The ghastly slave trade from Africa to the Atlantic sugar islands such as Madeira and São Tomé and then to the Western Hemisphere began in the mid-1400s and flourished for four centuries. Though historians continue to debate the numbers, it now seems probable that from twelve to fifteen million Africans were forcibly shipped out from their continent by sea. Millions more perished in African wars or raids for enslavement and in the deadly transport of captives from the interior to slave markets on the coast.
The participants in the Atlantic slave system included Arabs, Berbers, scores of African ethnic groups, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, Jews, Germans, Swedes, French, English, Danes, white Americans, Native Americans, and even thousands of New World blacks who had been emancipated or were descended from freed slaves but who then became slaveholding farmers or planters themselves. Responsibility, in short, radiated outward to peoples of every sort who had access to the immense profits generated from the world’s first system of multinational production for a mass market—production of sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, rum, dye-stuffs, rice, spices, hemp, and cotton.
Today it is both remarkable and deeply disturbing to discover that this Atlantic slave system evoked little if any meaningful protest until the late eighteenth century. When it did finally appear, the Anglo-American antislavery movement was overwhelmingly religious in character, and drew on developments in sectarian and evangelical Protestantism.1 Yet the world’s religions had long given slavery its ultimate sanction. Catholic popes enthusiastically blessed and authorized the first Portuguese slave traders in West Africa. For centuries Muslim jihads justified the enslavement of untold numbers of sub-Saharan infidels. In eighteenth-century Barbados the Church of England acquired possession of hundreds of slaves whose chests were branded with the letters “SOCIETY” to signify ownership by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. As late as the 1750s many devout British and American Quakers were actively involved in the slave trade. The small number of Jews who lived in the Atlantic community took black slavery as much for granted as did the Catholics, Muslims, Lutherans, Huguenots, Calvinists, and Anglicans. And while at least one Jewish merchant joined New York’s first antislavery society in the 1790s, Judaism was as resistant as other tradition-oriented religions to such intellectual and moral innovations.
For four centuries the African slave trade was an integral and indispensable part of European expansion and settlement of the New World. Until the 1830s the flow of coerced African labor exceeded all the smaller streams of indentured white servants and voluntary white immigrants willing to endure the risks of life in the Western Hemisphere. The demand for labor was especially acute in the tropical and semitropical zones that produced the staples and thus the wealth most desired by Europeans. In the mid-1700s the value of exports to Britain from the British West Indies was more than ten times that of exports from colonies north of the Chesapeake. And the economy of the northern colonies depended in large measure on…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.