Geography of the Slave Trade

Slavery has been a part of human history for a long time, where more powerful societies have oppressed weaker ones to lives of servitude. Though slaves have been used right from the Egyptian times of around 5000 years ago, the most notorious period of slavery occurred from the 1400s to the 1800s, when Black Africans were sold into slavery and sent around the world to the New World and the Colonies. 

While slaves were sourced from all over the world, Africa proved to be one of the best locations because of its geography in relation to the rest of the world, as well as its high population density. However, it is important to note that there was no slavery amongst the Black African societies themselves; it was almost always people from other areas of the world who took advantage of them.

The first to establish the idea of slavery in Africa were the Arabs, who participated in the slavery of Black African societies when extending their empire westwards. This exploitation of Africa and its people was then continued by the Portuguese during their exploration in the 15th century. 

Slave trading occurred in most parts of Africa. However, very distinctive forms of trade developed in different regions of the continent throughout different eras of slavery. The northern branch of the African slave trade was one of the first to form and arose after the Arabs had invaded and conquered North Africa in the AD 600s. Arabs had originally been taking Europeans as slaves, but as Europe started to grow in power and was able to protect its inhabitants, the Arabs needed to find a new source of slaves. This lack of a workforce supply prompted North African Muslim merchants to engage in commerce across the Sahara Desert and acquire Black African captives to replace the last of their European slaves. The eastern branch stemmed from the original expansion of the Islamic Empire in the 600s, in which Slaves were shipped from ports on the east coast of Africa and were sent to Iran and Iraq to be employed as soldiers, farmworkers and domestic workers. Some Muslim traders even sent slaves as far as Indonesia and China. On the other hand, the West-African branch emerged once Western settlers in the Americas realised that they needed workers to satisfy labour shortages. Since they were already familiar with this part of Africa as a source of goods such as gold, pepper and copper, this was an ideal place to source slave workers. 

Having understood the value of the slave trade and its economic benefits after its ships started arriving in Africa, the Portuguese were among the first to establish colonies in the New World and needed slaves to meet the demand for labour. This led to the Portuguese to be the first to start exporting slaves from Central Africa after they had established sugar cane plantations on the island of São Tomé in the 1500s. Soon, the English, French and Spanish (to name a few) were soon following suit to ensure they had a part in this now lucrative business of slavery and trafficking. With most Native American societies being outcompeted and killed off by European diseases, and seeing as Europeans could not be enslaved, the slave trade was established in which African slaves were transported to the New World to be sold and sent to work on primarily sugar, cotton and rice plantations.

There was a sickening process behind it all. Slaves were first sourced from African societies who enslaved other Black Africans captured in central, interior villages. These slaves were then transported to coastal villages to be trafficked out of Africa and finally auctioned off in slave markets in the Americas (or elsewhere) to the highest bidder. “By the time the trade ceased in the early 1800s, as many as 10 to 12 million Africans had been transported to and sold into slavery in the New World” [4]. Furthermore, a shocking one-third to one-half more died during confinement and transportation since the conditions on the ships were so terrible. The largest source of slaves was actually from West-Central Africa where 4 million slaves were taken, which accounts for 41% of the total slave trade between 1650 and 1900. And since many of those taken were primarily the youth and teenagers, many parts of Africa were left deprived of the young who would play a role in economic development. This has led to many believing that “it is impossible to say what Africa could be like today had it escaped the widespread and long-lasting ravages of the slave trade” [2].

The end of the slave trade started coming about after a strong movement emerged in 18th-century Britain to put an end to the buying and selling of human beings. The campaigners faced a long and difficult struggle. These early activists included men such as Thomas Clarkson and George Fox, who argued that “the only way to end the suffering of enslaved Africans was to make the slave trade illegal by banning British ships from taking part in the trade” [6]. Those involved convened in 1787 to form the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Despite opposition from a variety of people, the abolitionists and their supporters persisted. In 1806, Lord Grenville made a moving speech arguing that the trade was ‘contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy’. When the bill to abolish the slave trade was finally voted upon, there was a majority of 41 votes to 20 in the Lords and a majority of 114 to 15 in the Commons. On the 25th of March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered the statute books. 

Sadly, once the slave trade had ended, traffic of slaves still continued in some places; however, these practices were not only illegal but were widely recognised as morally wrong and violations of basic human rights. However, while the abolition of the slave trade was an amazing victory, there were some negative side effects for Africans: the abolition had inspired a Christian reform movement which gave Europeans an excuse to be involved in African affairs. Sadly, as time passed, the aim rid the world of slavery became, in the eyes of many Europeans, a justification for bringing African territory under their control.

It is important that we always recognise the suffering of those who were slaves and how millions of people were wronged and denied basic human rights. Though it is largely a thing of the past, the effects are still present today, because as of right now, many of the countries in Africa aren’t as economically developed as western and predominantly “white” countries. Hence the history of human slavery must be always be acknowledged, accounted for and taught to everyone. Slavery has and always will be a part of human history and we do not want a repeat of any mass exploitation of any race or region. 








(Featured Image: Samuel Griswold Goodrich, 1832)