Poster of Barack Obama: 'Be The Change, January 20th 2009'

One of the most important legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and also of colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean has been the creation of the modern African diaspora – the dispersal of millions of people of African origin all over the world but especially in Europe and the Americas.

The largest populations of people descended from those who were forcibly transported from Africa are in Brazil, though not precisely listed in census returns, but it may be as high as 90 million – about half of Brazil’s entire population in 2010, in the Caribbean (approximately 40 million), the United States (another 40 million) and many millions more in other countries. This would not be too surprising as more enslaved Africans, (roughly 4 million) were taken to Brazil than to any other country. In addition, slavery lasted longer in Brazil than in other countries, not being finally abolished until 1888.


The legacy of the transatlantic slavery, especially racism and colonialism, has meant that those who are part of the African diaspora have suffered similar problems and disadvantages. This fact contributed to the emergence of Pan-Africanism, a movement and body of ideas that sought to unite all people of African descent, link them to Africa and attempt to organise and protest against racism and colonial rule.

Mainly because Britain had the largest colonial empire, the first Pan-African conference was held in 1900 in London, organised by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester (1869–1911) of the London-based African Association. Later, the African-American writer and activist W E B Du Bois (1868–1963) organised other Pan-African congresses, which were held in Europe and the United States.

In the early 20th century, however, the most famous advocate of Pan-Africanism was the Jamaican, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940). His Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), with its headquarters in New York, had millions of supporters throughout Africa and the diaspora, inspired by Garvey’s call for racial pride, the notion of ‘race first’ and his famous slogan: ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad.’ Other famous Pan-Africanists include the Trinidadian, George Padmore (1903–59), who organised the 1945 Pan-African congress in Manchester in the UK, and Aimé Cesaire (1913–2008), a writer and politician from Martinique, who was one of the founders of the Négritude movement in France in the 1930s.

The impact on global culture

The African diaspora has had a considerable impact on global culture, especially during the 20th century, in the fields of science and medicine, music and popular culture. The most generally recognised contributions to culture came from the United States, where African-American music genres such as jazz, gospel, blues, soul and rap/hip hop transformed and dominated popular music throughout the century.

Reggae, salsa and calypso – types of music that originated in Jamaica, Cuba and Trinidad, respectively – have also had an impact on worldwide popular culture. Alongside music can also be mentioned the influence that the diaspora has had on dance, fashion, language and culture. In these areas, African-American culture has also been particularly significant.


Another significant cultural influence has been Rastafarianism, the religious movement that first emerged in the 1930s and takes its name from Ras Tafari (1892–1975), who later became Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia. This movement was strongly affected by some of the ideas of Marcus Garvey, whom many Rastafarians regard as a prophet.

It came to global prominence during the 1970s because of its strong influence on reggae and, in particular, as a result of the status of Bob Marley, the reggae industry’s superstar and follower of the movement. Its most lasting impact has been the popularity of ‘locks’, a hair style that was at one time associated with the religion. ‘Locking’ ones hair has since become more fashionable and disassociated with the religion, and has gained in popularity across many cultures throughout the world.

The diaspora in Britain

A population of African origin has existed in Britain since at least the 16th century and probably for some time before that: evidence of British residents of African descent can be traced back to Roman times. However, Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade meant that thousands of Africans also came to Britain either as enslaved people or as servants and workers in a variety of occupations.

Africans played an important part in the abolition movement of the 18th century – not only as writers and propagandists such as Equiano and his comrades in the Sons of Africa organisation, but also as participants in debates and other activities throughout the country.

From that time, significant numbers of free African men joined the armed services, and it was therefore common to find those of African descent employed as military musicians as well soldiers and sailors in most of the major battles waged by the British army and navy, including Trafalgar and Waterloo. By the dawn of the 20th century, distinct communities of mainly African and Caribbean men and their families had grown up in many of Britain’s port cities, including London, Cardiff and Liverpool.

The First World War

Soldiers and sailors from the African diaspora played an important role in World War I. Black troops from the colonies were recruited by all the major colonial powers, as well as by the United States and Canada. France, for example, recruited over 230,000 troops from Africa alone, as well as more than 23,000 from the French Antilles. Many Black people resident in Britain at the time joined their local regiments in Britain or the British West Indies Regiment, which recruited over 15,000 Caribbean men during the war. Black seafarers resident in Britain also took part in the war, many losing their lives – over 1,000 from Cardiff alone.

As well as providing soldiers, the British Caribbean contributed food and money to the war effort. However, many of the British West Indies Regiment and the West India Regiments were prevented from frontline fighting on the Western Front because of racist views in the army, although these regiments were actively involved in fighting in Palestine and elsewhere.

It is estimated that over 1,200 Caribbean servicemen lost their lives during the First World War, and many of those who survived received commendations and awards for bravery. The best-known Black soldier to lose his life during the war was Walter Daniel Tull (1888–1918) who had also been a famous footballer.

Tull was also notable because he had been made an officer, an extremely rare occurrence at the time because all the British armed forces operated a colour bar, preventing those not of ‘pure’ European descent from receiving commissions and commanding troops. Racism was a constant problem faced by Caribbean troops and, in 1918, led to a mutiny among soldiers of the British West Indies Regiment stationed at Taranto in Italy.

More than 360,000 African-American troops, including over 600 officers, also served during the First World War, all of them in segregated units. Many did not serve overseas, and of those who did, the majority were used for non-combat duties. However, some regiments did fight alongside French troops and were famous for their bravery. Over 170 African-American soldiers were awarded the Légion d’honneur, the highest military decoration in France.

African-American troops also had to overcome the racism that was prevalent in the US army. One African-American soldier who died fighting in France was not awarded a medal by the US government until 1990. The participation of these troops in the war encouraged and inspired them to make greater demands for equality and an end to segregation and other discrimination when they returned home.

However, on their return, conditions were as bad as ever. Many African-American ex-servicemen faced racist abuse and attack, and in 1919, ‘race riots’ broke out in 25 US cities. Black ex-servicemen demobbed in Britain also faced racial violence, and in the same year, riots and racist attacks that led to several deaths occurred in British towns and cities, including Cardiff, London and Liverpool.

The Second World War

The African diaspora also made a major contribution during World War II, many giving their lives or enduring long periods of incarceration as prisoners of war. For example, thousands of Black troops recruited into the French army, including hundreds from the Caribbean, were held by the Nazis as prisoners of war or simply executed.

From the British West Indies, over 8,000 men and women were recruited into the armed forces and to work in essential war industries, although the army did not create a specific Caribbean Regiment until 1944. Several hundred men were recruited from the Caribbean to work in the armaments factories throughout Britain and as foresters in Scotland, while women were recruited into the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Britain’s Caribbean colonies also contributed food, raw materials and money to the Allied war effort.

In Britain, too, many people of African origin joined the forces, became air raid patrol wardens or made other contributions. Over 200 people originally from the Caribbean lost their lives in Britain during the war and hundreds more were wounded. Once again, they all had to overcome the colour bar. The British government and armed forces were reluctant to recruit Black troops, and regulations were still in place at the start of the war to prevent the promotion of Black officers. Even on the home front, there were many examples of discrimination, the most infamous case being that of Amelia King, who was born in London but in 1943 was denied entry to the Women’s Land Army because she was Black.

African-American troops again served in the armed forces in large numbers – an estimated total of over one million men and women – approximately half of them overseas, but, again, in segregated regiments. Racism within the military meant that most troops were not directly engaged in combat and still faced discriminatory treatment and conditions of service both overseas and in the US. Despite this, some were decorated for bravery including Doris Miller, a cook in the US Navy who received the Navy Cross for his heroic action during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The ‘brain drain’

In Britain, the population of people of African origin increased substantially after the Second World War. Thousands of migrants came to escape the problems created by colonialism, first, from the Caribbean in the 1940s and 1950s (see The Windrush generation and then from various parts of Africa, especially former British colonies such as Ghana and Nigeria. The African and Caribbean communities have also had a significant impact on British culture. Today the country’s largest cultural event is the annual Notting Hill Carnival in London, a festival of Trinidadian origin that was first held in 1959.

The African diaspora has contributed in important ways to the economic development of many countries, as well as to social, cultural and political innovations of global significance. In Europe and North America, it is now common to speak of a ‘brain drain’ of well-educated people from Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, which has led to further changes in the composition of the diaspora in the years following World War II.

In Britain in 2005, for example, it was reported that over 12,000 doctors and 16,000 nurses had been recruited to the National Health Service from African countries, while a World Bank report estimated that there are over 70,000 African migrants to Europe and North America every year. Similarly large emigration takes place from the Caribbean to industrialised countries.

The fact remains that, more than two centuries after the British Parliament passed a law abolishing the transatlantic slave trade and over half a century since colonial rule was formally ended in many African and Caribbean countries, people of African descent are still being compelled to labour in and for countries that are far from their places of birth. The ‘brain drain’ is not just of direct economic benefit to the receiving countries. It is also a form of exploitation of those countries that have trained their citizens only to lose them overseas.

In recent years, the African Union (AU) – the African intergovernmental organisation– has officially recognised the African diaspora as a component of the African continent and has encouraged all those of African descent to contribute to Africa’s development. The AU has defined the diaspora as ‘consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union’.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Diaspora.


TUC book on racism in the workplaceThe Transatlantic Slave Trade left a lasting impact on Africa, the Americas and Europe, indeed in many respects it had a global impact. The Trade and Atlantic slavery in general, had a major influence on the development of capitalism, an economic and political system that developed first in Europe and then spread throughout the world. Although historians argue over its specific effects, it is clear that the slave trade and slavery played a key role in the economic development of Britain and other major European countries as well as the US. Britain’s industrial revolution was principally spearheaded by the production of textiles, and much of the raw cotton for this important industry was produced by slave labour in the United States. Even after Britain had abolished the slave trade and slavery, profits continued to flow in to Britain from investments in the slave trade and slavery maintained by other countries, including the United States, Cuba and Brazil.

In the 19th century the economic interests of Britain and the other major European powers actually led to even more interference in Africa’s affairs even after the official abolition of the slave trade. By the end of that century the rivalry between the major powers culminated in what The Times referred to as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. All the major powers invaded the African continent and established colonial rule. By 1914 only two countries, Liberia and Ethiopia, remained independent. The relationship of dependency that had developed during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was continued much to the detriment of Africa.

There is still disagreement about exactly what legacy the Transatlantic Slave Trade has had on the African continent. It is clear that Africa lost many millions of its population. It also became increasingly tied to the economies of Europe so some of its economic independence was lost. This was followed by the loss of political independence during the colonial period. It has therefore been argued that Africa’s ability to develop independently has been severely hampered both by the impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and by colonial rule. Even after the end of colonial rule, Africa has remained impoverished, debt-ridden and dependent and largely dominated by the major powers.

Another major legacy of this period was the enduring nature of racism and Eurocentrism. In many countries such as the United States enacted laws which gave legal sanction to discrimination against those of African origin, and even in Britain there were no laws against racism until 1965. Colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean was openly based on the racist view that Africans and those of African descent could not govern themselves, as was the openly racist system of apartheid in South Africa. During the 20th century great victories against racism were achieved, for example as a result of the Civil Rights movement in the US, but racism and racist violence still exist in many countries throughout the world.

‘Scramble for Africa’

The end of the trade in the 19th century did not fundamentally change the relationship between the major European powers and Africa. Indeed, in Britain’s case, the founding of its first colony there coincided with the parliamentary abolition of the slave trade.

Sierra Leone had been established as a haven for those Africans who had freed themselves or had been liberated by the anti-slavery squadron established by Britain off the coast of West Africa in the early 19th century. But its founding ushered in increasing interference by Britain in that part of the world.

Britain’s economic interests in Africa during this period – especially what was known as ‘legitimate commerce’ in palm oil and other products – developed in fierce rivalry with other European powers. As the century progressed, the big powers staked out their claims to African territory, and by its end, these had culminated in what The Times referred to as the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

By the end of the First World War, the major powers had invaded and divided the entire African continent into European colonies by. Only two countries, Liberia and Ethiopia, remained independent. In many cases, foreign involvement led to the loss of millions more Africans. In Congo for instance, early colonial rule by Belgiam is thought to have caused the deaths of 10 million, halving the population.

European development and African underdevelopment

There is still considerable argument about the precise nature of the legacy of the transatlantic slavery in Africa. In general, it contributed to the economic development of Britain and the other industrialising countries of Europe and North America, while it left Africa depopulated, relatively underdeveloped and increasingly dependent on the economies of Europe.

It is clear that, through the trade, Africa lost millions in population – those who would have been its main producers and consumers. Some studies have suggested that it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the continent’s population began to grow as fast as that of others, which contributed to its relative economic backwardness.

Perhaps more importantly, Africa increasingly lost its economic independence, its economies becoming geared to production for external markets and being dictated by the demands of others. This was certainly a major feature of the slave trade itself, through which African societies gained nothing of any value.

Africa’s dependency continued under colonial rule, which was itself greatly facilitated by the legacy of the slave trade. Under it, production became increasingly mono-cultural and geared specifically to the needs of the colonial power. Africans were prevented from developing their own banks and manufacturing and shipping companies, and economies developed that were essentially appendages of the those of the European powers.

In Europe, it was a different story. There, transatlantic slavery had contributed significantly to economic development, stimulating the processing and manufacturing industries and enabling the production, through the use of African labour, of some of the most sought-after raw materials and luxury items such as sugar, tobacco and cotton.

Even after Britain had abolished the trade in 1807, it continued to benefit from cotton produced by slave labour in the United States, and after emancipation in 1833, a cheap source of labour was maintained in the Caribbean colonies. British manufacturers also continued to benefit from slave-produced products from Cuba and Brazil and invested in the economies of these countries, which utilised slave labour until the end of the 19th century.

Indeed, as Britain and the rest of Europe became increasingly developed, Africa became increasingly underdeveloped, and a clear relationship existed between the economic and political conditions in the two continents.

Post-colonial Africa

From colonial rule, Africa inherited not only dependent economies but also Eurocentric political systems. These were not designed to deal with the particular nature of African cultures, societies or countries and were not based on the participatory principles of many pre-colonial African political systems.

The post-colonial period was, it is now generally accepted, disastrous for the African continent, which is poorer than it was in mid 20th Century and where it is difficult to speak meaningfully of political or economic independence. For much of this period, Africa has been in debt, dependent on the big powers and politically unstable. Its economic resources, including its human ones, continue to be exploited mainly for the benefit of other countries.

For example, Sierra Leone, Britain’s first colony in Africa, is one of the world’s leading diamond producers, but it is also the world’s poorest country. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and also a former British colony, has for many years been one of the world’s leading oil producers, but its gross national product and the average life expectancy of its people have both decreased over the last 40 years.

The explanation for these problems cannot just be explained by the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade or the colonial rule that followed it. But, equally, such problems cannot be explained by ignoring this legacy and the relationship that has bound Africa to Europe and the Americas over the past 500 years.

Racial discrimination

Transatlantic slavery also left behind a legacy of racism and other forms of Eurocentrism. Those in the African diaspora and on the African continent found themselves victims of racial discrimination and prejudice, which took a variety of forms.

In the United States, those of African origin were legally declared second-class citizens, forced to accept segregated through Jim Crow laws and often subject to discrimination and racist violence. It took many years of agitation and thousands of deaths before the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s changed both laws and conditions.

Africans were also discriminated against by colonial laws, which were based on the racist premise that they were incapable of governing themselves or developing their own land and resources. The most infamous racist regime in Africa, however, was founded on the system of apartheid that was introduced to independent South Africa in 1948. Again, it was only after many heroic sacrifices that it was finally defeated in 1991.

In Britain, too, racism has been a feature of life for centuries. Even in the 20th century, a widespread colour bar existed in accommodation, the armed forces and even boxing – nobody of African origin was permitted to fight for a British title before 1948. Laws against racism were introduced only in 1965. However, hate crimes and institutional racism, such as has been highlighted in the Stephen Lawrence case in 1993 are reminders that racism is a persistent legacy of the transatlantic slavery.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Legacies.


Following a lull after the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, the movement towards full emancipation of enslaved Africans by Britain forged ahead. Many abolitions held meetings to discuss the next steps – one such meeting was attended by 2,000 supporters. Despite long-running disagreements between those seeking immediate emancipation and others looking for a more gradual solution, most attendees demanded an immediate end to the slavery system. The committee was a breakaway group from the Quakers’ London Society for the Abolishing the State of Slavery throughout the British Dominions. It was created to build up the movement, and soon there were 1,200 local societies. Hundreds of thousands of signatures found their way on to petitions.

Further coercion

The Abolition of Slavery Act, passed in August 1833, was scheduled to come into force in August the following year. The success in having it finally reach the statute books was not entirely due to slave rebellions, grass-roots petitioning and the logistics of military control. The profit motive also had a large bearing.

From the beginning of the abolition movement, its parliamentary supporters had been reassuring planters that emancipation would not affect their labour supply. The promise was held out that those emancipated would remain under some coercion. Vagrancy laws were proposed under which any former slave attempting to leave a plantation would be penalised, and land ownership beyond the range of garden plots would be illegal. There was also to be a period of ‘apprenticeship’ (in the Act’s final draft, a six-year term was agreed on) during which planters had the right to the continuing labour of their ex-slaves.


The planters were further appeased by the offer of £20 million worth of compensation (nearly £1 billion in today’s money). The emancipation law, from this perspective, was a moderate measure in that it compensated not the slaves, who had built up the wealth of Britain and its colonies through centuries of unpaid labour, but their former owners.

But the lavish compensation paid out to the latter failed to find its way back into developing West Indian island economies. Rather than using these funds to facilitate an effective transition from slavery to free labour, the planters invested them in the British bond and property markets.

Emancipated – but not free

Emancipation Day – Friday, 1 August 1834 – was celebrated throughout the British Caribbean at chapels, churches and government-sanctioned festivals, some of which were held under the watchful eyes of hundreds of extra troops. The previously enslaved populations also awoke to a fresh set of concerns.

A new raft of law-and-order measures had been introduced. Under the new ‘apprenticeships’, newly ‘freed’ people were still expected to remain on the plantations and put in 10-hour days. Absenteeism would result in imprisonment in one of the many new jails (equipped with treadmills) that were being built to contain recalcitrant workers. Additional tiers of ‘special officers’ and stipendiary magistrates were created to police the changes. ‘Apprentices’ could still be flogged without redress, females included.

The apprenticeship scheme would come to an end only in 1838, after the Anti-Slavery Society, following an inspection tour of the West Indian colonies in 1836, had produced another barrage of pamphlets and petitions.

Economic decline

The effects of emancipation in the British West Indies varied from island to island, but the plantation economy declined overall. Yearly sugar production slumped by 36% between 1839 and 1846, but as output dropped, the price of sugar rose and 50% of the Jamaican plantations went out of business. In Trinidad and British Guyana over the next 30 years, the newly freed slaves initiated a series of large-scale strikes. As a result, local planters and government officials imported 96,850 indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent.

The most positive result of emancipation was the growth of a class of independent Black traders and craftspeople. By 1844, there were 2,500 individuals in this class in Antigua, 6,000 in British Guyana, 12,000 in Barbados and 17,500 in Jamaica.

Policing slavery

In the wake of emancipation, the British government sought to present itself as a roving anti-slavery watchdog. But the ongoing mission to suppress slavery on a global scale also permitted them to monitor the naval ambitions of other European powers. The policing of slavery on the west coast of Africa coincided with a heightening of European interest in the African interior.

The main instrument of this new policy was the British West Africa Squadron. This force of six old ships was unable to monitor the entire coast from Angola to the Cape Verde Islands – the only areas that could be effectively watched were Benin and Sierra Leone. Lord Palmerston once remarked: ‘If there was a particularly old, slow-going tub in the navy, she was sure to be sent to the coast of Africa to try and catch the fast-sailing American clippers.’

There was another problem: only vessels actually carrying slaves could be stopped. Even a ship entering a port with the express intention of slaving was beyond the law.

When African captives were found aboard ships and released, as 35,000 were in the 1830s, the majority ended up being sent to labour in Freetown in Sierra Leone, while the rest consented to travel to the British Caribbean as ‘apprentices’.

Expansionism and patriotism

Some aspects of abolitionism and emancipation dovetailed neatly with expansionist policies and patriotic sentiment. Those like Thomas Buxton were keen to see the regeneration of Africa primarily through a series of trading posts along the River Niger. Buxton’s ideas, as laid out in his 1838 book The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy, quickly gained acceptance among members of the establishment who foresaw the coming of an Africa colonised and controlled by Europeans, though without slavery.

In the wake of abolition, Britain intervened more directly, establishing its first colonies in West Africa: Sierra Leone and then Lagos. This marked the beginning of what would become, by the end of the century, the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – the struggle among European powers to colonise and dominate the continent.

The British carried their new morality with the goods they traded. The abolitionist campaign was taken into the heart of Africa, and gunboat diplomacy was used to encourage African rulers to end the slave trade in their own dominions.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Emancipation.

The Campaign for Abolition

Complaints about the slave trade were unusual before the mid-18th century. Although details of its harshness were well known (not least from information provided by the thousands of sailors who worked the slave ships), any moral qualms were off-set by the trade’s unquestioned benefits.
The maritime nations involved were keen to promote their own share of the trade and to hinder their rivals. In addition, planters and colonial officials recognised that the wealth flowing from the plantations depended on a regular supply of Africans to work on the plantations. To suggest that the slave trade was wrong – immoral or un-Christian – was to threaten the creation of material well-being. Why challenge a form of trade that clearly benefited the Europeans and their colonists?

Yet from the earliest days of the trade, some voices had been raised against it, suggesting that there was something ethically troubling about it. Catholic churchmen saw problems with it in terms of religion, and others were deeply concerned by the sheer brutality involved. These objections went unheeded, however, in the rush to advance and expand plantation prosperity based on African slave labour.

Religion and revolution

All this began to change in the late 18th century. Quakers had been questioning the morality of slavery since the days of their first leader George Fox in the 1670s.The issues posed by trading in humanity surfaced regularly in their debates and writings. In particular, American Quakers, who saw slavery at first hand, were roused to opposition by the campaigning of Anthony Benezet. It also had a wider impact. For example, Benezet’s writings influenced English evangelist John Wesley who, in turn, swung the growing body of Methodists behind the idea of ending the slave trade.

The broader question of slavery and the slave trade took on a new urgency during the conflict between Britain and her American colonies that began in 1776. Debates about political and social rights and who should have them were at the heart of the American Revolution.

In Britain itself – now the dominant force in the transatlantic slave trade – the question of slavery had already been publicly raised by the radical gadfly Granville Sharp who, from 1765, had been campaigning about slavery there. In a series of legal cases, including the one resulting from the massacre aboard the slave ship Zong he publicised the broader issues about the slave trade. But his was a solitary crusade, directed primarily at stopping African people being returned, against their will, from England to the slave colonies.

Thomas Clarkson

During the course of the American war (1776–83), religious antagonism towards the slave trade increased. At Cambridge University in 1785, two years after the Revolutionary war, 25-year-old Thomas Clarkson won an undergraduate essay competition on the topic ‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?’, which had been set by an abolitionist vice-chancellor. Translated into English from the original Latin and published by the Quakers, it became an early and significant rallying point against the slave trade.

Clarkson was then introduced to London Quakers keen to see the slave trade ended. When the same men formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, Thomas Clarkson, though not a Quaker himself, agreed to lead an abolition campaign in the country at large. His was to be a critical role.

The importance of the Quakers and Nonconformists

In those early months of the formal abolition movement, the Quakers were vital. They had an active London-based core of individuals with important links to Quakers across the country. In effect, they put their own national organisation at the disposal of the new abolitionist movement. And that organisation was run efficiently, with active local groups, all of them literate, and with publishers in London and the provinces keen to print and distribute appropriate literature.

Other churches associated themselves with the movement, notably the relatively new Nonconformist chapels. Methodist and Baptist congregations joined the abolitionist ranks, and via meetings held by these religious groups, the abolitionist message reached people normally excluded from conventional political activity.

Indeed the spread of Nonconformity in the new urban and industrial communities enabled the abolition message to reach large numbers of working people – both men and women – who were traditionally barred from such things. Abolition began to seep into places untouched by active politics, and herein lay the basis for the most striking feature of abolition after 1787: its remarkable popularity, which surprised even those involved.

Abolition of the trade, not of slavery itself

The London Abolition Committee was keen to present its arguments to Parliament. Indeed only Parliament could answer the abolitionists’ demands. The abolitionists decided not to press for an end to slavery itself (though some members of the committee wanted total emancipation). Instead they opted to demand the abolition of the slave trade, which seemed more practical and manageable. After all, the bulk of the slave ships left from British ports, and Parliament could regulate – or ban – the movement of shipping from Britain itself.

Yet even that was a massive task. Abolitionists needed an influential spokesman in Parliament, a man who knew his way around the corridors of power, who could impress Parliament, and whose careful judgement would not be doubted by others. William Wilberforce was the natural candidate.

The opposition

To persuade Parliament to end the British slave trade, the abolitionists had to win over opinion in both the Commons and the Lords. But they faced resolute opposition from powerful interests in Parliament, especially in the Lords, and in the country at large. After all, major commercial interests were determined to see the slave trade continue. Merchants, shippers, financiers, planters, colonial officials – all these and more saw their future livelihoods tied to the slave trade.

Thus, the abolition campaign had to overcome this powerful sectional group – which had its own spokesmen in Parliament – and the part of the general public who opposed them. In 1787, the slave trade lobby felt confident that their arguments and their economic position were secure. So unassailable did the slave trade (and slavery) seem that few could have imagined how effective and how quick the abolitionist campaign would prove to be. From 1787, the abolitionists soon outflanked the slave trade lobby.

The public campaign

The abolition movement operated on two levels. First, there was the parliamentary campaign led by Wilberforce, but the real engine behind abolition was its public following. This campaign was led by Thomas Clarkson who quickly transformed himself from a young researcher, initially destined for a clerical career, which had been won over to abolition by what he had read, into a hugely influential speaker and persuader. It was his empirical research, carried out among sailors in British slave ports, that yielded astonishing and irrefutable data about the slave trade.

The popular and influential Clarkson covered 35,000 miles between 1787 and 1794, lecturing wherever he went and gathering data for further use in the cause. He spoke to packed audiences in churches, chapels and meeting halls. At the dockside, sailors told him the squalid details of life (and death) on the ships. In addition, ships’ documents revealed that the slave ships, far from being a nursery for the Royal Navy, devoured sailors in extraordinary numbers. They both violated the Africans and killed off or crippled the seafarers.

Information and propaganda

Clarkson built up a list of experienced men who had spent time on the slave ships so, when Parliament, prompted by Wilberforce, began its official scrutiny of the trade; he was able to marshal persuasive witnesses to add their voices to the abolitionist cause. What those men said – about the ships and their sailors, about the nature of enslavement on the African coast, about African rebellion and the ensuing violent repression, about the miseries and data of the Atlantic crossing all added up to a picture of systematic brutalisation that shocked even those already opposed to the trade. In the process, more and more people were persuaded that here was a form of trade that was hard to justify – even though it yielded such material bounty to Britain, among others.

With the launch of the abolition campaign in 1787, information about the slave trade found its way into all corners of British life. In large part, it did so because of the remarkable propaganda campaign orchestrated by the abolitionists.

Their most persuasive weapon was the printed material distributed across the country, free, by local abolitionists. Tracts published in London were reprinted and distributed in the provinces. Local sympathisers put their own thoughts in writing, in pamphlets or as contributions to local newspapers. Older abolitionist writing was reprinted, new lectures were printed, and evidence given to parliamentary committees was published. The volume of printed abolitionist material was staggering. And so too was the number of people turning out to hear abolitionists speak against the trade. They filled chapels and lecture halls to overflowing, eager to hear the abolitionist message.

A new argument

On his lecture tours, Clarkson carried with him a chest filled with commodities and products from Africa. Dozens of items were paraded before his audiences – cotton, peppers, hides, wood, dye, and African artefacts – all to show that Africa had more to offer the outside commercial world than its enslaved humanity. Normal trade could readily replace the trade for slaves.

The more Clarkson talked to men who had worked on the African coast, the more commodities he added to his chest. Here was a new argument in the denunciations of the slave trade. Not only was the trade cruel and un-Christian, but it also blocked the development of more normal forms of trade. To those who said that abolition of the slave trade would bring about economic disaster, Clarkson (and, later, others) answered that normal trade with Africa would flourish – if only the slave trade were abolished.

You can find artefacts in the theme of The Campaign for Abolition.

Atlantic Crossing

Middle Passage - the European perspective of the triangular trade route journey

The term ‘Middle Passage’ is often used to describe the period that enslaved Africans endured in the holds of slave ships as they crossed the Atlantic. The term, however, is derived from the European perspective of the triangular trade route journey. It does not represent the view that for millions of enslaved Africans crossing the Atlantic was neither the middle, nor the end of the journey to their new lives as chattel in the Americas.

Slavery in Africa before the transatlantic trade

The Africa that the first European explorers encountered in the 15th century was home to a variety of societies, and cultures including sprawling kingdoms and prosperous urban centres.

The cities of Katsina and Kano in what is now Nigeria each had populations of more than 100,000 people, and others along the Niger River, like Djenné, Timbuktu and Gao (now all in Mali), were home to between 10,000 and 30,000. Literacy was widespread in many regions, and luxury goods from as far afield as Venice, the Silk Road and the Maldive Islands were traded in the forest kingdom of Bornu (north-eastern Nigeria).

The institution of slavery in various forms, existed in parts of West Africa before the arrival of Europeans and continued after slavery’s abolition in the Americas and the Caribbean. Moreover, the slavery of the Americas could never have approached the scale it did without African collaboration.

Within the continent, ethical conventions had for centuries governed the taking of people to use as slaves, whose status, in most cases, resembled that of the serfs of Europe more than the chattel of the Americas. With the advent of the transatlantic slave trade, these conventions dissolved. That slavery existed in Africa prior to the late 15th century is a matter of fact, but European involvement would lead to what the historian Robin Blackburn has termed a ‘degradation of slavery’.

The influx of outside capital

The increase in African involvement in the trade from the 16th century onwards was caused by an influx of outside capital, the pre-existing trade being spurred on by the growing demand for Europe’s goods: fabrics and utensils, guns and alcohol.

Dahomey (now the nation of Benin) was one of the largest African kingdoms to arise between the 17th and 18th centuries. Its pre-eminence along the Volta estuary is directly attributable to its trade in slaves to transatlantic markets. By the second half of the 18th century, with 9,000 people being sold annually, slavery had become the kingdom’s greatest source of revenue: in 1750, Tegebesu, the king of Dahomey, had an estimated yearly income of £250,000.

A free-for-all among African traders to capture their neighbours and rivals for sale to Europeans was deliberately stimulated by European traders anchored offshore or in coastal stations with their wares.

The march to the coast

Following their capture, the captives would be marched to the coast. The only reliable European account of the harsh reality of the slave caravans comes from the explorer Mungo Park writing in the 1790s. Of the indigenous slave markets, he wrote: ‘There are indeed regular markets where the value of a slave in the eye of an African purchaser increases in proportion to his distance from his native kingdom.’

Writing on behalf of the Africa Association, a British explorers’ oraganisation Park reported that a typical column of slaves would spend eight hours a day on the road, covering about 20 miles. They were joined in pairs at the leg and a chain would attach them, one to another, at the neck. Park accompanied one such caravan from the banks of the Niger to the River Gambia and was touched by the sufferings of those ‘doomed … to a life of captivity in a foreign land’.

Coastal slave forts

The ultimate destination of the enslaved would often be one of the European forts on the coast, such as Elmina, Bunce Island or the island of Gorée.

Close to Cape Verde, Gorée (in what is now Senegal) had a pleasant climate, an abundance of fish and fresh water. Its history was typical of many of the European forts and castles that dotted the Atlantic seaboard. First claimed by the Portuguese, it was owned in turn by the Dutch, the English and the French. Gorée was also famed among European traders for its many fine houses.

In a similar style, Bunce Island, on the Sierra Leone River estuary, had been occupied by the British since the 1670s, when it had come under the ownership of the Royal African Company.

The fort of Elmina in Ghana was the focal point of the southern trade, which encompassed the area from Senegal down to Nigeria. It was also the focus of the trade across the Sahara from the Ashanti territories to the north.

The coastal areas and tributaries between the forts and castles were also home to many solo traders. Some, like Thomas Corker of Falmouth and Richard Brew of Liverpool, married into local African families. Their mixed-race descendants would continue slaving long after abolition was declared in Britain. One stretch of the River Sherbro was even known as ‘Black Liverpool’.

Within the walls of the forts, the African captives would languish, perhaps for months, in overcrowded dungeons. Conflict between different ethnic groups and between Europeans and their European masters was the norm. Revolts were commonplace, and their brutal and bloody suppression routine. Conditions in these forts accounted for many deaths during the transatlantic slave trade.

From shore to ship

For most of the captives, the moment of greatest terror was when they found themselves crowded together in the canoes that were to transport them to the ships lying at anchor on the open seas. One slave-ship captain, Thomas Phillips, left this account:

When our slaves were come to the seaside, our canoes were ready to carry them off to the longboat if the sea permitted, and she conveyed them aboard ship, where the men were all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutiny or swimming ashore. The negroes are so wilful and loathe to leave their own country that they have often leapt out of canoes, boats and ships into the sea, and kept underwater till they drowned, to avoid being taken up and saved … they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbados than we of hell …

Across the Atlantic

The average slaving voyage from the West African coast to the Caribbean or the Americas took six to eight weeks. The new terrors experienced by the enslaved people and the inhuman discipline that accompanied this – ships’ crews, outnumbered 10 to 1 by their captives, resorted to the use of iron muzzles and whips to exert control – would be a foretaste of the misery that awaited the Africans on the other side of the Atlantic.

Languishing below decks in the slave hold were people thrown together from very different societies, languages and cultures, some of whom had recently been at war with each other.

They were chained together on two tiers of shelves with less than 1 metre (330 cm) in which to sit up in – in fact, the shelves of many cargo holds measured less than 0.45m (1.5ft) in height. Male slaves were usually shackled together at the foot. In theory, each man was allotted a space of 1.8m (6ft) by 0.4m (1ft 4in) and each woman 1.5m (5ft) by 0.4m (1ft 4in). Girls were granted an area 1.4m (4ft 6in) by 0.3m (1ft). Men were quartered separately from the women and children. This separation and the levels of violence and aggression aboard slave ships made acts of physical and sexual abuse by the sailors a feature of all voyages.

Food consisted mostly of starch: biscuit, flour, yam and beans flavoured with palm oil and hot peppers. Occasionally there were concessions of salt beef and lime juice.

The loss of life was high on all voyages, particularly during the first part, when disease and psychological trauma were especially lethal. Amoebic dysentery, scurvy, smallpox and measles were common causes of death. Between 1680 and 1688, an average of 23% of the Royal African Company’s human ‘cargoes’ died en route to the Americas.

When disease began to spread, there was a tendency to throw the sicker Africans overboard. There was even a case where 132 captives were drowned so that the slave-ship owners could claim on the insurance. (see The Zong). In all, an estimated 5 million Africans – 30% of all those transported –perished before they reached the Americas.

Not everyone could survive such routine torture and deprivation, and the weak and frail were quickly broken both physically and mentally. Inevitably a level of insanity grew among the enslaved during the passage, and there is considerable evidence from slave owners that many Africans arrived in the Caribbean and the Americas psychologically traumatised.

The accounts of life on board a slave ship given by the captains differ considerably from those of their captives (see First-hand accounts). Speaking before the House of Commons, slave ship Captain Thomas Tobin likened the conditions on board his ship to those of a ‘nursery in any private family’ where the crew busied themselves ‘making everything as comfortable as could possibly be for the slaves’.

The selling and the ‘seasoning’

The next great hurdle for the captives involved another stage of separation. Almost from the moment the ships docked on the other side of the Atlantic, a majority of the Africans were organised into groups and taken off to be sold, although on some Caribbean islands, laws were passed that people could not be sold within 24 hours of landing.

Public auctions were the most common method of dispersal. However, there were also direct consignments, by which a plantation owner would previously have made arrangements with a merchant to bring enslaved people direct to their plantation, a given number of slaves per year.

Following disembarkation, auction blocks and holding pens were the centres of activity. Captives deemed unfit for sale were classed as ‘refuse’ and were either sold cheaply in groups or left to perish where they lay on the docks. Those to be sold were washed, shaved and rubbed with palm oil to disguise injuries sustained during the voyage.

Following their sale, through a process known as ‘seasoning’, the Africans were forced, often under torture, to accept identities suited to lifelong servitude. Having already been branded once in Africa, they would be branded a second time by their legal owners, who would also give them a Christian name. African practices and customs of all kinds were discouraged. Some captives already weakened by the horrors of the voyage committed suicide. Others died under the pressure of the ‘seasoning’.


With all transactions, buyers soon develop preferences. In the slave trade, it was believed that the Mandingos (Muslims from the Senegal region) tended to be very effective and loyal slaves if well treated and if their pride and dignity were respected. But if they were abused, physically or mentally, they were likely to be violent in response.

The Wolofs, also from Senegal, were supposed to be diligent and industrious workers because they came from highly developed agricultural societies and understood tropical agriculture.

This kind of stereotyping permeated the colonies but was far too general to be accurate. And when it came to slave resistance, all African ethnic groups were involved.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Atlantic Crossing.

Resistance and Rebellion

'Toussaint L'Ouverture, Chief of the French Rebels in St. DomingueAfrican resistance to enslavement and captives’ rebellion against the conditions of slavery were natural reactions to the transatlantic slave trade.
According to slave owners, ‘slaves were notoriously lazy and ill disposed to labour’, which illustrates that daily resistance was ubiquitous. The enslaved also engaged in acts of non-cooperation, petty theft and sabotage, as well as countless acts of insubordination.

Sometimes enslaved Africans would resort to more open or violent means of resistance, including the poisoning of animals and owners, and sometimes turned it against themselves by committing infanticide, self-mutilation and suicide. It was not unusual for slaves to absent themselves from enslavement for a few hours or a few days, regardless of the punishment they might receive on their return. It is estimated that about 10% of all the enslaved took such action, which sometimes involved moving temporarily to another location or, for those held captive in the Caribbean, even to another island.

Resistance to slavery had a long history, beginning in Africa itself. Rebellion would reach its peak in 1791, when the enslaved people of the French colony of St Domingue defeated three European powers to establish the first Black republic: Haiti.

Resistance in Africa

In African societies, there are many examples of opposition to the transatlantic slave trade. One of the earliest documented is the correspondence of the Kongo ruler Nzinga Mbemba (also known as Afonso I, c. 1446–1543) who wrote to the king of Portugal, João III, in 1526 to demand an end to the illegal depopulation of his kingdom. The Kongolese king’s successor Garcia II made similar unsuccessful protests.

Other African rulers took a stand. For instance, in the early 17th century Nzinga Mbandi (c. 1583–1663), queen of Ndongo (modern-day Angola), fought against the Portuguese – part of a century-long campaign of resistance waged by the kingdom against the slave trade. Anti-slavery motives can also be found in the activities of the Christian leader Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita (1684–1706) in Kongo.

Several major African states took measures to limit and suppress the slave trade, including the kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey. Agaja Trudo, the king of Dahomey (r. 1708–40), banned the slave trade and even went as far as attacking the European forts on the coast. Unfortunately, Agaja Trudo’s successor did not share his view and profited from engaging in the trade.

Several Muslim states in West Africa, including Futa Toro in the Senegal River basin in the late 18th century and, in the early 19th, Futa Jallon in what is now Guinea, were opposed to the trafficking of humans. In Futa Jallon, the religious leader Abd al-Qadir wrote a letter to British slave traders threatening death to anyone who tried to procure slaves in his country.

Many ordinary Africans also took measures to protect themselves from enslavement. Flight was the most obvious method, but there is also evidence that many Africans moved their villages to more inaccessible areas or took other measures to protect them. In his Narrative, Olaudah Equiano mentions some of the defensive measures that were taken in his own village.

It is reported that, when the English slave trader John Hawkins attempted to kidnap people to enslave them in the late 16th century, he was resisted. It is also said that communities of Africans who had fled from and escaped enslavement settled on the Cape Verde and other islands off the west coast of Africa. Other reports tell of coastal residents who refused to load slave ships with supplies and of many escapes from the forts that held enslaved Africans prior to transport across the Atlantic.

The ‘Middle Passage’

It is now estimated that, during 1 in 10 of all Atlantic crossings – the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ – there was some kind of rebellion, Africans continuing on board the resistance that had failed ashore. Alexander Falconbridge, a slave-ship surgeon who became an abolitionist, certainly believed that rebellions on ship were common and expected, and the Middle Passage became increasingly dangerous for crews. As a result, slave traders demanded more shackles and arms to hold their captives securely, increasing production in England.

There are several reports not only of rebellion but of Africans taking control of ships and attempting to sail them back to Africa, with the assistance of the European crew or without, and of Africans battling against other ships. The most famous example of such a rebellion is the Amistad: In 1839 (after the Emancipation Act to end transatlantic slavery), the 53 Africans were taken captive aboard a cargo ship. The captives freed themselves, killed the captain and the cook and forced their ostensible owners to sail the ship back to the their home in Sierra Leone. Instead the owners steered a roundabout course up the eastern coast of the United States, where the ship was captured by the US Coast Guard. The Africans eventually returned to Sierra Leone, but only after two years of legal battles that reached the US Supreme Court.

In many of these rebellions, it appears that women played an important role, as they were sometimes permitted more freedom of movement on board ship. On numerous occasions, however, maritime rebellion might simply consist of jumping overboard and committing suicide rather than continuing to endure slavery. It seems that the idea that, in death, there was also a return home to Africa was widespread among the enslaved both on the slave ships and in the Americas.

Cultural resistance

In the Caribbean and in many slave societies in the Americas, one of the most important aspects of resistance to slavery was the retention of African culture or melding African, American and European cultural forms to create new ones such as the Kweyol languages (Antillean Creole).

The importance of African culture – names, craftsmanship, languages, scientific knowledge, beliefs, philosophy, music and dance, was that it provided the psychological support to help the captives resist the process of enslavement. The act of enslavement involved attempts to break the will and ignore the humanity of slaves in what was known as ‘seasoning’. Obvious examples would be the use of Vodun (Voodoo) religious beliefs in the Haitian Revolution and the employment of Obeah to strengthen the Jamaican Maroons in the struggles against the British. Rebel leaders such as Nanny in Jamaica and Boukman and Mackandal in St Domingue (Haiti) were also religious or spiritual leaders. Religious beliefs should perhaps be seen as also providing the enslaved Africans a way of understanding the world and giving them simultaneously a whole belief system, a coping mechanism and a means of resistance.

As in all other forms of resistance, women played an important role in cultural resistance, especially in the transmission of African culture from one generation to the next. They were also particularly noted for their insubordination: when in 1823 a law was introduced in Trinidad outlawing the whipping of enslaved women, it was strongly opposed by slave owners on that grounds that, without such punishment, women would be impossible to control. Enslaved women were often more likely to be in a position to engage in infanticide and in acts of poisoning.

They sometimes developed different strategies of resistance to those of men. Female slaves, for example, seem to have been particularly adept at developing forms of economic independence by growing their own provisions and through trading. This helped the enslaved women to maintain some level of independence. But like the men, some ran away, and women were also leaders of several rebellions: one, known as Cubah, the ‘Queen of Kingston’, was prominent during Tacky’s Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760, while Nanny Grigg was one of the leaders of the 1816 rebellion in Barbados.

The maroons

The word ‘maroon’ is thought to derive from the Spanish word cimarrón – literally meaning ‘living on mountain tops’ – which was first applied to runaway animals that has returned to their wild state. The term has come to mean communities of fugitive or escaped slaves.

The first African maroon communities were established in the early 16th century when enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish. Some of these built on earlier traditions of Amerindian runaways or even joined in creating settlements with them.

In Hispaniola, it is estimated that, by 1546, there were over 7,000 maroons among a slave population of 30,000. Following the division of the island into French St Domingue (later Haiti) in the west and Spanish Santo Domingo (later the Dominican Republic) in the east in 1697, maroons took advantage of the hostility between France and Spain to maintain settlements along the border throughout the period of slavery. In addition, there were maroons in Cuba, Puerto Rico (including fugitives from other islands including the Danish Virgin Islands) and Jamaica, followed in the 17th century by communities in St Kitts, Antigua, Barbados and the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

As European cultivation of the islands increased, it became more difficult to establish maroon settlements on the smaller ones except those with a strong Amerindian presence such as St Vincent and Dominica. The former became the home of the Garifuna, a mixture of indigenous and Africans inhabitants, who preserved their independence against both the French and the British. Mountainous and heavily wooded islands were also favoured – Jamaica, Cuba, Guadeloupe and Hispaniola. In addition, there were important communities on the South American mainland, especially in Belize, French and British Guiana, Suriname and Brazil.

In Brazil, the most famous maroon community, or quilombo, was Palmares, which existed from 1605 to 1694. It resisted invasion by both the Dutch and the Portuguese, and is reported to have had a population of at least 10,000 organised and governed by a king using political traditions drawn from central Africa. Significant maroon communities also existed in the United States, including the so-called Black Seminoles of Florida.

In many places, the maroons essentially comprised a small guerrilla band led by an elected chief. In Cuba, for example, there were hundreds of small maroon settlements, or palenques – stockades guarded by ditches, stakes and secret paths. Settlements communicated with each other, but most remained isolated, growing their own crops and hunting and fishing, as well as engaging in petty trade, sometimes even with other islands.

Maroon communities are often considered important as custodians of African cultural traditions, including language, music and religious beliefs. African political institutions were also adapted to provide a means of establishing effective means of government, as seems to have been the case in Palmares.

The maroons of Jamaica

In Britain, the Jamaican maroons are the most well known. Settlements had been established on the island from the time of Spanish rule, and the Spanish actually released many enslaved Africans when the British invaded and occupied Jamaica in 1655. The British in turn came to an agreement with one band of maroons led Juan Lubola as early as 1658, and by the 18th century, there were two main maroon groups on the island.

The British colonial forces attempted to suppress them in the 1st Maroon War of 1731–9. It was inconclusive but led to the treaty of 1739, which gave the maroons land and some rights in return for assisting the British against foreign invasion and for helping in the hunt for and return of runaway slaves.

The treaty clearly undermined maroon independence and led to the 2nd Maroon War of 1795, involving only one group of maroons. Severely outnumbered, the Trelawny Maroons were eventually forced to surrender and subsequently deported to Nova Scotia (in Canada) and then to Britain’s new West African colony of Sierra Leone.

Rebellions in the Caribbean

The first enslaved Africans to be transported to the Spanish colony of Hispaniola are said to have rebelled and run away. From that time on, it is possible to speak of continual African resistance and rebellion. There were seven major rebellions in the British colony of Jamaica between 1673 and 1686, as well as several others during the same period in Antigua, Nevis and the Virgin Islands. In 1733, during the Amina rebellion on St John in the Danish Virgin Islands, the African insurgents were able to take control of the island for six months before being defeated.

More slave rebellions occurred in Jamaica, Britain’s largest colony, than in all its other colonies in the Caribbean combined. One of the most famous of the Jamaican rebellions started in 1760 and was led by a man known as Tacky. It lasted for over a year before being suppressed by the British colonial forces.

Some groups of rebels presented the slaveholders with specific demands. For instance, in 1791 there was a major rebellion in Dominica led by Louis Polinaire, a free man from Martinique who is said to have been influenced by the French Revolution. Rather than demanding a complete end to slavery, however, Polinaire and his followers pressed for free days for the enslaved so that they could also work for themselves.

On some occasions, African rebels tried to come to an agreement with the colonial power. In 1763, in the colony of Berbice in Dutch Guiana, enslaved Africans led by Cuffee rebelled for the fifth time in 30 years, seized part of the colony and threatened to take over the whole island. When the Dutch brought reinforcements, the enslaved initially suggested a partition of the island and sought to establish an alliance with the maroon communities in neighbouring Suriname.

In the 19th century, slave rebellions were sometimes led by literate slaves or those who were aware of what was happening in other parts of the world and/or had been inspired by the French or Haitian Revolution or the growth of abolitionist sentiment. This was a feature of the 1816 Bussa rebellion on Barbados and the 1831 Christmas rebellion in Jamaica led by Sam Sharpe.

The most important of all the slave rebellions was the revolution that occurred in the French colony of St Domingue in 1791. It was highly organised and took advantage of the turmoil in the colony caused by the revolution in France that had broken out two years before. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, 500,000 enslaved Africans and free people in St Dominque defeated the armies of three major European powers: France, Spain and Britain. They established their own independent republic – Haiti – in 1804.

The impact of that revolution was profound. It inspired others in the Caribbean and in parts of the Americas and had a major effect on efforts to abolish Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and in transatlantic slavery.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Resistance and Rebellion.

Plantation Conditions

Plantations had been used with great effect long before the Europeans settled in the Americas. Sugar cane plantations, for example, had thrived around the Mediterranean in the late Middle Ages, supplying an expensive sweetener for Europe’s élites. So when European merchants and adventurers began to sail and trade around the Atlantic, they took the plantation model with them and transplanted it into a string of new settlements – above all, in sugar.

The plantation model

The Spanish and Portuguese first began sugar cultivation on plantations on the Atlantic islands – the Canaries, Cape Verde and Madeira – then on São Tomé and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea. On those islands, close to the African coast, they also began to use African slaves, which were shipped a relatively short distance from the kingdom of Kongo. The sugar produced, shipped north to Europe, stimulated the European taste and demand for ever more sugar.

But the giant leap in the popularity of the plantation model occurred with the transfer of it to the Americas.

Columbus carried sugar cane on his second transatlantic voyage in 1493. Within a decade, it was being cultivated in Santo Domingo on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by men trained in this form of agriculture in the Canaries. From there, the Spanish developed sugar plantations in Jamaica and Puerto Rico. But sugar plantations really took off in Brazil under the Portuguese and Dutch, the cane initially being transplanted from Madeira in the 1540s. Two decades later, Brazil was producing 2,500 tons of sugar a year.

The rise of the Brazilian sugar industry in the 16th century confirmed the importance of the plantation. Not surprisingly, it was copied by other European colonial powers when they settled their own tropical colonies in the Americas.

Portuguese and Dutch experience in Brazil, and Dutch finance for investment, helped others to turn to the lucrative business of sugar production. The first British settlements in the Caribbean (in St Kitts and Barbados) tried a range of crops before settling on sugar. After 1655, the new possession of Jamaica joined the list of British sugar producers, sugar again pushing aside other crops to become the island’s dominant cultivation.

The demand for slave labour

T he early plantations used a mix of labour: European settlers, local indigenous peoples and African slaves. This combination was rarely successful in sugar: Europeans disliked the work and the indigenous peoples refused to do it. Thus sugar soon came to depend overwhelmingly on forced African slave labour.

As sugar came to dominate the landscape, plantations became bigger. And as they proliferated and as demand for sugar in Europe increased, the plantations’ demand for Africans grew proportionally. Wherever a colony produced increased volumes of sugar, there we find massive importations of enslaved Africans. By 1600, perhaps 200,000 Africans had been shipped from West Africa as slaves. Fifty years later, that figure had increased to 800,000.

This was not true of sugar. In North America, the British turned to slavery for the cultivation of tobacco on plantations clustered around the Virginia, which provided an easy maritime route to Europe and, increasingly, to the centre of the tobacco trade in Glasgow. By 1750, some 145,000 enslaved Africans worked in the region. Later, when the British began rice cultivation in the Carolinas, they again turned to the plantation model and the number of slaves grew rapidly: by 1750, 40,000 had been trafficked there.

American cotton plantations

This massive expansion of the enslaved population of the Americas was all made possible, of course, by the transatlantic slave trade. In some regions, however, the enslaved population began to increase with the birth of children born on the plantations and planters came to rely less and less on arrivals from Africa. This was especially striking in North America.

The rise of cotton in the United States came late in the history of slavery. After 1800, plantations growing this crop began to spread across a huge stretch of the American South, as far west at the what is now New Mexico’s border. The plantation was once again the key to local commercial success. By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the US, some 60% of whom worked in cotton.

But the plantation has a much broader importance than simply the history of sugar: it was the organisational tool that enabled European settlers to develop key areas of the tropical and semi-tropical Americas. And it did this primarily by providing colonial settlers with the crucial means of dragooning and organising unfree labour to raise a host of tropical and semi-tropical crops.

Different crops, different requirements

Wherever we look, slavery and plantations went hand in hand. The latter’s purpose was to extract the best return from both labour and land. But the varying requirements of crops meant that slave labour was organised differently depending on what was grown.

Working in sugar was especially harsh. Planters organised slaves around a gang system. The toughest work – planting, manuring, and cane-cutting – fell to the strongest and healthiest. Other, less physically demanding tasks were handled by gangs of less robust, younger or older slaves. Even the very young and the old were put to work: driving away birds, cleaning and guarding. From their early years until the onset of old age and infirmity, sugar slaves had to work. Sugar plantations also had factories that converted the harvested sugar cane into raw sugar and then into rum.

Tobacco plantations were smaller than sugar plantations. There, slaves did not work in gangs but often toiled side by side with free labour.

Salt ponds, like those found in Turk’s Island (now Turks and Caicos Islands) were particularly harsh. Workers would often suffer with boils from long hours of standing in the salt water. Mary Prince recalls,

‘This work was perfectly new to me. I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in salt water, from four o’clock in the morning til nine…. We were called again to our tasks, and worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils… afflicting the sufferers with great torment.’

Rice plantations rivalled sugar for the arduousness of the work and the harshness of the working environment. But the forced workers engaged in rice cultivation were given tasks and could regulate their own pace of work better than slaves on sugar plantations.

Whatever the crop, labouring life was dictated by the cycles of the agricultural year. The sugar crop took six months to harvest. With tobacco, the process stretched over 18 months. Of course, the physical environment determined to a marked degree the unpleasantness of the enslaved’s working lives. On coffee plantations – located at higher, more temperate locations – work was not nearly as arduous as it was on sugar or rice plantations.

Levels of skill

Field hands tended to be labelled as unskilled, but their efforts were complemented by those of others. The plantations depended on skilled slaves – masons, joiners, coopers, metalworkers – to keep factories, fields, equipment and transport prepared and functioning. The needs of the wider slave community were served by other vital workers: cooks, nurses and seamstresses.

Those who were skilled and experienced in agriculture were often responsible for important decisions on plantations: when cane was ready to harvest, when sugar juices were ready, when tobacco leaves were ideal for picking, how best to pack, load and transport the commodities grown on the plantation.

Everywhere, in all plantation societies, domestic slaves catered for every need of local owners and managers, White and mixed-race, in their homes. Visitors to plantations were often amazed at just how many domestic slaves were to be found in and around the homes of planters and the managerial élite.

Slave labour in the wider world

Taking with them lessons learned on the plantation, the enslaved spilled out into wider colonial world. They were taken with their owners into nearby towns and ports, transporting finished produce to the dockside and collecting goods from the inbound Atlantic ships. Many were simply rented out as ‘jobbing’ slaves, to work at whatever task they were given by the men and women who paid their owners for their work.

The forced labourers worked in towns and on the quaysides, on local river boats and even on the Atlantic ships. They worked as cowboys in the frontier regions – and even found themselves employed as domestics to fashionable society in Europe. But all had come from the world of plantation slavery. Notably, the African parents of Dr Johnson’s servant Francis Barber had been plantation slaves in Jamaica.

The lash and other punishments

Plantation slaves were expected to work as and when their owners and ‘overseers’ dictated. To a marked degree, their treatment depended on the individuals in charge. Yet the most brutal aspect of their lives was not so much personal ill-treatment (though there was plenty of that), but the system itself.

Those who were forced to work on the plantations were considered chattel (items of property), commodities owned by others. Slave owners determined the nature of the enslaved’s daily working lives – and even what happened to them when they were not at work. The lash – both its image and its sound – is perhaps the most common memory of plantation slavery, and critics and visitors were often astonished at how frequently they saw plantation slaves physically abused. Normally such punishment was used to force them to work, but the lash was also employed for a range of offences or even in a cavalier fashion, in the hands of men and women to whom brutality was a way of life.

But plantation slavery did not function simply because of threats or violence. Slaves were also cajoled and persuaded to work. They were given small incentives – extra foods, clothing, time free from work – in the hope that they would work effectively. They were also given land on which to cultivate foodstuffs or rear animals for their own use. Yet violence was the ultimate threat and the lubricant of the entire system, much as it had been on the slave ship.

Personal violations

Plantation slaves suffered other personal violations. They could be moved from one property to another. An owner might, without notice, sell them to someone else, or they might be sold when a planter died or fell on hard times. Moreover, they might be moved simply because the owner had bequeathed them as part of his property to his children. Slaves found themselves removed, in an instant to a distant, unknown location, leaving behind family and loved ones, friends and community. This was one of the most bitterly resented features of plantation life right across all plantation colonies.

No less common and brutal was sexual exploitation. Slave women were always prey to the predatory sexual habits of their masters. Young and old, sisters, daughters and wives – all found themselves subject to sexual assault. The White men responsible for those assaults took little or no notice of the woman herself, her age, or her men folk, or family. Not surprisingly, it was a cause of deep hurt and humiliation. It was also often the cause and occasion for smouldering resentment or revenge if and when the opportunity arose – in whatever fashion seemed suitable.

Family and community

Although plantations were designed for work, they quickly became critical locations for the family and social life of enslaved people. Africans landed from the slave ships were overwhelmingly alone. Some arrived on a plantation in the company of ‘shipmates’ or with Africans from their native region in Africa, but they did not come there as families.

Yet within a very short time, the enslaved created new familial relationships. Partners settled into family units, rearing offspring in their own homes. However basic these homes might be, they became the focal point for raising new generations, born into slavery, who were taught the dangers and risks of life on a plantation and in the world at large. The slave family was the crucible from which slave culture developed. Whenever someone ran away it was often to someone (a relative, a lover) rather than away from their plantation. Relationships between individuals, with other members of the slave community and with White owners, all were explained and learned within the slave family.

The slave family was, of course, part of a broader slave community, which developed its own cultural patterns. Customs were derived not merely from the immediate plantation but from memories and survivals of Africa. Although cultures differed from one colony to another, they all shared certain features.


Africa inevitably dominated the way slaves behaved and what they believed. Their faiths and religions were derived from Africa, though often altered by life in the Americas. Some practices like, Voodoo, myalism, obeah and other practices emerged in this way. But the slave owners and colonial powers rarely accepted such beliefs as genuine religions.

Some enslaved Africans brought with them beliefs not unlike that of Christianity as noted by Equiano, ‘As to religion, the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun, and is girded round with a belt, that he may never eat or drink…. They believe he governs events, especially deaths or captivity….”

He later notes, ‘We practiced circumcision like the Jews, and made offerings and feats on that occasion in the same manner as they did. Like them also, our children were named from some event, some circumstance, or fancied foreboding at the time of their birth.…’

These ideals are interesting to note compared with the slavers views of Christianity or with Islam (notably 19th-century Brazil, there were strong Islamic elements in local slave life).

The faith of the enslaved – and their own preachers, rituals and ceremonies – provided a framework to help them deal with the present world (of plantation slavery) and prepare for the next. In addition, slave religions had a secular and temporal role: devotions and prayers – for better health, for security, for wishing others good or harm – all emerged from their’ own belief systems.

Moreover, these beliefs gave them strength in the hostile world of plantation slavery, offering them a world that was safe from, and secure against, the power and intrusion of slave owners (who did their best to outlaw and prevent such practices). Just as the enslaved valued their own beliefs, so were those beliefs distrusted and feared by owners and colonial powers right across the Americas.

For very similar reasons, slave owners initially disliked and obstructed the introduction of European Christianity among the enslaved on the plantation. When it took root, the enslaved naturally imposed their own style and gloss. Once it began to flourish, it became a powerful tool in the enslaved’s armoury.

This new Christianity provided a text (the Bible), and gave enslaved preachers the opportunity to emerge. It was practised in local slave congregations and was often expressed through communal singing. Here was an expression of the slaves’ secular and spiritual aspirations. Slave religion – African-based or transplanted Christianity – became a powerful means of organisation, communal expression and personal hope. And for all those reasons (and more), slave owners tended to dislike it.


Many planters regarded slave religion as a form of resistance: a vehicle through which slaves could defy their masters’ wishes. Towards the end of slavery in the Americas the enslaved used religious meetings and their own encoded songs to provide secret messages of how to run away via the Underground Railroad. It would take many years after Emancipation for those codes to be shared and understood by the world.

In fact, slaves devised myriad ways of resisting. The most open – and most dangerous – was revolt. More common was the daily round of opposition that characterised plantation slavery everywhere: foot-dragging, feigning ignorance, being uncooperative and ‘artful’. When we add together these various slave responses, a picture emerges of persistent non-compliance, revealing that resistance was built into the social and human fabric of plantation life.

Yet the enslaved trod a delicate line and knew that too overt a reluctance, too bold a resistance, would merely provoke an angry punishment for themselves, their relatives or community. Those on the plantation learned how far they could go and knew that, if they overstepped the accepted bounds, they would face inevitable punishment, the ultimate of which was, of course, violence in one of its various forms.

On plantations as on the slave ships, violence was the lubricant liberally doled out by planters and their managers to secure the obedience and the labour of their enslaved labour force.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Plantation Conditions.

Trade and Commerce

The transatlantic slave trade lay at the centre of a complex global commercial system. It was also the cause of an occasion for international rivalries and tensions on three continents. Europeans fought each other for a share of the trade to and from Africa. They clashed over possessions in the Americas that required slave labour. And they even disputed each other’s presence on the high seas. That slaves and the slave trade lay at the heart of such friction, over many centuries, is itself proof of the value Europeans attached to slavery itself.

From gold and spices to slaves

ReceiptEuropeans had initially encountered the peoples and commodities of sub-Saharan Africa via ancient overland routes across the Sahara and along the Nile. Direct contact took place when, in the 15th and 16th centuries, traders and adventurers cautiously sailed along the African coast, which gave them access to West Africa and thence to trading routes deep into the African interior.

Portuguese and Spanish seafarers shipped enslaved African people to Spain and Portugal and to their islands in the Atlantic, but slaves were only a small part of what interested these adventurous traders: gold, spices, dyes, and timbers, ivory – a host of African commodities – were far more attractive.

But all those were pushed aside, after 1600, by the lucrative development of plantations in the America. Henceforth, humans, not inanimate commodities, were the greatest commercial attraction for European traders along a vast stretch of African coastline, from Senegambia to Angola.

The African coast

The Spaniards and Portuguese pioneered the slave trade. Like those who followed, they depended for supplies of enslaved people (along with other items) on trading contacts along the African coast. Sometimes they traded with powerful African kingdoms – for instance, Kongo – and sometimes with African middlemen who dominated trade routes into the interior. Although Europeans began to build ‘slave dungeons’ and forts along the slave coast – notably along the ‘ Gold Coast’, modern-day Ghana – they rarely had more than a tentative toe-hold on the African shore.

Slave trading varied greatly from place to place, much depending on local geography. Sometimes it was carried out from settled communities, sometimes from forts and established bases. Often Europeans traded from their ships riding offshore.

In 1493, the initial division of slave trading regions between Spain and Portugal had been made by Pope Alexander VI. In the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain was given all of the Americas, while Portugal had Africa and India. Then, in a further treaty a year later, Portugal was given Brazil. However, the arrangements in Africa were eventually contested by the newly emergent European maritime powers – by, in turn, the Dutch, the English and the French.

The scramble to join the trade

Spain didn’t engage in the slave trade directly but was supplied with Africans by various countries via a series of asientos (contracts). However, other maritime nations wanted their own slave trade. The English, for example, established a joint-stock enterprise, the Royal African Company, but this monopoly failed to provide planters with what they wanted and simply gave way under the growing colonial demand for more forced African labour. When a freer British slave trade was finally established – after protracted political and commercial argument – it ushered in an era of massive expansion. Enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic in huge and increasing numbers. By the peak years of the 18th century, the British were shipping 40,000 people a year.

European traders scrambled to join in the slave trading business. Monarchs and princes, powerful merchants and landowners, even small craftsmen and modest property owners invested in slave ships. They all hoped it would yield the fabled wealth that quickly came to be attached to transatlantic slavery. In fact, the profits derived from slave voyages were often more modest than we imagine, but the prospects of great profit lured people of all sorts and conditions to invest in the trade in African humanity.

Goods to Africa

Taste in high lifeEuropeans soon came to view slavery as simply another form of oceanic trade. In return for the growing numbers of African captives loaded on to their slave ships, they had to offer tangible items to the African merchants. Each side – usually European and African, and traders gradually learned what they needed to supply to buy slaves or were given specific instructions.

Arms and metal goods, textiles and luxuries, metal bars – all were carefully placed in the holds of outbound ships in the hope of exchanging them for enslaved Africans. Of course, in the process, Europeans acquired more than the slaves, purchasing other African commodities, notably precious items – gold, ivory – and the exotic spices of the region.

Trading was often accompanied by violence, but the initial European snatching and grabbing of Africans – a form of piracy against them – quickly gave way to conventional barter and trade. Both sides knew what the other wanted, and both tried to trade to their own advantage.

A regulated business

Plantation Token, 1688The slave trade became a highly regulated business, as each slaving nation sought to license and control its own part of it. The trade received formal state backing from monarchs and from legislatures, while attracting little criticism from religious bodies. And those states sought to enhance their own slaving strength not merely by force of arms, but by diplomacy and treaties. Like the Spanish and Portuguese, they agreed to trade in specific regions and signed treaties to provide Africans to other colonies, allowing their opponents to trade elsewhere.

The British slave trade was carefully regulated from its early days. Even the first efforts of privateers – notably Sir John Hawkins– were subject to royal approval. In the 18th century, royal backing (it was, after all, the Royal African Company) gave way to full-blown parliamentary support. Indeed Parliament spent as much time discussing (and legislating for) the expansion and regulation of the slave trade as it was to spend on abolition a century later, passing dozens of Acts to fine-tune the trade.

Similarly, slavery in the colonies was regulated by colonial laws approved in London. What this means is that the trade in Africans and the use of colonial slavery were not merely haphazard offshoots of economic growth: they were the subject of considered political and legal attention in London, as well as in other European capitals.

In addition, the trade was made possible by the development of modern financial systems. Global trade on such a vast geographic scale involved enormous time lags. Slave ships were away from their home ports for 12–18 months at a time, and sugar and tobacco were sold in Europe many months after being harvested by slaves. As a result, ship owners and planters were always in need of credit – especially for the purchase of Africans – and so evolved a complex international system of flows of cash and commodities and bills of credit. This made possible the buying of African slaves and the produce they cultivated and harvested. Equally complex systems of insurance developed to cover the risks and dangers of oceanic trade.

Britain’s gains from the slave trade

We know of about 40,000 slave voyages over the history of the slave trade, and the image of the slave ships remains perhaps the best-remembered feature of the trade itself. Some 12 million Africans were loaded on to those vessels, which ranged from small craft weighing only a few tons to huge ships of 500 tons. The experience of the voyages traumatised the Africans who survived them, and memories of the crossing entered the folklore of slave communities across the Americas.

The ships operated from most of Europe’s major ports, though by the late 18th century, quite a few were based in the slave ports of the Americas, notably Newport, Rhode Island and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. In Britain, the trade was, by turns, dominated by London, Bristol and Liverpool.

The physical and social development of the last two cities was clearly tied up with the slave trade and with the buoyant commerce needed to build, fit out and fill slave ships. The trade gave employment not only to huge numbers of sailors, but it spawned jobs in a host of local industries – in the port itself and also far into the hinterland.

Despite the prominence of Liverpool, Bristol and London, and many other British ports profited from some involvement in the slave trade – some, like Glasgow, through the importation of slave produce, others, like Whitehaven in Cumbria and Lancaster, from direct trafficking in human lives. Between them, these two ports accounted for more than 43,000 enslaved Africans being taken out of Africa.

Trade goods

Textiles from Yorkshire and Lancashire, salt from Cheshire, pottery from Staffordshire, metal goods (chains, fetters, manacles … and guns) from the Midlands – all were transported along the canals to Liverpool to be loaded on to the slave ships bound for Africa and the Americas. Ireland provided enormous amounts of food to feed crews and slaves and to be shipped to the American plantations. The slave ships were weighed down by materials and produce from all corners of the British Isles, and much of it was consumed by Africans or exchanged for Africans on the African coast.

While the slave ships provided the plantations with the African labour required for tropical toil, the colonists needed more than that and so were also dependent on the transatlantic shipping routes for their survival. They required a constant supply of imports in addition to enslaved Africans – equipment, seeds, plants, animals, metal goods, factory equipment, food and clothing for the slaves, timber for construction.

In return, extraordinary volumes of slave-grown produce were shipped eastwards: sugar and rum from the Caribbean and Brazil; tobacco from Virginia and, later, from Cuba; rice from the Carolinas; coffee from Jamaica and Brazil; and, in the 19th century, enormous quantities of cotton from the southern United States to feed the industries of Britain. After delivering their African cargoes, the slave ships transported some of this slave-grown produce back to Europe. However, many more non-slave ships were required to transport all that the plantations produced.

Although it is tempting to think of the slave trade as a ‘triangular’ system, it was much more complex than that label suggests. The term is Eurocentric in its view as it begins and ends with Europe. There were, for example, slave ships that traded exclusively between Africa and South or North America. Other ships sailed back and forth between Europe and Africa, and still others from Europe to the Americas and then back with produce. There was, in fact, a complex mesh of shipping routes in the Atlantic, ferrying people and goods back and forth between all the major points of the slaving compass.

European rivalry

Inevitably, however, the slave trade caused friction and conflict. European rivalries in the 17th and 18th centuries were played out in all the corners of globe. When at war, as they often were, slave trading nations did their best to grab their opponents’ ships and fought each other for access to, or control over, the slave trading sites, the transatlantic trading routes and the much-prized slave colonies. They did this not merely because of the prevailing belief in empire and colonisation, but because slavery yielded such material bounty to the winners, as exemplified by the castles (slave dungeons) on the Gold Coast, notably St Jorge’s at Elmina.

The slave trade changed markedly over time, reflecting the changes in political and military power among the nations involved in it. The initially dominant Portuguese were replaced by the Dutch in the late 16th century. They, in their turn were usurped by the British and French from the 17th century. These two struggled for supremacy in the 18th century, not merely in the Atlantic but all over the world, from India to North America and the Caribbean. Although Britain – and especially Liverpool – dominated the slave trade by mid-century, the ports of Nantes and Bordeaux and, above all, the expansive colony of St Domingue – what would become Haiti – threatened to push the British aside. That threat ended with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the Haitian slave revolution of 1791 and the subsequent collapse of French power in the enslaved Caribbean.

The ‘illicit’ slave trade

After the British abolished their slave trade in 1807, ‘illicit’ slave traders from Spain, Portugal and Brazil, working mainly in the south Atlantic, were harried and pursued by the British naval factions on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, there was a notably British involvement in the continuing slave trade. We now know that, despite the British and American anti-slavery patrols and British diplomatic pressure to prevent slave trading in the Atlantic, another 3 million Africans were transported across to the Americas (mainly to Cuba and Brazil) between 1807 and 1860. Increasingly, it was a trade in children, drawn mainly from central Africa. Thereafter the transatlantic trade died out.

After 1800 in the United States, slave trading was internal, not oceanic, with slaves being moved westwards from the old slave states to the new cotton frontier.

The consequences of slavery and the slave trade

Arguments continue about the profitability of the transatlantic slave trade, but what remain indisputable are the remarkable economic and social consequences generated by it. It was responsible for the enslavement of millions of Africans: the 12 million loaded on to the ships were only a percentage of those enslaved initially in Africa. It made possible the profitable cultivation of key areas of the Americas. It spawned expansive industry in Europe and the Americas, and it generated a complex financial system – borrowing, lending and insuring – which profited the major merchants, lending houses and banks of Europe and the Americas.

It also generated a remarkable transformation in Europeans’ way of life. They now consumed new crops – tobacco, sugar, rice – grown by Africans forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. They also mixed slave-grown sugar with tea imported from China or coffee from the Horn of Africa or Dutch Indonesia, drinking it from cups made in China. Here was a truly global trade made possible by the transatlantic slave trade.

Yet in all discussion about profitable commerce, we need to recognise that not only did the slave trade create desperate unhappiness and despair in millions of people, it also impoverished great swathes of Africa.

We know who benefited from the slave trade, not least because they left behind ample testimony to their successes: plantation great houses, merchant’s homes, major banks, rural retreats – all those and more provide testimony to the prosperity yielded by the slave trade. Less frequently noted, however, is the plight of underdeveloped African nations, and the millions of African descendants, scattered across the Americas by this slave system, who had little to show for their slave origins but their poverty.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Trade and Commerce.

Africa before Transatlantic Enslavement

The African continent is now recognised as the birthplace of humanity and the cradle of civilization.

The Transatlantic Slave trade not only distorted Africa’s economic development it also distorted views of the history and importance of the African continent itself. It is only in the last fifty years that it has been possible to redress this distortion and to begin to re-establish Africa’s rightful place in world history.

The African continent is now recognised as the birthplace of humanity and the cradle of civilization. We still marvel at the great achievements of Kemet, or Ancient Egypt, for example, one of the most notable of the early African civilizations, which first developed in the Nile valley over 5000 years ago. However, even before the rise of Kemet it seems likely that an even more ancient kingdom, known as Ta Seti, existed in what is today Nubia in Sudan. This may well have been the earliest state to exist anywhere in the world. Africa can therefore be credited not only with giving rise to the many scientific developments associated with Egypt, engineering, mathematics, architecture, medicine etc but also with important early political developments such as state formation and monarchy. This demonstrates that economic and political development, as well as scientific development was, during this early period, perhaps more advanced in Africa than in other continents.

The African continent continued on its own path of development, without significant external intervention until the fifteenth century of our era. Some of the world’s other great civilisations, such as Kush, Axum, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe, flourished in Africa in the years before 1500. In this early period Africans participated in extensive international trading networks and in trans-oceanic travel. Certainly some African states had established important trading relations with India, China and other parts of Asia long before these were disrupted by European intervention.

A North African conquest of the Iberian peninsular began in the 8th century and led to the occupation of much of Spain and Portugal for several centuries. This Muslim invasion re-introduced much of the knowledge of the ancient world to Europe and linked it much more closely with North and West Africa. It was gold from the great empires of West Africa, such as Ghana, Mali and Songhay, which provided the means for the economic take off of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries and aroused the interest of Europeans in western Africa. Indeed it was the wealth of West Africa, especially as a source of gold, that encouraged the voyages of the early European explorers.

Calabash BottleBy the 15th century the African continent was already one of great of diversity. The existence of great kingdoms and empires, such as Mali in the west and Ethiopia in the east were in many ways exceptional rather than typical. In many part of the continent no major centralised states existed and many people lived in societies where there were no great divisions of wealth and power. In such societies there were generally more democratic systems of government by councils of elders and other kinship and age based institutions. As a consequence there was also a diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs. In many areas these beliefs remained traditional and stressed the importance of communing with common ancestors. The Ethiopian kingdom was unusual because the Orthodox Christian church, which was of ancient origin in that region, had increasingly important state functions. In Mali, and in some other areas of western and eastern Africa, as well as in throughout North Africa, Islam had already begun to play a significant role before 1500. Most importantly African societies were following their own patterns of development before the onset of European intervention.

Negative views

In the 18th century, racist views of Africa were most famously expressed by Scottish philosopher David Hume: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences.’

Whilst some changed slightly over time, there were still some who continued to hold these derogatory views. In the 19th century, the German philosopher Hegel simply declared: ‘Africa is no historical part of the world.’ Later, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, expressed openly the racist view that Africa has no history, as recently as 1963.

Early achievements

Engraving of the City of Loango around 1670We now know that, far from Africa having no history, it is almost certain that human history actually began there. All the earliest evidence of human existence and of our immediate hominid ancestors has been found in Africa. The latest scientific research points to the fact that all human beings are likely to have African ancestors.

Africa was not just the birthplace of humanity but also the cradle of early civilisations that made an immense contribution to the world and are still marvelled at today. The most notable example is Kemet – the original name of ancient Egypt – which first developed in the Nile valley more than 5,000 years ago and was one of the first monarchies.

However, even before the rise of Egypt, an even earlier kingdom was founded in Nubia, in what is present-day Sudan. Ta Seti is thought to be one of the earliest states in history, the existence of which demonstrates that, thousands of years ago, Africans were developing some of the most advanced political systems anywhere in the world.


Kemet, more commonly referred to as the Egypt of the pharaohs, is best known for its great monuments and feats of architecture and engineering, such as the planning and construction of the pyramids, but it also made great advances in many other fields.

The Egyptians produced early types of paper, devised a written script and developed a calendar. They made important contributions in various branches of mathematics, such as geometry and algebra, and it seems likely that they understood and perhaps invented the use of zero. They also made important contributions to mechanics, philosophy and agriculture, especially irrigation.

In medicine, the Egyptians understood the body’s dependence on the brain more than 1,000 years before the Greek scholars came up with the same idea. Some historians now believe that Egypt had an important influence on ancient Greece, pointing to the fact that Greek scholars such as Pythagoras and Archimedes studied there and that the work of Aristotle and Plato was largely based on earlier Egyptian scholarship. For example, what is commonly known as Pythagoras’ theorem was well known to the ancient Egyptians hundreds of years before Pythagoras’ birth.

The rise of Islam

The continent progressed on its own path of development without major external intervention apart from the Arab invasions of North Africa that began after the rise of Islam in the mid-7th century. Those invasions and the introduction of Islam served to integrate North Africa, as well as parts of East and West Africa, more fully into the Muslim-dominated trading system of that period and generally enhanced the local, regional and international trading networks that were already developing throughout the continent.

Although sometimes spread by military means, Islam’s expansion was often facilitated by trade and the desire of African rulers to utilise Islamic political and economic institutions. The Arabic language also provided a script that assisted the development of literacy, book-based learning and record-keeping.

The empire of Songhay – which stretched from modern-day Mali to Sudan –was known for, among other things, the famous Islamic university of Sankoré based in Timbuktu, which was established in the 14th century. The works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were studied there, as well as subjects such as law, various branches of philosophy, dialectics, grammar, rhetoric and astronomy. In the 16th century, one of its most famous scholars, Ahmed Baba (1564–1627), is said to have written more than 40 major books on such subjects as astronomy, history and theology and had a private library that held over 1,500 volumes.

One of the first reports of Timbuktu to reach Europe was by the North African diplomat and author Leo Africanus. In his book Description of Africa, published in 1550, he says of the town: ‘There you will find many judges, professors and devout men, all handsomely maintained by the king, who holds scholars in much honour. There, too, they sell many handwritten North African books, and more profit is to be made there from the sale of books than from any other branch of trade.’

The North African, or Moorish, invasion of the Iberian peninsula and the founding of the state of Córdoba in the 8th century had begun the reintroduction of much of the learning of the ancient world to Europe through translations into Arabic of works in medicine, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy, as well as through the various contributions made by Islamic scholars. Arabic numerals based on those used in India were also transplanted, which helped to simplify mathematical calculations.

This knowledge, brought to Europe mainly by the Moors, helped to create the conditions for the Renaissance and the eventual expansion of Europe overseas in the 15th century.

Slavery in Africa

Between the 7th and 15th centuries, the external Muslim trading demand for African goods also included a demand for captives.

Forms of slavery have existed on all continents at different times in history – for instance, as a means of exploiting those captured in war – especially where there were labour shortages and an abundance of land. Slavery was certainly present in some African societies before the rise of Islam. In ancient Kemet, for example, there are descriptions of European slaves being branded. Later, in other African societies, especially those that were powerful states, enslaved or unfree people could be found, although generally their status was little different from that of poor farmers. It may indeed have been similar to that of the serfs of medieval Europe, who were required to produce an agricultural surplus or perform other duties for a particular ruler.

But when an external demand for enslaved people arose, some African societies could and did supply slaves. There was, for example, an export ‘trade’ in enslaved people, taking them via the Sahara from West to North Africa, following a similar route to other trade goods, such as gold and salt. Enslaved Africans were also forced to go to parts of the Middle East, to India and perhaps even as far as China. The most well-known slave of East African origin is Malik Ambar (1549–1626) who was born in what is now Ethiopia. Enslaved at an early age, he eventually became the regent of the Indian kingdom of Ahmednagar, famous for his military campaigns against the Mughals.

The development of states in Africa, increased the levels of inequality – between men and women, rich and poor, free and servile. In fact, inequality and economic exploitation were particularly prevalent in some of the most powerful and developed states, such as the Ethiopian kingdom. Indeed, historians generally consider Ethiopia to be a feudal society with many features similar to those of feudalism in Europe – that is, economic and political power was based on land ownership and the exploitation of those who were forced to work on that land.

Trading systems and gold

Guinea Coin, 1686Before 1600, a massive regional and international trading system stretched from the coast of West Africa, across the Sahara to North Africa and beyond. It was sustained by the mining of gold in West Africa, as well as the production of many other goods there. For many centuries, it was dominated by powerful empires such as Ghana, Mali and Songhay, which often controlled both gold production and the major trading towns on the southern fringes of the Sahara.

A 9th-century historian wrote: ‘The king of Ghana is a great king. In his territory are mines of gold.’ When al-Bakri, the famous historian of Muslim Spain, wrote about Ghana in the 11th century, he reported that its king ‘rules an enormous kingdom and has great power’. He was also said to have an army of 200,000 men and to rule over an extremely wealthy trading empire.

In the 14th century, the West African empire of Mali, which was larger than western Europe, was reputed to be one of the biggest, richest and most powerful states in the world. The Moroccan traveller Mohammed Ibn Batuta, when giving his very favourable impressions of this empire, reported that he had found ‘complete and general safety’ there. When the famous emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, visited Cairo in 1324, it was said that he brought so much gold with him that its price fell dramatically and had not recovered its value even 12 years later.

It was gold from these great empires of West Africa that prompted the early Portuguese voyages of exploration.

Traditional societies

Asante stoolIn the centuries before 1500, some of the world’s other great civilisations, such as Kush (in present-day Sudan), Axum (in present-day Ethiopia) and Great Zimbabwe, flourished in Africa.

However, although the history of the continent before the transatlantic slave trade is often viewed as one of great empires and kingdoms, many of its inhabitants lived in societies with no great state apparatus. They were often governed by councils of elders or by other kinship- or age-based institutions. Religious and philosophical beliefs concentrated on maintaining communication with ancestors who could intercede with gods on behalf of the living and ensure the smooth functioning of society. (The Ethiopian kingdom was unusual because there the orthodox Christian Church, which was of ancient origin, performed increasingly important state functions.)

Many of these societies were small scale, occupied with farming, herding and producing enough from agriculture to survive and exchange in local markets. They could also be part of larger empires and, as such, were expected to produce a surplus or perform other duties for an overlord. In short, while these societies varied greatly and were governed in different ways, they were all developing according to their own internal dynamics.

The Igbo people, who still live in Nigeria, are an example of a society that was not part of a centralised state. They ruled themselves in village communities that, at different times, used slightly different political systems. As in many other African societies that used similar methods, everyone was taught rules and responsibilities according to age and groupings – men or women together in age sets – that cut across family or village loyalty. Sometimes the extended family was responsible for organising and training people and for liaising with other similar extended family groups, through councils of elders or elected chiefs. Therefore relationships based on age and kinship were often very important.

Even societies that had kings and more centralised political structures also used these other political institutions and ways of organising people. What is important about them is that they involved many people in decision-making and, in this respect, were African forms of participatory democracy. Religious ideas generally supported and underpinned these systems of government, most importantly giving people their own specific ways of understanding the world and the rules of their own society.

On the eve of the transatlantic slave trade

In most parts of Africa before 1500, societies had become highly developed in terms of their own histories. They often had complex systems of participatory government, or were established powerful states that covered large territories and had extensive regional and international links.

Many of these societies had solved difficult agricultural problems and had come up with advanced techniques of production of food and other crops and were engaged in local, regional or even international trading networks. Some peoples were skilled miners and metallurgists, others great artists in wood, stone and other materials. Many of the societies had also amassed a great stock of scientific and other knowledge, some of it stored in libraries such as those of Timbuktu, but some passed down orally from generation to generation.

There was great diversity across the continent and therefore societies at different stages and levels of development. Most importantly, Africans had established their own economic and political systems, their own cultures, technologies and philosophies that had enabled them to make spectacular advances and important contributions to human knowledge.

The significance of the transatlantic slave trade is not just that it led to the loss of millions of lives and the departure of millions of those who could have contributed to Africa’s future, although depopulation did have a great impact. But just as devastating was the fact that African societies were disrupted by the trade and increasingly unable to follow an independent path of development. Colonial rule and its modern legacy have been a continuation of this disruption.

The devastation of Africa through transatlantic slavery was accompanied by the ignorance of some historians and philosophers to negate its entire history. These ideas and philosophies suggested, that among other things, Africans had never developed any institutions or cultures, nor anything else of any worth and that future advances could only take place under the direction of Europeans or European institutions.

You can find artefacts in the theme of Africa Before Transatlantic Enslavement.

Europe before Transatlantic Slavery

Slavery and slave trading had been part of European experience long before the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. It was most widespread in the continuing conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean. There, and around the Black Sea, slaves were created as each side enslaved the other as part of the spoils of war. The numbers were enormous – indeed as late as the mid 17th century, far more European slaves were held in Islamic regions (where the ownership of Muslim slaves was prohibited) than Africans were shipped into the Americas.

There was, however, one striking difference to the transatlantic trade: no one really associated slavery with race or colour. Slaves could be Black or White, Christian, Muslim or pagan. Moreover, despite the fact that significant slave trading by Arabs to Black Africa had been going on since ancient times, the link between slavery and ethnicity (or, more popularly, ‘race’) – that is, between slavery and Blackness – was more or less non-existent … until, that is, it was forged by maritime Europeans in the form of chattel slavery.

Expanding horizons

On the eve of maritime expansion in the 15th century, European states were very different from their modern descendants. Largely monarchical and aristocratic, their governments ruled via traditional loyalties at home and through dynastic links abroad. The horizons of their rulers were greatly expanded during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. At this time it became apparent that global trade and conquest outside Europe’s traditional spheres of operation (i.e. within Europe itself and in the Mediterranean) could yield greater rewards than older trading systems. The wealth from such ventures would greatly enhance political power at home.

The key player was Portugal via its seaborne expansion along the West African coast. In the Americas, Europeans, led by Spain, successfully founded a string of new settlements. In time, these possessions were bolstered by Africans whose labour as slaves had been confirmed by Portuguese and Spaniards in the Atlantic and in Iberia itself.

Ideas about slavery

What established the case for using Africans as slaves was not merely the availability of Africans in such large, economic numbers, but European ideas about slavery itself. Europe was, of course, divided against itself at home. Periodic wars between monarchs, their nations and their European allies and foes spawned rivalries that lasted centuries. Europeans, however, seemed united on one thing: they would not use other Europeans as slaves.

They were prepared to settle new lands with certain types of labour shipped from Europe. Indentured labour and vagrants were transported to the colonies in huge numbers. Portugal, for example, dispatched boatloads of convicts to its new colonies. Prisoners of war – from the English Civil War, for instance – were also sent across the Atlantic to the new settlements by the thousand.

Europeans were united, however, in their unwillingness to send fellow Europeans as slaves on the same ventures. Although they killed each other in warfare and executed fellow citizens for a host of crimes, they were, utterly disinclined to treat those same people as slaves and transport them to the Americas.

Rivalries and conflict

From 1500 onwards, maritime changes made possible access to, and control over, distance corners of the Atlantic (and even further afield) with the result that European rivalries were now projected on a global stage. Henceforth, Europeans fought each other, competed against each other and manoeuvred to take advantage of each other right round the shores of the Atlantic.

Indigenous peoples inhabited the Americas long before European colonisation. As European powers continued to carry out their rivalries across the Atlantic, expansion into the Americas introduced diseases that were foreign to indigenous populations. Many died as a result of these diseases and ongoing wars.

Europeans however, were unsuited to the tropical climate and diseases and as a result turned to Africa and to Africans for the work force needed in key areas settlement in the Americas.

However, when Europeans began to use Africans to develop the Americas they, too, became part of the conflict. Europeans henceforth struggled against each other for access to African slave markets and over control of the shipping routes and slave colonies. The slave trade thus became not only a major source of European – and North American- prosperity but the cause and occasion of European rivalries and conflict.