World History 2 74 - 5.4.1 Slavery and the Triangular Trade

One of the largest migrations in history took place between the late fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as Europeans forcefully transported approximately twelve million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas to provide labor for Europe’s economic enterprises. Some two million people died on the voyages across the Atlantic. The survivors made possible the extraction of wealth from European colonies on which the system of mercantilism was based.

The majority of Africans brought across the Atlantic were destined to labor on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil. Many enslaved Africans were also sent to the Spanish colonies in South America; relatively few went to the North American mainland, mostly Mexico. European colonists had originally considered using enslaved Indigenous peoples to perform the difficult and dangerous labor of harvesting sugar cane and other cash crops, but these efforts failed. Indigenous people died in large numbers from infectious diseases, leaving too few to labor in the fields. On the island of Hispaniola, for example, where both the Spanish and the French established sugar plantations, the native Taíno population was at least several hundred thousand strong when Columbus arrived in 1492. By 1514, however, only about thirty-two thousand Taíno remained. Some had been deliberately killed by the Spanish, and others had died from hard labor and poor living conditions after being enslaved. The vast majority, though, had died of disease.

For Europeans, the ideal laborers would be people as unfamiliar with the terrain as they were, because unlike enslaved Indigenous people who knew the best places to hide, they could more easily be recaptured if they ran away. In addition, they would be less affected by many of the infectious diseases from which Europeans suffered. Although Europeans did not understand what caused immunity, they knew those who had previously contracted certain diseases like smallpox and survived would not contract that disease again. They also knew, from long contact with Africans, that they did not die from European diseases in the same numbers that Indigenous Americans did. In the European view, Africans satisfied both their key requirements.

European indentured servants would also have fit the bill, but the hot Caribbean climate and diseases like malaria and yellow fever, brought from Africa with cargoes of enslaved people, led to high death rates among Europeans within the first year and discouraged most others from immigrating there. Indentured servitude did not satisfy the labor needs of tobacco planters in Virginia and Maryland either, where the death rate among Europeans was also high. Although some indentured servants were convicts sentenced to be transported to the colonies, the vast majority left Europe voluntarily, but they were not enough. In addition, a French law passed in 1664 that restricted planters’ right to beat their indentured servants made servants a less desirable form of labor in the eyes of French colonists. Thus, Europeans eager to extract a profit looked to Africa as the solution, and to slavery instead of indentured servitude. They believed Africans were physically better suited to hard labor than Europeans were, and Africans could also be enslaved for a lifetime, ensuring a constant supply of field hands.

The Portuguese, already using enslaved Africans to grow sugar on islands off the coast of Africa, were the first to bring them in large numbers to the Americas. The initial Portuguese voyage to do so transported two hundred Africans to the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola, in 1525. Most were forced to grow sugar for Portuguese colonists in Brazil or were sold to the Spanish for this purpose. Captured Africans were also sold to the Spanish to work in mines in Mexico and Peru or to be employed as domestic servants. Soon the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Danes were also exporting captives from Africa to produce sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, and, by the eighteenth century, coffee in the Americas.

Although the economic system that relied on the labor of enslaved Africans to grow sugar and other crops for European colonists in the Americas was a complex one, for purposes of simplification, it is often characterized as the triangular trade because it linked three regions (the Americas, Europe, and West Africa) in a network of exchange (Figure 5.20). The shipment of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was one leg of the triangular trade. In the first leg, Europeans exchanged manufactured goods with African traders for enslaved Africans. The enslaved people were then shipped across the Atlantic to European colonies in the Americas. This journey was called the Middle Passage because it was the middle (or second) leg of the three-legged exchange. The money earned from the sale of enslaved Africans in the colonies was used to purchase the products grown by existing enslaved laborers. In the third leg of the triangle, those goods were shipped to Europe or to a European country’s other American colonies, where they were transformed into finished products.

A map of the world is shown with North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean labeled. The map is titled, “The Triangular Trade.” A yellow arrow points from the western portion of Europe to West Africa. It is labeled: European manufactured goods. A red arrow points from West Africa to the southeastern portion of North America. It is labeled: Enslaved Africans. A blue arrow points from the southeastern area of North American back to the western portion of Europe, labelled: Agricultural products produced by enslaved Africans.
Figure 5.20 As its name suggests, the triangular trade consisted of three legs. Enslaved Africans were sent along the so-called Middle Passage (the red arrow) and sold in Europe’s American colonies, while the agricultural products they produced were shipped to Europe. European manufactured goods were exchanged in Africa for more enslaved people. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

For example, English slave traders exchanged rum for captives in African ports. The captives then traveled across the Atlantic in chains to England’s Caribbean colonies, where they were sold to the owners of plantations who set them to work growing sugar cane. The plantation owners then shipped molasses, a by-product of sugar production, to other English settlers in the colony of Massachusetts, who transformed it into rum and shipped that to England. English ship captains in Africa then exchanged rum along with manufactured products like cloth, guns, and ammunition for captives. African slave traders used the guns to capture more people to send along the Middle Passage, and the cycle continued. Enslaved people were the base on which the triangle rested. Without the sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo, and rice produced through their labor, the trade would have collapsed.

The human toll of the transatlantic slave trade was immense. Conditions on the Middle Passage were brutal, and some ships held as many as five to six hundred people. Some captains, knowing that 10 to 20 percent would die on the voyage, packed as many people as possible into the hold, hoping enough would survive to earn them a good profit. In the hold, men were separated from women and children and were chained side by side on their backs, sometimes with only a few inches of space above them (Figure 5.21). In 1713, the Royal Africa Company, a British company, instructed captains that enslaved people should be allotted a space five feet long, eleven inches wide, and twenty inches high. The implication was that captains usually packed people into even smaller spaces.

Two black and white aerial drawings of a slave ship are shown. Letters are shown indicating parts of the ship. The top drawing is labelled “Fig. V.” It shows drawings of people extremely close to one another all around the perimeter of the boat, except for the back. The middle of the drawing is white. The bottom drawing is labelled “Fig. IV” and shows people drawn extremely close to one another in every portion of the boat in neat rows. There is very minimal space left. Two white spaces in the back left corners of the boat are white and labelled “Store Room.”
Figure 5.21 This eighteenth-century diagram of a slave ship reveals how tightly packed the hold was with human beings. Captains stowed people in every possible space. (credit: modification of work “Slave ship diagram” by Lilly Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana University/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

During the voyage, sailors gave the enslaved people food and water usually once a day. There were no facilities for bathing, and men and women alike relieved themselves in buckets or tubs that often overturned in rough seas. Ventilation was poor, the stench was horrible, and the heat excruciating. At times crews would bring the enslaved Africans onto the deck for fresh air and make them jump and dance to exercise their muscles, since buyers would not pay high prices for those who looked weak. Removing captives from the hold was always a risk for the crew, however, since this was the time when a revolt was most likely to take place. Slave ship captains harshly punished any attempt at rebellion. Taking enslaved people to the deck was also risky because many used the opportunity to commit suicide rather than endure the misery on board ship or the uncertain fate that awaited them. Some captains strung nets below the ships’ rails to catch those who jumped overboard.

Illness was the slave ship captains’ constant fear. In the close quarters of the ship, infectious disease could sweep like wildfire, and every person who died reduced the captain’s profit. The most feared of all diseases was trachoma, an infection of the eyes that did not kill but left its victims blind. Enslaved people who could not see would not be purchased. Even more frightening was the possibility that the infection would spread to the crew. If the sailors lost their sight, everyone on board faced a slow death from starvation as the ship sat adrift in the water, unable to reach any port.

Slave voyages were often heavily insured against loss. The captain of the Zong took full advantage of this. When bad weather slowed his ship’s voyage across the Atlantic in 1781, members of the crew and the enslaved cargo began to die of illness. Realizing that the ship owner’s insurance policy would pay for captives lost at sea but not for those who died of sickness, the captain ordered 132 enslaved people thrown overboard to drown.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax