Many countries from Europe, Asia Minor and America were involved in the slave trade, transporting Africans against their will from Africa to their own countries or colonies to profit from their re-sale or value in use. In the following table, the estimates of the numbers of people transported, the flags of the carriers and their destination is given. The data is taken from slavevoyages.org which is the result of 30 years of research by scholars mainly from Britain and the USA. The records here are incomplete and there are some uncertainties and the true number is probably higher. At least 1.8 million slaves also did not survive the journey.
We can also see the regions from which these slaves were taken in the table below
One estimate by Ralph Austen puts the total number of people trafficking in the Atlantic slave trade at 15 million people. An additional 7 million were sold along the Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade routes.
More in-depth research indicated only 50% of free Africans attacked for enslavement by slave traders were captured alive and made it into the 22million that were frog marched into the three slave trade routes. In societies most targeted by slave traders such as the Kingdom of the Kongo, according to the chronicler António de Cadornega (1680), important cities were “abandoned by the Court and its inhabitants, with [only European missionaries feeling safe]”; becoming a “Den of Thieves and Robbers” (1682).
Missionary Antonio Teruel observed in the Nsundi province of the Kongo kingdom in the 1650s: “a large village, well inhabited two months before when I passed through it, with many residents, but now deserted; they had all abandoned it, leaving a few harvested fruits lying on the ground. The cause of this was (as I heard from those who accompanied me) the coming of the Duke to the town, fearing the extortions of his servants and slaves”.
Academics looked at one country, Great Britain, to estimate the contribution of unpaid forced labour to the 18th century economy of Britain, expressed as a percentage of GDP. The findings are presented below:
Non-African nations involved in the slave trade
1. Great Britain
Great Britain was at the height of its powers in between the 16th and 19th centuries, having many colonies all over the world, which were manned by the slaves they imported from Africa. For the British, the transatlantic slave trade was basically a triangular route from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back to Britain. Over 3.2 million people were bought as slaves by Britain during this period and transported to British colonies where their labor was exploited. Of these, the majority were transported to the Caribbean  to work on sugar plantations; 18% of all slave transported to the Americas. In 1807, an anti-slavery law was passed intending to ban the transport, sale and barter of slaves, but in essence, slavery continued until 1838 under one guise or another.
Initially, from 1563 until 1567, Britain funded expeditions to the West African coast to profit from importing African produce back to Britain, not buy slaves. It wished to import ivory, gold, pepper, dyewood and indigo. The slave trade was initially a small part of the commercial objectives. The first English slave trader, John Hawkins, purchased supplies and slaves for resale to Spanish colonies in the Americas – Santo Domingo and Venezuela. English merchants had found a commercial opportunity providing supplies which Spanish colonies and Spanish ships were not interested in sourcing.
In 1545, Spain discovered the richest source of silver in the history of mankind, Cerro Rico de Potosí. Cerro Rico means “rich mountain” in Spanish. To Spain, faced with the choice to mine the GOAT (greatest of all time) of silver deposits in world history with slaves or make money any other way, it was inefficient to engage in less profitable work like farming and manufacturing things, when compared to mining silver for 500 years. (It is from Spanish units of minted silver coins we get the term “dollars”.) This left opportunities for the Dutch, British, Danish and Swedish to provide support services to Spanish colonies located at resting stops between Cerro Rico, Bolivia and Spain.
Map of the route from Spain to the silver mines of Cerro Rico Potosí
During his career, John Hawkins held various positions in the Royal Navy from 1562 to 1595 (including the Treasurer of the Navy, Admiral of the Narrow Seas and chief architect of the Elizabethan Navy) and fought various Naval wars. The expansion of the Royal Navy was therefore tied to English intensification of the Atlantic slave trade, and wars to deprive either France, Portugal, Spain or the Dutch of profits from the Americas.
Portrait of John Hawkins at the National Maritime Museum, London
Also, initially, some of the black Africans brought to the Americas by Britain were a mixture of indentured black servants and chattel slaves. Chattel slave status arose where interlopers such as John Hawkins – lacking the authority of the Catholic church – had raided the West African coast to create slaves of free people. Indentured servitude was an accepted financial lending system in West Africa, for a borrower to purchase goods, services or assets in exchange for periods of service, much like a mortgage today. It existed in parallel to slavery.
The Yoruba people for instance had three systems of indentured servitude: Osomalo, Ologo and Iwofa. These systems were overseen by West African traditional courts, ensuring that indebted Africans were freed at the end of their period of service. In West Africa, indentured servants were free to go to their own homes after promised periods of work each day. In West Africa, an example term could be 2 days of work a week for 4 years.
Black Africans brought to the 13 colonies as indentured servants were generally in debt servitude, calculated by voyage costs, food costs and lodging costs provided to those black indentured servants. Indentured servants earned their freedom by working a pre-defined amount of time, equivalent to their debts. One indentured servant, Anthony Johnson, once free became the first black African to own land in the 13 British colonies and also the first black American to acquire wealth. Anthony took advantage of a law which meant that anyone who imported an indentured servant into America was entitled to 50 acres a head (per indentured servant) from the colonial government. This was called the headright system. He bought the contracts of five indentured servants, entitling him to 250 acres.
Eventually, due to growing racist thinking and the profit motive, plantation owners stopped freeing indentured servants at the end of their contract, and introduced a common treatment for all black Africans initially in Virginia by passing slave laws in 1661.
Academics estimated that the present-day value of land owed to free slaves not honored alone is $16.5 trillion and unpaid work extracted from African slaves by Britain and the United States is $14 trillion. The total wealth of the United States was thought to be $106 trillion as of 2019, by Credit Suisse in its “Global wealth report”. (http://www.credit-suisse.com. Credit Suisse. Retrieved 25 October 2019)
The Portuguese were the largest importers of slaves and along with the British, their imports account for around 70% of the total sent on the transatlantic slave route. They mostly imported slaves to Portuguese owned Brazil where the first slaves arrived in the 1530’s. They also traded slaves to other settlements like in Mexico and in Peru. The enslavement of Africans was sanctioned by the Catholic Church and the crown as the Pope gave the right to the Portuguese to fight against the Moors and the other “enemies of the faith”. Thus, the Portuguese waged war and colonized many parts of Africa and in this way, imported many slaves back to their nation.
In 1771, slavery was banned in Portugal but still allowed in colonies overseas. It was only in 1869 that slavery in Portuguese owned colonies was finally abolished.
Spain began to participate in the transatlantic slave trade in the 15th century and imported a million slaves in total, with the majority of those imported in the 16th century. Pope Nicholas V gave power to Christian nations to enslave anyone who was not a Christian. This attitude towards non-Christians developed during the 700-year Muslim occupation and domination of Iberian Peninsula. From 711 to 1492, several wars were fought, claiming 7 million to 10 million lives, referred retrospectively as the Reconquista, in the Spanish and Portuguese wars against the Iberian Muslim states. During this time the Pope acted as a unifying force amongst the Christian kingdoms of Southern Europe, issuing calls to reconquer territories lost.
In the 12th century during Muslim occupation of Iberia, 1% of the population were Muslims, 99% were native Iberians, and 1 in 12 Iberians (8%) were European slaves. By the 16th century, Moors had risen to 9% of the Iberian population.
Spain first got involved in the transatlantic slave trade by buying slaves from Portuguese traders. During the 1470’s, Spanish merchants also got involved and began trading many slaves, most of whom were taken to Spanish owned parts of the Americas to work on the plantations there. Over a million people were enslaved by Spanish traders, until the abolishment of slavery by royal degree in 1886.
Two aspects of slavery that differed from British slavery is that Spain started the slave trade with chattel slavery and allowed the granting of freedom to slaves under certain conditions. Britain initially engaged in a mixture of chattel slavery, indentured African servants, convict labour and indentured English servants. Over time Britain transitioned to purely using black chattel slavery from 1661. Whereas Spain allowed manumission of chattel slaves, chattel slaves buying their freedom or the emancipation of slaves from British or French colonies in order to weaken its colonial rivals during the scramble for the Americas.
The French claim that “there are no slaves in France .” This is not true. While the French had various laws over the years that prevented many slaves from being enslaved in France, the French imported slaves to their colonies in the Caribbean in great numbers, with over 1 million Africans forced into slavery in the colonies in the French Caribbean alone, with large numbers also imported to colonies in North America such as New France. As slavery was not legalized in France, French traders imported slaves directly from Africa to the Americas. It was only in 1848 that the French finally abolished all slavery in both the Republic and also the colonies of France.
The Dano-Norwegian realm took part in the transatlantic slave trade from around 1671, importing slaves over to the Danish West Indies. By 1778, the Danish were importing 3000 Africans every year and forcing them into slavery to work on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. On the 1st of January 1803, the Danish law to outlaw practice of the slave trade came into effect, but that did not free those who were already enslaved. It was only after a revolt in the Danish West Indies by those who were enslaved that all “unfree” were freed from slavery.
The Dutch involvement in the slave trade mainly spans the 17th to the 19th century. The Dutch had a number of outposts on what was called the Slave coast which is located in present day Ghana, Benin, Togo and Nigeria. The primary purpose of these trading posts were to provide slaves to the Americas. Initially, they traded slaves to northern Brazil. However, with time, they controlled the slave trade to their colonies in America as well. Over 500,000 people were enslaved and traded by Dutch trading posts.
While the Dutch signed an agreement to end slavery in 1814, slavery did not end till 1863 until a rebellion by slaves in Surinam.
The slave trade began in Brazil when they were a Portuguese colony. The first slaves arrived in 1533, when 17 slaves were imported into Brazil. By the time Brazil gained their independence in 1822, slaves worked on many plantations with over 4 million slaves having been sent to Brazil in that time period. However, independence did not end the slave trade. Wealthy plantation owners continued to buy and sell slaves and in 1872, 15% of the population of Brazil were slaves. In 1888, slavery was finally abolished via the Golden act, but over 4 million slaves had been imported to Brazil, over 40% of the transatlantic slave trade.
8. The United States of America
The first slaves were imported to Africa by Spanish traders. However, the main bulk of slaves were imported into America by the British. After independence, the US constitution did not ban slavery, although some Northern states banned slavery in the years following it. The constitution barred the federal government from banning the import of slaves for the next 20 years. The Southern states did not abolish the import of slaves and slavery till 1805 and 220,000 slaves were imported to the US after independence, mostly via Spanish Florida. Around 600,000 slaves in total were imported to America before slavery was abolished.
The Swedish also took part in the slave trade of Africans in the 17th and 18th century. In 1650, they established trading posts on the Swedish Gold Coast which is in present day Ghana. Later, they raided for slaves in Africa and transported the captured Africans to work in the Caribbean on plantations. Saint Barthélemy, a Swedish colony, served as a duty free port and was a major destination for slave ships. Not only were Swedish slaves transported through the port, but also other foreign powers used the port and paid export tax to ship them out to their colonies. Sweden was also a major supplier of the iron chains used to bind slaves during that time. In 1847, slavery was finally abolished in Sweden and all the crown colonies of Sweden.
Turkey was involved in the African slave trade for the longest time of any nation. The Byzantine and the Sassanian Empire both imported slaves captured from Ethiopia. After the 1st century, African slaves were constantly imported from Africa to parts of Turkey by these Empires. Slavery continued in Turkey under the Ottoman Empire where slaves were captured in wars and organized slave raid expeditions to Africa to capture slaves. 2.5 million slaves were imported just between 1453 and 1700, according to Ottoman customs records. Bantu men and women were captured as slaves for use on plantations and in domestic households. While Turkey signed a deal to stop the slave trade in 1890, slavery only explicitly ended as late as 1964, when legislation was adopted to end slavery.
The nations involved in the slave trade benefitted hugely from it and gained huge boosts to their economy while wrecking the culture and the life of enslaved people taken from Africa. The economic harm that has come from it is immense.
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