Atlantic Slave Trade – Causes and Effiects

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Atlantic Slave Trade – Causes and Effiects

The yearning of the Europeans especially Portuguese, Spanish, British and the Dutch for exploration, colonisation and imperialism was a major factor in expanding the slave trade networks in the Atlantic. As discussed by Timothy P. Grady in the book The Atlantic World 1450-2000, “explorers from Portugal, Spain and other European nations expanded the geographic knowledge southward along the coast of Africa and westward across the Atlantic shores of the Americas”.

The urge for this exploration was triggered by the fall of Constantinople in May 1943, the last vestige of the Roman Empire, to the Muslim Turks which shook the fortitude of the European countries and the Christian faith. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire around the Mediterranean region deprived European merchants of the lucrative trade routes along the Silk Road to the East.

The threat of lost communication and trade routes across the Mediterranean into China, India and other regions of eastern Asia and lost access to silk and other precious commodities carried along this route, forced Europeans to explore alternate trade routes to Asia by turning westward for new opportunities. Discovery of new routes west of Europe through the Atlantic, led to European arrival off West coast of Africa in the late fifteenth century.

By mid seventeenth century, the coast line of West Africa was infiltrated by fifty forts and slave trading posts of competing European countries – Portugal, Spain, Britain, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany dividing the coastline into – Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast. The political set up in Africa also facilitated slave trade. Africa was divided into a number of small and large states, chieftaincies and independent villages each with their own form of government, religion, customs and traditions. These territories often fought with each other and the captives of war were taken as slaves.

Such conflicts were justified wars which according to Warren. C. Whatley was “natural struggles of nation building” conducted in the normal course of affairs. The captives referred to as “joint-products of war” or “stolen goods” were then exported. With the advent of the Europeans, domestic conflicts became slave raids. As Robin Law asserted, the Kingdom of Dahomey dominated the slave raiding and trading from 1715 to 1850. Their kings held a royal monopoly on the trade and conducted slave raids through their armies.

Thus the political ambitions of the European and African monarchy led to the development of the slave trade. The developments in technology and its impact on navigation, ship building, and firearms aided the growth in Atlantic slave trade. Navigation The desire for exploration spurred European scholars, navigators and sailors to expand their knowledge of geography and devise new ways of charting and mapping their journeys. Increased use of the hour glass and logs to measure time and distance and the Portolan charts clearly documented navigation.

In 1462, the Portuguese navigators devised methods of figuring out latitudes by measuring the height of the Pole Star above the horizon. Later in 1484, astronomers in the court of King Joao II, using the midday sun to figure latitudes, produced a set of declination tables. Under the patronage of Prince Henry of Portugal, other significant developments were made in the study of winds, tides and ocean currents; documents from previous explorations were compiled and maps and charts were continuously improved. Thus a good number of problems associated with navigation were resolved by late fifteenth century.

As navigation across the great oceans became manageable, the transportation of the slaves between the continents – Europe, Africa and America became less complicated. Ship Building The changes to the design and functionalities of the European ships were another major factor that contributed to the expansion of Atlantic slave trade. Between the fourteenth and mid- nineteenth centuries, sailing ships were the main means of transport of the slaves. These sailing ships kept changing over time in terms of design, fittings, equipments and materials used as sail.

Use of three to four masts, sturdy hull, square lateen and sprit sails, and stern rudder enhanced their sailing power, speed and eased control of the ships in wild weather conditions. Small ships such as the caravel, highly manoeuvrable ships introduced in the fifteenth century encouraged the Portuguese to explore regions around West African coast such as Senegal and Cape Verde and Canary islands to secure staples, gold and slaves. Other ships designed by Portuguese for travel in the Atlantic Ocean were the carracks, four masted ships and the galleon, heavily armed multi deck sailing ships.

The ships also grew in size and multi decks were able to accommodate larger number of slaves. The mean tonnage of the slave ships from Liverpool in 1730 was 75 tons. This increased to 130 tons in 1790 and 226 tons in 1805. Weapons The supremacy of Europe in the slave trade was driven by its guns, cannons and restraints. They used a variety of weapons to threaten the slaves and the enemy ships at sea, to maintain control both on land and at sea. The diffusion of the new gunpowder technology accelerated the slave trade. The African communities, threatened by armed neighbours, resorted to trading the captives for gunpowder, guns and muskets.

In the words of Warren. C. Whatley, the vicious cycle, “a raid or be raided” arms race known as the Gun- Slave-Cycle was created. The replacement of the ineffective matchlock musket by the flintlock in1680s, drastically increased firearms demand in West Africa. According to J. E. Inikori, the firearms imported from England during the eighteenth century were between 283,000 and 394,000 guns per annum. The demand for firearms from West Africa was so high that manufacturing companies such as Farmer and Galton were forced to pressurise their workers to increase production.

The demand for firearms was matched by supply of slaves. The developments in restraining technology aided the slave trade in terms of terrorising the slaves and reducing escapes. The restraints used in the trade included, neck restraints, iron collars linked by chains, tongue restraints and leg and wrist shackles to trammel movement. The ability to stow more slaves per cubic foot of the ship, ability to navigate better around the coast of Africa, the reduction in escapees due to draconian restraints, and the organisation of forts around the coast to lodge the captives helped to reduce costs and promote trade.

African Demand for goods from Europe The introduction of a wide range of consumption goods in West Africa, the possession of which was a matter of social status and power, was another factor leading to the development of Atlantic slave trade. The African demand for iron and copper bars, textiles, salt, earthenware, weapons and firearms, rum, wine, gin and cowrie shells and a variety of both European and oriental goods had a profound impact on slave trade. The demands for these goods were so high that the European suppliers could not cope with the increased demand.

J. E. Inikori commented that firearms and textiles were in such high demand by the slave traders that they were not prepared to clear their slave cargo, if they were not satisfied with the quantity of supply of these items of trade. The merchants were willing to trade their morality to capture slaves in exchange for European goods. Alan Rice clearly identifies this when he asserts, “The desire for luxury goods was so great that these African elites would consign war captives and domestic slaves to an unknown fate across the ocean in exchange for them”.

Growth in Slave trading institutions Growth in social institutions to perform a more organised slave trade was a key factor in Atlantic slave trade. The increase in demand and prices of slaves encouraged the development of various institutions to address the issues associated with the trade – capture, enslavement, seasoning, trade, regulations and taxation. The merchants explored new ways of trapping the slaves – deception, kidnapping, ambush attacks, promoting conflicts between villages and the pretence of family substitution for the runaways.

The kidnap of Olaudah Equiano in 1750s in his words, “One day when all our people were gone out to their works as usual and only I and my sister were left to mind the house, two men and woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both… and ran off with us into the nearest wood”. The drought and famine in Africa due to marginal rainfalls in the Savannah areas – Angola and the grasslands extending from Senegambia to Cameron, forced desponding families to sell themselves. People were too poor to survive and offered themselves as collateral for credits. Non repayment made them slaves.

Development of enforcement mechanisms also encouraged the slave trade. Credit was offered to slave traders to cover costs of acquiring, transporting and housing slaves until they were boarded on the ships. Other types of such mechanisms, described by Warren. C. Whatley were “the use of factories and forts as holding pens and warehouses, African canoe houses and other trade coalitions, secret societies and treaties between European and African nations. The cycle of violence to hunt down the slaves continued leading to an upsurge in slave trade The decline in population in the Americas

This was another important factor that led to the development of Atlantic slave trade. With the European colonisation of the Americas, there was a growth in mining and plantations in the islands between North and South America and the labour demands were met by native Indians. The massive mortality rates of the natives due to poor working conditions and new European and African diseases such as measles, small pox, the plague, influenza, malaria and yellow fever led to decline in the population of Americas.

Figure 1 presents data on the drastic decline in population in Americas which led to a decline in labour. The Europeans now turned to the Negroes in Africa for labour. They soon found that the African slaves were more productive and the output quadrupled. Shiploads of slaves were exported to work in these American islands and soon the slave trade was transformed from a marginal institution to a global phenomenon. Growth in Plantations The development of Atlantic slave trade stemmed from the growth in plantation agriculture such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea and rice in the New World.

The demand for plantation workers in sixteenth century Brazil, seventeenth century Caribbean and nineteenth century Cuba instigated slave supply from Africa. The intensity of the growth in plantations could be seen in small islands like Barbados. By 1650 Barbados had 300 plantations which multiplied to 900 by 1670, a rate of 100% per annum. The growing demand for sugar, multiplying at a compound rate of 5% per annum in the seventeenth century to about 10% in the nineteenth century, increased the demand for African slaves to work in the sugar plantations in the New World lands.

As H. Hobhouse puts it, “‘food’ became responsible for the Africanization of the Caribbean”. This small group of islands accounted for 80% of the sugar and slave trade until the eighteenth century. The slave labour for majority of these plantations was secured from Africa through the Atlantic. As plantations became the expanded into a global trade network, so did the Atlantic slave trade. Slave Trade and Profitability There were various groups of stakeholders in the Atlantic Slave trade who participated in it due to the profitability from the trade in slaves.

African Rulers profited in terms of taxes and custom duties paid by the European merchants. They were given the first choice of any merchandise that was brought into Africa for trade and were able to bargain lower prices for these goods. The rulers also commanded premium prices for their own slaves. They also received considerable gifts from the merchants in order to secure preferential trading agreements. Ouidah, a coastal town in Benin, West Africa was a strong European trading post since 1720 and was accessed by forty to fifty European trading vessels per year.

Hence the ruler who started off with ten slaves in exchange for opening his market in 1700 was able to command a higher price of twenty slaves by 1720. This was in addition to the privileges in the purchase or sale of the commodities which included the slaves as well. According to Miles Ogborn, by 1800s the rulers in Africa were able to obtain “goods for each slave worth three or four times as much in 1700”. Both African and European slave traders were paid well. Overwhelmed by the profits from slave exports, wealthy merchants both in Africa and Europe, expanded slave trading networks to prodigious numbers.

Figure 2 analyses changes in supply by African slave merchants in response to changes in prices. The data reveals that the supply increased as price increased. Hence, the largest emigration of slaves in the eighteenth century can be attributed to the increase in price from ? 14 to ? 25. Between the years 1779 and 1788, there was a decrease in demand for slaves due to the War of American Independence. This created excess supply of slaves in the African coast. Hence the planter in Americas started restocking their slave supply.

The European slave traders capitalised on this by securing supply at cheaper prices from Africa and selling higher prices in the Americas; thereby making abnormal profits between these years. Thus slave trade allowed African and European slave traders to maximise profits from the trade. The consumers of Europe profited in terms of cheaper commodity prices due to increased output by African slaves in the plantations. Figure 3 presents data on the production of sugar and tobacco by British colonies.

The increased volume of production of these commodities reduced their prices much to the favour of European consumers. Tobacco which fetched twenty to forty shillings in 1619 was sold for a shilling or less while the price of sugar halved between 1630 and 1680. Thus the consumers were able to enjoy the luxury of these commodities at affordable prices. The planters were another group of stakeholders in the trade who profited in their own way. Labour became cheap and more available due to Atlantic Slave trade.

The planters always worked with a motive of profitable exploitation of the factors of production, especially labour and work was dictated by discipline and violence. Successful planters were able to create immense wealth and have extravagant lifestyles. While the slaves slogged day and night in the plantations, the owners were able to retreat in the Great Houses built on commanding positions, with beautiful gardens, imported china, furniture and furnishings. The fortune and lifestyle of Sir Charles Price, the largest land and slave owner of Jamaica between 1738 and 1772 demonstrates the height of planter lifestyles. The Decoy”, the Great House he built was a mansion with magnificent rooms with mirrors and wood carving in the decor, lakes and parks around the house and elegant gardens with fruits, flowers and vegetables.

This essay has clearly illustrated the factors that led to the development of the Atlantic Slave trade. Eventhough the political set up in Europe and Africa and the growth in plantations laid the foundation for the trade, it was the technological developments and social influences on the Europeans and Africans that took the trade to global heights.

Overall, the technological improvements lowered transport, handling and shipping costs enabling the achievement of economies of scale. Similarly, the growing demand for goods from Europe in Africa, the growth in slave trading institutions and the decline in Americas’ population fostered the slave trade. Finally, the profitability from the trade influenced various groups of stakeholders to become intensely involved making it an international trade spanning four continents and altering their social, economic and political composition.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 September 2016

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