Atlantic slave trade


The triangular trade, also known as the Atlantic trade or the Western trade, is a “slave trade” linking Europe, Africa and America, for the deportation of black slaves, who were first bartered in Africa for European products (textiles, arms) and then in America for colonial raw materials (sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, tobacco).

Geographically, Rio de Janeiro was the first slave port in the world, ahead of Liverpool and Nantes. Most of the coasts of West Africa were thus linked to the Caribbean, Brazil and the southern United States, the Mascarene Islands being also concerned by the Eastern slave trade.

The triangular trade was very concentrated in time: it grew in the eighteenth century, especially from 1705, then fell after the right of visit of foreign ships, imposed by the English in 1823 thanks to the domination of the seas by the Royal Navy, after having negotiated the previous years of international treaties to make effective the abolition of the slave trade in the early nineteenth century. Shortly afterwards, slavery was abolished in the English colonial empire and during the 1848 Revolution in France. It then continued in the USA, Cuba and Brazil, but mainly with slaves born in the country.

The preparation of a French slave trade expedition in the 18th century

The outfitting of a typical 18th century slave ship required a large sum of money: some 250,000 pounds in France, the value of a mansion in an elegant Paris street such as rue Saint-Honoré. It was three times the value of a ship of the same tonnage sailing straight to the islands. To finance their expedition, the shipowners shared the financial risks. They called on a number of people to take shares in the company. Called shareholders or associates, the latter could be very numerous. In France, ship owners often found capital from their friends, acquaintances and relatives.

The choice of the ship depended on the strategy of the ship owner. If he opted for a fast trip, then the ship had to be thin and fast. If he wanted to be economical, a ship at the end of its career could be suitable.

The average tonnage of the slave ship was often greater than that of the ships destined for the islands.

The slave ship also had to respond to imperatives:

Between 1749 and 1754, the average tonnage of Nantes slave ships (187 observations) was between 140 and 200 tons.

The goods transported had to be sufficiently numerous and diversified (cocoa, coffee…). The European ships carried in their holds raw textiles, finished textiles, weapons, firearms, wines and spirits, raw raw materials, semi-finished or finished products, fancy goods and ornaments, volatile consumables, monetary instruments, gift items and customary payments.

The number of crewmen on a slave ship was twice as large as on other merchant ships of the same tonnage. In France, there were 20 to 25 men per 100 tons, or one sailor for every 10 captives. The crew was made up of young people, novices, sometimes shipowners” sons, uprooted people and adventurers of all kinds.

For the success of a slave trade expedition, four men were particularly important:

In order to carry out a slave trade expedition, the shipowner appointed a captain. He did not hesitate to give the captain a share in the profits of the expedition in addition to the bonuses. The captain had to combine several skills:

Initially, in 1448, Henry the Navigator ordered the establishment of commercial relations with the Africans, but the Portuguese soon launched military expeditions along the rivers of Angola that allowed them to capture slaves and then arm intermediaries to whom they then subcontracted the capture or purchase of their victims.

The lançados, half-breeds of Portuguese, acted as intermediaries between Western and African slave traders from the last third of the sixteenth century in Gambia and Liberia. Other lançados had established themselves in the kingdom of Dahomey. In the nineteenth century, their role as middlemen and slave producers was very important there, especially when Francisco Felix da Souza obtained from King Ghézo, in 1818, the office of “Chacha” (head of trade for the kingdom of Dahomey).

We must not forget the Arab traffickers, very active for centuries in the slave trade, who could also sell slaves to Europeans, even on the west coast of Africa.

According to Jamaican-American sociologist Orlando Patterson (en) (1940-), the main modalities of enslavement were capture in war, abduction, tribute and tax payments, debt, punishment for crimes, abandonment and sale of children, voluntary enslavement, and birth.

The comparison of several sources shows that there could be, according to the regions, one or several predominant modes of reduction in servitude:

The slave exchange

The exchanges were made either on land or on the boat. In both cases, the modalities of exchange between African and European slave traders had varied little over the centuries. The European merchandise was displayed in front of the African brokers and intermediaries, and then the European slave traders paid customs, i.e., anchorage and trade taxes. Then the two parties agreed on the basic value of a captive. This bargaining was bitterly debated.

It was not until the nineteenth century that Western fiat currencies were introduced into sub-Saharan Africa. These included the American dollar, the piaster and the Maria Theresa thaler.

Before, African brokers used their own unit of account such as the bar in Senegambia or the ounce in Ouidah. For European goods, they did not take into account Western prices.

In some regions, it was the choice in the assortment that determined the value of a batch of slaves. In 1724, in the Senegal River region, 50 captives were traded for :

In other regions, the price was set in local units of account. For example, in Ouidah a cannon was equivalent to a dozen slaves, in Douala there are iron bars and copper pots that served as currency, and in the museum in Banjul there is a table that converts a kilo of slaves into pistols, crystals or clothing. But for Western slave traders, the cost of a slave could easily vary. In 1773, in Ouidah, the price of a male captive was set at 11 ounces. At this value, the goods exchanged were different depending on the broker:

Prices had evolved over the four centuries of the Western slave trade.

The arrival of the French and English in 1674 on the coasts of Africa, until then the preserve of the Dutch, caused a sudden rise in the price of slaves, which increased sixfold between the middle of the seventeenth century and 1712, leading to the development of new supply routes within the continent, which weakened traditional African societies.

The mass arrival of new slaves in the West Indies at the same time lowered their purchase price by the sugar cane planters, and increased production, which had the effect of lowering the price of this commodity on the world market and encouraging its consumption, with the consequence of an immense development of the sugar economy and the slave trade.

Prices had evolved over the four centuries of the Western slave trade, both on the English and French sides.

If the ship belonged to a company, it went to the trading posts belonging to their nation. There, captives were stored for deportation. With the free trade, the shipowner determined where the ship would sail: in the best case, the ship sailed within a predefined area; in the worst case, the ship sailed slowly between each slave trade center (also called “flying trade”), from Senegambia to Gabon and beyond.

The duration of the cabotage very frequently exceeded three months.

The boarding of the captives was done in small groups of four to six people. Some preferred to jump and drown rather than suffer the fate they imagined: they believed that the whites would eat them.

As soon as they were on board, the men were separated from the women and children. They were chained two by two by the ankles and those who resisted were shackled at the wrists.

Crossing the Atlantic

The historian and former colonial administrator Hubert Deschamps (1900-1979) described the Atlantic crossing as a “black passage”.

The term Middle Passage means the same thing but refers to the central, transatlantic part of the Triangular Trade.

The crossing usually lasted between one and three months. The average duration of a crossing was 66 and a half days. But depending on the departure and arrival points, the duration could be very different. Thus, the Dutch took 71 to 81 days to reach the West Indies while the Brazilians made Luanda-Brazil in 35 days. Before starting the crossing, it often happened that the slave ship anchored in the islands of Principe and São Tomé. Indeed, the captives were exhausted by a long stay, either in the baracons, or in the case of itinerant trade under sail. The women and children were parked on the forecastle while the men were on the forecastle. The area of the forecastle was greater than that of the after forecastle. They were separated by the railing.

The captives were locked up two by two. They slept naked on the boards. To gain more surface area, the carpenter built a scaffold, a false bridge, on the sides. The rate of overcrowding was relatively high. In a volume representing 1.44 m3 (i.e. a “barrel of bulk”, 170×160×53), the Portuguese placed up to five adults, the British and the French, from two to three. For Nantes slave traders, between 1707 and 1793, the general ratio between tonnage and number of Blacks can be reduced to an average of 1.41.

The Franco-Italian slave trader Theophilus Conneau testified in 1854: “Two of the officers are responsible for stowing the men. At sunset, the lieutenant and his first mate go down, whip in hand, and put the Negroes in place for the night. Those on the starboard side are stowed like spoons, as the saying goes, facing forward and fitting together. On the port side, they face aft. This position is considered preferable because it allows the heart to beat more freely.

On the other hand, in case of bad weather and storms, the deportees remained confined in steerage. There was no emptying, no body washing, no floor cleaning. The contents of the tanks flowed over the boards of steerage, mingled with rotten things, with the fumes of those who were seasick, with vomit, with the “flow of the belly, white or red”. All the hatches could be closed. The darkness, the air made unbreathable by the overturning of the waste bins, the rolling of the ship that made the naked bodies rub against the planks, the belief that the white slavers were cannibalizing the captives terrorized and weakened them.

Some of them succeeded:

But most of the time, revolts were put down and the leaders were used as an example: they were publicly beaten and hanged, or worse. Some of them could be victims of barbaric acts:

Until 1750, the most active period, it remains close to one in six.

Children under 15 years of age were more fragile than men. Women were more resistant than men.

Sugar cane, where productivity and profitability can be maximized, is the crop that consumes the most slaves and wears them out the fastest. Planters assigned the youngest slaves to this crop, who were whipped when productivity slowed.

The sugar revolution began in Brazil in the 1600s, and then spread to the Caribbean from the third third of the 17th century. Lacking Amerindian slaves, the Portuguese began importing slaves from Africa in the late 16th century. This encouraged miscegenation, while some runaway slaves founded quilombos. Around 1580, fugitive slaves started a millenarian and syncretic movement, influenced by Christianity, in the Bay of All Saints, Bahia: the Santidade de Jaguaripe was suppressed with the help of the Jesuits and the Roman Inquisition.

The large plantations (fazendas) cultivated for export. The work is simpler than for tobacco or cotton. Slaves cut the cane with machetes before transporting it by oxcart to the mills.

The typical plantation, with an area of 375 hectares, included 120 slaves, 40 oxen, a large house, commons and huts for the slaves.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the culture of coffee was developing.

The slaves in the plantations of the eighteenth century

In the 18th century, on French sugar plantations, it is often believed that most slaves were uniformly subjected to treatment of a gratuitous cruelty that would exceed comprehension. However, it would be against the interests of the master to damage his work tool, especially since he often had to buy them at a high price. The master therefore kept an eye on the health of the slaves. The Black Code also regulated the treatment of captives. Thus, the masters were obliged to educate and evangelize the slaves. On the other hand, it also provided for a range of corporal punishments (amputation, execution).

The moguls, or new arrivals, were not immediately put to work. For a maximum of six months, they were put aside to acclimatize.

Slave mortality on 18th century plantations

At the end of the eighteenth century, in Guadeloupe, the mortality rate of slaves oscillated between 30 and 50 per thousand. In metropolitan France, the mortality rate was between 30 and 38 per thousand. Three factors explained these differences between the metropolis and the French West Indies:

Proportion of Blacks and Whites in the French West Indies

The return to Europe

The slave traders returned to Europe with sugar cane and gold, or trade goods, corresponding to the sale of slaves. But also with so-called “high value” products (cotton, sugar cane, tobacco and precious metals).

First stage, from the 15th to the mid-17th century

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to venture to the Atlantic coast of Africa. Several factors contributed to this:

In 1441, Antao Gonçalves captured black Africans, Azenègues, who were offered as trophies to Prince Henry. This event is considered the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. But at the time, this episode was insignificant. Indeed, for several decades, the trans-Saharan trade had been providing Portugal with black slaves. The Portuguese continued the raids. These provided an immediate profit and made the expeditions profitable.

A new method of obtaining captives took shape very early, the trade. As early as 1446, Antao Gonçalves bought slaves. In 1448, 1,000 captives were deported to Portugal and the Portuguese islands (the Azores and Madeira). In the 1450s, the Venetian Ca”da Mosto received 10 to 15 slaves in “Guinea” in exchange for a horse. He tried to make contact with Sonni Ali Ber, the emperor of the Songhai. These efforts were in vain.

Assuming Portuguese success, the Castilians and Genoese launched their own expeditions. They were countered by Portuguese diplomacy.

The Portuguese had several objectives.

The regulations regarding shipments changed: any imported slave had to be landed in Lisbon (1473) and any ship leaving for Africa had to register in Lisbon (1481). The Portuguese began to establish themselves on several points of the African coast. In 1461, the first trading post and the first fort were completed in Arguin. In 1462, they settled in the Cape Verde Islands. In 1481, the construction of the fortress of El Mina began. The local prince, Ansa de Casamance, took a dim view of this new building. In 1486, they were on the island of Sao Tome.

These expeditions were often brilliant commercial successes. The Portuguese were very good middlemen and, thanks to their caravels, they were able to transport all sorts of goods along the African coast. They were especially interested in gold, ivory and Guinea seed. But slaves were becoming more and more important. Indeed, from 1475 onwards, the Portuguese provided slaves to the Akans in Elmina and the successful planting of sugar cane in Madeira (1452) and then in Sao Tome (1486) required an increasing number of slaves.

The goods exchanged with the African chiefs came from all over Europe and the Mediterranean (fabrics from Flanders and France, wheat from Northern Europe, bracelets from Bavaria, glass beads, wine, weapons, iron bars).

The Portuguese also had great political success. In Africa, they established commercial relations with two African kingdoms. In 1485, Cão had talks with Nzinga, the king of Kongo. He returned to Portugal with slaves and an emissary. In 1486, Joao Afonso Aveiro entered the kingdom of Benin. In Europe, in 1474, the prince claimed and obtained the ownership of Africa. In 1479, the Spaniards stopped their expeditions to Africa. They recognized the Portuguese monopoly. However, there was a political setback. In 1486, the Portuguese helped King Bemoin in Senegal. But he was deposed and executed.

The Oba of Benin finally prohibited the export of captives. For copper, the Portuguese obtained supplies from the Congo.

Unable to provide enough slaves to its colonies because of the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal, Spain set up an asiento, a privilege by which the beneficiary undertook to provide a certain number of slaves to the Spanish colonies. In return, he was in a monopoly situation: Spain agreed that the empire would buy captives only from the holders of the asiento. The asiento was thus granted in turn to the Portuguese, then to the Genoese (and their Company of the Gates), to the Dutch, to the French Company of Guinea, and to the English.

Then came the Dutch, the English and the French. They traded with the Africans for gum, gold, pepper, ivory… and slaves.

However, despite the papal bulls, the French and the English made some expeditions on the coasts of Africa, to the great despair of the Portuguese.

The trade on the African coast was structured very slowly.

Around 1475, the Portuguese bought slaves in the Gulf of Benin. The Ijos and Itsekiris engaged in this trade. The slaves they traded were either purchased inland or were convicted criminals. Some of the slaves were taken to Elmina. They were sold to other Africans for gold.

In 1485, the Portuguese bought the first slaves in Congo. By 1550, the Congo became the main trading area. But the Portuguese demand for captives was so high that the monarch was soon overwhelmed. Other peoples agreed to meet this demand (the Pangu in Lungu, the Tio people). From 1,000 deported slaves in 1500, between 4,000 and 5,000 were deported annually from the Congo from 1530 onwards.

Angola (or Ndongo) also supplied slaves to the Portuguese. As early as 1550, the kings of the Congo and Angola disputed supremacy in the supply of captives to the Portuguese. Around 1553, a new African state delivered slaves. This was the monarchy of Ode Itsekiri on the Forcados (near the kingdom of Benin).

In the early 17th century, many fishing villages on the Niger estuary became self-sufficient towns with large slave markets. Some of these towns eventually became powerful monarchies: Bonny, New Calabar, Warri, Bell Town and Akwa Town in Cameroon; and there were powerful trading republics, such as Old Calabar and Brass.

Very slowly, black slaves began to populate the new Spanish imperial possessions. The phenomenon was gradual, discreet, and full of false starts. Thus, a decree of 1501 prohibited the deportation to the Indies of slaves born in Spain, as well as of Jews, Moors and “new Christians”, i.e. converted Jews. However, some merchants and captains obtained private permission to take some black slaves to the Indies.

The slave trade to the Americas did not begin until January 22, 1510, when King Ferdinand gave permission to send fifty slaves to Hispaniola for mining. These slaves were to be “the best and strongest slaves that can be found”. It is certain that he was thinking of the Blacks. As for the Indians, they could not resist the bad treatment in the fields and mines (and especially the smallpox epidemics). In 1510, there were only 25,000 Indians left on Hispaniola.

The rise of gold mining, especially in Cibao, and then of sugar in Hispaniola, inaugurated, between 1505 and 1525, the first triangular trade between Africa, Europe and the Americas, which led to the deportation of nearly 10,000 slaves to Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba, where the colonists had set up a sugar plantation economy.

Until 1550, most African captives were destined for the Iberian Peninsula, Madeira, Sao Tome and Principe. From 1550, Spanish demand for America took off. Slaves were pearl fishermen in New Granada, longshoremen in Veracruz, in the silver mines of Zacatecas, in the gold mines of Honduras, Venezuela and Peru, and cowherds in the La Plata region. Others were blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters and servants. Female slaves served as maids, mistresses, nannies or prostitutes. It was common practice to give them the most unpleasant tasks.

In the northeast of Brazil, in the captaincies of Pernambuco and Bahia, the first sugar plantations were established on American soil. The demand for slave labor exploded. The Portuguese had the Indians at their disposal. But the perseverance of Bartolomé de las Casas and other Dominicans eventually made the enslavement of the Indians illegal. In addition, the epidemic of dysentery associated with influenza had decimated the Indian population in Brazil in the 1560s. Finally, the planters were not satisfied with the work of the Indians. The Indians were not resistant to the bad treatments that were inflicted on them and especially to epidemics. For all these reasons, the demand for black slaves from the Kongo kingdom and Angola increased. From 2,000 to 3,000 in 1570, the black population of Brazil rose to 15,000 in 1600. The daily life of these slaves was very hard. Their life expectancy was about ten years. Therefore, new arrivals from Angola and Congo were constantly needed. Brazil became the main supplier of sugar to Europe.

The first French slave ship, the Esperance, left La Rochelle in 1594, headed for Gabon and continued on to Brazil

In the first quarter of the 17th century, the total number of slaves deported from Africa was close to 200,000, of which 100,000 went to Brazil, more than 75,000 to Spanish America, 12,500 to São Tomé and a few hundred to Europe.

The great French-English turn of 1674

The year 1674 was the year of the great shift for slavery. Until then, for centuries, Africans had been taken across the Sahara to the Arab world, where they became servants. The long and costly journey, as well as the modest demand, limited the annual levy on African populations.

Spanish sugar planters in Venezuela and Portuguese in Brazil also bought slaves, but in limited quantities, because transportation, through the Asiento system, was the monopoly of Dutch merchants, who limited themselves to the most profitable shipments. Sugar was still expensive on the world market, which prevented it from being sold on a large scale.

The situation changed when the triangular trade took off in 1674, the year in which the French and the English began to compete with the Dutch for the monopoly of transporting slaves from the African coast to the Americas, where two large islands, Jamaica and Santo Domingo, and three smaller ones, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Barbados, became the world”s main importing zone for slaves.

The arrival of the French and English in 1674 on the coasts of Africa caused the price of slaves to rise sharply, leading to the development of new supply routes within the continent, which weakened traditional African societies.

The mass arrival of new slaves in the West Indies at the same time lowered their purchase price by the sugar cane planters, while sugar production increased very rapidly, which had the effect of lowering the price of this commodity on the world market and encouraging its consumption in Europe.

Second stage, from the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century

The Atlantic trade did not really take off until the last third of the 17th century.

Three phenomena competed to accelerate the demand of the European slave traders: products became scarcer (sugar cane was put into production in Brazil and the West Indies); the choice of African slaves was imposed on the exploiters.

In the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch West India Company (or W.I.C.) was all powerful. The Dutch had established themselves in Brazil and had taken Elmina. Their position on the trade was strengthened by various agreements: the asiento in 1662, then the agreement between Spain and the firm Coijmans of Amsterdam in 1685 and the one signed with the assientis of the Portuguese company of Cacheu in 1699. But this omnipotence did not last. The monopoly of the W.I.C. for trade with Africa lasted until 1730, and that for trade until 1738. With the opening of free trade, the number of captives deported by the Dutch increased. Between 1751 and 1775, the number of deportees rose to 148,000.

London, Bristol and Liverpool were the main British slave ports. There were also Whitehaven, Glasgow, Dublin and Plymouth. The monopoly of trade with Africa was granted to the Royal African Company in 1698. In total, there were 5,700 armed slave ships in Liverpool.

Between 1651 and 1675, 115,000 slaves were deported. Between 1676 and 1700, there were 243,000 slaves; between 1701 and 1725, there were 380,000. Between 1726 and 1750, there were 490,000 slaves. Between 1751 and 1775, they were 859,000. The decline began in 1776 and the trade was prohibited in 1807.

The start of the French trade was late. Bordeaux in 1672, Nantes and Saint-Malo in 1688 sent their first slave ships. Before 1692, 45 slave ships had left from La Rochelle.

As far as the slave trade in La Rochelle was concerned, it allowed for the financing of workshops where goods destined for the purchase of captives in Africa were manufactured, sold and kept. This trade gave work to the shipyards and ensured the subsistence of several hundred sailors. So many people from La Rochelle were involved in the trade in their own way. The first slave trade expedition from La Rochelle took place between 1594 and 1595 on board the ship L”Espérance which transported its captives to a Portuguese colony in Brazil.

Between 1745 and 1747, there was an average of 34 slave shipments per year. Between 1763 and 1778, there were 51 per year. Between 1783 and 1792, there were 101 per year.

From the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century, the trade between Europeans and Africans took place on all the African coasts:

The African supply was, however, relatively concentrated in the 18th century: in the Gulf of Guinea, there was the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast; in Central Africa, three quarters of the captives were sold between Cabinda and Luanda, a 300-mile long coastal area; coastal sites like Ouidah.

In the Enlightenment, the demand for American products in Western Europe grew very strongly because their prices had fallen due to the strong growth in supply: this was the case, for example, with cotton, coffee and sugar, especially from the colony of Santo Domingo, whose production was intensified by the employment of about 550,000 slaves in the eighteenth century. The consumption of sugar, almost nil in the sixteenth century in France, had risen to 4 kilograms per person per year by the end of the eighteenth century, according to an uncorroborated estimate. The creation of new plantations extended to new parts of the Caribbean such as the French part of Santo Domingo, for sugar but also for cotton and coffee, where a larger workforce was brought in than in the previous century.

Third stage, the 19th century

On March 16, 1792, an ordinance of the King of Denmark and Norway provided for the prohibition of the slave trade for the subjects of his kingdom and the prohibition of the importation of slaves into his territory as of 1803. In 1794, France abolished not only the slave trade but also slavery in its colonies, but this decision was thwarted by the Treaty of Whitehall, signed by large slave-owning planters with the English in an attempt to offer them their colonies, which occurred in Martinique, and then by the re-establishment of slavery by Napoleon in 1802

In 1807, the British banned the trade, followed by the United States. The other European states involved in the trade, mainly France, followed suit, but later, under British pressure, redoubled at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. And when these states banned the trade, their slave traders continued to operate illegally, but were tracked down thanks to the right of visit of foreign ships. In the face of the ban on the slave trade, Europeans wanted to move into Africa to set up plantation systems similar to those in the Americas. In Senegal, Faidherbe fought against these projects.

In France, after 1815, the illegal trade continued with the tacit consent of the authorities. It was presented as a means of resisting the British, who were suspected of wanting to weaken the national economy. It was not until the 1820s that the French royal navy fought effectively against the traffickers.

There were also territorial exceptions: although London had abolished the Indian Ocean slave trade as early as 1812, the abolition of the slave trade in the British East Indies was not enacted until 1843, and the abolition of slavery until 1862.

The Western slave trade had begun to decline from the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, the trade remained very dynamic until 1850, at which point it was greatly reduced and became marginal after 1867. During the nineteenth century, the nature of Western slave trade activity changed. After having been monopolized and then liberalized by the states, slave trade became illegal. However, the market still existed – Brazil, for example, did not abolish slavery until 1888 with the Golden Law, two years after Cuba – and given the weakness of international law, trafficking persisted. Thus, it was not until the fivefold treaty of 1841 between the European powers, followed by the Brussels Convention (1890), that the military ships of one of the contracting states obtained the right to board the ships of slave traders from other countries, and that even the states where slavery remained legal undertook, through this Convention, to put an end to the trade.

The second attempt to bring Chinese coolies to the Caribbean was also a failure; this time not because they were slaves in disguise, but because the plantation masters found these indentured servants reluctant to work.

The third attempt was so successful that it brought the third exogenous settlement of the Caribbean. These were Indians from the subcontinent, mostly from the British Indian Empire, but also from the French trading posts of Chandernagor and Pondicherry.

Increasingly accurate statistics

In Les Traites négrières, Essai d”histoire globale published in 2004, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau writes

“It was not until 1969 and the publication of the famous The Atlantic Slave Trade. A census, by the American historian Philip D. Curtin (1922-2009), for the quantitative history of the Atlantic slave trade to truly emerge from the mists of imagination. What Anglo-Saxon historians call the “numbers game” began. For the first time, the works on the question were being scrutinized by critical historical analysis. Curtin”s study came at a time when the history of the Black slave trade was taking off. It was also a time when the New Economic History was beginning to assert itself in the Anglo-Saxon world. A history borrowing from econometrics that immediately found in the Atlantic slave trade a formidable lever. The results of Curtin”s Census were therefore immediately at the origin of vast debates, contributing to the impetus of a great deal of research. In 1999, a CD-Rom was published listing 27,233 slave trade expeditions, carried out between 1595 and 1866. This data was taken up and commented on by Herbert S. Klein in a book published the same year, and completed by David Eltis in an article published in 2001. This data will be further refined with the publication of a new Census, announced by Steven Behrent, David Eltis and David Richardson. All this makes the Atlantic trade the best known trade today, from a statistical point of view. No other human migration in history – forced or otherwise – has probably been studied in such detail.”

“There is certainly not total agreement on the figures. Thus, although he revised his estimates downwards, Joseph Inikori indicated in 2002 that approximately 12,700,000 Africans had been deported across the Atlantic. However, a general consensus is emerging, confirming Curtin”s overall analysis of the volume of the trade, while qualifying it in detail, i.e., in its rates. According to him, 9.5 million Africans were introduced into the various colonies of the New World and, taking into account the mortality during the middle passage, about 11 million left Africa. At a symposium held in Nantes in 1985, the French historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch announced that 11,698,000 Africans would have been deported, adding that what is known about the state of European navies in the modern era hardly allows us to think that this figure could have been exceeded.

Departure regions of the Atlantic slave trade

The members of this slave aristocracy often occupied the upper echelons of society. In the 18th century, in the great European ports, they supplied the trade and the institutions with notables. Present in societies and cultural circles, they displayed their success through the facades of their mansions, their rural properties and their lifestyle. Their affluence, influence, prestige and their ability to mobilize several types of “capital” (economic, cultural, symbolic, political…) can open the doors of power to them. Most of the mayors of the Restoration (1815-1830) were notorious illegal slave traders.

A traffic with uncertain profitability

The figures presented above are only averages and, as such, must be strongly qualified. All the studies agree on the fact that profits are very irregular, leading to spectacular successes and resounding bankruptcies:

On the independent trade, the dangers were multiplied but also the potential gains. Indeed, these traffickers were not subject to certain costs of the national companies with privileges (salaries of employees in France and Africa).

In those days, profits were high and even monopoly companies made good money.

However, Meyer for the French and Unger for the Dutch show that there was a decline in profitability over the 18th century. Indeed, certain factors (standardization of trade goods and the rise of factories) contributed to reducing costs, but other factors (increased competition, military instability on the seas, considerable increase in the value of human beings in Africa…), which were more numerous, led to a decline in profitability.

They exceeded those of the previous century.

Large traders deporting slaves “illegally,” whether to Cuba or Brazil, would have gone bankrupt, unless they had invested in sugar or coffee plantations. It also appears that many slave traders exaggerated their profits during this period.

For the United Provinces, they had suffered the perverse or “boomerang” effect of their commercial success: the mass and cheapness of the products did not allow the establishment of national industries.

The omnipresence of the Portuguese along the African coasts of the Atlantic during this period is also explained by the policy of the popes towards Africa:

The Portuguese also got the pope to declare that Portugal had conquered Africa as far as Guinea. With these bulls, the Portuguese did not hesitate to board any ship that was on the African coast and to hang the crew (mostly Spaniards).

The arguments against abolition

The slave traders had the possibility of baptizing all the captives shipped to Africa. By this act, the pagan blacks who were “doomed to eternal hell”, according to the Christian missionaries, had a chance to go to heaven. It was therefore the slaves, according to this argument, who benefited most from the operation. For some men, especially churchmen, this argument was essential.

Measuring the population drain of milking

It appears very difficult to evaluate the demographic effects of the slave trade, whose figures remain highly contested. The starting point for any analysis is the estimate of the population of sub-Saharan Africa in the 16th century. In the current state of knowledge, the extent of the variations in estimates makes any conclusion impossible.

The supporters of this thesis also consider that “the polygamous nature of African societies has undoubtedly had the effect of attenuating or even cancelling out a good part of this possible birth deficit resulting from the deportation of the male population. This argument has been strongly attacked by Pétré-Grenouilleau”s opponents: apart from the fact that it conveys a racist stereotype that refers African societies to an alleged “polygamous nature,” it betrays, for its detractors, a lack of understanding of the real functioning of polygamy as well as of the elementary principles of demography. There is no link between birth rate and type of marital union. Polygamy, or to be more precise, polygyny, does not change the birth rate of women: it may even have the consequence of reducing this rate, by instituting a period of isolation after each birth. Pétré-Grenouilleau also mentions the deaths of captives in Africa. He estimates that, assuming that there were as many deaths as there were captives deported, this could only have slowed down population growth “locally” and sometimes cancelled it out completely.

Louise-Marie Diop-Maes takes an entirely different approach: she attempts to compare the African population of the sixteenth century, i.e., before the beginning of the slave trade, with that of the nineteenth century in order to estimate the overall effects that the slave trade may have had on the demographic development of black Africa. The sources available to historians to make such measurements are extremely incomplete, in part because of the absence of archives, and may remain so for good. Diop-Maes relies mainly on the accounts of Arab travelers to estimate the size of cities and the density of the African urban network: she estimates that the population in the sixteenth century was of the order of six hundred million (or an average of about thirty inhabitants per square kilometer).

The Nigerian demographer Joseph E. Inikori and the historian Walter Rodney have also concluded that the demographic effects of the slave trade were significant, but with significantly different methods of assessment. For Inikori, the African economic system of the time, which differed significantly from the European model, was not capable of making such a human loss. Localized population declines turned into more general problems. Without reaching the figures put forward by Diop-Maes, Inikori estimates that the Atlantic slave trade and the various natural disasters caused 112 million victims in black Africa.

She believes that the trade has resulted in “the scattering and isolation of populations, hence the gradual decline of cities, the reappearance of wild life on a large scale, the differentiation of mores and customs, leading to the emergence of new languages, “ethnicities”; hence also the loss of collective memory, the entrenchment of the spirit of division, social decay, etc.: individuals, groups, communities, will live in excessive and morbid mistrust of each other, each considering the other as their greatest enemy. The individuals, the groups, the communities, are going to live in an excessive and morbid distrust of each other, each one considering the other as his biggest enemy”.

Martin Klein argues that, while the deportation of slaves from Senegambia was relatively small in absolute numbers, the trade totally disrupted local political organization (end of the great empires and extreme political fragmentation) and generated significant social violence. The general orientation of trade towards the north and the Sahara was disrupted by the slave trade, which shifted the continent”s window of opportunity towards the Atlantic (decline of Saharan cities, coupled with the fall of the Songhai Empire, which was independent of the slave trade, after the defeat of Tondibi against Morocco in 1591). Thus, the Wolofs of Waalo and the Toucouleurs of Fouta Toro gradually deserted the north bank of the Senegal River for the south bank during the 18th century and were forced to pay a heavy tribute to the Moors of Trarza and Brakna.

Conversely, Philip Curtin claims that this same region would not have been influenced by the European trade, remaining on the margins of international trade. One of his disciples, James Webb, amplified his master”s conclusions by asserting that the trans-Saharan trade was more important at the same period than the Atlantic trade in Senegambia. Curtin”s theses, and a fortiori those of Webb on the impact of the slave trade on African societies, have been criticized by Joseph Inokiri, Jean Suret-Canale and some of his former students such as Paul Lovejoy – as well as some Senegalese historians such as Abdoulaye Bathily or Boubacar Barry.


The first code to regulate slavery dates from 1680, and was made in Virginia. Carolina did the same in 1690.

The slave, a movable property

The ambiguity of “human or commodity” was not new to the Black Code. Already in antiquity, the Roman legal system expressed it: according to natural law, morality, the slave was a man, while according to positive law, the precise Roman law, he was a thing.

A crime against humanity

The Western slave trade is now considered in France as a crime against humanity.


Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, Les Traites négrières, essai d”histoire globale, Gallimard

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, Robert Laffont

Serge Daget, The Black Slave Trade, Ouest-France


: document used as a source for the writing of this article.

External links


  1. Commerce triangulaire
  2. Triangular trade
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.