The continuous presence of persons of African descent on soil that became the United States begins in 1619 with the arrival of twenty Africans at Jamestown, Virginia, aboard a Dutch warship from the West Indies. Their arrival was a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; lasting almost four centuries, (1501-1873) and accompanying the larger process of European colonization of the New World, this trade involved transporting African slaves to the Americas so their labor could be used in the economic development of this vast region.
Since members of all racial groups and some religious groups (for example, Jews, Christians and Muslims) have been enslaved at some point in time, Africans hold no monopoly on serving as slaves. Anglo-Saxons and Franks, for example, were among the Europeans who were enslaved during the Middle Ages. Other Europeans captured and sold each other as late as the mid-fifteenth century. Such activities often invoked the papal wrath, since many of these slaves were Christians shipped to Muslim lands such as the Sultanate of Egypt. The word slave, in fact, is derived from the word Slav. Slavic groups (for example, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, and Croats), often captured by the Crimean Tartars, provided many of the slaves used by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire for the better part of this empire’s history (1357-1918). And although slavery traditionally existed in some African societies, its nature there, similar to the nature of bondage in some other slave systems found throughout the world, was radically different from the system found in the Americas. Slaves in Africa, for example, usually did not pass on their status to their offspring, and they often were allowed opportunities for social mobility.
Since non-Africans have been slaves historically, the question arises why Africans were used in the New World slave trade. Two basic theories, each addressing the classic “chicken-or-the-egg” paradox between slavery and racial prejudice, have been offered. The first argues that racial prejudice preceded the slave trade, that Europeans arrived in Africa culturally pre-conditioned to perceive Africans as inferior to themselves and thus ideally suited for enslavement. This is said to have been particularly true of the English whose language, for example, has numerous negative usages containing the word black (for example, blackball, blacklist, black market, black sheep). The other theory suggests that Africans were enslaved because they constituted a large and accessible labor supply that was relatively close to the Americas. The European perception of African inferiority, therefore, is regarded as an afterthought, an attempt to rationalize African enslavement after it had been accomplished. As evidence this theory notes that initially Europeans enslaved native Americans and even used the forced labor (indentured servitude) of their own kind in the New World. Further, after slavery was abolished in parts of the New World in the nineteenth century (for example, the British Caribbean in 1833), Chinese and East Indians were brought in as indentured servants to replace the freed slaves, usually working under conditions that approached slavery. It is therefore reasoned that if China or India, countries with large populations in the sixteenth century, had been situated closer to the Americas than Africa was, then their people rather than Africans would have been New World slaves.
The Portuguese are acknowledged by historians to have inaugurated the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 1441 two Portuguese explorers, Nino Tristao and Antonio Goncalves, sailed to what is today Mauritania in West Africa, kidnapped twelve natives, and returned home to present them as gifts to Prince Henry the Navigator, By 1460, seven hundred to eight hundred African slaves were being taken annually into Portugal, for use mainly as domestic servants. Between 1460 and 1500 the removal of Africans increased as the Portuguese and Spanish established forts and trading stations along the West African coastline. By 1500 about fifty thousand slaves had been taken out of Africa, most brought into Europe, where they were used mainly as domestic servants and artisans and in farming. The remainder were used in the Azores, Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde islands on sugar plantations in a system that served as a model for the cultivation of commercial crops later in the Americas.
Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the New World, during which he established a settlement on Hispaniola (the present-day island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), opened up the Americas for European settlement. Following the principles of mercantilism, New World colonies were to be exploited economically. The need to work the mines (gold, silver, and copper) and cultivate commercial crops (such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, and rice) created a demand for slave labor. In 1501, after the Spanish were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to conscript native Americans, Africans were brought for the first time from Europe (Spain) to work in the New World (Hispaniola). In 1510 the first sizable shipment of African slaves into the New World occurred (250 from Spain). Eight years later, African slaves were shipped by the Spanish directly from Africa to the New World.
The most recent research by slave historians suggests that from 1501 to 1873 between ten million and fifteen million African slaves were brought into the New World. Since it is estimated that for every slave landed in the New World two Africans perished from either the slave raids and wars in Africa, the slave caravans that marched to the coast, the coastal bulking stations (prison camps) where slaves were held prior to being transported, or from the horrors of the Middle Passage (the travel by sea from Africa to the New World), it is likely that more than forty-five million lives were lost to Africa from the slave trade, This loss, especially because it involved those who were young (child-producing population) and able-bodied, is regarded as having retarded Africa’s economic development down to the present century. By most economic indices Africa was worse off as it entered the twentieth century than when it entered the fifteenth century.
The flow of slaves across the Atlantic, rising slowly, with about 3 percent of all slaves imported before 1600 and about 14 percent in the seventeenth century, crested in the eighteenth century, when about 60 percent of the total was landed in the Americas. Since the remaining 23 percent arrived in the nineteenth century, over 80 percent of all of the slaves imported into the Americas arrived between 1701 and 1873. Cuba in 1873, it is generally believed, received the last shipment of African slaves to the West.
The principal areas of Africa from which these slaves were obtained were West Africa (Senegal to Gabon fifty-five percent); Central Africa (Congo and Angola twenty-five percent); and East Africa (mainly Mozambique — twenty percent). Those taken specifically to the United States were drawn from West Africa (Senegal to Gabon seventy-three percent); Central Africa (Congo and Angola twenty-five percent); and East Africa (mainly Mozambique — two percent), The removal of slaves from Africa followed a general pattern that, starting in West Africa, saw the prime source areas shifting eastward and southward over time. This meant that the following areas successively became the focal point of obtaining slaves: Senegambia/Sierra Leone, Windward Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Congo/ Angola, and Mozambique.
The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and Americans were the main traffickers in the slaves brought to the Americas. Because Spain, for roughly two hundred years beginning at the end of the sixteenth century, granted to various merchants and statesmen its famous asiento, a license to carry slaves to its New World colonies, it did not become a major carrier of slaves until the end of the eighteenth century. Most of these slaves were taken into Cuba and, to a much lesser degree, Puerto Rico. Cuba, with seven percent of the total of slaves imported, ranks fourth among the five leading slave-importing countries in the Americas. The remainder (with their percent of the total importation) were Brazil (forty percent), Haiti (nine percent), Jamaica (eight percent), and the United States (four percent).
While much has been made of African complicity in the slave trade, and instances of African resistance to European slavers often ignored, the trade’s paramount cause was the European demand for African labor. Europeans were determined to maintain the trade with or without African assistance. Thus, for Africans, lacking a “continental” (Pan-African) or common identity, the trade was carried out under duress: African groups had to either enslave other groups or risk being enslaved. The crucial factor in this enslavement process was the introduction of firearms by Europeans; an early appearance of firearms in sub-Sahara Africa occurred in 1591 with the Moroccan expedition against the Songhay Empire. Simply put, Africans who acquired firearms could dominate and sell those who lacked them.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many African slaves became part of what was called the triangular trade. Under this trading network, rum from the British colonies of North America was carried to West Africa (Guinea Coast) and traded for slaves. These slaves were then carried to the West Indies, where they were used to cultivate sugar. The molasses produced from the sugar was then sold, along with more slaves, to the British colonies in North America. From the molasses rum would be produced in North America and the cycle would start again.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in 1873. Its decline had begun as early as 1803 when Denmark abolished its slave trade. Great Britain and the United States followed in 1808, Holland in 1814, and France in 1815, After 1808, Great Britain in particular sought to suppress the trade conducted by others by patrolling the West African coast. Other factors influencing the decline of the slave trade were the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 (owing in great part to the work of abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson), declining profits in the slave trade, and the realization by Great Britain that its interests were better served by using African labor to produce the continent’s raw materials for Britain’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution.
Some scholars, using oral tradition and certain linguistic, archeological, and anthropological evidence, argue that there was an African presence in the New World prior to Columbus’ voyage in 1492. This thesis is best presented in Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus (1976), Certainly African slaves accompanied the early Spanish explorers of the New World like De Soto and Pizarro. Estevanico, the black Moroccan who accompanied the Spanish during their explorations in the 1530s of what is the present-day Southwest of the United States, was perhaps the best known of these. About 100 slaves were also a part of San Miguel, the 1526 Spanish settlement near present-day Georgetown, South Carolina, which lasted one year. It ended when the Africans rebelled, set fire to the settlement, and the 150 Spanish survivors returned to Hispaniola. The fate of the Africans in San Miguel remains unknown.
The presence of black people in the United States is rooted in the arrival in 1619 of twenty Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This trade was the largest incidence of forced migration in human history and involved the arrival of slaves in the New World (and the United States) from West, Central, and even East Africa. It had a profound impact on the African continent.
Materials and Preparation
Students should read either chapters 4 and 5 in The African American Experience: A History (“The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1500-1760s” and “The West Indies, First Stop for Africans, 1500-1760s”) or chapter 4 in African American History (“New World Slave Trade”).
Students should also study Map #3 of the slave trade and read excerpts from Winthrop D Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812; Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery ; Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; Philip D. Curtin’s The Atlantic Stave Trade: A Census; Gustavus Vassa’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, Written by Himself; and James A. Rawley’s The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A History.
The teacher should read chapter 3 From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“The Slave Trade and the New World”).
Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.
- Compare and contrast the theories that have been offered to explain why Africans rather than some other group of people were used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
- After students have read the excerpts from Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 and Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, divide the class into two groups, one representing Jordan’s position and the other Williams’. Have them debate the two positions. Point out to students the possibility of both positions having some merit.
- Evaluation: Have students write a 500-word essay indicating whether they prefer the argument of Jordan or Williams, believe there is some merit in both arguments, or believe that neither has merit. Students should explain their selection of a particular position.
- Identify the areas of Africa from which slaves were taken and those New World areas where they were landed.
- After having students use Map #3 to become familiar with the major areas of Africa from which slaves were taken and die New World areas where they were landed, instruct students to discuss the ways in which we can document the presence of certain groups of Africans in specific parts of the New World (for example, ship records, African survivals).
- Evaluation: Have students imagine they are a journalist whose assignment is to research and write a 500- word article about a folk religion found in Cuba, Haiti, or Brazil that has African origins. Have them identify the particular African group associated with this religion. Also have them note whether practitioners of this religion are among immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, or Brazil found in New Jersey.
- Assess the implications of the trans-Atlantic slave trade for the African continent.
- Ask students to imagine that they are an African king/chief who has been asked by European slavers to enslave a neighboring African group. Have them debate the pros and cons of accepting this offer. For example, if the king/chief doesn’t accept, then the neighboring group could receive guns from the Europeans and enslave his people. If he does accept, he will become dependent on the slave trade and on the guns received from Europeans. He will also have allowed the Europeans to divide Africans, setting them against each other.
- After students have read the excerpts from Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and Philip D. Curtin’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, ask them whether Africa benefited overall from, or was harmed by, the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
- Evaluation: Have the students write a 500-word essay about what responsibility, if any, can be assessed to Africans for engaging in the slave trade. Or have students write a 500-word essay responding to the notion, articulated by some nineteenth century black leaders, that the slave trade could be considered “Providential Design,” a grand plan by which Africans were to be taken to the New World, civilized, and then returned to Africa to serve as civilizing agents.
- Explain why the Middle Passage is considered to have been an extremely inhumane and horrific experience for the African slaves transported to the New World.
- Have students read the Middle Passage excerpts from Gustavus Vassa’s The Interesting Narrative Of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, Written by Himself and James A. Rawley’s The Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade: A History. Ask students to discuss whether these excerpts support the notion that the conditions of the Middle Passage were particularly horrific.
- Evaluation: Have the students imagine they are someone like Gustavus Vassa, an African who experienced the Middle Passage. Ask them to write, as part of an autobiography, a 500-word account of this experience.
- Show students the program described here from the documentary series The Africans (obtainable from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Media Resource Center, 28 West State Street, Sixth Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08608 (609-695-4838):
“Tools of Exploitation”
This segment contrasts the impact of the West on Africa and the impact of Africa on the development of the West, looking at the manner in which Africa’s human and natural resources were exploited before, during, and after the colonial period. The segment also examines Africa’s own traditions of slavery (60 minutes).
- Show students the film Sankofa, written and directed by Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian who is a Howard University film professor. This film depicts the slave trade through a black woman’s dream-like remembrances (125 minutes). It can be obtained from Mypheduh Film, 403 K Street, N. W., Washington, D.C. 20001 (202- 289-6677).
Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa). Born in West Africa and placed in slavery in Virginia, he was one of the earliest blacks in America to write his autobiography. In it he detailed the Middle Passage. It was published in 1789 under the title The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, Written By Himself.
Estevanico. A black Moroccan who accompanied the Spanish explorers of the present-day Southwest in the 1530s.
Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading
- Aguet, Isabelle. 1971. A Pictorial History of the Slave Trade.
- A graphic collection depicting the trans- Atlantic slave trade that involved Africa and the Americas.
- Bastide, Roger. 1978. The African Religions of Brazil.
- The best volume on the variety of African religions that survived slavery. It highlights their distinctiveness and relationship to Christianity.
- Bennett, Norman. 1975. Africa and Europe: From Roman Times to National Independence.
- Best short over- view of the long-term interaction of the two continents, detailing the evolution of international exploration, trade, and colonialism.
- Claypole, William, et al. 1980. The Caribbean Story. 2 vols.
- Short, detailed, illustrated, and informative survey of the three peoples who populated the region — native Americans, Europeans, and Africans — and their specific contributions and conflicts. Slave societies are detailed, as are the post-emancipation, anticolonial, and independence eras.
- Curtin, Philip D. 1969. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census.
- A pivotal study of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that considerably lowers previous estimates of the number of African slaves brought into the New World.
- Fraginals, Manuel Moreno, ed. 1984. Africa in Latin America.
- A detailed, innovative collection that examines the cultural, social, and overall historical influences Africans have had on the development of Spanish and Portuguese New World societies.
- Inikori, J. E., ed. 1982. Forced Migration.
- Historians’ views of the disastrous impact on Africans of the trade in black slaves conducted by Europeans and Muslims. The essays highlight the cultural, demographic, and economic changes that occurred in societies that lost people to slavery.
- Jordan, Winthrop D. 1968. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812.
- In this major study, which examines the origin and development of white attitudes toward blacks in America from the sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century, Jordan notes that Englishmen harbored certain views about color that alone would predispose them to think negatively of Africans, even before participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
- July, Robert. 1980. A History of the African People.
- Best single-volume English-language general survey of the political and, to a lesser extent, economic history of the continent. It concentrates on the modern era, from 1.000 A.D. to the 1970s, and on European and African interaction.
- Mannix, Daniel P. and Malcolm Cowley. 1962. Black Cargoes.
- Classic study of the Middle Passage’s nature and impact on Africans bound for the Americas. Focuses on the English trade.
- Murphy, E. Jefferson. 1972. History of African Civilization.
- Focuses on black civilizations, ancient and modern, before Europeans. Highlights black achievements.
- Ott, Thomas 0. 1973. The Haitian Revolution.
- Best English language history of the only successful national slave revolt in the Americas. A balanced and detailed study.
- Rawley, James A. 1981. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A History.
- The most comprehensive single-volume study of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it uses statistics and narrative to highlight the European variations in the trade, national conflicts, and African conditions.
- Rodney, Walter, 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
- In this highly influential study, scholarly but very accessible, Rodney contends that the economic retardation of Africa from the sixteenth century on is attributable first to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later to European colonialism and neocolonialism.
- Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery.
- Written by an economic historian who later became the first prime minister of a independent Trinidad and Tobago, this classic study makes two key points: the origins of the trade in African slaves across the Atlantic were economic, not racial, and this trade helped considerably to generate the capital used to finance the Industrial Revolution.
- Bradley, Michael. 1981. The Black Discovery of America.
- Using diaries, letters, and journals of the explorers themselves and dated sculptures found in the Americas, this book details the daring voyages of ancient West African mariners to the Americas.
- Haley, Alex. 1974. Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
- Drawing on generations of his family’s oral tradition, Haley traces his origins back to Kunta Kinte, who was abducted from his home in Gambia and transported as a slave to colonial America.
- Meltzer, Milton. 1993. Slavery: A World History.
- An updated edition of the author’s earlier work on the subject, this study documents the universality, of slavery, thereby invalidating the notion that Africans were somehow uniquely suited for their New World bondage. In the Preface, for example, the author writes, “The European immigrant who slurs black Americans whose ancestors came to the New World in chains probably had ancestors yoked in slavery, too.”
- O’Dell, Scott. 1989. My Name Is Not Angelica.
- Raisha and Konje, her betrothed, are abducted along with others from their village in West Africa and placed aboard a slave ship bound for the Danish West Indian island of St. John. Here Raisha and Konje are purchased by a plantation owner, and Raisha becomes a house servant and Konje a field hand who plots a slave rebellion.
- Yerby, Frank. 1971, The Dahomean.
- An epic tale that illuminates the problems, emanating from the slave trade and the dawn of European colonial rule, that an African people experiences.
Winthrop D. Jordan– White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
Eric Williams– Capitalism and Slavery
Walter Rodney– How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
Philip D. Curtin– The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census
Gustuvas Vassa– The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (written by Himself)
James A. Rawley– The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A History
Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Thursday, September 18, 2003