African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Historic Contexts—Which Europeans Trafficked in Slaves?

Which Europeans Trafficked in Slaves?

The first 130 years the Portuguese dominated the transatlantic slave trade. After 1651 they fell into second position behind the British who became the primary carriers of Africans to the New World, a position they continued to maintain until the end of the trade in the early 19th century.

Based on data concerning 86% of all slaving vessels leaving for the New World, Eltis et al, estimate that the British, including British colonials, and the Portuguese account for seven out of ten transatlantic slaving voyages and carried nearly three quarters of all people embarking from Africa destined for slavery (Eltis et al 2001).

Volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade Departures by Carrier (in thousands) 1519–1800
Data Source: Eltis et al 2001

  Britain France Netherlands Spain United States and British Caribbean Denmark Portugal
1519–1600 2.0           264.1
1601–1650 23.0   41.0       439.5
1651–1675 115.2 5.9 64.8     0.2 53.7
1676–1700 243.3 34.1 56.1     15.4 161.1
Total % 28.23% 2.94% 11.92%     1.15% 55.75%
  Britain France Netherlands Spain United States and British Caribbean Denmark Portugal
1701–1725 380.9 106.3 65.5   11.0 16.7 378.3
1726–1750 490.5 253.9 109.2   44.5 7.6 405.6
1751–1775 859.1 321.5 148.0 1.0 89.1 13.4 472.9
1776–1800 741.3 419.5 40.8 8.6 54.3 30.4 626.2
Total % 40.55% 18.06% 5.96% 0.16% 3.26% 1.12% 30.89%

Volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade Departures by Carrier (in thousands) 1701–1800.
Data Source: Eltis et al 2001

France joined the traffic of slaves in 1624, Holland and Denmark soon followed. The Dutch wrested control of the transatlantic slave trade from the Portuguese in the 1630s, but by the 1640s they faced increasing competition from French and British traders. England fought two wars with the Dutch in the 17th century to gain supremacy in the transatlantic slave trade. Three special English companies were formed, including the Royal African Company, to operate in the sale of slaves. They were given the exclusive rights to trade between the Gold Coast and the British colonies in America. As the 17th century came to a close in 1698, English merchants’ protests led to the English crown extending the right to trade in slaves more generally. Colonists in New England immediately began to engage in slave trafficking. Vessels left Boston, Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island laden with hogsheads of rum that were exchanged for people in Africa consequently enslaved in North American and Caribbean colonies.

Beginning with the Spanish demand for slave labor, a demand that continued and expanded in the other colonies and the United States even after abolition of the trade in 1807, the Transatlantic Slave Trade brought between 9.6 to 11 million Africans to the New World (Curtin 1969; Donnan [1930]2002; Eltis et. al 2001; Hall 1992). Greater numbers of people were sold into slavery from some regions as compared to other regions. Some European nations transported more Africans than others and some regions in the New World received more Africans from certain regions than others. The British and Portuguese account for seven out of every ten transatlantic slaving voyages and carried nearly three quarters of all people embarking from Africa destined for slavery (Eltis et al 2001).

Where did enslaved Africans come from?

In the first 150 years of the trade, West Central Africa supplied nine out of ten African people destined for a life of slavery in the Americas. Except for a fifty-year period between 1676 and 1725, West Central Africa sent more slaves to the Americas than any other region. In the first century of trading over 900,000 (52%) of all Africans leaving the continent came from West Central Africa.

Map of embarkation areas in West and West Central Africa.

Volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade by Region of Embarkation (in thousands) 1519–1700.
Data Source: Eltis et al 2001

The majority of all people enslaved in the New World came from West Central Africa. Before 1519, all Africans carried into the Atlantic disembarked at Old World ports, mainly Europe and the offshore Atlantic islands. From 1493, the year of Columbus's second voyage, some of these Africans or their progeny entered the New World. The first vessel carrying slaves that sailed directly between Africa and the Americas appears to have arrived in Puerto Rico in 1519 (Eltis et al).

The African slave trade in the hands of the Portuguese, was more than fifty years old when the 16th century began. The Portuguese were to hold a monopoly on the trade until the century ended. Sixteenth century Africans enslaved by the Portuguese came from the Kongo, one of the largest African states, and its tributaries. The “Mani Kongo,” or king of the Kongo, ruled a geographic area of 60,000 square miles that was inhabited by an estimated 2.5 million people.

Volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade by Region of Embarkation (in thousands) 1519–1800
Data Source: Eltis et al 2001

  Sene-gambia Sierra Leone Wind-ward Coast Gold Coast Bight of Benin Bight of Biafra West Central Africa Southeast Africa
1519–1600 10.7 2.0   10.7 10.7 10.7 221.2  
1601–1700 60.6 3.9 0.8 90.9 247.8 135.6 698.8 14.1
Total % 4.70% 0.39% 0.05% 6.69% 17.02% 9.63% 60.59% 0.93%
  Sene-gambia Sierra Leone Wind-ward Coast Gold Coast Bight of Benin Bight of Biafra West Central Africa Southeast Africa
1701–1725 39.9 7.1 4.2 181.7 408.3 45.8 257.2 14.4
1726–1750 69.9 10.5 14.3 186.3 306.1 166.0 552.8 5.4
1751–1775 130.4 96.9 105.1 263.9 250.5 340.1 714.9 3.3
1776–1800 72.4 106.0 19.5 240.7 264.6 360.4 816.2 41.2
Total % 5.13% 3.62% 2.35% 14.31% 20.17% 14.97% 38.41% 1.05%

The Kings of the Kongo and the European merchants were both aware that human labor was one of the greatest productive resources of the southern savanna. There was no such thing as a “class” of slaves in Kongo society. However, there were many people acting in a transitory status as servile subjects:

“…These people were of foreign origin, people who had been outlawed for criminal acts, people who had lost the protection of their kinfolk; or become irredeemably indebted to others. They differed from slaves in European ownership in that they were likely to be reabsorbed into society. Families and clans probably welcomed foreign accessions to their numbers. …Women were particularly easy to integrate, but even male strangers did not remain the ‘slaves’ of society for very long (Birmingham 1981:32).”

From the 16th through the early 20th century slaves in the Kongo had rights to fair treatment, to receive a share of their earnings, and to buy freedom. Their children did not necessarily become slaves. Great and famous men could and did rise from the ranks of Kongo slaves. This understanding of what it means to be a slave may account for the initial willingness of Kongo royalty to engage in slave trading. Later, the Kings had little choice (Brown 1987).

The earliest Central African slaves were the external captives of the Bakongo. Attempts to confine slaving to external captives failed and soon slaves from within Kongo society were being sold. Many were captured warriors from the 1569 Jaga Wars. By the mid 16th century, after the Portuguese established Angola colony in Mbundu territory, the tribute formerly passed upward to the King was paid to a Portuguese army officer rather than to the traditional chief. The army officers required that tribute be paid in the form of slaves. By the end of the 16th century, 10,000 slaves a year were being exported from Luanda, the slave catchment area of Angola (Birmingham 1981:32–37).

By the middle of the 18th century, people from the Bight of Biafra were also highly represented among those Africans enslaved in the Americas (Walsh 2001). Randy Sparks provides a detailed account, based upon primary source documents about how 18th century Africans and Europeans conducted the slave trade. His description is unusual because some of the primary sources were written by Africans (Sparks 2002).

Where did enslaved Africans disembark?

Volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade by Region of Disembarkation (in thousands) 1701–1800.

Although much has been made of the idea that the colonials had preferences for people from certain ethnic groups within Africa and that enslaved people were randomly distributed, Eltis et al suggest otherwise. Brazil and British American ports were the points of disembarkation for most Africans. On a whole, over the 300 years of the Transatlantic slave trade, 29 per cent of all Africans arriving in the New World disembarked at British American ports, 41 per cent disembarked in Brazil.

Perhaps 5–10 percent of all Africans who arrived in the Americas quickly moved to other parts of the Americas, as part of an intra-American slave trade. Most Africans arriving in Spanish America came from an intermediary point of disembarkation rather than directly from Africa. Exactly how many cannot be deduced from the data analyzed by Eltis et al., however they estimate the mainland Spanish colonies may have received half of their arrivals through intra-American slave trade and the mainland British colonies fewer than 5 percent in this manner.

Volume of Transatlantic Slave Trade by Region of Disembarkation (in thousands) 1519–1800
Data Source: Eltis et al 2001

  British Mainland North America Barbados Guianas French Wind-wards St. Do-mingue Spanish American Mainland Dutch Caribbean
1519–1600           151.6  
1601–1650 1.4 25.4   2.0   187.7 2.0
1651–1675 0.9   63.2 8.2 6.5   38.8
1676–1700 9.8 82.3 27.8 16.6 4.8 7.0 26.0
Total % 1.90% 16.93% 14.31% 4.21% 1.78% 54.45% 6.42%
  British Mainland North America Barbados Guianas French Wind-wards St. Do-mingue Spanish American Mainland Dutch Caribbean
1701–1725 37.4 91.8 24.4 30.1 44.5 30.0 30.5
1726–1750 96.8 73.6 83.6 66.8 144.9 12.7 10.2
1751–1775 116.9 120.9 111.9 63.7 247.5 5.0 15.3
1776–1800 24.4 28.5 71.2 41.2 345.8 10.2 6.9
Total % 13.92% 15.90% 14.70% 10.19% 39.53% 2.92% 2.83%

In most regions, during the colonial period when Africans were adapting their cultural patterns to the new environment, they like other people coming to America before 1750 were less likely to be of diverse origins (Eltis et al 2001; Walsh 2001). However, over time people from different regions of Africa arrived, which resulted in the mixing of peoples. Based upon these findings as well as recent archeology of African American sites from the colonial period, historical interpretations of colonial life among Africans need to revisit notions of Africans being unable to communicate with one another, or being randomly distributed in the colonies.

In 1763 when France ceded Louisiana to the Spanish there were 46,000 African people enslaved there as compared to 36,500 free persons, mostly white (Hall: 1992:29–55). Most of these Africans came from points north of the Windward Coast and many had originally disembarked in St. Domingue (Hall, 1992). As high as these population data seem, the majority of all Africans imported in North America during the colonial period were enslaved in the Chesapeake and Low Country regions. Read more about people enslaved in French America.

Chesapeake Colonies

Chesapeake Colonies.

Jamestown, founded in 1607, and the first English settlement to receive Africans as slaves in 1619, is located on the James River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The colony imported very few Africans between 1619 and 1660. Most who came to the region were from West Central Africa coming by way of Dutch slave traders.

The people who founded the colony have been called “gentlemen adventurers,” meaning they had little experience, expertise or inclination to perform the labor intensive tasks associated with establishing settlements, growing subsistence crops or developing commodities for export. In short they needed labor to develop the economic potential of the colony. They first used indentured white laborers. Problems with indentured servants led to a gradual growth of African slavery that began during the second half of the 17th century.

The earliest English settlers in the Chesapeake region relied heavily on indentured persons for labor. The Dutch brought the first Africans to the Virginia colony in 1607. These Africans and others that followed helped to build the colony and cultivate tobacco.

Tobacco was the 17th century North American “Gold.” In the 17th century tobacco cultivation in the Chesapeake depended mostly on white labor, small farm owners and indentured servants, but tobacco demanded daily attention. Two or three acres were the most a farmer could tend himself. To increase production beyond this subsistence level—to better himself economically—the farmer needed additional labor. Virginia looked to England and Africa for that labor supply, English indentured labor and enslaved Africans. The 18th century success of large scale tobacco production in the Chesapeake was dependent on enslaved African labor and, after 1740, on second and third generation African progeny (Kulikoff 1986:396). In 1629,Virginia produced 1.5 million pounds of tobacco. In 1775, a little less than 150 years later, Virginia and Maryland produced 100 million pounds of tobacco. As Morgan points out, the colonial economy in Virginia, and one might add the Chesapeake region in general, was built on the backs of enslaved African labor, without which it was an economy without a labor supply (Morgan 1998:146 Walsh PP 194–195).

The increased importation of Africans into Virginia was a crucial factor in the early 18th century emergence of a relatively stable political and economic structure in the colony in which the largest landowners increasingly relied upon slave labor. The landowners also came to monopolize economic, political, and social leadership of the colony. They passed laws that provided fewer restrictions upon white laborers during their servitude and opportunities for them to acquire land-ownership once their terms were up. These concessions guaranteed their acquiescence to the social and political domination by the landed gentry (Walsh 2001).

Analysis of slave trade data from three sources, the W.E. B. DuBois Institute dataset, Virginia Slave Trade Statistics and Maryland Naval Office shipping records, along with archeological evidence suggest a more patterned trade occurred in the Chesapeake than reported in early histories of the region (Walsh:2001:14–15). Throughout the 18th century, approximately three quarters of the Africans arriving in the Upper Chesapeake as well as in the region around the lower James River came from the upper parts of the West African coast, from Senagambia on the north to the Windward and Gold Coasts, an area which included present day Senegal down along the coast ending in the area of present day Ghana (Walsh 2001:31). Most Africans arrived in the lower James area by way of the intra-Atlantic coastal slave trade from the West Indies, which probably accounts for ethnic diversity of Africans enslaved there.

Nearly three quarters of the Africans disembarking in the lower Chesapeake area (York and Upper James Basin) came from more southerly parts of Africa, from the Bight of Biafra (present day eastern Nigeria) and West Central Africa (then called Kongo and Angola). The concentration of Virginia’s enslaved people who had common cultural characteristics was perpetuated by the inheritance practices of the Virginia gentry, especially those in York and Rappahannock districts. The resulting ethnic concentration of enslaved communities originally from West Central Africa and the Bight of Biafra in these regions facilitated continuity of family and kinship networks, settlement patterns, and intergenerational transmission of African customs and languages.

Earlier historians often suggested that planters’ preferences for slaves from particular African regions influenced the ethnic composition of the slaves in the Chesapeake region. However, the analyses of the W.E. B. DuBois Institute Project indicates other factors resulted in Virginia planters’ frequent purchase of laborers originating in the Bight of Biafra and Angola, people for whom, one author comments “no Chesapeake planter is known to have expressed a preference” (Walsh 2001:30–21). These factors included the market that British slave traders judged to be the most lucrative outlet, their interest in the planters’ exports, e.g. tobacco, which slaves were being offered, and even the tonnage of the ships on which a group of Africans were captive. The merchants took the ships with the greatest number of Africans to the best markets first (Curtin 1969). Learn more about the African origins of people enslaved in colonial Chesapeake.

Low Country Region

Low Country Colonies.

South Carolina was settled in 1670 mostly by colonists from Barbados. John Colleton, a Barbadian planter gained a royal charter to the American region just below Virginia and he proposed, would extend to a southern boundary well below the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. (See Map Low Country) According to Peter Wood, Colleton and seven other British gentlemen aimed to capitalize on the internal migrations underway between American colonies and establish their colony by relocating experienced settlers from Barbados to the mainland in a region with sub-tropical climate. To promote their venture, the Colleton group promised prospective settlers land, that by that time was in short supply in Barbados, in proportion to the number of people a head of household brought with them, including and especially “Negroes.”

The Colleton group advertisement reached out to landless people like indentured servants completing their terms of indenture. As a result, people migrated to South Carolina not only from Barbados, but also from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Bermuda, England, New England, New York, New Jersey and the entire Chesapeake region. Each brought as many other European people, who were in short supply, with them as they could muster and as many Africans, who were in large supply, as they owned or could buy. As a result of these measures, from the very earliest years of the colony, 20 to 30 percent of the settlers were Africans of diverse ethnic origins but with some common cultural characteristics from “seasoning” or birth in the West Indies. However, within fifty years, South Carolina had to import Africans directly from the continent in order to maintain the needed supply of labor. The economic transformation of early modern Europe between 1650 and 1750 both assured a demand for rice in the West and allowed the Low Country to become the source meeting that demand (Coclanis 1985:253).

Based upon South Carolina records of the ethnic origins of slaves, Curtin estimated that 39.65 percent of slaves imported to South Carolina between 1733 and 1807 were ‘congos’ or Angolas. Africans from Senegambia (19.5%), the Windward Coast (16.3%) and the Gold Coast (13.3%) were also imported into South Carolina during the latter time period. Wood also analyzed data regarding the origin of ships delivering Africans to Charlestown, South Carolina from March 1735 – March 1740. He found 70 percent of Africans arriving came on ships from Angola (Curtin 1969; Wood 1974:340–341). In sum, by the middle of the 18th century, the majority of the large population of Africans living in South Carolina had roots in West Central African culture or was influenced by it.

Middle Colonies

Middle Colonies.

Between 1624 and 1664, the Dutch established colonies north of the Chesapeake along the rivers now known as the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, Numbering only a few thousand, they settled primarily in the lowlands that eventually would become the British colonies of Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. Parts of what became Pennsylvania were also in the region settled by the Dutch.

The settlers of New Netherlands (as the areas became known) represented a range of European backgrounds. They had been recruited by the West India Company and by individual company Directors from all the provinces of the Dutch Republic, from the surrounding low countries, from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as from the German states. Africans came with them, beginning with Henry Hudson’s exploration of the area fifteen years before settlers arrived.

Elmina Castle, Gold Coast 1704.

The first recorded Dutch trader sold 20 Africans to the colony of Virginia in North America in 1619. Between 1620 and 1655, the Dutch fought with Portugal and won control of sugar plantations in Brazil as well as of many of the Portuguese slave depots on the West African coast, including São Jorge da Mina a slave factory, renamed Elmina by the Dutch. Not realizing the expected traffic in human beings that they had anticipated in Elmina, the Dutch seized the island slave depot of São Tomé off the coast of Angola. Although they ultimately lost New Netherlands to the British and their holdings in Brazil to the Portuguese, the Dutch continued transporting Africans to Curacou which emerged as a slave market open to colonies in the whole Caribbean as well as those on the British North American mainland.

As noted in the Carrier and Embarkation tables and graphs, between 1601–1700, some 90,000 Africans embarked from the Gold Coast and 698,000 from Angola. The Netherlands were carriers for 40 odd thousands of Africans in the first half of the century and 60,000 plus in the latter half. Most of these people were from the Dutch slave depots in Angola (McManus 1973:7–9).

After the British took over New Netherlands, they renamed the regions of the colony along the Hudson, and along the Delaware, New York, West Jersey and East Jersey, respectively. The area of settlement below the mouth Delaware River, formerly New Sweden was renamed Delaware. In 1664, the Delaware settlers contracted the West India Company “to transport hither a lot of Negroes for agricultural purposes.” The same year the British sought to increase the enslaved population in New Jersey by offering colonists 60 acres of land per “slave” imported. Even with the enticement of land and a port for slave ships at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the enslaved population in New Jersey remained low. Pennsylvania, populated by a variety of Protestant sects fleeing from religious persecution, also had a low enslaved population that grew very slowly until around 1730. By 1754 there were about 11,000 Africans and native born African progeny in all of Pennsylvania. While in New York there were 13,000 adult “Negroes” in 1756, the largest group of enslaved workers in the northern colonies (McManus 1973:14–16).

New England Colonies

New England Colonies.

Justifying slavery on economic, spiritual and legal grounds, to many New England Puritans, slavery represented cheap labor needed to establish their colony and an opportunity to convert African and Amerindian “heathens” to Christianity. Pequot women and girls were enslaved by the Puritans following the Massachusetts and Connecticut militias and Pequot War in 1637. The Puritans transported most of the men and boys on the ship Desire to the West Indies to be exchanged for African “slaves”. The Desire returned in 1638, having traded Pequots for Africans, loaded with “salt, cotton, tobacco and Negroes.” Over the next six years the New England Puritans initiated direct trade for “slaves” in Africa (Mintz n.d.:9)”

New England colonists were more involved in slave trade than in holding slaves for labor. Narragansett, Rhode Island, was an exception, where forces of about 50 slaves grew tobacco. The first United States Census in 1790 found Rhode Island to be second only to Connecticut in the size of its slave labor force in the New England states.

Slave traders set sail from Newport, Rhode Island. About 1000 slave trading voyages left Rhode Island ports and made up nearly half of all slave vessels from the North American mainland to Africa. Portsmouth, New Hampshire was also a slave trading port but had a small enslaved population of 674 in 1773 that had decreased to 157 by 1790.

With the exception of New Jersey, the Revolutionary Period was accompanied by the enactment of laws to free enslaved Africans (See Laws section below). The Africans enslaved in the north mostly came by way of the Caribbean, with Philadelphia, Perth Amboy, New York and New England as the final ports of call in the triangular Transatlantic Slave Trade or the Atlantic inter-coastal trade between Charleston and Portsmouth (Horton and Horton 1997).

French Colonies

By 1719, the French began to import Africans slaves into Louisiana from the Senegal concession of the Company of the West Indies. Most of the people living in the Senegambia area, with the exception of the Bambara, were converted to Islam under the Mali and then Songhai Empires. Since Islamic law prohibited Muslim enslavement of other Muslims, the Bambara who resisted religious conversion were highly represented among those sold into slavery. Dr. Gwendolyn Hall documents that Africans of Bambara origins predominated among those enslaved in French Louisiana during the American colonial period. The common Mande culture that the Bambara people brought to French Louisiana would later influence development of the Creole culture in the colony (Hall 1992:29–55). Some of these influences that continue to be evident among the people of Louisiana, particularly African Americans, are addressed in Cultural Heritage, Part II of this unit.

Summary of Transatlantic Slave Trade

Britain and Portugal dominated the slave trade. Before 1650, the Portuguese transported more than 95 percent of what appear by later standards to be a small flow of people. Between 1660 and 1807, when the slave trade was at its height, the British and their dependencies carried every second slave that arrived in the Americas, a dominance that would no doubt have continued but for the politically inspired decision to abolish the trade.

Slave Traffic from Africa: 1451–1870

  1. 1451–1600: beginning (1/4 million)
  2. 1601–1700: growing (1.3 million)
  3. 1701–1811: peaking (6 million)
  4. 1811–1870: declining (2 million)

(McCaa 1997)

The best estimates suggest that between 1451 and 1870 when the transatlantic slave trade ended, over 9 million people were transported from Africa to be enslaved in the New World (McCaa 1997).

On the African coast, West Central Africa was an even more important source of people for the New World slave markets than recent literature credits. For every region outside Angola there was a pattern of a marked rise in slave departures that occurred in sequence, followed by a plateau of departures that continued until a rather sudden end to the traffic. However for Angola, the pattern was different. After the swing away from export of Africans from Angola, a return to exporting people from Angola occurred.

In the Americas, sugar was the driving force in the slave trade, though gold and silver were important in the earliest phase of the traffic. Coffee would later assumed the role of sugar in the final phase. American cotton would not develop as an export until after the United States abolished slave trade.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of recent history on the subject of transatlantic links is that “the picture of African coerced migrants arriving mainly in a mix of peoples—often on the same vessel—needs revising.” Like the free migrant and indentured servant trades, systematic geographic patterns existed. Eltis suggests, “ Scholars should now turn to exploring what these mean both for Africa and for African influences in the shaping of the New World… (Eltis et al 2001).”