mid-fifteenth century, Portuguese ships sailed down the West African coast in a
maneuver designed to bypass the Muslim North Africans, who had a virtual
monopoly on the trade of sub-Saharan gold, spices, and other commodities that Europe
wanted. These voyages resulted in maritime discoveries and advances in
shipbuilding that later would make it easier for European vessels to navigate
the Atlantic. Over time, the Portuguese vessels added another commodity to
their cargo: African men, women, and children.
For the first one hundred years, captives in small numbers were
transported to Europe. By the close of the fifteenth century, 10 percent of the
Lisbon, Portugal, then one of the largest cities in Europe, was of
African origin. Other captives were taken to islands off the African shore,
Cape Verde, and especially
São Tomé, where the Portuguese established
sugar plantations using enslaved labor on a scale that foreshadowed the
development of plantation slavery in the Americas. Enslaved Africans could also
be found in North Africa, the Middle East, Persia, India, the Indian Ocean
islands, and in Europe as far as Russia.
English and Dutch ships soon joined Portugal's vessels trading along the
African coast. They preyed on the Portuguese ships, while raiding and pillaging
the African mainland as well. During this initial period, European interest was
particularly concentrated on
Senegambia. Culturally and linguistically unified through
Islam and in some areas,
Manding culture and language, the region and Mali to its east had a long and glorious history, centered on the ancient
Kingdom of Ghana and the medieval empires of
Songhay. Its interior regions of
Bambuk were rich in gold. It reached the Mediterranean and
hence Europe from Songhay. The slave trade was closely linked to the Europeans'
insatiable hunger for gold, and the arrival of the Portuguese on the "
Gold Coast" (Ghana) in the 1470s tapped these inland
Later, they developed commercial and political relations with the
Benin (in present-day Nigeria) and
Kongo. The Kongo state became Christianized and, in the
process, was undermined by the spread of the slave trade. Benin, however,
restricted Portuguese influence and somewhat limited the trade in human beings.
Starting in 1492, Africans were part of every expedition into the
regions that became the American Spanish colonies. By the beginning of the
sixteenth century, they were brought as slaves to grow sugar and mine gold on
Hispaniola, and were forced to drain the shallow lakes of
the Mexican plateau, thereby finalizing the subjugation of the Aztec nation.
In a bitter twist, the Africans were often forced to
perform tasks that would help advance the genocide that would resolve the
vexing "Indian question."
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the slave trade entered its
second and most intense phase. The creation of ever-larger sugar plantations
and the introduction of other crops such as indigo, rice, tobacco, coffee,
cocoa, and cotton would lead to the displacement of an estimated seven million
Africans between 1650 and 1807. The demand for labor
resulted in numerous innovations, encouraged opportunists and entrepreneurs,
and accrued deceptions and barbarities, upon which the slave trade rested. Some
slave traders - often well-respected men in their communities - made fortunes
for themselves and their descendants.
The corresponding impact on Africa was intensified as
larger parts of west and central Africa came into the slavers' orbit.
The third and final period of the transatlantic slave trade began with
the ban on the importation of captives imposed by Britain and the United States
in 1807 and lasted until the 1860s. Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico were the
principal destinations for Africans, since they could no longer legally be
brought into North America, the British or French colonies in the Caribbean, or
the independent countries of Spanish America. Despite this restricted market,
the numbers of deported Africans did not decline until the late 1840s. Many
were smuggled into the United States. At the same time, tens of thousands of
Africans rescued from the slave ships were forcibly settled in
Liberia, and several islands of the Caribbean.