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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.

Photograph of Two guinea coin

Section IIIProfit & Power

Nation states, individuals and private companies engaged in and profited from the slave trade creating legacies of wealth built from human suffering.

Negroes . . . are a perishable Commodity, when you have an opportunity . . . dispose of them for gold.

Humphrey Morice, 1730

Photograph of Two guinea coin

Two-Guinea Coin

Blood Money: Two-Guinea Coin

Photograph of Two guinea coin

Two-Guinea Coin

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.

Photograph of gold coin (front and back)

Portuguese coin

European Currencies

Photograph of gold coin (front and back)

Portuguese coin

These currencies were widely exchanged over 440 years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They declared the sovereignty and wealth of the royal families and nations they represented, all of which engaged in and profited from the sale of human beings.

Photograph of African Hoe Currency

African Hoe Currency

Photograph of Katanga Cross

Katanga Cross

African Currencies

Photograph of African Hoe Currency

African Hoe Currency

Photograph of Katanga Cross

Katanga Cross

African leaders were involved in the slave trade to avoid enslavement, remove rivals or criminals, pay debts, or for profit. These artifacts, including the Hoe Blade money and the Katanga Cross, were all African currencies.

Passing on Property

Individuals and families built legacies of wealth from the slave trade and the plantation economy. This document is a record of valuable assets including land and enslaved African people passed from one generation to the next.

Image of document that passes land and enslaved people to next generation

Deed of Sale between William Walker and John and Joan Gunston, including real and human property

The Industry of Slavery

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.”

Image of a folk-art model of a slave ship

Slave Ship Model

Image of Fox's Wages book

Fox’s Wages Book, February 1775

Fox's Wages Book

Image of Fox's Wages book

Fox’s Wages Book, February 1775

Many working-class European people also risked their lives for better wages by working on slave ships. The wages of Crew members' whom served on the British slave ship Fox were recorded in this book, which indicates several crew members died by suicide or ran away.

Painting of enslaved Africans working in fields

Cutting the Sugar Cane, 1823

A short-handled sugar cane cutter with metal blade and wood handle. The metal blade is flat and wide at the head, tapering slightly towards the hilt. There is a hook protruding from the widest portion of the head of the blade. There are four metal nails in the wood handle. There are fragments of wood missing from the butt of the handle, exposing parts of the nails.

Sugar Cane Cutter

The Invention of the Western Atlantic Plantation

Painting of enslaved Africans working in fields

Cutting the Sugar Cane, 1823

A short-handled sugar cane cutter with metal blade and wood handle. The metal blade is flat and wide at the head, tapering slightly towards the hilt. There is a hook protruding from the widest portion of the head of the blade. There are four metal nails in the wood handle. There are fragments of wood missing from the butt of the handle, exposing parts of the nails.

Sugar Cane Cutter

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.

Barbados penny from 1788. One side of the coin shows an African figure in profile wearing a plumed crown with [I ∙ SERVE] at the bottom. The other side depicts a large pineapple. Around the border [BARBADOES [sic] ∙ PENNY ∙ 1788] is in raised relief. The coin is tarnished and shows wear.

Barbados Penny, front

Barbados penny from 1788. One side of the coin shows an African figure in profile wearing a plumed crown with [I ∙ SERVE] at the bottom. The other side depicts a large pineapple. Around the border [BARBADOES [sic] ∙ PENNY ∙ 1788] is in raised relief. The coin is tarnished and shows wear.

Barbados Penny, back

Barbados Penny, 1788

Barbados penny from 1788. One side of the coin shows an African figure in profile wearing a plumed crown with [I ∙ SERVE] at the bottom. The other side depicts a large pineapple. Around the border [BARBADOES [sic] ∙ PENNY ∙ 1788] is in raised relief. The coin is tarnished and shows wear.

Barbados Penny, front

Barbados penny from 1788. One side of the coin shows an African figure in profile wearing a plumed crown with [I ∙ SERVE] at the bottom. The other side depicts a large pineapple. Around the border [BARBADOES [sic] ∙ PENNY ∙ 1788] is in raised relief. The coin is tarnished and shows wear.

Barbados Penny, back

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.

Illustration of flogging an enslaved woman

Flogging of Joanna in Suriname

Photograph of wooden and leather whip

Cat-o-nine tails Whip

Violence: An Everyday Reality

Illustration of flogging an enslaved woman

Flogging of Joanna in Suriname

Photograph of wooden and leather whip

Cat-o-nine tails Whip

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."