Skip to Content
Portrait of people on shore and in boat

Chapter 04

1514–1866, The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration of people in world history. Profits from the sale of enslaved humans and their labor laid the economic foundation for Western Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The human cost was the immense physical and psychological toll on the enslaved. Their lives were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice.

Portrait of Danish Ship, Fredensborg II sailing on ocean

Section IA Global Trade

A Global Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a massive endeavor with a global reach. It involved ports throughout the Atlantic World. In Europe and the Americas, governments, businesses, and entrepreneurs built and retrofitted ships to meet the high demand for enslaved Africans. The Atlantic was a commercial highway, not so different from those today. Along with money and trade goods, the commodities included enslaved African people and the products of their labor.

Illustration of Paquito de Cabo Verde Portuguese Slave Brig

Portuguese Slave Brig Paquito de Cabo Verde

This trade, so highly beneficial to the Adventurers, and important to the State; a Trade sanctioned by the Clergy, supported by the Judges, and authorized by the laws.

Robert Norris, 1788

Ships of the Trade

Slave ships were draped with flags of their countries and with banners of the merchant companies that held monopolies to trade in human capital. It was common for at least 30 slave ships to sit at anchor off the same part of the African coast, awaiting human cargo to be transported from shore and stowed in the hull. After several stops along the coast, ships with hulls packed to capacity were ready to set sail across the Atlantic.

Adinkra Symbols

Adinkra symbols are used to convey knowledge, wisdom, and culture. They originate from the Ashanti people of present-day Ghana. Often seen on textiles, the symbols together tell a story. Throughout the African Diaspora, objects made by enslaved people demonstrate the continuity of African knowledge and culture. While there are at least 60 Adinkra symbols, the five featured in the following gallery represent enslavement, freedom, reaching back to regain one’s history, the omnipotence of God, and reconciliation.

Preview of video Shipping Human Cargo on the Atlantic Highway

Shipping Human Cargo on the Atlantic Highway

This short video serves as a poetic representation of the slave trade and Middle Passage experience. It calls out a few of the tens of thousands of slave ships that crossed the Atlantic. It features reflections from enslaved African people, enslavers, and observers of the trade. African culture is symbolically displayed through the inclusion of select Adinkra symbols.

Image of Asiento contract document

Asiento de negros

Asiento de negros, Spain

Image of Asiento contract document

Asiento de negros

The asiento, like this one granted to Britain in 1713, was a monopoly contract granted by the King of Spain to provide an annual supply of enslaved Africans to Spanish colonies. The control of the contract changed several times as European nation states and private slave trade venturers competed for the coveted position secure human capitol for the Spanish colonies.

Illustration of Portuguese Caravel

Portuguese Caravel, ca. 1506

1441–1836, Portugal

Illustration of Portuguese Caravel

Portuguese Caravel, ca. 1506

5.8 million African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas

Illustration of French Slave Ship, Marie-Séraphique

French Slave Ship, Marie-Séraphique

1549–1818, France

Illustration of French Slave Ship, Marie-Séraphique

French Slave Ship, Marie-Séraphique

1.4 million African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas

Illustration of a Liverpool slave ship

A Liverpool Slave Ship

1562–1807, Great Britain

Illustration of a Liverpool slave ship

A Liverpool Slave Ship

3.3 million African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas

Illustration of Dutch sailing ship used in slave trade

A Dutch Slave Ship

1619–1814, The Netherlands

Illustration of Dutch sailing ship used in slave trade

A Dutch Slave Ship

555,300 African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas

Portrait of Danish Ship, Fredensborg II sailing on ocean

Danish Slave Ship, Fredensborg II

1649–1802, Denmark

Portrait of Danish Ship, Fredensborg II sailing on ocean

Danish Slave Ship, Fredensborg II

85,000 African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas

Photograph of Presentation Spyglass

Presentation Spyglass

Policing the Illegal Trade

Photograph of Presentation Spyglass

Presentation Spyglass

Middle Passage voyages continued after laws were passed that abolished the international slave trade, though slavery continued. This spyglass was presented to officers aboard the Pearl, a British Royal Navy ship, for their capture of the Diligenté slave ship. The Diligenté illegally carried a cargo of 480 enslaved Africans bound for Cuba from Lagos, on the western coast of Africa.