Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Benefiting from the complicity of European nations, the Atlantic slave trade expanded dramatically during the eighteenth century. This development set the stage for the mass transportation of Africans to the Americas, with more than 70 percent of all slaves arriving in the New World after 1700. Although an antislavery movement emerged in the late eighteenth century, economic influences obstructed its effectiveness.

Summary of Event

Portugal, Portugal;slave trade which established the Atlantic slave trade in the mid-fifteenth century and remained its dominant force until the beginning of the eighteenth century, enslaved thousands of Africans for work on sugar plantations in Brazil. Sugar plantations;Brazil Operating on a limited scale initially, the trade increased after Christopher Columbus made his voyage in 1492 and opened the New World to Europeans. Beginning in the 1550’s, the Spanish Spanish Empire;slave trade transported Africans into their Central American and South American colonies. The French France;slave trade and the Dutch Netherlands;slave trade entered the trade in the 1650’s to provide workers for their holdings in the Caribbean. [kw]Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade (18th cent.)
[kw]Trade, Expansion of the Atlantic Slave (18th cent.)
[kw]Slave Trade, Expansion of the Atlantic (18th cent.)
[kw]Atlantic Slave Trade, Expansion of the (18th cent.)
Slave trade;Atlantic
[g]Africa;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]West Africa;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]American colonies;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]Caribbean;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]United States;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]Jamaica;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]Haiti;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]Brazil;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[g]Cuba;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[c]Trade and commerce;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[c]Economics;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[c]Social issues and reform;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
[c]Colonization;18th cent.: Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade[0010]
Hawkins, John
Pinckney, Charles
Wilberforce, William

In 1562, British admiral John Hawkins inaugurated the British England;slave trade slave trade by profitably transporting African captives during a three-year period (through 1565) to Caribbean colonies claimed and ruled by the Spanish. Because of Spain’s objections to this encroachment on its territory, England remained on the sidelines for another century. In the mid-1600’s the demand for labor in Britain’s Caribbean and North American colonies prompted British investors to enter the trade. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, England ruled the slave market, with both British seamen and those from the New England colonies pursuing the lucrative business. Great Britain and other European countries transported approximately three million Africans to the New World during the 1600’s. The next century saw that number double. It is estimated that eleven million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean during the entire course of the slave trade.

The leaders of the various nations considered slaves essential to the expansion of their far-flung colonies, Colonization;slave trade which produced profitable and popular commodities such as sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Charles Pinckney, a prominent politician, slaveholder, and close associate of George Washington, summed up his belief in the economic necessity of slavery by calling African slaves raw materials that were essential for planters to cultivate their land. Others involved in the trade justified the practice by arguing that slavery African slaves
Slavery;and Christianity[Christianity] figured in the divine plan. Christianity;and African slaves[African slaves] By “rescuing” Africans from savagery and converting them to Christianity, they believed they were doing God’s work.

Considering the competitive nature of the trade, an endless series of disputes and clashes took place on the high seas and at various ports when one nation would accuse another of infringing on its territory. By winning the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) they fought against France, the British gained several French colonies in the Caribbean. Earlier, Great Britain faced the brutal First Maroon War in Jamaica when the British attempted to take the colony from Spain in 1730. The asiento de negros, Asiento de negros (slave trade license)
Slave trade;licensing of established by the Spanish in the 1600’s, added to the complications. The asiento was essentially a license issued for a fee to supply slaves to a specific colony, but it was not always a guarantee against disputes. Slave uprisings and rebellions in Saint Vincent, Grenada, and Saint Domingue (which became Haiti in 1804) caused additional problems. Africa, too, faced upheavals brought by the slave trade. The unceasing demand for captives led to skirmishes between the coastal Africans African slave traders who profited from the trade and those who lived in central Africa, the area from which most of the slaves were drawn.

Much has been recorded about the horrific conditions on what is known as the Middle Passage Middle Passage—the lengthy sea journey between Africa’s west coast and the Americas. Even though the human “cargo” was extremely valuable, the captives faced poor sanitary conditions, Diseases;and transportation of slaves[transportation of slaves]
Slave trade;and disease[disease] little if any medical attention, and inadequate types and amounts of food. As a result, many died during the first phase of their bondage. In some instances, the slave traders threw the sick overboard to prevent the spread of disease. One ship’s physician described how the deck, where hundreds of slaves were chained, was covered with blood, mucus, and excrement—a scene he found so repugnant that it lay beyond human imagination. After arriving in a foreign port, the dejected and frightened survivors faced humiliating auctions, where prospective buyers judged the survivors as if they were livestock.

Although England captured the market in the 1700’s, it would also lead the movement to end slave trading. Abolition movement;England Initial efforts concentrated on ending the trade, not slavery itself, even though that remained the ultimate goal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (England) (formed in 1787). Two years later, William Wilberforce joined the society. He was influenced by John Newton, a former slave trader who had experienced a dramatic conversion that led him into the ministry and into the abolition movement.

After years of urging the British parliament to abolish the trade, Wilberforce finally succeeded: In 1807 both houses passed a law ending the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and North American colonies. This act, which was influenced in part by economic circumstances, caused ripples throughout the European community, Abolition movement;worldwide and one by one other nations followed suit. In the next few years most European nations abolished slavery Abolition movement;England as well, and, in 1833, the British parliament halted the practice throughout its global empire. The slave trade continued on a limited scale until Brazil and Cuba were pressured during the 1860’s into banning the importation of slaves.


The expansion of the slave trade marked a significant point in world history, but the stain it left did not miraculously vanish with its demise beginning in the early nineteenth century. The practice had long-lasting effects on both the slaves and their “masters.” The immediate impact was economic. Because the wealth Great Britain and other European nations gained through their colonial ventures relied on slave labor, abolition deprived plantation owners of their most vital resource. As a result, various forms of slavery and slave trading continued not only in the United States, where it was not abolished until 1863, but in other regions as well.

From the outset, African slaves had not been docile in their captivity. Uprisings took place in the 1700’s, and the resistance continued into the nineteenth century, with bands of runaway and freed slaves sabotaging plantations. At the same time, the freed slaves who wanted to settle and take advantage of the prosperity they had helped create found themselves outcasts and lived in conditions little different from enslavement. Although slavery had faded into the past, it was replaced by racism—a new form of bondage that was to have lasting consequences.

Africa’s role in the slave trade helped to determine the continent’s destiny. Through alliance with Great Britain and European countries, the coastal slave traders inadvertently opened up Africa Colonization;Europeans of Africa to colonial exploitation. Once the overseas scramble for the continent succeeded, the empire builders no longer transported Africans into bondage but enslaved them on their own land.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, William L., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. Slave Narratives. New York: Library of America, 2000. This work presents ten slave narratives, first published between 1772 and 1864.
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery. New York: Verso, 1997. Blackburn traces the institution of slavery from the ancient world to its reemergence in the mid-fifteenth century through 1800.
  • Grant, R. G. The African-American Slave Trade. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2003. Grant provides an excellent introduction to the history of slavery through a readable, brief text. Includes good illustrations.
  • Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Klein surveys the economic, social, cultural, and political ramifications of the slave trade.
  • Monaghan, Tom. The Slave Trade. New York: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2003. Monaghan surveys the development of the transatlantic slave trade, slave practices in the Americas, and slavery’s legacy. Includes extensive illustrations.
  • Streissguth, Thomas, ed. Slavery. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001. An anthology containing documents by historical figures and scholars examining the slave trade, with articles on foreign perspectives, life in bondage, the abolition debate, and instances of defiance, rebellion, and escape.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. This 900-page volume explores the complete history of the Atlantic slave trade, with details on its beginnings and internationalization, graphic descriptions of the voyages, and an account of the abolition movement. The most complete study available.
  • Walvin, James. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1994. Walvin compares slavery in the Americas with slavery in the Caribbean, tracing the development of the trade and its economic roots, the transport of human cargo, and the life of slaves in the colonies.
  • ________. Making the Black Atlantic: Britain and the African Diaspora. London: Cassell, 2000. Walvin stresses Great Britain’s crucial role not only in the slave trade but in the abolition movement as well. Points out that slavery laid the economic foundations of the modern world and continues to exert influence on racial attitudes.

Collapse of the South Sea Bubble

First Maroon War

Slaves Capture St. John’s Island

Stono Rebellion

Dagohoy Rebellion in the Philippines

Caribbean Slave Rebellions

Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded

Northeast States Abolish Slavery

Rebellion of Tupac Amaru II

Free African Society Is Founded

Haitian Independence

Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade

First Fugitive Slave Law

Second Maroon War

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