The transatlantic slave trade: what do you know about it? As I explore the impacts of racism in the United States and understand how I can work to reduce systemic racism, I’ve come across more information about the transatlantic slave trade.
The first bits of this information came from the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. This led me to read and explore more on the subject.
It is safe to say that one element of white privilege is not having to learn about, or live with the direct legacy of, the full scale of the transatlantic slave trade. Yes, I knew a bit about it from school but, honestly, that knowledge was superficial – perhaps because the teaching of the subject was superficial and also perhaps because there wasn’t an imperative for me as a white person to really learn about it.
Better late than never. Let me share a bit of what I have learned and what it means to me. I am curious what you have learned about this subject in school – or even afterwards. And if some of this information is new to you, I am curious what your response to it is.
Slave trade goes back at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Much of it was centered in the Arab world, which was then the crossroads of much of civilization. Crucially, though, the transatlantic slave trade created a racial hierarchy – something that was not a feature of the Arab slave trade and the implications of which are still very much with us.
In the early 1440s, Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, sponsored Nuno Tristão‘s exploration of the African coast as Portugal worked its way down to, and eventually around, the Cape of Good Hope.
Prince Henry also sponsored Antão Gonçalves‘ first hunting expedition to Africa. Both Tristão and Gonçalves brought back African captives – the first enslaved Africans in Europe. Within a few decades, there were more than 900 enslaved Africans in Portugal. The Portuguese (and, eventually, other European states) had an opportunity to circumvent the Arab slave trade.
Prince Henry’s biographer, Gomes de Zurara, wrote in his 1453 book “The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea”, of a savage people (the ones in Africa) who were distinct and different from people in Europe – inferior and worthy of enslavement.
To create this hierarchy, Zurara described them as, “like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings.” In 1481, French poet Jacques de Brézé introduced the term “race” – first referring to different breeds of dogs. In 1606 French diplomat Jean Nicot added the word “race” to the dictionary in reference to distinctions between different groups of people. Race was a purely social construct, but one that served to give name to a characteristic by which humans could ranked. No surprise, but the “white” people who came up with the ranking system put themselves at the top.
Now, it is my understanding that many if not most creatures in the animal kingdom create dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, which have been around 350 million years, are a well-studied example of this. Lions have a leader of the pride. Gorillas have a dominant leader.
Those hierarchies are usually about how individuals rank or the relationship between different families, tribes or other small groups. What catches my attention about humans – particularly what these western Europeans did – is that this construction of a racial hierarchy was so broad, so arbitrary, so nonfactual – and yet it has had so enduring an impact on our species, one still felt more than 500 years later.
At some level I can understand a feud between people of different religious beliefs – a fight over doctrine. Or even people in one state versus another – a fight over territory. But to take an entire continent’s worth of people and construct a rationale to explain how they are less human than yourself and, therefore, it is okay to enslave them? That seems incredulous.
By the second half of the 1400s, African enslavement was already commonplace by the Portuguese. This was out of a desire for profit and power.
In 1510, Spanish lawyer Alonso de Zuazo justified the enslavement of Africans in Spanish colonies in the new world, writing, “General license should be given to bring negroes, [a people] strong for work, the opposite of the natives, so weak who can work only in undemanding tasks.” (By “natives”, de Zuazo meant the indigenous people in Spanish colonies in the Americas.)
In 1526, the first ship departed across the Atlantic bound for Brazil with a cargo of enslaved Africans. Eventually, the Portuguese were joined in this trade by the British, Spanish, French, Dutch and Danes. Their involvement in the trade was roughly in that order, based on the volume of enslaved people traded.
For most of the 1500s, most slave trade was to South American colonies. But this was eventually as little as three percent of the total slave trade across the Atlantic.
From the 1600s, almost all of the transatlantic slave trade was to the Caribbean and North American colonies. As Kendi puts it, “Slavery was an economic phenomenon given a racist rationale.” The Caribbean and Southern colonies produced commodities that required hard labor in harsh conditions: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.
In 1619, the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colony of Virginia. Originally classified as indentured servants who would be set free after seven years of labor, the laws were soon changed and their bondage became permanent.
In 1641 in the colony of Massachusetts, the first slave law was enacted. By 1656, chattel slavery was legalized in the colonies. In 1662, the law was further changed, making children born of enslaved people the property of the slave owner. This is notable, because it was again an effort to further the racial hierarchy, to use racial rationale to achieve power – and to maintain it.
In 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, wrote a petition against slavery, the first public document of its kind in the colonies. The petition, ignored at the time, would resurface more than 150 years later.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, 20% of the colonial population were enslaved people – as high as 40% in Virginia. There is an interesting paradox that the colonies were fighting for freedom while preserving the enslavement of other humans. This issue was a matter of great debate: ironically, Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, attempted to include a paragraph in his Declaration of Independence attacking slavery, only for it to be struck out by the Continental Congress.
Some blacks, mostly free, did fight for the colonies’ independence. But the last governor of colonial Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation announcing that any slaves who ran away from their plantations and fought for the British would be freed and given land after the war.
Between 3,000 and 4,000 runaway slaves signed his ledger, now referred to as “The Book of Negroes”. After the war, Dunmore kept his promise and these formerly enslaved people were resettled in Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Britain.
After the war, some founding fathers worked towards the abolition of slavery. William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, set his slaves free. Alexander Hamilton had a hatred of slavery. Benjamin Franklin, who had slaves, founded an abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania.
By 1804, northern states had abolished slavery, although some converted enslaved persons into indentured servitude. In 1808, the importation of enslaved people was outlawed, although slavery and the domestic trade of slaves was still allowed.
In 1844, the Quaker petition from 1688 resurfaced and became fodder for a growing abolitionist movement.
The Civil War was fought not so much about slavery but about the preservation of the Union. Abraham Lincoln was not a fervent abolitionist – as early as 1849, he advocated a program of only gradual emancipation – and he expressed racist ideas about the supposed inferiority of blacks. These were the prevailing sentiments of the time and, one could argue whether it is fair to evaluate Lincoln through the lens of modern mores. Still, I think the lesson I learned growing up was that the war was about slavery as much as it was about preserving the Union and that isn’t correct.
Still, Lincoln did sign the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This did not free all slaves in the United States, only those slaves in states not under Union control. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States.
An estimated 12-12.8 million Africans were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean over 400 years. An estimated 10-20 percent perished on the voyage. And the racism constructed as a rationale for this slavery, has so deeply stained western culture (and, to an extent, all of humanity) that its impacts are still felt today.
The stories that we hold, halfway unconsciously, about black people – and even the idea that there is such a distinct thing as “black” and “white” people – is a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
For me, understanding a bit more about this history helps me see the intentional and systematic nature of racism. And this makes it all the more clear that making a conscious choice to be anti-racist is necessary to dismantle the system and rectify the injustice. Because one can’t just be neutral on matters of justice.