Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Supplies for European demands

by Washington Alcott

Between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth century European merchants forcefully removed some 12 million Africans as slaves to the Americas.There, the enslaved Africans were put to work on sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations.

Early European trade and exploitation in Africa

Europeans first entered Africa during their attempts to find a shorter trade route to India and Asia. They started trading in gold. However, the trade in enslaved people soon became more important and profitable for them. Their exploits in trading Africans as slaves went on for over 400 years.

The Portuguese became attracted to west Africa with a kind of ‘gold fever’. There was an abundance of quality and crafted gold which the Portuguese pursued with vigour. At the same time they were looking for a short cut: they hoped to discover a valuable trading sea route around Africa to Asia. As they travelled, they developed colonies on the Atlantic islands of Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde as well as Sao Tome in west Africa.

Slavery was already established in Europe. Spain and Portugal, and briefly France, invaded the Canary Islands (north west of Africa) and used captured islanders as slaves, to work in the Canaries and also to be taken to Europe.

The start of the sugar trade

Spain and Portugal began growing sugar in their colonies because sugar fetched a high price in Europe. To grow the sugar, they began by using poor Europeans: either convicted criminals or people who were paid very little money and had to stay in the job for a long time (‘bonded labour’). But not enough of these Europeans were being supplied to plantation owners for all the work that needed to be done, and the Europeans did not survive very well. So the plantation owners turned to Africa for enslaved labour.

Portuguese and transatlantic slavery

The Portuguese were the first to develop the transatlantic slave trade. The trade began when the Portuguese seized and exported 235 Africans from the coast of present day Senegal in 1444.

Other Europeans, notably the Spanish, began trading Africans. By 1500 some 175,000 Africans had been shipped from Africa to Europe. In a short period of time, ‘gold fever’ was over – the attraction of African gold ended – and slavery became the boom industry. Why? The brutal European colonies in the Americas originally used the people they found living there – the indigenous people – for slave labour. But these people died in vast numbers from European diseases, leaving not enough people to work the land. So again the gap in the workforce was filled by the labour of enslaved Africans.

Chattel slavery

Most of the Africans whom Europeans would buy as slaves lived in small agricultural communities. They were skilled farmers and knew how to grow crops well. In chattel slavery the people enslaved were treated like chairs or tables: they were like property and so they had no human rights whatsoever. This was the basic way that the enslaved Africans were treated by the Europeans. On top of this, the Europeans tried to get Africans living in Africa to think and act in a similar way towards their fellow Africans. By using corruption and bribery, the Europeans encouraged elite Africans and powerful merchants to trade in enslaved Africans. There was resistance to this in Africa. But the Europeans superior fighting technology and sea power enabled them to hold the upper hand in many of their encounters.

Chattel slavery led to the utmost cruelty and inhumanity. It was at the very core of the debasement of Africans that ultimately accompanied the massive transfer of people against their will from one continent to another. According to Molefi Asente, 'Chattel slavery has been rudely misunderstood, treated almost gingerly like it was some decent term to describe a quaint practice that was acceptable to high society. By the middle of the seventeenth century Africans who entered the Caribbean and the Americas were firmly established as chattel property'.

Trading conditions

The trade in enslaved Africans was a vast enterprise. It required a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions. Without the help of European banks to finance the initial phase, it would not have happened. Neither would it have happened without the European invasion of the Americas. And it certainly would not have happened if the sugar and cotton plantations had not been rapidly developed by enslaved Africans on those captured lands.

Europeans created a vast trading system between the 1400s and 1700s. It was known as the triangular trade. They exported large quantities of goods to the west African coast: textiles, metal wares, alcoholic spirits, firearms and other items. These they traded for enslaved Africans. They took these enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas where they traded them for sugar, cotton and other items. The Europeans made super profits from all this trade.

In the early days of the transatlantic slave trade European countries did not officially get involved. The European states simply turned a blind eye to what was happening. The first act against Africa by whites was often a unilateral act of war – a military invasion – with or without warning. There were no African kings or queens as guests in any of the European countries when ships set sail for Africa to capture and trade for slaves.

The ‘slaving’ industry was at first completely unregulated. White businesspeople who funded ships, or who sailed out in ships to enslave Africans, did not need any agreement from any European governments to do this. Nor did they seek permission from any of the African governments.

Supply and demand?

In economics we talk about supply and demand, so that when someone is supplying something and there is a demand for it, then trade can happen. Was the transatlantic slave trade really a trade in this way? In fact it was mostly driven by demand from Europe, it was not a supply driven market out of Africa. Africans did not usually seek to sell captives to the Europeans without first being forced to by war or intimidation, so now people are questioning whether it is right to call it a ‘trade’ at all.

When Europeans entered Africa in the mid 1400s and early 1500s there was already considerable turmoil in Africa. Wars were being fought between African peoples. The Europeans exploited this. They would choose a favourite side to win between African nations at war and would supply that side with guns. The African side which was armed with guns would usually win. The winners rounded up the losers as captives of war and these losers were sold to the Europeans in exchange for more guns or other goods.

Sometimes such captives were taken straight onto slaving ships. But Europeans would sometimes use these captives in other slaving raids. Such captives were particularly effective at raids. They often held grudges against groups they were ordered to raid, having fought and lost wars against them in the past. For example, the vast majority of enslaved Africans from the interior of the Bight of Benin, the Gold Coast and Senegambia were taken under these circumstances.

European exploitation and aggression

There were three other patterns in the development of the slave supply mechanism sponsored by the Europeans.

Firstly, ‘frontier creep’: wars and large scale raiding by states sometimes stripped surrounding areas of their populations. The surviving state in the area would then be expanded. As this state expanded, the enslavement frontier – the place where people to enslave from outside of the state could be found – was pushed back.

Secondly, endless war: war between neighbouring states could continue indefinitely. In this situation, no single state would claim victory in the war. Consequently, no single state featured larger than any other in the enslavement of people.

Thirdly, lawlessness: the spread of lawlessness such as kidnapping and small-scale raiding, led to the random enslavement of people and created areas which became low in population. This type of raiding was popular mainly in the far interior regions, for example in Angola where warlords, who were known as prazeros, operated far inland, capturing Africans and taking them to the coast.

Profit and capitalism

The transatlantic slave trade sustained the institution of chattel slavery for hundreds of years. It was a trade driven by greed. 'It was this labour (by the African slaves) that fed financial accumulation, economic expansion and the base for industrial acquisition, that is, the development of capitalism' (Eric Williams). The Europeans knew the supply of Africans as enslaved labour would ensure the prosperity of the colonies and create more wealth for the hundreds of European traders and investors who were involved.