The Transatlantic slave trade (1501-1867), known by some in Texas as the Atlantic triangular trade, sold at least 12.5 million black Africans as slaves to work for white landowners on the other side of the ocean. Of these 1.8 million died at sea. Most of the rest were worked to death within seven years in the sugar cane fields of Brazil and the Caribbean.
The slave trade reached its height in the 1780s. A third of those sold were women. Towards the end a fourth were children!
Because the big money was in sugar only 4% came to the cotton and tobacco fields of North America. Three-fourths of those came from West Africa, the rest from what is now Congo, Angola and Mozambique.
While Europeans did catch some of their own slaves, they generally bought them from Africans. At first the Africans sold them prisoners of war but later as the market grew wars were fought to get slaves to sell.
A common white belief is that Africans “sold their own” as slaves. That is based on yet another common white belief: that Africa is a country. Africans did not sell their own: they sold their enemies. This became much easier to do once Europeans brought the gun to Africa and supplied a ready market for slaves.
Africans practised slavery long before the Europeans showed up, but the European kind was a different beast:
- It was on a much vaster scale – millions, not thousands.
- It was based on skin colour.
- It was lifelong and fell upon one’s children too.
If you were caught you were put in chains and marched to a slave fort on the coast. Because you were on foot that could take months. About one in five – 3 million in all – died in these death marches.
Once at the fort you were put behind bars and there you waited for a slave ship and a good wind. That might take yet more months. And if the ship was not full it would spend weeks or months visiting yet other slave forts along the coast to fill up.
The Middle Passage:
It took as little as a month to get to Brazil, two months or more to get to North America.
Ships were packed so full that you had just enough room to lay down. Sometimes you did not even have enough room to roll over and lay on your side. It was dark and hot and airless and you lived in shit, piss, vomit and menstrual blood. The ship’s crew raped the women and girls. You had little to eat but even worse you had little to drink: fresh water was extremely limited on the high seas.
Disease was common. In the 1500s as many as half died on board. In the 1800s that dropped to 5%. Some who lived went mad.
So many slaves came that it was not until the 1840s and the Irish Potato Famine that more whites than blacks crossed the Atlantic.