Sources of Labor: Triangular Trade and the Atlantic Slave Trade
Triangular trade, which would bring indentured servitude and slavery to the future colonies, is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above regions.
Historically the particular routes were also shaped by the powerful influence of winds and currents during the age of sail. For example, from the main trading nations of Western Europe, it was much easier to sail westwards after first going south of 30 N latitude and reaching the so-called “trade winds”; thus arriving in the Caribbean rather than going straight west to the North American mainland. Returning from North America, it is easiest to follow the Gulf Stream in a northeasterly direction using the westerlies.
A triangle similar to this, called the volta do mar was already being used by the Portuguese, before Christopher Columbus’ voyage, to sail to the Canary Islands and the Azores. Columbus simply expanded this triangle outwards, and his route became the main way for Europeans to reach, and return from, the Americas.
Atlantic Slave Trade
The best-known triangular trading system is the transatlantic slave trade that operated from the late 16th to early 19th centuries, carrying slaves, cash crops, and manufactured goods between West Africa, Caribbean or American colonies and the European colonial powers, with the northern colonies of British North America, especially New England, sometimes taking over the role of Europe. The use of African slaves was fundamental to growing colonial cash crops, which were exported to Europe. European goods, in turn, were used to purchase African slaves, who were then brought on the sea lane west from Africa to the Americas, the so-called Middle Passage.
Despite being driven primarily by economic needs, Europeans sometimes had a religious justification for their actions. In 1452, for instance, Pope Nicholas V, in the Dum Diversas, granted to the kings of Spain and Portugal “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens [Muslims] and pagans and any other unbelievers … and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”
Again, this process involved the transportation by slave traders of enslaved African people, mainly to the Americas. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were people from Central and West Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans, or by half-European “merchant princes” to Western European slave traders (with a small number being captured directly by the slave traders in coastal raids), who brought them to the Americas. Except for the Portuguese, European slave traders generally did not participate in the raids because life expectancy for Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa was less than one year during the period of the slave trade (which was prior to the development of quinine as a treatment for malaria).
Slave Coast of West Africa
The Slave Coast is a historical name formerly used for that part of coastal West Africa along the Bight of Benin that is located between the Volta River and the Lagos Lagoon.The name is derived from the region’s history as a major source of Africans that were taken into slavery during the Atlantic slave trade from the early 16th century to the late 19th century. Other nearby coastal regions historically known by their prime colonial export are the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast (or Windward Coast), and the Pepper Coast (or Grain Coast).
European sources began documenting the development of trade in this region and its integration into the trans-Atlantic slave trade around 1670. The slave trade became so extensive in the 18th and 19th centuries that an “Atlantic community” was formed. The slave trade was facilitated on the European end by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British. Slaves went to the New World, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Ports that exported these slaves from Africa include:
- Ouidah, Benin
- Lagos, Nigeria
- Aného (Little Popo), Togo
- Grand-Popo, Benin
- Agoué, Benin
- Jakin (unknown)
- Porto-Novo, Benin
- Badagry, Nigeria
These ports traded in slaves that were supplied from African communities, tribes and kingdoms, including the Alladah and Ouidah, which were later taken over by the Dahomey kingdom.
Researchers estimate that between two and three million people were stolen out of this region and traded for goods like alcohol and tobacco from the Americas and textiles from Europe. Current estimates are that about 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic from West Africa, although the number purchased by traders was considerably higher.
The coast was called “the White man’s grave” due to the mass amount of death from illnesses such as yellow fever, malaria, heat exhaustion, and many gastro-entero sicknesses. In 1841, 80% of British sailors on expeditions up the Niger river were infected with fevers. Between 1844 and 1854, 20 of the 74 French missionaries in Senegal died from local illnesses and 19 more died shortly after arriving back to France.
Intermarriage has been documented in ports like Ouidah where Europeans were permanently stationed. Communication was quite extensive between all three areas of trade, to the point where even individual slaves could be tracked.
This complex exchange fostered political and cultural as well as commercial connections between these three regions. Religions, architectural styles, languages, knowledge, and other new goods were mingled at this time. In addition to the slaves, free men used the exchange routes to travel to new places, and both slaves and free travellers aided in blending European and African cultures.
After slavery was abolished by European countries, the slave trade continued for a time with independent traders instead of government agents. Cultural integration had become so extensive that the defining characteristics of each culture were increasingly broadened. In the case of Brazilian culture—which had differentiated itself from Portuguese culture through its combination of African, Portuguese and New World traditions—Brazilian-style dress, cuisine and speaking Portuguese had become the main requirements for Brazilian identity, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or geographic location.
The South Atlantic and Caribbean economies were particularly dependent on labor for the production of sugarcane and other commodities. This was viewed as crucial by those Western European states that, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.
The Portuguese, in the 16th century, were the first to engage in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1526, they completed the first transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil, and other Europeans soon followed. Shipowners regarded the slaves as cargo to be transported to the Americas as quickly and cheaply as possible, there to be sold to work on coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar, and cotton plantations, gold and silver mines, rice fields, the construction industry, cutting timber for ships, in skilled labor, and as domestic servants.
The first Africans kidnapped to the English colonies were classified as indentured servants, with a similar legal standing as contract-based workers coming from Britain and Ireland. However, by the middle of the 17th century, slavery had hardened as a racial caste, with African slaves and their future offspring being legally the property of their owners, as children born to slave mothers were also slaves (partus sequitur ventrem). As property, the people were considered merchandise or units of labor, and were sold at markets with other goods and services.
According to research provided by Emory University as well as Henry Louis Gates Jr., an estimated 12.5 million slaves were transported from Africa to colonies in North and South America. The website Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database assembles data regarding past trafficking in slaves from Africa. The major Atlantic slave-trading nations, ordered by trade volume, were:
- Portugal (5,848,266)
- Great Britain (3,259,441)
- Spain (1,061,524)
- France (1,381,404)
- Netherlands (554,336)
- United States (305,326)
- Denmark (111,040)
Several had established outposts on the African coast where they purchased slaves from local African leaders. These slaves were managed by a factor, who was established on or near the coast to expedite the shipping of slaves to the New World. Slaves were imprisoned in a factory while awaiting shipment. While current estimates are that about 12 million to 12.8 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic over a span of 400 years, the number purchased by the traders was considerably higher, as the passage had a high death rate with approximately 1.2–2.4 million dying during the voyage and millions more died in seasoning camps in the Caribbean after arrival to the New World. Millions of slaves also died as a result of slave raids, wars and during transport to the coast for sale to European slave traders.
Near the beginning of the 19th century, various governments acted to ban the trade, although illegal smuggling still occurred. In the early 21st century, several governments issued apologies for the transatlantic slave trade.
A classic example is the colonial molasses trade. Merchants purchased raw sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from plantations in the Caribbean and shipped it to New England and Europe, where it was sold to distillery companies that produced rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were used to purchase rum, furs, and lumber in New England which merchants shipped to Europe. With the profits from the European sales, merchants purchased Europe’s manufactured goods, including tools and weapons. Then the merchants shipped those manufactured goods, along with the American sugar and rum, to West Africa where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then brought back to the Caribbean to be sold to sugar planters. The profits from the sale of slaves in Brazil, the Caribbean islands, and the American South were then used to buy more sugar, restarting the cycle. The trip itself took five to twelve weeks
The first leg of the triangle was from a European port to Africa, in which ships carried supplies for sale and trade, such as copper, cloth, trinkets, slave beads, guns and ammunition. When the ship arrived, its cargo would be sold or bartered for slaves.
On the second leg, ships made the journey of the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. Many slaves died of disease in the crowded holds of the slave ships. Once the ship reached the New World, enslaved survivors were sold in the Caribbean or the American colonies.
The ships were then prepared to get them thoroughly cleaned, drained, and loaded with export goods for a return voyage, the third leg, to their home port, from the West Indies the main export cargoes were sugar, rum, and molasses; from Virginia, tobacco and hemp. The ship then returned to Europe to complete the triangle.
However, because of several disadvantages that slave ships faced compared to other trade ships, they often returned to their home port carrying whatever goods were readily available in the Americas and filled up a large part or all of their capacity with ballast (heavy material, such as gravel, sand, iron, or lead, placed low in a vessel to improve its stability). Other disadvantages include the different form of the ships (to carry as many humans as possible, but not ideal to carry a maximum amount of produce) and the variations in the duration of a slave voyage, making it practically impossible to pre-schedule appointments in the Americas, which meant that slave ships often arrived in the Americas out-of-season.
When the ships did reach their intended ports, only about 90% of the passengers survived the journey across the middle passage. Due to the slaves being transported in tight, confined spaces, a significant percentage of the group that started perished on board or shortly after arrival due to disease and lack of nourishment. Cash crops were transported mainly by a separate fleet which only sailed from Europe to the Americas and back, mitigating the impact of the slaves’ involvement.
A 2017 study provides evidence for the hypothesis that the export of gunpowder to Africa increased the transatlantic slave trade (Gunpowder Hypothesis): “A one percent increase in gunpowder set in motion a 5-year gun-slave cycle that increased slave exports by an average of 50%, and the impact continued to grow over time.”
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