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The Origin of African Slavery and the Emergence of TransAtlantic Slave Trade

Feb 24, 2022 09:00AM ● By Jessica Uchechi Nwanguma

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the most significant long-distance forced movement of people in recorded history. From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century, the trans-Atlantic slave trade occurred within a broader trade system between West and Central Africa, Western Europe, and North and South America.

 European traders went to African ports and exchanged metals, cloth, beads, guns, and ammunition for captive Africans brought to the coast from the African interior, primarily by African traders.

This journey was hellish, as many captives died during the long overland journeys from the interior to the beach. As for those who survived, European traders held them in fortified slave castles such as Elmina in the central region (now Ghana), Goree Island (now in present-day Senegal), and Bunce Island (now in present-day Sierra Leone) before forcing them into ships for the middle passage across the Atlantic Ocean.

Origin Of African Slavery:

Slave trade is simply the capturing, selling, and buying of enslaved persons, and it is as old as the world's existence.

In the past, an entire generation was usually subjugated to slavery based on a caste system, crimes they had committed, or a debt they owed. Still, as time progressed, these kinds of slavery dwindled, and people began to desire to make more money from slavery. They could achieve this by organizing raids and selling prisoners from tribal wars.

But in the fifth century BC, slavery in Africa took another dimension in what is known as the trans-Saharan slave trade, whereby North Africans, Arabs, Berbers, and other ethnic groups ventured into sub-Saharan Africa and took people forcibly with the sole aim of enslaving them.

The Bornu Empire in the present-day Northeastern part of Nigeria was also an active part of the trans-Saharan slave trade for hundreds of years.

While some enslaved people were used to construct and maintain underground irrigation systems in their communities, others were either domesticated, forced into the military, or into sex troupes.  

By the eighth century, the trans-Saharan slave trade was fully blossoming. As the slave trade progressed, East African slavery began. As these two slave trades regressed, the trans-Atlantic emerged and continued to grow until it ended in 1865, after the emancipation.

What is TransAtlantic Slave Trade?

The trans-Atlantic slave trade, also known as the Euro-American slave trade or Atlantic slave trade, is the most significant forced migration of people in world history. It is part of the global slave trade that transported over 10 million enslaved people across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas from the 13th - 19th centuries in what is known as the ‘triangular trade’ or ‘triangle trade’.

Triangle or Triangular Trade

When a region has export commodities not required in the area from which its significant import comes, it provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above part.

Slave ships would leave European ports (such as Bristol and Nantes) and sail to African ports loaded with goods manufactured in Europe. The slave traders would purchase enslaved Africans by exchanging the goods and they would sail to the Americas via The Middle Passage to sell their enslaved cargo in European colonies. Afterward, the slave ship would sail back to Europe to begin the cycle again. In one particular incident, a slave ship named Zong departed the coast of Africa on September 6, 1781, with 470 enslaved people.

Due to malnutrition and overloading, crew members and enslaved people fell ill, and many died.

The captain ordered his men to throw 132 enslaved people into the sea. This act is known today as the Zong Massacre.

 Slaves being thrown overboard from an unidentified slave ship,  Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Middle Passage, on the other hand, was a stage in the Atlantic slave trade where millions of enslaved Africans were taken by slave traders to America as part of the triangular slave trade.

How the Atlantic Slave Trade Started

The trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted from the 13th to the 17th century.

The first record of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in 1441 when the Portuguese captured twelve Africans in Cabo Branco, modern-day Mauritania in North Africa, and brought them to Portugal as enslaved people.

But the turning point was in 1619 when the ship White Lion brought enslaved people to Jamestown, Virginia, which was a British colony.

Were they Enslaved People or Indentured Servants?

In the past, there have been arguments that the first Africans in Virginia were indentured servants because laws on lifetime slavery, including the law that said children of enslaved mothers are slaves, didn’t start to appear until the late 17th century and early 18th century.

To further substantiate this argument, some schools of thought insisted that the word 'slave' wasn’t used at the time, citing a 1620s census that used the word 'servants' to classify the slaves.

But the letter from John Rolfe (1585–1622), who was one of the early English settlers of North America and the husband of Pocahontas, to Sir Edwin Sandys, says:

 'People were traded for food.' 

Indicating that they were seen as property, the word “indentured'' was a mere underplay.

The Arrival of The First Enslaved People in Jamestown, Virginia.

The São João Bautista ship left West Africa with 350 enslaved people, but due to the poor conditions of the ship, 200 out of the 350 enslaved people died during the crossing.

The enslaved people were not treated as humans but more so as cargo, and were packed into the bottom of the ship.

As the São João Bautista ship sailed to modern-day Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of New Spain (present-day Mexico), the infamous White Lion ship, along with another privateer, the Treasurer, commanded by Daniel Elfrith, intercepted it as it approached its destination.

The crews from the two boats kidnapped about 60 of Bautista's enslaved people.

Under the order of Maurice, Prince of Orange, White Lion captain John Colyn Jope sailed for the Virginia colony and sold the African captives at their first landing in Point Comfort, in modern-day Hampton Roads.  

When it arrived at Point Comfort, John Rolfe, secretary of the colony of Virginia (and Pocahontas’s husband), wrote to Virginia Company of London treasurer Edwin Sandys:

"About the latter end of August, a Dutchman of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Commanders name Capt. Jope, his Pilot for the West Indies one Mr. Marmaduke an Englishman. They met with the Treasurer in the West Indies and determined to hold consort ship hitherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not anything but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victuals (whereof he was in great need as he pretended) at the best and easiest rates they could"

How Many Slave Ships Sailed to the Americas?

After the arrival of the White Lion, 35,000 slave ships followed suit, and this lasted until 1865, after the emancipation.

 Some of the most famous slave ships include:

  • La Amistad
  • Brooks
  • Aurora
  • São José Paquete Africa
  • The infamous Clotilda ship

Did Enslaved People in America Rebel?

The answer is yes!

One of the most destructive allegations made against the enslaved African Americans was that they were docile, and the primary propagation of this lie was Harvard historian James Schouler, who, in 1882, attributed this spurious conclusion:

"he innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity of the negro’

"who, he felt, was an"  ‘imitator and non-moralist,’ "learning ” ‘deceit and libertinism with the facility,’ ” being ” ‘easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots’ “; in short, Negroes were ” ‘a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination."

But history doesn't lie. There are real-life stories of a slave rebellion proving that Black people revolted.

The most popular revolts were:

  • Igbo Landing: In 1803, one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people.

A group of 75 Igbo captives was taken to Dunbar Creek by a ship known as 'Wanderer' when they rose in rebellion, took control of the boat, and drowned their captors before walking in unison into the water.

The revolution was the only rebellion that led to the founding of a state free from slavery.

  • Nat Turner’s Rebellion (August 1831): 

The rebels killed between 55 and 65 people, at least 51 of whom were White. After the rebellion was suppressed, approximately 120 enslaved people and free African Americans were killed by militias and mobs in the area.

  • The New York City Conspiracy of 1741:

A group of enslaved people made up of the Papa, near Whydah (Ouidah) in Benin, the Igbos from the area around the Niger River, Cuban people, and the Malagasy, from Madagascar, led the resistance, killing many White people. But in the end, most of the rebels were killed.

  • German Coast Uprising (1811):

 It was the largest and most sophisticated slave revolt in U.S. history.

About 25 enslaved people rose and attacked the plantation’s owner and family. They hacked to death one of the owner’s sons but carelessly allowed the master to escape.

  • Stono Rebellion (1739):

Stono Rebellion was the largest slave revolt ever staged; a group of 20 enslaved people under the leadership of a man named Jemmy executed some white owners; after about a week of rebellion, the colonists rallied and killed most rebels.

  • Gabriel's Conspiracy (1800): 

Gabriel’s Conspiracy was a plan by enslaved African American men to attack Richmond and destroy slavery in Virginia. But unfortunately, two slave men betrayed the plot.

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 Jessica Uchechi Nwanguma is a Writer, Content and Social Media Strategist. She has a degree in Dental Technology and several certifications and has taken courses on Writing, SEO and digital and content marketing. Her book 'Beyond Agadez: the untold stories of the victims of human trafficking and organised crime.' is available on Amazon Kindle. She can be found online on

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