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Slave Trade


During the 15th century, European explorers began to sail around the world to lands where people from their own countries had never been before. These voyages led to important new links between Europe and other continents. They also led to the rise of a terrible new business—the trading of African people across the Atlantic to work in lands very far from their homes.


Sailors from Portugal were among the first European explorers, reaching West Africa in the mid-15th century. Soon, they began to kidnap Africans to work as slaves on Portuguese sugar plantations in places such as the Canary Islands. At first, this was not a major trade. However, after Portugal, Spain, France, England and other European nations founded colonies in North America, South America and the islands of the Caribbean, they set up more plantations there. To plant, look after and harvest the sugar, coffee, rice, tobacco and later cotton grown on these farms, they began to ship thousands of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.


As the number of slaves grew, the slave trade became more businesslike. Europeans set up forts all along the West African coast, where they kept African men and women in underground prisons before loading them onto the ships that would carry them across the ocean. Europeans rarely went inland to capture the slaves themselves. Instead, they paid some African traders and rulers to kidnap men and women, then march them to the coast. Payment was not usually in the form of money, but of goods such as guns and gunpowder, metals, horses, salt, and paper.

The movement of slaves and goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americas had three main stages. First, ships full of goods left European ports such as London, Bristol, and Liverpool for West Africa. This stage was known as the Outward Passage. Next, the goods were exchanged for African slaves, who were packed tightly below the decks of the ships and taken against their will to the Americas. This part of the journey was known as the Middle Passage and lasted between 6 and 16 weeks. Conditions for the slaves were so dirty and unhygienic that on average 16 percent of them died of illnesses such as dysentery during the voyage.

When they reached the Americas, the slave ships usually stopped first at Caribbean islands such as Barbados and Jamaica, then at ports such as Charleston on the North American mainland. There, the slaves were sold to plantation owners or other new masters. Meanwhile, the now-empty ships were loaded with tobacco, cotton and other goods grown on American plantations. Once they were full, they made the final, third stage of their voyage, known as the Inward Passage, back to the European ports where they started their journey.

Experts often call this complicated process of buying and selling the “triangular trade”, because it had three parts like a triangle’s three sides. They also think that from the start of the slave trade in the 15th century to its end in the 19th century, about 12 million Africans suffered the horrors of the Middle Passage. At the trade’s height in the 1780s, about 80,000 slaves, terrified and far from home, made the journey each year.


Once they had reached their destinations, most slaves faced harsh new lives. They were forced to work long hours in the fields. Work on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean islands was especially difficult. This was because slaves had to complete their tasks on the land and then often had to go to work in the factories where sugar cane was turned into sugar and rum.

During the 1790s, thanks mainly to the invention of the new machine called the cotton gin, cotton-growing spread rapidly across the South of the United States into states such as Alabama. The production and sale of cotton quickly became a very profitable business, so from this time onward, many slaves worked in the cotton fields. Some were taken directly from Africa, but others came from states further to the north such as Virginia, where tobacco farmers were having difficulties growing their crop, so no longer needed as many workers. Often, these farmers thoughtlessly split up slave families by selling some members to the South and keeping others.

Not all slaves became farm workers. Some, especially in the northern states of the United States, worked in their owners’ houses. Women were often maids and cooks, while men became personal servants or developed specialist trades, for example as blacksmiths or carpenters. A few were also employed in shops owned by their masters, learning skills such as clothes making. The lives of these slaves were not as physically hard as those of plantation workers. Slaves formed their own families and churches, and in this way created some freedom for themselves. Even so, their future remained in the hands of their owners.


In the 18th century, many white people in Europe and the Americas began to think that both slavery and the slave trade were wrong. Members of some Christian Churches protested particularly strongly because they thought that it was against the laws of God to treat people as though they were simply goods to buy and sell. Slaves and former slaves also began to speak out about what they suffered and to work for abolition, the end of slavery.

New political and economic ideas also began to make businessmen think that it was no longer sensible to employ slave workers. For example, some experts started to argue that slaves would never work as hard as paid employees because there was no reason for them to do so—they would never be able to earn and save money or improve their lives.

In Britain, two determined men, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, led the campaign against the slave trade. Finally, in 1806, Parliament passed a law making it illegal from the next year. This meant only that no more slaves could be brought from Africa. In 1833 the Emancipation Bill made slavery illegal. The bill was introduced gradually, so the last British slaves were not freed until 1838.

In the United States, a change took longer. The northern states had made slavery illegal by 1804, and the import of new slaves was banned in 1808. However, the southern states, where plantation owners were growing rich from the profits of cotton and other crops, did not want to change their ways. Finally, clashes between the North and the South led to the American Civil War. The anti-slavery North won, so in 1865 the 13th Amendment was added to the US Constitution, making slavery illegal across the United States. Finally, in 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery.