The Transatlantic Slave Trade
Overview
The Development of the Trade
Capture and Enslavement
Traders and Trade
The Middle Passage
Africans in America
Ethnicities in the United States
The Suppression of the Slave Trade
Impact of the Slave Trade on Africa
Legacies in America
References
Links

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Western European countries established distinct national trades. The European port cities most involved in this growth industry were Bristol, Liverpool, and London in England; Amsterdam in Holland; Lisbon, the Portuguese capital; and Nantes, located on the western French coast.

Liverpool Vessels for AfricaDocuments Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume IV: The Border Colonies and The Southern ColoniesLiverpool Vessels for Africa from Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume IV: The Border Colonies and The Southern Colonies by Elizabeth Donnan
Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume II: The Eighteenth CenturyDocuments Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume II: The Eighteenth Century by Elizabeth Donnan

On the African side most captives were traded from only a few ports: Luanda (Angola), Whydah (Bight of Benin), Bonny ( Bight of Biafra); and the adjacent "castles" at Koromantin and Winneba on the Gold Coast accounted for at least a third of the Africans transported to the Americas. Other major ports included Old Calabar (Bight of Biafra), Benguela (Southern Angola), Cabinda (north of the Congo River), and Lagos in the Bight of Benin. These nine ports accounted for at least half of all the Africans deported to the Americas.

Regional Origins of Enslaved Africans Destined for the AmericasThe Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-RomRegional Origins of Enslaved Africans Destined for the Americas from The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-Rom by David Eltis, Stephen Behrendt, David Richardson and Herbert Klein

The European countries attempted, though not successfully, to regulate the trade by chartering various national companies established under royal decree or parliamentary order. But these efforts to create monopolies, such as England's Royal African Company (RAC), were soon undermined by private merchant companies and pirates who opened up new markets in the Bight of Biafra and the northern Angola coast, and challenged the RAC on the Gold Coast and in the Gambia.

Each of the nations and their slave ports experimented with innovative marketing and trading techniques. Sometimes this competition required the maintenance of trading depots and forts - the slave "castles" or factories - as was the case in the Gold Coast and the Bight of Benin, as well as in lesser ports along the Upper Guinea Coast, Senegambia, and Angola.

The trade was propelled by credit flowing outward from Europe and used by merchants to purchase men, women, and children in West Africa. They advanced goods on credit in lieu of payment in captives. The wares sent to Africa in exchange for captives included those that could be used as money: cowry shells, strips of cloth (often imported from India), iron bars, copper bracelets ( manillas), silver coins, and gold. These goods also had value as commodities: cloth could be turned into clothing, iron into hoes and other tools. Consumer goods included textiles, alcohol, and jewelry. Their importation supplemented but did not replace the local production of these items. Alcohol was regarded as a luxury, except in Muslim communities, where it was prohibited.

Military goods, principally firearms, were also exchanged for captives. They were instrumental in the eighteenth-century Gold Coast wars that enslaved multitudes and led to the Asante people's political ascendancy in the region. With the exception of the Gold Coast wars, guns played little role at first in local conflicts, due in part to the difficulty of keeping powder dry in tropical regions. For example, the rise of Oyo, which became the dominant slaving power in the interior of the Bight of Benin, was mostly effected by the use of cavalry.

Merchants experimented with various trading methods. In some places, such as Old Calabar and the minor ports of the Upper Guinea Coast, individuals who were often the relatives of local merchants and officials were accepted by ship captains as collateral for credit. These individuals were human pawns who could be enslaved if debts were not paid.

In Angola and Senegambia, European merchants married or otherwise cohabited with local women, and these women sometimes amassed considerable fortunes as agents and merchants in their own right. Their mixed offspring became an intermediate class of merchants along the coast, but especially concentrated along the Upper Guinea Coast as far as Senegambia, and in Luanda, Benguela, and their commercial outposts in the interior of Angola.

The trade was a high-risk enterprise. The commodity was people; they could escape, be murdered, commit suicide, or fall victim to epidemics or natural disasters. Local traders could disappear with their payment and never produce the captives stipulated in the contract. Since the slave trade went across political and cultural frontiers, there was little recourse to courts and governments in the event of commercial dishonesty. No international court or judicial system existed to handle the extraordinary violations of human rights that defined every aspect of the slave trade.

The slave trade was driven by both demand and greed. The customers in the Americas who could afford it desperately needed labor and did not care how it was obtained. Traders could benefit immensely from theft, plunder, kidnapping, ransoming, and the sale of human beings as commodities. These slavers took advantage of African political troubles, religious differences, legal technicalities, economic crises, and outright callousness to exploit helpless individuals.

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The Middle Passage >