Kwasi Konadu

Historical Significance of Transatlantic Slaving

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           The modern world owes its origin to transatlantic slaving, otherwise known as the transatlantic slave trade. If this seems surprising, it is because the overall significance of transatlantic slaving in the creation of the Americas and the modern world more broadly is not a celebratory history. It is a history of greed, immeasurable misery, and more importantly denial. To say slavery created the modern world is to say the historical obvious. But to accept this statement is to confront its denied cruciality, to bypass the idyllic scenes of picking cotton, and to come to terms with the barbarity and systemic humiliation of millions, the societies ruined, their lost possibilities, and the psychological if not financial debt owed to the collective skilled labor force that produced the opulence “modern” people enjoy or envy. And so, by necessity, the broad and reverberating significance of transatlantic slaving is stubbornly reduced if not dismissed in school curricula, institutions of power and authority, and in popular culture. A denial of how dominant cultural and racial norms, elite health and educational institutions, and global economic systems were fashioned permit a convenient separation of the “past” from the “present,” “slavery” from the “modern world,” and “enduring significance” from “slavery.” However convenient this false belief might be, the consistent resurfacing, and suppression, of racial violence, economic inequity, mockery of “black lives,” and the rooting of all these in slavery suggest an importance in grappling with the enduring effects and relevance of translating slaving.

            Though we might associate transatlantic slaving with African peoples, this multi-layered slaving enterprise had its beginnings and termination in Europe. By the early thirteenth century, Italian merchants had established slaving ports using captive “Slavs” (root of the term slave), among others, to produce sugar for export within a trade network that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean Sea, to the Black Sea. On the Atlantic end of this network, Portugal and Spain adopted and then extended the Italian model of plantation slavery to Atlantic islands and along the coast of northwest to west central Africa by the sixteenth century. By then, the “Slavs” and other captives were replaced by Africans brought to Portugal, Spain, and elsewhere through Portuguese slaving voyages as well as Arab-Muslim slaving across the Sahara and through North African ports in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. Thus, the African source for peopling the Iberian outposts in the Americas during sixteenth century slaving was not Africa per se, but rather captive and acculturated Africans or their descendants from Spain and Portugal. Portuguese slave raiding along the western coasts of Africa combined with commercial relations—cemented by gifts, fraud, military force, and baptisms—paved the way for Portuguese and Spanish dominance until the mid-seventeenth century. Dutch, Danish, Swedish, French, and Brandenburger (German) trafficking notwithstanding, England dominated the north Atlantic until the first decade of the nineteenth century and Portugal/Brazil the south Atlantic commerce until the end of that century. In sum, transatlantic slaving evolved to geographically settled on northern Senegambia to west central Africa and southeast Africa, and chronologically from the mid-fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. It is, therefore, more accurate to think spatially of transatlantic slaving as a hexagon, rather than a “triangular trade,” because there were six major slaving zones: Europe; west Africa; west central Africa; southeast Africa; the south Atlantic facing south America; and the north Atlantic facing the Caribbean and north America.

            How important was this commerce and its effects during those centuries and in the regions implicated? The prized commodity and currency were African bodies, convertible to gold, making them literally the gold standard of a commerce on which the world economy ran. Slave ship captains were instructed to “turn your whole Cargoe of Goods and Negroes into Gold,” for these Africans were “a perishable commodity.”[1] English trader and writer Daniel Defoe, author of the famous novel Robinson Crusoe, had no doubt about the centrality of transatlantic slaving to the British empire and the world which slaving built. In the height of transatlantic slaving in the eighteenth century, Defoe wrote, “no African trade, no negroes; no negroes no sugars, gingers, indicoes [sic], etc; no sugars etc no islands, no islands no continent; no continent no trade.”[2] Former captive Ottobah Cugoano made a keen economic and comparative argument about the fundamentals of slaving and commodification. Writing also in the eighteenth century, he wrote, “[I witnessed] my miserable companions and countrymen in this pitiful, distressed, and horrible situation, with all the brutish baseness and barbarity attending it… but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers. So far as I can remember, some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt; but those which they keep are well fed, and good care taken of them, and treated well.”[3] African merchants involved in transatlantic slaving depended on credit extended from European-controlled Atlantic commerce, since guns to make war, trade goods that led to indebtedness to European slavers, and captives were all “purchased” on credit. Indeed, if capital was the catalyst for transatlantic slaving, credit was the driving force that kept the system in motion. For African societies, the impact of transatlantic slaving was far-reaching and as unquantifiable as the number of Africans removed from their homelands first to Europe and then to the Americas.[4]

How deeply were people affected? The impact of transatlantic slaving was enormous: this process, for instance, altered sex ratios and lead to depopulation, created social hierarchies and political fragmentation and mistrust, introduced new forms of domestic enslavement, and encouraged materialist values in African societies that valued people above all. Historians estimate 13 to 15 million Africans were introduced to the one-way Atlantic crossing, but these figures do not include those who resisted and escaped or sank with the ship or thrown overboard, those who died along the multilegged routes to the coast or on the ship, and those who were left in Africa to pick up the pieces created by the forced departure of kin. Of that number, there are only several dozen firsthand accounts of what must have been a brutal experience en route to the Americas and once landed, branded, auctioned, and dispatched for work in a rice field, sugar plantation, mine, ranch, or urban setting. Among those able to dictate or write about such experiences in the United States, all used words and phrases such as “successful robbers,” “enslavers,” “captured,” “suffered in the middle passage,” “kidnapped,” “horrid,” and “their business was to steal negroes from Africa” as representations for what could not be expressed in written language alone. Almost all used the word “stolen” to refer to their or their ancestors’ removal from an African homeland and their eviction from humanity. The leading nineteenth-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass poignantly summarized a wider understanding of transatlantic slaving: “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”[5] Booker T. Washington, a former captive and founder of Tuskegee University, wrote, “Of my ancestry I know almost nothing. While in slave quarters, and even later, I heard whispered conversations among the colored people of the tortures which the slaves, including, no doubt, my ancestors on my mother’s side, suffered in the middle passage of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America. I have been unsuccessful in securing information that would throw any accurate light upon the history of my family beyond my mother. In the days of slavery, not very much attention was given to family history and family records—that is, black family records.”[6]

            Using the available records, it is difficult to tell the exact number of lives affected. Over the course of four centuries, approximately 13 to 15 million Africans living across a broad swathe of the African continent embarked for the Americas, but only about 50,000 went to Europe. These numbers are still being debated, however, and any set of numbers attempting to quantify must be viewed with caution. Yet the numbers do have a place, for they tell us something significant about long-term patterns. The west central African region, for instance, accounted for 45 percent of all recorded Africans who left for the Americas. Almost the same percentage that originated from west central Africa landed in the Caribbean, giving this region and south and central America close to 95 percent of the approximately 13 million captives who landed in the Americas. Perhaps no more than 4 or 5 percent landed in what became the United States. Almost two-thirds of the captives were adult males and 15 to 20 percent were children, most of whom came in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, especially from west central Africa. But if we were to really calculate the number of people affected by transatlantic slaving, that final number, whatever it might be, would have to include past and present peoples in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and in Asia who indirectly or directly consumed the goods, exchanged the gold or silver, profited from the industries and innovation, and cultural expressions engendered by the enslavement of African peoples.

If the number of people effected seem challenging to fathom, so too is the long-lasting transformations engineered by or at least rooted in the transoceanic consequences of transatlantic slaving. In ways that we might not fully appreciate, transatlantic slaving has deep and enduring relevance to the modern world. Three examples should suffice. First, the commodification of a people we know as “Africans” rather than by their own cultural identifiers and the singular story of the “heathen black slave,” juxtaposed to the “free white Christian,” enabled a polygamous marriage between slaving, race, and capitalism. Though transatlantic slaving created “modern” notions of racial ideology and capitalism, that ideology and capitalism did not need slavery to persist, and so they endured when slavery was legally terminated in the nineteenth century, though practically in the mid-twentieth century. Second, African bodies as laborers and laboratories created modern medicine through autopsied and dying bodies, economies through their value as commodity and currency, chartered banks through speculations on their value and insuring against it, real estate through the counting of African bodies as chattel, factories that supported and profited from slaving industries, museums and universities built and sustained by wealth derived from affluent slavers, courts that legalized their sub-humanity, and intergenerational wealth and social standing accrued over the years.[7] Third and finally, there is another side to the wealth and knowledge amassed through slavery—the continuing impact on societies from which captive were drawn and where they landed. In a fascinating study by Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon, the two economists argue contemporary Africans whose ancestors were brought into Atlantic and Indian Ocean slaving show low levels of trust in their neighbors, relatives, other cultural groups, and in their local governments because of the “slave trade,” suggesting its impact reached not only households but also cultural norms, core beliefs, and values.[8] For the descendants of both captives and captors in nations like the United States, the journey from mass enslavement to mass segregation to mass incarceration reminds us of the undeniable and enduring significance of transatlantic slaving in modern life.


[1] Cited in David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011), 68.

[2] Daniel Defoe, vol. 9, Defoe’s Review, 89, cited in Robinson Crusoe, ed. Evan R. Davis (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2010), 26.

[3] Ottobah Cugoano, “Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottobah Cugoano, a Native of Africa; Published by Himself in the Year 1787,” in Thomas Fisher, The Negro’s Memorial; or, Abolitionist’s Catechism; by an Abolitionist (London: Author, 1825), 125–26 (emphasis added).

[4] See, for instance, Emmanuel Akyeampong, Robert H. Bates, Nathan Nunn, James A. Robinson, eds., Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nathan Nunn, “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 123 (2008): 139-76; Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies and Peoples in Africa, the Americas and Europe (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992).

[5] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 40.

[6] Booker T. Washington, An Autobiography: The Story of My Life and Work (Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1901), 32–33.

[7] See, for instance, Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 29–33, 40, 100. A similar (economic) argument is made, through the lens of a cotton industry made possible by enslaved labor, in Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Penguin Books, 2014). On intergenerational wealth and status accrued in the leading eighteenth century slaving nation of Britain, see Catherine Hall et al., Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website (

[8] Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon, “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa,” American Economic Review 101, no 7 (2011): 3249–52.