The Atlantic Slave Trade was a very organized business operation. Nothing was left to chance because too much wealth was at stake. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest, long-distance coerced movement of people in human history.
From the late fifteenth century, the Atlantic Ocean, once a formidable barrier that prevented regular interaction between those peoples inhabiting the four continents it touched, became a commercial highway that integrated the histories of Africa, Europe, and the Americas for the first time.
The merchants who traded slaves on the coast to European ship captains – for example the Vili traders north of the Congo, the Efik in the Bight of Biafra – and behind them the groups that supplied the slaves, such as the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Aro network, and further south, the Imbangala, all had strict conceptions of what made an individual eligible for enslavement. Among such criteria were gender, criminal behavior, and conventions for dealing with prisoners of war.
Probably about one in ten slaving voyages experienced major rebellions, of which the attempts to control increased the costs of a slave voyage to the point where far fewer slaves entered the traffic than would have been the case without resistance.
The best description that can be used to describe the Atlantic slave trade is the triangular trade. The triangular trade had three legs. The first leg was from Europe to Africa. Trade goods, such as copper, cloth, trinkets, slave beads, guns and ammunition were shipped south to the African trading ports where they were traded for slaves.
The slaves were then shipped across the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World where they were sold to slave dealers. These businessmen would then resell the slaves to the end users, who were plantation owners in most cases.
The slave shippers would then buy commodities, such as sugar, cotton and tobacco, for sale in Europe. The main export cargoes from the West Indies were sugar, rum, and molasses; from Virginia they were tobacco and hemp. Sugar was sometimes shipped from the Caribbean in its liquid form, molasses, to be be used in New England or Europe to make rum. After selling the commodities in Europe, they would purchase trade goods which began the trade triangle all over again. On average, the trade route took a calendar year.
A number of African kings and merchants took part in the triangular trade from 1440 until 1833. In some cases they used the trade goods that they received to either trade for or capture more slaves. The trade arrangements on the African leg of the Atlantic slave trade were organized and quite profitable for its beneficiaries.
With the rise of a large commercial slave trade, driven by European needs, enslaving enemies became less a consequence of war, and more and more a reason to go to war. The African tribes pursued war as a means to acquire slaves to trade to European merchants.
In some cases the African tribes were encouraged and financed by their European trading partners in order to wage war and capture slaves. As one African queen wrote, it was “sell to the Europeans or be sold to the Europeans”. In Africa, convicted criminals could be punished by enslavement, a punishment which became more prevalent as slavery became more lucrative. Most of these nations did not have prison systems so convicts were often sold or used in the scattered local domestic slave market.
The Europeans left the slave-catching to the natives, almost never venturing into the interior for fear of disease or attacks. The African slave catchers brought the slaves to the coast where they were sold to the trading posts.
Slavery in Africa was not heritable, meaning that the children of slaves were free. While slaves in America were treated with some consideration, in Africa slaves could be slaughtered in the hundreds or thousands in religious rites. New World slaves were very useful and expensive enough to maintain and care for, but still the property of their owners.
Once they were delivered to the European trading posts, called port factories, slaves were warehoused for shipment to the New World. During this waiting period as many as 4.5% of the slaves perished. This percentage translates into some 820,000 people who died before transport. It is believed that some 17.5 million people were shipped over the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The slaves were transported across the infamous Middle Passage in specially built ships that packed a maximum number of people in a minimum apace. It is believed that during the passage from Africa to the Americas, the slaves suffered about a 12.5% mortality rate, or 2.2 million people. Shippers took measures, sometimes extreme, to minimize their losses. This included “dancing” or exercise on deck or force feeding those who tried to starve themselves.
The slave traders would try to fit anywhere from 350 to 600 slaves on one ship. Before the shipping of enslaved people was completely outlawed in 1853, 15.3 million enslaved people had arrived in the Americas. It is believed that slave mortality rates decreased because the voyage times decreased. In the 18th century, it took 2 1/2 months while this decreased to 2 months in the 19th century.
Upon arrival in the Caribbean or South American, slaves were sent to seasoning camps that were found throughout the area. The enslaved people were tortured for the purpose of “breaking” them (like the practice of breaking horses) and conditioning them to their new lot in life. Jamaica held one of the most notorious of these camps. Dysentery was the leading cause of death. It is believed that some 5 million Africans died in these camps reducing the final number of Africans to about 10 million.
Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, the new state of Virginia in 1778 became the first state and one of the first jurisdictions anywhere to stop the importation of slaves for sale; it made it a crime for traders to bring in slaves from out of state or from overseas for sale; migrants from other states were allowed to bring their own slaves. The new law freed all slaves brought in illegally after its passage and imposed heavy fines on violators.
In 1794, the U.S. Congress passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited the building or outfitting of ships in the U.S. for use in the slave trade. In 1807 Congress outlawed the importation of slaves beginning on January 1, 1808, the earliest date permitted by the United States Constitution for such a ban.
Slavery then became an internal trade between traders in the United States rather than overseas markets.