hawkins since 1562 (a century earlier). "The Company of Adventurers of London" was formed, and this was replaced by the Royal African Company (chartered on 27 September 1672), an important innovation, for, besides retaining two-thirds interest in all gold discovered, "...the king assumed the ultimate suzerainty over all those areas actually held by the company in West Africa...the royal charter was the legal origin of the territorial claims to those areas that eventually became the four British colonies in West Africa..."

France, Sweden, Denmark and Prussia (Brandenburg), all inspired by the Dutch success in destroying the Portuguese monopoly, and by the British efforts in establishing a national slave-trading company, and encouraged by the prospects of profits to be gained from selling people, followed suit and created their own companies to enslave West Africans and transport them to the West Indies.

The eternal triangle
The transport and trading of goods manufactured in Europe for Africans in Africa and, in turn, the transport and trading of Africans to the Caribbean (and the rest of the Americas) for tropical products such as sugar, rum and molasses, which were then taken back to Europe, thus came to constitute a 'great circuit' of commerce, better known as the 'Triangular Trade'.

The volume of the flow of slaves from Africa could best be assessed by looking at the number of ships involved. By 1670, when England had become the supreme slave-trading state, 146 ships with a capacity for 36,000 Africans sailed for Africa. Eleven years later (1771), the number had increased to 190 ships with a capacity for 47,000 Africans. During the period 1782-1786, 130 ships, each with an average of 396 Africans, arrived in Jamaica. In fact, during the last quarter of a century of the English slave trade (1782-1808), 681 ships carried 220,985 Africans to Jamaica alone. The increased infusion of Africans into the plantation economies of the Caribbean seemed to be indispensable to their prosperity.

The European Atlantic slave trade eventually came to an end at various times during the 19th century, starting with Denmark (1804), and followed by Britain (1808), Sweden (1813), the Netherlands (1814) and France (1818). Spanish Cuba and Portuguese Brazil continued to import slaves until well after 1860. The Iberians "...were the first to start the slave trade and the last to quit."

Grim numbers game
Few correct records exist anywhere and it is impossible to determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy the numbers of Africans who were seized, and who survived and were transported across the Atlantic to be sold over the four and a quarter centuries of the trade.

It has been suggested that, altogether, about 50 million Africans were victims of the trade at the most, and fewer than 10 million survived to be sold to planters, at the least. Given the circumstances in which Africans were captured, no records were likely to have existed. Countless other unrecorded deaths doubtless occurred as a result of shipwrecks, sinkings, storms, suicides, mutinies and hostile (piratical) action at sea during the 'middle passage' between Africa and the Americas.

Even though some shipping companies maintained records from the time of John Hawkins (1562), if not earlier, interlopers and privateers, striving to break the monopolies of the chartered companies or national governments, were known to have traded Africans in the Americas on their own account. In addition, Africans arriving at some colonies, could have been 're-exported' to other colonies.

Winners and losers
For four centuries, four continents - Africa, the Americas and Europe - were involved in the trade, the effects of which are evident to this day. For Africa, warfare, partition and the haemorhaging of the fittest part of its people, impoverished most of the coastal states. For the Americas - particularly Brazil, the Caribbean and southern USA - the descendants of Africans now constitute substantial and influential portions of the populations, many workers being still employed as predial labourers as their forefathers had been. For Europe, the mercantile system, imperial structures and industrial enterprises built up, partly by the profits of the slave trade and slave labour, helped Western Europe to reach its present position of economic pre-eminence in the world.

In the final analysis, whether 10, 15 or 50 million Africans were enslaved, the trade from the 15th to the 19th century helped to make the circum-Atlantic the world's commercial and economic powerhouse. The question remains to be asked, nonetheless, whether a quantitative study of such a massive movement of manpower as the slave trade, however accurately compiled, could ever fully explain the qualitative changes which took place in those continents over the centuries.

The academic debate over the numbers involved cannot conceal the enormous moral crime carried out conscientiously by the Christian people of Europe.

The economies, cultures and character of the entire western world have been indelibly moulded by the greatest forced migration in the history of the world - the transportation of millions of people across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples