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.
"Negroes . . . are a perishable Commodity, when you have an opportunity . . . dispose of them for gold."
Humphrey Morice, 1730
The Guinea coin, produced in England, was named for Guinea on the west coast of Africa. The trade in gold and enslaved people secured the raw material for the coin and the profits behind it. The elephant and the crown represented the Royal African Company, which briefly held the British trade monopoly in Africa.
Reflections on the Middle Passage are evoked by this folk-art model of a slave ship. J. Wallace, a writer in Liverpool, England, stated in 1795, “Almost everyman in Liverpool is a merchant . . . small vessels are fitted out by attorneys, drapers, ropers, grocers, tallow chandlers.”
The land and climate of the Caribbean and South America proved suitable for growing cash crops on vast tracts of land—Atlantic World plantations. The availability of enslaved African people made this environment immensely profitable. The forced labor of enslaved African people served to clear and cultivate the land for sugar and other cash crops. Plantation work was particularly brutal, and enslaved Black people were considered expendable. Returns from the commodities produced by enslaved people were so great that it was profitable to work African men, women and children to death.
Many enslavers produced plantation tokens unique to their properties. This token features the bust of an enslaved African man and the phrase "I Serve." Currencies, both local and national, displayed images that provided a visual telling of the acceptance of slavery and the slave trade and the subservient role of Black people.
In the fields of a sugar or rice plantation, the labor was harsh and dangerous. The violence of overseers was another threat to the lives of enslaved people. As one Jamaican slaveholder claimed in 1803, "A slave . . . must necessarily move by the will of another . . . hence the necessity of terror to coerce his obedience."