Transatlantic slave trade, segment of the global slave trade that transported between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century. It was the second of three stages of the so-called triangular trade, in which arms, textiles, and wine were shipped from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, and sugar and coffee from the Americas to Europe.
By the 1480s, Portuguese ships were already transporting Africans for use as slaves on the sugar plantations in the Cape Verde and Madeira islands in the eastern Atlantic. Spanish conquistadors took African slaves to the Caribbean after 1502, but Portuguese merchants continued to dominate the transatlantic slave trade for another century and a half, operating from their bases in the Congo-Angola area along the west coast of Africa. The Dutch became the foremost slave traders during parts of the 1600s, and in the following century English and French merchants controlled about half of the transatlantic slave trade, taking a large percentage of their human cargo from the region of West Africa between the Sénégal and Niger rivers.
Probably no more than a few hundred thousand Africans were taken to the Americas before 1600. In the 17th century, however, demand for slave labour rose sharply with the growth of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake region in North America. The largest numbers of slaves were taken to the Americas during the 18th century, when, according to historians’ estimates, nearly three-fifths of the total volume of the transatlantic slave trade took place.
The slave trade had devastating effects in Africa. Economic incentives for warlords and tribes to engage in the slave trade promoted an atmosphere of lawlessness and violence. Depopulation and a continuing fear of captivity made economic and agricultural development almost impossible throughout much of western Africa. A large percentage of the people taken captive were women in their childbearing years and young men who normally would have been starting families. The European slavers usually left behind persons who were elderly, disabled, or otherwise dependent—groups who were least able to contribute to the economic health of their societies.
Historians have debated the nature and extent of European and African agency in the actual capture of those who were enslaved. During the early years of the transatlantic slave trade, the Portuguese generally purchased Africans who had been taken as slaves during tribal wars. As the demand for slaves grew, the Portuguese began to enter the interior of Africa to forcibly take captives; as other Europeans became involved in the slave trade, generally they remained on the coast and purchased captives from Africans who had transported them from the interior.
Following capture, the Africans were marched to the coast, a journey that could be as many as 300 miles (485 km). Typically, two captives were chained together at the ankle, and columns of captives were tied together by ropes around their necks. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the captives died on their way to the coast.
The Atlantic passage (or Middle Passage) was notorious for its brutality and for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on slave ships, in which hundreds of Africans were packed tightly into tiers below decks for a voyage of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km). They were typically chained together, and usually the low ceilings did not permit them to sit upright.
The heat was intolerable, and the oxygen levels became so low that candles would not burn. Because crews feared insurrection, the Africans were allowed to go outside on the upper decks for only a few hours each day. Historians estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of the African slaves bound for the Americas died aboard slave ships. The autobiographical account of the West African Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789, is particularly well known for its graphic descriptions of the suffering endured on the transatlantic voyages.
Atrocities and sexual abuse of the enslaved captives were widespread, although their monetary value as slaves perhaps mitigated such treatment. In an infamous incident of the slave ship Zong in 1781, when both Africans and crew members were dying of an infectious disease, Capt. Luke Collingwood, hoping to stop the disease, ordered that more than 130 Africans be thrown overboard. He then filed an insurance claim on the value of the murdered slaves. Occasionally, the African captives successfully revolted and took over the ships. The most-famous such incident occurred when in 1839 a slave named Joseph Cinqué led a mutiny of 53 illegally purchased slaves on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, killing the captain and two members of the crew. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered the Africans to be returned to their homes.
At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), there was widespread support in the northern American colonies for prohibiting the importation of more slaves. However, after the revolution, at the insistence of Southern states, Congress waited more than two decades before making the importation of slaves illegal. When Congress did so, in 1808, the law was enacted with little dissent, but Caribbean smugglers frequently violated the law until it was enforced by the Northern blockade of the South in 1861 during the American Civil War.
After Great Britain outlawed slavery throughout its empire in 1833, the British navy diligently opposed the slave trade in the Atlantic and used its ships to try to prevent slave-trading operations. Brazil outlawed the slave trade in 1850, but the smuggling of new slaves into Brazil did not end entirely until the country finally enacted emancipation in 1888.