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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.


Slavery had existed in human societies since the dawn of civilisation, with notable examples of civilisations that practised slavery being the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians and Chinese. The Arab Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean was notable for enslaving countless people over 12 centuries, but 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. This is in part due to several factors unique to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Roman slavery never had a "racial" component and it was understood that - 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, while others were deliberately worked to death before they could have children, sometimes as a punishment for perceived or real misbehavior. While early modern European slavery was justified in religious terms, slaves converting to Christianity created a problem. As the forced abduction and transport across an ocean was an expensive venture, some slave-holding societies, most notably the US and her predecessor colonies started encouraging slaves to have descendants to be kept in slavery indefinitely. While other slave-owning societies actually imported far more slaves, in places like Haiti, half the slaves were dead within three years of arrival, while in the Arab world and Ottoman Empire, many slaves were made into eunuchs. 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 de jure abolished. The descendants of African slaves also continue to 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.


During the 19th century, parts of American society started getting queasy about slavery while at the other hand pro-slavery racists were getting more entrenched and significant numbers of both felt it undesirable for free people of recent African descent to live among white society. The pro-slavery viewpoint was largely that freed slaves (or their descendants) would prove to those still held in bondage that an escape from slavery was possible, which while initially desired as the "carrot" in the "carrot and stick" approach was increasingly seen as undesirable as it "gave people ideas" and made the mental gymnastics about a supposedly "inferior race" not "fit for freedom" appear even more absurd and hypocritical. While many abolitionists were varying degrees of racists themselves, some argued on the basis of very real discrimination against free Black People, lynchings and even the abduction of free people into slavery (both from slave states and free states), that free people of recent African descent would not be able to live happily and harmoniously in the United States. Thus, the idea of "colonization" was born, supported by an odd assortment of slave owners who wanted to enforce white supremacy, Northerners who claimed to have the best interests of African Americans at heart and even some freedmen who wished to emigrate. The idea never fully lost political relevance and popularity until the end of the Civil War and at times even Abraham Lincoln claimed public support for it (Although historians debate whether his views on the issue evolved or whether he just thought expressing such views politically expedient). The very existence of the state of Liberia - which for a time had a constitutional provision limiting citizenship to Black People - is due to attempts at colonization by the US. In Britain, similar efforts were undertaken for people of recent African descent who had settled in Canada (part of them "Black Loyalists", former slaves who had been promised and given freedom in exchange for fighting against the 13 colonies in the American war of independence) or Great Britain, particularly London. In Britain likewise, there was a peculiar coalition of racists on the one hand who wished to remove black people and social reformers on the other who thought it a good way to reduce urban poverty which was a persistent problem among 19th century Black Britons. Most "colonized" Afro-Canadians and Afro-Britons were settled in Sierra Leone which had earlier functioned as a place where those enslaved people captured by British patrols aimed at ending the slave trade were sent. The name of Sierra Leone's capital, "Freetown", gives testimony to this earlier purpose of the land.

While slavery had existed in African societies long before Europeans started shipping humans across the Atlantic, 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 the life expectancy of slaves was poor.

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 tasks as sugarcane, cotton, tobacco and other "cash crops" that were more lucrative than gold.

Although a common perception of slavery is of Europeans going to Africa and capturing the Africans to sell into slavery using their superior military technology, the reality was, in fact, far more complex. More often than not, other Africans were complicit, and many African leaders grew rich from capturing people from rival tribes or kingdoms to sell to the Europeans for slavery. Slavery was a very lucrative business for many African kingdoms, such as the kingdoms of Dahomey, Kongo, Asante and Ndongo, and it is estimated that over 90% of the slaves brought over to the Americas were captured and sold to the Europeans by other Africans. The economies of several African kingdoms would become 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.

The vast majority of slaves in the Americas were owned by white people, though there were cases of black people becoming slave owners themselves. However, as slavery became more and more "racialized", 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 under Roger B Taney 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. In colonial Haiti, increasingly racist limitations on what the mixed race descendants of slaves and whites who had attained freedom could and could not do was one of several factors that led to the explosion of the powder keg of Haitian slavery, ending with the end of not only Haitian slavery but the presence of most white people in Haiti.

Some Native American tribes would also purchase African slaves, often in an attempt to assimilate with the white settlers. During the infamous Trail of Tears, the slave-owning tribes would bring their black slaves with them, and these slaves were subject to even more brutal conditions than the Native Americans themselves. Moreover, the slaves owned by Native Americans were not freed at the conclusion of the American Civil War, and would only be freed a year later in 1866 with the signing of treaties between the slave-owning tribes and the United States government. However, other tribes would give aid and shelter to escaped slaves and some would even integrate them into their tribes. People of recent African descent also became members of Native American tribes through intermarriage and there today debates about whether black members of Indian tribes "count" as "real" members of said tribes and whether it matters whether they entered the tribe free or enslaved. In particular, the Cherokee Nation gradually stripped the descendants of former Cherokee-owned black slaves of their tribal citizenship in the second half of the 20th century, though these decisions would eventually be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017.

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.

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. Africans would then use the weapons bought from the Europeans to wage wars in order to capture more people to sell into slavery. 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 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 abolition of slavery in mainland Britain, the abolition of slavery in France (1794, though later rescinded by Napoleon Bonaparte and only permanently abolished in 1848), and a drive towards gradual emancipation in the Northern US. Slavery would be abolished throughout the entire British Empire in 1833, and there was a strong abolitionist component to the Latin American wars for independence due to the personal commitment of leaders such as Simón Bolívar. 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. Before the abolition of slavery in the United States, 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 the 1880s. In Africa, the colonies of Liberia and Sierra Leone would be established to be the new home of freed African-American and African-British slaves respectively, where they would form a distinct upper class that dominated local politics at the expense of native Africans already in the area.

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 the Congo was particularly brutal and even the lowest estimates calculate hundreds of thousands who perished due to inhumane forced labor and "punishments" such as chopping off hands and letting people bleed to death for not meeting unattainable work quotas. 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 socio-economic underclass to this day. Today, slavery is de jure 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 by many as akin to slavery. Illegal human trafficking is still rampant and its victims are often called "modern slaves".

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, which in part explains racist stereotypes of laziness or lack of intelligence. Some slave ships had successful rebellions with the white overseers thrown overboard and the ship commandeered by the slaves. The most famous such case was perhaps the Amistad, an illegal slaver ship (importation of slaves into the US had been declared illegal by that point) which had a slave rebellion break out and ultimately ended up in the US. The successful defense of the former slaves in their freedom case by former president John Quincy Adams has been turned into a movie. 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. The most successful slave revolt however, was the 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.


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.


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 the 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 tourist attractions 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.

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 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. Monrovia on Wikipedia


  • 5 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]

  • 6 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. 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]

See also: American Civil War, Underground Railroad
  • 9 United Nations Slavery Memorial (United Nations Headquarters, Midtown East, New York City). United Nations Slavery Memorial on Wikipedia United Nations Slavery Memorial (Q14707548) on Wikidata
  • 10 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 abolishment of slavery nationwide. Also features exhibits that try to re-enact the slave trade and the atrocities associated with it. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Wikipedia
  • 11 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. Old Slave Mart on Wikipedia
  • 12 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. Whitney Plantation Historic District on Wikipedia
  • 13 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. Evergreen Plantation (Wallace, Louisiana) on Wikipedia
  • 14 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.
  • 15 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.

South America[edit]


  • 16 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
  • 17 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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