For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract labourers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). During the eighteenth century however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor - responsible for almost 2.5 million. (A fact often forgotten by those who regularly cite Britain's prime role in the abolition of the slave trade.)
The triangular trade
Expanding European empires in the New World lacked one major resource -- a work force. In most cases the indigenous peoples had proved unreliable (most of them were dying from diseases brought over from Europe), and Europeans were unsuited to the climate and suffered under tropical diseases. Africans, on the other hand, were excellent workers: they often had experience of agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines.
Africans had been traded as slaves for centuries -- reaching Europe via the Islamic-run, trans-Saharan, trade routes. Slaves obtained from the Muslim dominated North African coast however proved to be too well educated to be trusted and had a tendency to rebellion.
Between 1450 and the end of the nineteenth century, slaves were obtained from along the west coast of Africa with the full and active co-operation of African kings and merchants. (There were occasional military campaigns organised by Europeans to capture slaves, especially by the Portuguese in what is now Angola, but this accounts for only a small percentage of the total.) In return, the African kings and merchants received various trade goods including beads, cowrie shells (used as money), textiles, brandy, horses, and perhaps most importantly, guns. The guns were used to help expand empires and obtain more slaves, until they were finally used against the European colonisers. The export of trade goods from Europe to Africa forms the first side of the triangular trade.
The transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas forms the middle passage of the triangular trade. Several distinct regions can be identified along the west African coast, these are distinguished by the particular European countries who visited the slave ports, the peoples who were enslaved, and the dominant African society(s) who provided the slaves.
So, for example, Senegambia includes the Wolof, Mandinka, Sereer and Fula; Upper Gambia has the Temne, Mende, and Kissi; the Windward Coast has the Vai, De, Bassa, and Grebo.
Slaves were introduced to new diseases and suffered from malnutrition long before they reached the new world. It is suggested that the majority of deaths on the voyage across the Atlantic - the middle passage - occurred during the first couple of weeks and were a result of malnutrition and disease encountered during the forced marches and subsequent interment at slave camps on the coast.
Conditions on the slave ships were terrible, but the estimated death rate of around 13% is lower than the mortality rate for seamen, officers and passengers on the same voyages.
As a result of the slave trade, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas than Europeans. Slaves were needed on plantations and for mines and the majority was shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. Less than 5% travelled to the Northern American States formally held by the British.
The third, and final, leg of the triangular trade involved the return to Europe with the produce from the slave-labour plantations: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.
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