The Slave Trade

Memba Ben By Memba Ben, 13th Feb 2017 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>History

Seeing that it's Black History Month, I figured that I could look back at a pivotal time in black history, the Atlantic Slave Trade. This look back is done with the aim of not just showing how far black people have come, but society as a whole.

Now I've been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. - Harriet Tubman

With the emergence of naval transportation, society began to expand in ways previously unimagined. People were exposed to new cultures and customs that blew away previous misconceptions about how the world was, marking an end of isolation for some societies and an increase in intersocietal contact for most others.

Initially, the Europeans wanted to find new and profitable commercial opportunities outside Europe that were not controlled by the Muslim Empire of the Middle East, which was viewed as a threat to Christianity (Europe was predominantly Roman Catholic at the time).

Once the colonial powers began to set sail and discovered new lands that weren’t under the grip of the Muslim Empire, they began to migrate to and settle in these lands. When they settled in and found out that these lands were potential revenue streams for their homelands economies, they began establishing plantations.

Figuring they knew the land best, the settlers tried using locals as slaves but soon found out that their plan wouldn’t work as the locals were familiar with their surroundings, which made it easier for them to escape.

Interestingly enough, in the beginning stages of the slave trade, the settlers didn’t actually capture any slaves. They entered into an uneasy alliance with local chiefs and kings, where they would exchange goods that the locals never had (e.g. clothing) for raw materials and human resources (i.e. slaves).

Eventually, the efficiency of these colonized lands led to the demand for slaves in Europe, which led to the shipment of locals to serve as slaves in Europe. However a problem arose that once the locals got there, they found it difficult to acclimatize to Europe and began to die out in large numbers.

The Europeans knew that they needed a different supply of workers. Workers who weren’t susceptible to disease, who could handle the radical environmental change, and workers who wouldn’t be able to run away.

There was no way in hell that the larger European powers could convince the smaller European states to come over and start working as the political implications would be detrimental. Asia was too far away, and in any case, much of Asia was under the control of the Muslim Empire so there was no chance that the ME would allow their European rivals to export large amounts of their people to go work for them.

This left Africa to be the best alternative. Africa was close enough to both Europe and the New World, Africans had already been in some contact with Europeans and the diseases they brought along, and showed immunity and didn’t have the strength to oppose the European powers. Another reason why Africans were used for slavery because they were easier to buy. As mentioned earlier, during the beginning phases of the Slave Trade, Africans were willing to sell other Africans as slaves to Europeans because they had their own system of slavery but slavery in Africa was a lot different than what the idea of slavery was considered in that time. If you were a slave under African rules, you were only a slave for a period of time. So at first, Africans had very different expectations of what selling someone into slavery meant but after Africans became aware of the world’s idea of slavery, they would kidnap people to sell them to Europeans for money.

Through the 1500s and 1600s, the slave trade became progressively more and more debilitating. But from the seventeenth century onwards; slaves became the focus of trade between Europe and Africa. The numbers of slaves imported across the Atlantic Ocean steadily increased, from approximately 5,000 slaves a year in the sixteenth century to over 100,000 slaves a year by the end of the eighteenth century.

It was another 100 years before the British parliament, due mainly to the efforts of William Wilberforce, began to consider abolition of the trade. It took Wilberforce 20 years to get Parliament to agree; and in 1807 Britain ceased to engage in the trade.

Because the British Empire were at the forefront of the worlds economy, the other European nations had to follow through or they would risk sanctions – which they did, although some less willingly than others. Eventually, the last slave ship sailed in the 1880s.

While the British Empire could be given credit for eventually ending slavery, it was far from the humane decision some historians make it out to be. The British no longer needed slaves, having moved on to an industrial economy where slave labor was actually detrimental to economic performance.

It was a calculated, economic move that happened to benefit the oppressed.

When reading accounts of how slaves were treated, it is clear to see that they were thought of as less than human. The slave ship owners packed in as many slaves into their vessels as they could and it was all for a bigger profit. A person could read accounts of people finding slaves on shelves across the holds which allowed no room to stand, or even to kneel. The voyages lasted anything from three weeks to two months or more, depending on the weather; and fever and hunger were prominent in addition to the terrible living conditions. Large numbers died before arrival.

Why were they thought of as less than human?

Simply because they were different. Any culture that wasn't civilized in the way that Europeans understood it at that time was considered savage. When Europeans encountered these various cultures, they saw them as uncultured monsters and deviants. Indigenous cultures had been chugging along long before the arrival of the colonial powers. When colonists landed, they came to experience a culture shock and began “reforming the unsaved” by stripping them of their dignity and identity and began molding them to fit the image of what they believed was culturally acceptable. Thus came the the explanation that minorities somehow deserved to be slaves, or that such was their place in the natural order of things.

The Atlantic Slave Trade dehumanized people, reinforced the idea of social classes, killed cultural identities, and encouraged the continuation of slavery for financial gains.

It was the largest human trafficking trade in history and all its crimes were forgiven with an apology.

While the descendants of the people who were responsible cannot be blamed for things that happened before their time, let us not forget what happened and the extent of the damage caused with the hope that all people can understand where society was at one point and appreciate how far it has come along and how much it will continue to grow.


Slave Trade, Slave Trading, Slavery

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