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Atlantic slave trade

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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.


While slavery had existed in African societies before Europeans started majorly meddling in them and many pre-Columbian societies of the Americas likewise practiced slavery, the emergence of Europeans who needed labor for their sugarcane, tobacco and later cotton plantations greatly changed the way slavery was practiced as well as the faces of societies that "supplied" slaves. While the "justifications" given to enslave people shifted over the years from "teaching them Christianity" to (when many had converted) "the alleged inferiority of a supposed race" the system was incredibly brutal and it was estimated that a slave imported to colonial Haiti would have a fifty-fifty chance of not making it three years past being brought to Haiti. While the Spanish Empire initially relied on mostly Native American forced labor in the similarly brutal "encomienda" system, the fact that many Natives ultimately converted to Christianity (the pretend "purpose" of the system), the outrage of people like Bartolomé de las Casas and polite Spanish society at its abuses and the simple fact that Native Americans started dying in huge numbers from overwork, disease and rebellions led the Spanish to start relying on African slaves. While the Spanish empire initially used forced labor mostly for mining precious metals like gold and silver to prop up the extreme deficit of the Spanish household (both through trade balance deficit with East Asia and through costly and mostly lost wars) Spain, like the other colonial powers, later started to use slaves more for agricultural labor as sugarcane, cotton, tobacco and other "cash crops" were more lucrative than gold.

Slavery enabled an incredibly lucrative "triangular trade" between the Americas, Europe and Africa. European powers "imported" enslaved humans from Africa to the Americas, where plantations depending on slave labor produced raw or semi processed products like tobacco, cotton, coffee, indigo (used for dyes) rum, cigars or sugar for sale in Europe and African slaves were in turn purchased with European products like glass beads or guns. While even contemporary Europe was a bit queasy at those directly involved with slavery (sometimes overseer roles were given to "trusted" slaves and there was often a hierarchy between slaves born in the country, slaves with one non-slave parent, and slaves "imported" recently) many of the nice burgher houses and other expressions of incredible wealth of early modern Europe (and later also in the slaveowning colonies) were built with money earned off of the forced and unpaid labor of African slaves.

During the late 18th century abolitionism, a movement to abolish slavery, started gathering steam, with successes such as the judicial abolishment of slavery in mainland Britain, the abolishment of slavery in France (1794, though later rescinded and only permanently abolished in 1848) and a drive towards gradual emancipation in the Northern US there was a strong abolitionist component to the Latin American wars for independence due to the personal commitment of leaders such as Bolivar. However, the Southern US and Brazil held out clinging to slavery and although there was no formal slave trade in the Atlantic during the 19th century, the British led patrols that were in place to enforce the ban were often circumvented. It took the American Civil War to abolish slavery in the South (United States) and Brazil clung to the institution until the 1880s.

While the 19th century brought much in the struggle to fight formal slavery, Europeans justified their colonization of Africa by "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 Congo was particularly brutal and even the lowest estimates calculate hundreds of thousands who perished due to inhumane forced labor and "punishments" for not meeting unmeetable work quotas. Today no country legally recognizes slavery any more, but several had to abolish the practice more than once and in Mauritania in particular it seems hard to make it stick. 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.

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.


Map of Atlantic slave trade


  • 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. National Museum of Slavery (Angola) on Wikipedia National Museum of Slavery (Q868140) on Wikidata


  • 1 Ouidah. Several historical sites and monuments, including the Door of No Return memorial arch. Ouidah on Wikipedia Ouidah (Q850031) on Wikidata

The Gambia[edit]

  • 2 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. Juffureh on Wikipedia Jufureh (Q1711203) on Wikidata


  • 3 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. Accra on Wikipedia Accra (Q3761) on Wikidata
  • 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. Elmina Castle on Wikipedia Elmina Castle (Q1438772) on Wikidata
  • 4 Fort Metal Cross (Dixcove). A British fort used as a slave trading post, now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fort Metal Cross on Wikipedia Fort Metal Cross (Q1427246) on Wikidata


  • 4 Badagry. Two museums about slavery and the slave trade, as well as the Velekete Slave Market, and Gberefu Island (the "Point of No Return"). Badagry on Wikipedia Badagry (Q798812) on Wikidata
  • 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 (Ile de Goree off 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. House of Slaves on Wikipedia House of Slaves (Q691908) on Wikidata

Sierra Leone[edit]

  • 5 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 ex-slaves. Freetown on Wikipedia Freetown (Q3780) on Wikidata


  • 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. Woold Homé on Wikipedia Woold Homé (Q3279064) on Wikidata


United Kingdom[edit]

North America[edit]


  • 7 Museum Kura Hulanda (Willemstad). This anthropological museum chronicles the African slave trade as well as the cultures of Curaçao.


  • 8 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. Bois Caïman on Wikipedia Bois Caïman (Q3010371) on Wikidata

United States of America[edit]

South America[edit]


  • 10 Museu Afro-Brasileiro (Salvador). A museum that documents the slave trade and subsequent development of the city. Afro-Brazilian Museum on Wikipedia Afro-Brazilian Museum (Q10333375) on Wikidata
  • 11 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. Valongo Wharf on Wikipedia Valongo Wharf (Q20048515) on Wikidata


See also[edit]

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