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Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade


Before the 16th century, Europeans were not deeply involved in slave trading on the West African coast. However, there was some movement of African labour to Madeira and the Canary Islands by the early Portuguese explorers from 1470 onwards. The Portuguese were also the first to use African slave labour in gold mines, and on sugar plantations on the small equatorial island of São Tomé. These plantations became the model for future sugar estates in the West Indies. African exports at this time included gold, palm oil, nuts, yams, pepper, ivory, gum and cloth.

Drawing by Barbot of African chiefs and Europeans - opens new window
An Interview with the King of Sestro
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Map of Forts on the West coast of Africa - opens new window
European Forts in Africa (155KB)
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During the 16th century the first foundations of globalisation were laid when African rulers forged relationships with European traders. One early English explorer was William Hawkins, father of John Hawkins. In the 1530s, Hawkins made voyages to Guinea to obtain ivory, Glossary - opens new windowdyewoods and gold. At this stage the English seemed to have little interest in taking slaves. This, however, was soon to change.

There was intense rivalry for West Africa among Europeans. With no interest in conquering the interior, they concentrated their efforts to obtain human cargo along the West African coast. During the 1590s, the Dutch challenged the Portuguese monopoly to become the main slave trading nation. Later, Scottish, Swedish and Danish African companies registered their interest. With so many European powers on the coast, conflict was inevitable, culminating in the Anglo-Dutch war of 1665-7. Forts built by the Portuguese and Dutch on the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) were captured by the British in 1667.

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Slaves for Guns

West African rulers were instrumental in the slave trade. They exchanged their prisoners of war (rarely their own people) for firearms manufactured in Birmingham and elsewhere in Britain. With their newly acquired weapons, kings and chiefs were able to expand their territories. The slave trade had a profound effect on the economy and politics of West Africa, leading, in many cases, to an increase in tension and violence.


Painting of 'The Slave Trade' by John Raphael Smith - opens new window
Europeans Repay African Hospitality
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List of forts under British control (extract) - opens new window
Black People and 'Mulattoes' Employed by the Royal African Company (162KB)
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In 1650, for example, Dahomey, a small coastal state on the Atlantic, extended its borders into the interior of Africa. Half a century later, the Asante Empire under Osei Tutu forcibly united a number of small kingdoms into a strong federation. A large proportion of the prisoners of war were sold on as slaves. Other Africans captured during raids into the interior were exchanged for commodities.

Kidnapped and Incarcerated

Europeans lacked the local knowledge to be able to negotiate the perils of the African interior, so they used middlemen for this task, according to Glossary - opens new windowOlaudah Equiano, who had himself been captured in this way. European slaving ships waited at coastal ports to pick up their cargoes of slaves. Middlemen would attack Africans working in the fields and march them to the coast. Children acting as lookouts for their parents might also be captured.


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The captured Africans were held in forts, sometimes called 'slave castles', along the coast. They remained there for months until finally leaving their homeland for an unknown destination on board European merchant ships, including those of the British Royal African Company. Ships constructed in Britain carried the Africans to the West Indies. This human cargo of slaves was chained at the wrists and legs with irons, and stowed in the lower decks of the ships, like any other commodity.

The slave trade developed into a complex system that included many different groups and interests. The actual number of Africans taken continues to be disputed, but it is somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 million people. It has been suggested that a great many of those captured went unrecorded. Many died on the march to the coast, in the cellars of slave forts and on the ships.

James Fort, Accra, 1756  - opens new window
James Fort, Accra, Gold Coast
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Royal African Company Slaves - Men, Women and Children - opens new window
Royal African Company Slaves - Men, Women and Children (161KB)
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The slave trade was responsible for major disruption to the people of Africa. Women and men were taken young, in their most productive years, thus damaging African economies. The physical experience of slavery was painful, traumatic and long-lasting. We know this from the written evidence of several freed slaves. Captivity marked the beginning of a dehumanising process that affected British attitudes towards African people.
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References and Further Reading

Clarkson, T., History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament, London, 1808

Hair, P.E.H., Jones, A. and Law, R. (eds) Barbot on Guinea. The writings of Jean Barbot on West Africa 1678-1712, London, 1992

Shillington, K., History of Africa, London, 1989

Stepan, N., The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960, London, 1982

Walvin, J., Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire (2nd edn), London, 2001

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