The Atlantic trade in the 17th century generally involved the transportation of slaves from Africa, mainly to the Americas. Europe's colonization of the Caribbean islands and America from the start of the 15th century initiated a limitless demand for African laborers. African laborers were on high demand because they were deemed suitable to work in the tropical conditions of the New World. Thus, the number of Africans transported to the New World significantly increased from generally 6000 slaves a year in the fifteenth century to close to 200,000 slaves by the onset of the 18th century. The first Africans taken to European colonies were referred to as "apprentice for life" or "indentured servants." Additionally, their offspring were the property of their owners by law and regarded as units of labor or merchandise sold as goods and services in markets.
To begin with, the Portuguese were the first to take part in the Trans-Atlantic trade, and others followed soon. During the long sea journeys, ship owners considered the slaves as cargo to be transported to America as cheaply and quickly as possible. They were generally sold as laborers in sugar, cotton, cocoa, tobacco, rice, and coffee plantations, as house servants and in the construction industry. According to Richardson and Eltis (2015) the evolving political changes and the emergence of trade alliances in the continent resulted in changes in the geographical origins of slaves during the slave trade era (Richardson & Eltis, 2015). It was unfortunate for slaves who were the victims of the expansion of territories by imperial African states. Firearms, which were the primary goods exchanged for slaves, increased violence in African states since it gave military strength to communities, making them exploitative. A tobacco pipe from the 19th century in the democratic republic of Congo shows the degree in which elite arts, warfare, and the slave trade were intertwined during that era (Franklin & Higginbotham, 1956). The pipe was a class of wealthy traders who could afford imported tobacco with firearms demonstrating how slaves were acquired in the first place.
However, the Atlantic trade was not the start of slavery in Africa as the slavery culture existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans. There was no private land ownership; thus, slavery was one of the few forms of wealth-producing properties in the pre-colonial African communities. Community leaders also maintained corps off loyal slaves for political security by encouraging political centralization. Slaves were also transported to India, Arabia, Asia, and North Africa. However, it is impossible to argue that the trans-Atlantic trade did not have an impact on the development of slavery in Africa. As the demand for slaves significantly increased in the New World, the exploitative prices made the slave trade an extremely lucrative business. Whatley and Gillezeau (2011) suggest that African states were ready to cash in on the business at the same time condemning individuals and their families to a fate they had never imagined (Whatley & Gillezeau, 2011). For instance, the Yoruba kingdom in the Guinean coast rapidly expanded because of the slave trade. Its strong army aided by the advanced iron technology meant that they had the ability to capture many slaves who were sold to traders.
With the impacts of the trade escalating, some European countries tried to regulate the trade by chattering some national companies which were established under the parliamentary order such as England's Royal African Company. However, these efforts to create monopolies in the bid to regulate the trade was undermined by pirates and private-owned companies who established new markets in the Gambia, the Gold Coast, the Northern Angolan Coast and the Bight of Biafra (Daaku, 1970). The trade was operated by credit and used by traders as new denominations of the trade such as cloth, cowry shells, gold, silver coins, and iron bars emerged. Each of the regions with their slaves experimented with innovative trading techniques and marketing. To a great extent, the competition led to the maintenance of trading depots and forts such as in the Bight of Benin and the Gold Coast. The trade was a highly risky business since the commodity, which was humans, could; fell victim to epidemics, commit suicide, be murdered, or escape. Furthermore, local merchants could sometimes disappear with payments and never produce the slaves agreed upon. Since the business went across international borders, there was no discourse on courts in the event of commercial dishonesty.
In summation, the Trans-Atlantic trade had severe impacts on the African cultural landscape. Some of the regions that were hit hard suffered from population decline as it is believed that shortage if men changed the cultural family structure in many societies. Women had to step in roles that they left by men who were taken away as slaves. The trade also left a legacy of brutality and violence, which shaped the character of enforced migration. The trade also had positive impacts as the continent was opened up to civilization with new goods such as cloth and firearms getting into the continent. From the fine wood carvings of the Chokwe chiefdoms to the gold and silver work of the Asante and Dahomey court, these treasures are a reflection of the turbulent Trans-Atlantic trade.
Daaku, K. Y. (1970). Trade and politics on the Gold Coast, 1600-1720: a study of the African reaction to European trade. Clarendon Press.
Eltis, D. (2001). The volume and structure of the transatlantic slave trade: a reassessment. The William and Mary Quarterly, 58(1), 17-46.
Franklin, J. H., & Higginbotham, E. B. (1956). From slavery to freedom (p. 247). New York: Knopf.
Richardson, D., & Eltis, D. (2015). Atlas of the transatlantic slave trade. Yale University Press.
Whatley, W., & Gillezeau, R. (2011). The impact of the transatlantic slave trade on ethnic stratification in Africa. American Economic Review, 101(3), 571-76.
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