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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2019

7 - The Atlantic Slave Trade


A HISTORY OF AFRICA MUST GIVE A CENTRAL PLACE TO THE ATLANTIC slave trade, both for its moral and emotional significance and for its potential importance in shaping the continent's development. The view taken here is that its effects were extensive, complex, and understandable only in light of the character that African societies had already taken during their long struggle with nature. At the least, slave exports interrupted western Africa's demographic growth for two centuries. The trade stimulated new forms of political and social organisation, wider use of slaves within the continent, and more brutal attitudes towards suffering. Sub-Saharan Africa already lagged technologically, but the Atlantic trade helped to accentuate its backwardness. Yet amidst this misery, it is vital to remember that Africans survived the slave trade with their political independence and social institutions largely intact. Paradoxically, this shameful period also displayed human resilience at its most courageous. The splendour of Africa lay in its suffering.


The Atlantic slave trade began in 1441 when a young Portuguese sea-captain, Antam Gonçalvez, kidnapped a man and woman on the western Saharan coast to please his employer, Prince Henry the Navigator – successfully, for Gonçalvez was knighted. Four years later, the Portuguese built a fort on Arguin Island, off the Mauritanian coast, from which to purchase slaves and, more particularly, gold, which was especially scarce at this time. After failing in 1415 to capture the gold trade by occupying Ceuta on the Moroccan coast, Portuguese mariners groped down the West African coast towards the gold sources. Arguin was designed to lure gold caravans away from the journey to Morocco. Yet slaves were not merely by-products, for a lively market in African slaves had existed since the mid-fourteenth century in southern Europe, where labour was scarce after the Black Death and slavery had survived since Roman times in domestic service and pockets of intensive agriculture, especially the production of sugar, which Europeans had learned from Muslims during the Crusades. As sugar plantations spread westwards through the Mediterranean to Atlantic islands like Madeira and eventually to the Americas, they depended increasingly on slave labour. The Atlantic slave trade was largely a response to their demand.