Lasting from the 1500s to the 1800s, the Atlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions, leaving a huge mark on four continents and irreversibly changing world history and geopolitics. The direct and indirect effects of the slave trade are inextricably linked to the nature of modern Africa, Europe, North America, and South America.
Historical sites, museums, and memorials on both sides of the Atlantic allow you to learn about this profoundly important force in history, understand its continuing effects on the world, and honor its victims.
Slavery has existed in human societies since the dawn of civilisation, with notable examples of civilisations that practised slavery being the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese and some pre-Columbian societies in the Americas. In Africa, slavery had been going on for centuries before Europeans got involved; both the Arab slave trade across the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean and various tribes enslaving some of their neighbours.
Racism and slavery
While many slave-holding societies have got their slaves from other ethnic groups — often enemies defeated in war or neighbours raided for slaves — slavery of Africans in the Americas involved a conspicuous difference in skin color and some severely racist attitudes.
Roman slavery, for comparison, never had a racial component and it was understood that, at least in principle, any given person could be slave or slave owner depending on circumstances. Roman slaves or their descendants were also manumitted quite often for services rendered.
Early modern European slavery was justified in religious terms, but after many slaves converted to Christianity that excuse became less plausible. Later attempts to justify slavery often relied on pseudoscientific theories about the supposed inferiority of black people. Some slave-holding societies, most notably the US and her predecessor colonies, started encouraging slaves to have descendants to be kept in slavery indefinitely.
Not all slaves in the Americas were of African origin. The Spanish Empire and the Portuguese colony Brazil initially relied mainly on the "encomienda" system, using the natives for forced labor, and only later began importing African slaves. In the English-speaking regions, indentured servitude, mainly of Irish or British convicts, was common from early colonial times in areas such as the Carolinas, Virginia and Jamaica, and later on indentured Chinese laborers did much of the work on transcontinental railroads in western parts of both the US and Canada. After slavery was abolished, the British would bring many indentured Indian laborers to their Caribbean colonies, Belize and Guyana to work on the plantations instead.
Nor were all slave-holders white, though a large majority were. There were cases of free black people becoming slave owners themselves, and some Native American tribes also owned African slaves. During the infamous Trail of Tears, the slave-owning tribes brought their black slaves with them, and these slaves were subject to even more brutal conditions than the Native Americans themselves.
However above all, it is the Atlantic Slave Trade that is best known, and played the biggest role in the modern history of the Western world. The system was incredibly brutal, and most slaves were treated very harshly. In places like Haiti, half the slaves were dead within three years of arrival.
Although it is commonly thought that Europeans went to Africa and captured slaves, in fact nearly all slaves were people captured by other Africans and then sold to Europeans. Slavery was a very lucrative business for many African kingdoms, and some Africans grew immensely rich from it. The economies of several African kingdoms became heavily dependent on the slave trade, which would eventually result in their collapse following the abolition of slavery, and making them prone to takeover by the European colonial powers during the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century.
Slavery enabled an incredibly lucrative triangular trade between the Americas, Europe and Africa. Europeans transported slaves from Africa to the Americas, where plantations depending on slave labor produced products like tobacco, cotton, coffee, indigo (used for dyes), rum, cigars or sugar for sale in Europe. The third side of the triangle brought European products like glass beads, cloth, tools and firearms to Africa, where they could be traded for slaves. The Africans would then use the firearms obtained from the Europeans to wage wars in order to capture yet more slaves. While even contemporary Europe was a bit queasy at those directly involved with slavery, many of the nice burgher houses and other expressions of incredible wealth of early modern Europe, and in the slave-owning colonies, were built with money earned off the forced and unpaid labor of African slaves.
There are descendants of slaves throughout the Americas. The U.S. and Brazil in particular are home to many descendants of African slaves, and these people remained a large and distinct underclass for a long time even after slavery was legally abolished. The descendants of African slaves form the majority of the population throughout the English, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean and Belize, as well as significant minorities in many countries throughout the rest of the Americas. In the Caribbean, several ethnic groups have a mixture of African and indigenous ancestry, with late 20th and early 21st century genetic research showing a larger Amerindian component than was previously thought. In some groups there is no uncertainty about African descent, but there is significant debate whether the Africans in question arrived in the Americas free or in chains. The Garifuna of eastern Nicaragua largely maintain to have no enslaved people among their ancestors, but others doubt those claims.
During the late 18th century, abolitionism, a movement to abolish slavery, started gathering steam, with successes such as abolition in Britain in 1772, and in France in 1794 (though later rescinded by Napoleon Bonaparte and only permanently abolished in 1848). Northern US states began to ban slavery in 1777 and by 1804, they all had. There was a strong abolitionist component to many of the Latin American wars for independence in the early 19th century. However, the Southern US and Brazil held out clinging to slavery. After the US banned import of slaves in 1808, and slavery was abolished throughout the entire British Empire in 1833, the Atlantic slave trade became illegal. However, it continued anyway; both the mainly British patrols near Africa and the mainly American patrols in the Caribbean were often circumvented.
Before the abolition of slavery in the United States — proclaimed by Lincoln in 1863 and finalized by the 13th Amendment in 1865 — many American slaves escaped to freedom in then British-ruled Canada, where slavery had already been abolished, via the Underground Railroad. It took the American Civil War to abolish slavery in the South, and Brazil clung to the institution until 1888.
Back to Africa
During the 19th century, some former slaves or their descendants moved back to Africa, mainly American blacks to Liberia (which for a time had a constitutional provision limiting citizenship to black people) and mainly British Empire blacks to Sierra Leone where the capital was named Freetown. In both cases the immigrants formed a distinct upper class that dominated local politics and oppressed the native Africans already in the area.
Since the 1930s, the Rastafarian movement, which originated in Jamaica, has advocated an eventual return to Africa, specifically Ethiopia whose Christian king they believe is descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They draw parallels between blacks in the Americas and ancient Israelites transported to Babylon.
In the 19th century Europeans justified their colonization of Africa by claiming to be "fighting slavery" while hypocritically using local forced labor that was different from slavery only in the legal framework attached. The reign of Belgian monarch Leopold II over what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was particularly brutal; even the lowest estimates say hundreds of thousands perished, and some estimates are well over ten million.
In the Americas, the former slaves and their descendants would be subject to discriminatory laws for a long time even after the abolition of slavery, and continue to make up a distinct socioeconomic underclass to this day. As slavery became more and more a question of race, free black and mixed people increasingly had their rights curtailed, culminating in the US in the infamous ruling Dred Scott v Sandford in which the Supreme Court said that black people had "No rights which the White Man was bound to respect" while dismissing the suit of a former slave to be freed due to having been brought by his master into a free state.
Slaves did not always take their fate passively and there is much evidence for slaves resisting either collectively or individually. Slaves often refused to do work or played dumb to avoid work. Some slave ships had successful rebellions with the white overseers thrown overboard and the ship commandeered by the slaves. Another common method of revolt was simply running away and indeed in the mountainous or forested interior of some colonies groups of free Black People lived and variously mixed with indigenous society. In Jamaica, slaves from the Ashanti Empire (based in Kumasi, modern-day Ghana) revolted multiple times against their British masters during the period from 1690-1823. The most successful slave revolt however, was the Haitian Revolution, which turned France's single most lucrative colony and one of the most brutal slaver societies in history into an independent black led state under former slaves like Toussaint L'Ouverture or Jean Jacques Dessalines.
Today, slavery is illegal in every country, except for prisoners, but several had to abolish the practice more than once, and in Mauritania in particular, which became the final country to abolish slavery when it did so in 1981, it seems hard to make it stick. In the oil-rich Gulf states in the Middle East, many migrant workers from South Asia and the Philippines toil under very harsh conditions with lax safety regulations, and often no legal recourse against employer abuse or unpaid wages, which has been described as akin to slavery. Illegal human trafficking is still rampant and its victims are often called "modern slaves".
Alex Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the TV adaptation Roots trace the author's ancestors through enslavement in Africa in the 1760s, transportation to Maryland, and several later generations in America. While Haley's genealogical conclusions have been doubted by some historians, the story Roots tells is still chilling and the story of countless African American families.
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, first published in 1853, is an autobiography in which the author, who was born a free black person in New York state, describes his life as a slave after being kidnapped by conmen and sold into slavery in the South. As very few slaves were lucky enough to have received an education, and even fewer were lucky enough to have successfully escaped, the novel is a rare first-hand account of the horrors of slavery, with graphic and detailed descriptions of the various forms of abuse the slaves were subject to, making it one of the most widely-cited books by slavery historians. The book was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film of the same name in 2013.
The novel Flash for Freedom has the anti-hero Harry Flashman (a much-decorated British officer who is actually a coward, cheat, drunkard and lecher) involved in both the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad. As usual in the Flashman Papers series the story is hilarious, the writing excellent, and the history mostly accurate.
The western coast of Africa was home to many slave forts, which were built by the Europeans to load the slaves onto their ships. The Europeans for the most part stayed along the coast, and African slave catchers would bring the slaves they captured to the slave forts to exchange them for European goods. While many of these forts have since been demolished, some of them still survive and have been converted into memorials or museums commemorating the slaves that were sold and shipped there. A "Door of No Return" is typically featured at these sites, symbolising the final steps the slaves took on their home continent before they were shipped across the ocean, never to return again.
Many African cities also had slave markets, where Africans had traded slaves among themselves prior to contact with Europeans, and where many European slave merchants would later purchase slaves from the natives. Some of these slave markets have also been converted to memorials.
- 1 National Museum of Slavery (Museu Nacional da Escravatura) (Luanda). Located on the former property of Álvaro de Carvalho Matoso, a major 18th-century slave trader. The building is a chapel where enslaved people were baptized before being sent to the Americas.
- 1 Abomey. Capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, a highly militaristic ethnic Fon kingdom that grew into one of the main slave-trading kingdoms in West Africa. The Royal Palaces of Abomey are the former residences of the Kings of Dahomey, and much of the wealth used to build the palaces was derived from conquests and selling captured slaves to the Europeans.
- 2 Ouidah. Port city of the Kingdom of Dahomey, where many of their captured slaves were sold to Europeans and shipped off to the Americas. Several historical sites and monuments, including the Door of No Return memorial arch.
- 3 Juffureh. Famous from Alex Haley's novel Roots, Juffureh now has a museum and a monument against slavery, and is close to Kunta Kinteh Island, which has ruins of buildings used in the slave trade. The island and related sites form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 4 Accra. The National Museum has information about the slave trade in Ghana's history, and a former Danish slave-trading fort is now (controversially) used as the presidential palace.
- 2 Cape Coast Castle (Cape Coast). one of several UNESCO World Heritage slave forts along the southern coast of Ghana. A guided tour takes 45 minutes.
- 3 Elmina Castle (Elmina). Built by the Portuguese in 1482, the oldest slave fort and in fact the oldest European structure in Africa.
- 4 Fort Metal Cross (Dixcove). A British fort used as a slave trading post, now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- 5 Monrovia. Capital of Liberia, which was founded as a country for free African-Americans, who would form a distinct upper class at the expense of the native Africans already living there. Named after James Monroe, one of the founding fathers, and the fifth president of the United States of America. An "Americo-Liberian" as they would come to be called would hold the presidency of the country all the way to 1980.
- 6 Badagry. Two museums about slavery and the slave trade, as well as the Velekete Slave Market, and Gberefu Island (the "Point of No Return").
- Slave History Museum (Calabar). Located in a former slave-trading warehouse. Includes numerous artifacts as well as information about the abolition movement.
- 5 House of Slaves (Goree island in Dakar). While it's unclear how many slaves actually passed through this building, it has been turned into a monument and museum and is now a major draw for visitors to the Goree Island UNESCO World Heritage site.
- 7 Freetown. Sierra Leone's capital has historical sites not only from the slave trade itself, but also from the city's settlement and founding by former slaves and free black people from the British Empire. The descendants of these people are known as the Krio people, and today form a small but very influential minority in Sierra Leone, with the vast majority of them still being concentrated in the city.
- 6 Woold Homé (Agbodrafo). Historic house that once belonged to an English slave trader, used to hold enslaved people before they were sent across the Atlantic.
- 8 Museum Kura Hulanda (Willemstad). This anthropological museum chronicles the African slave trade as well as the cultures of Curaçao.
- 9 Mémorial ACTe (Pointe-à-Pitre). The largest slavery memorial in the world, with extensive information on the Atlantic slave trade, especially focusing on the Caribbean. Audioguides available, including in English.
Haiti came into being during the Napoleonic wars when a slave rebellion triggered in part by the French Revolution and its promises of freedom and equality led to a civil war and ultimately independence from France.
- Bois Caïman (Bwa Kayiman). Site of a voodoo ceremony held in 1791 by Haitian slaves and some free leaders where a slave insurrection was decided upon which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of the slaver regime and independence. While the events are shrouded in myth as there wasn't exactly a stenographer who kept official records, the site is justly considered one of the most important of Haitian history.
- 10 United Nations Slavery Memorial (United Nations Headquarters, Midtown East, New York City).
- 11 Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, Illinois). Museum commemorating the life of anti-slavery president Abraham Lincoln, who fought the American Civil War after the Southern states, who were fearful of slavery being abolished, decided to secede from the Union and attacked the federally owned Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Union forces would eventually prevail, forcing the Southern states to rejoin the Union, and resulting in the abolition of slavery nationwide. Also features exhibits that try to re-enact the slave trade and the atrocities associated with it.
- 12 Old Slave Mart (Charleston, South Carolina). One of the few surviving buildings in the United States where slaves were traded. It has now been converted to a museum.
- 13 Whitney Plantation (Edgard, Louisiana). A former sugarcane and rice plantation that was home to numerous African-American slaves. It has been converted to a museum with a focus on slavery, with a memorial to the numerous slaves that perished here.
- 14 Evergreen Plantation (Edgard, Louisiana). Located next to the aforementioned Whitney Plantation, though unlike that one, the Evergreen Plantation is still an active sugarcane plantation today. The plantation is open for tours, and the original slave cabins dating back to the antebellum period survive and can be viewed on the tour.
- 15 Ellison House (Sumter, South Carolina). Home of William Ellison, who was formerly a slave named "April" before he was freed in 1816 and changed his name. After gaining his freedom, Ellison would grow to become a successful plantation owner in his own right and the richest black person in South Carolina, and would even end up owning many slaves himself.
- 16 Seminole Nation Museum (Wewoka, Oklahoma). Museum dedicated to the Seminole tribe of Native Americans, who were among the slave-owning tribes forced out of their traditional homelands during the Trail of Tears. The museum also contains exhibits about the Seminole-owned slaves, who were granted tribal citizenship after they were freed.
- 17 Museu Afro-Brasileiro (Salvador). A museum that documents the slave trade and subsequent development of the city.
- 18 Valongo Wharf (Cais do Valongo) (Centro, Rio de Janeiro). Historic dock where hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought, rediscovered in 2011 and now a world heritage site.