The history of the trans-Atlantic slave - Slavery Essay Example

The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Africa is a complex one - The history of the trans-Atlantic slave introduction. While it may be true that the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in its most basic sense, is a system composed of the slave-owner and the slave, the processes that went with it are nonetheless comprised of various relationships. The slave system in itself and the trans-Atlantic slave trade are rich with difficulties on the part of both the slaves and the slave-traders and owners which make the system one that is always on the verge of tipping over. The system of pawnship, the hostilities and tensions in the slave societies, the resistance on-board the slave ships and the ever-increasing desire of the slave-traders to acquire profit hold the key to understanding a significant portion of the question as to why the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a very delicate system.

Lovejoy and Richardson argue that “the institution of pawnship [sic]” became one of the influential forces in the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Lovejoy and Richardson, p. 67). In pawnship, individuals are used as collateral for credit. Since slaves were treated as collateral for credit, the institution of trade during those times helped reinforce the practice of slavery. There is little reason to believe that the early trading systems during the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade involved a credit system that is no less than part of the normal trading activities. The more slaves a merchant owns, the more likely it is for him to be able to acquire more goods through credit or to pay for his standing debts.


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Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the slave trade is the fact that it allows slave owners and slave-owning merchants, among others, to accumulate wealth more easily. Norman Coombs writes that “[v]ast wealth was obtained through the slave trade, and this money was reinvested in the developing industrial revolution” (Coombs, p. 14). He also asserts that “the Africans unwittingly helped to finance the European industrial revolution which widened the technological gap between Africa and Europe” (Coombs, p. 14). It is therefore not surprising at all if the slave owners, especially the Europeans, saw the potential of the slave trade in Africa in terms of the financial possibilities that the system could give. The lure of the slave trade was irresistible for the merchant class precisely because of the potential of the system, seeing it as another measure to obtain profit with minimal capital needed.

Andrew Hubbell gives the observation that the commercial activity of Muslim merchants helped “[connect] sources of slaves in Souroudougou to the broader regional slave trade” (Hubbell, p. 25). The same observation may very well apply to similar cases in other parts of Africa where the slave trade became rampant at the time. With that in mind, it can be proposed that Muslim merchants and those who have high interests in the slave trade took advantage of the presence of the people they viewed as potential slaves, using whatever means they can to acquire as many slaves as they can. Indeed, the interest to acquire as many slaves as possible may be doubly true for merchants who owe huge amounts of debt and are incapable of paying their debts with gold and other currencies at the time.

Martin Klein presents the idea that those who were behind the slave trade were usually “successful in developing linkages within targeted societies” where the internal hostilities and tensions are exploited for the benefit of the trade (Klein, p. 49). Thus, societies at the time that were bridled with conflicts from their communities often become prey for slave traders. The collapse of these societies was almost imminent, and yet it can also be said that the slave trade that capitalized on these tensions and hostilities also provided the means for these societies to continue to exist. Nevertheless, it can be said that the primary intent of those who sought to maximize the potential of the slave trade in hostile and tense societies is not necessarily for the benefit of these societies. Rather, the slave trade in itself remains the primary concern for those who supported and upheld the system.

However, the slave trade is a system that is not without its own difficulties. For the most part, resistance to the slave trade met the system with equal brutality if not more. A portion of the resistance to the slave trade at the time came in the form of violence in the slave ships while the slaves were onboard and the ships were sailing across the oceans. Estimates show that “resistance resulted in nearly 600,000 fewer slaves crossing the Atlantic and forced European consumers to pay higher prices for plantation produce” (Behrendt, Eltis and Richardson, p. 473). That being the case, any rise in the number of resistance would almost certainly result to the increase in the prices of slaves due to the decline in their numbers or in the supplies the slave traders provided.

Indeed, all of these elements of the trans-Atlantic slave trade largely contributed to the delicate nature of the system. While pawnship guaranteed that merchants with debt will continue to be able to pay their dues through the slaves that they own, the presence of slave resistance on-board ships also became a major concern for the slave-traders. There was no assurance that the slaves will not meet their fate with resistance, and yet the slave-traders themselves sought to find ways to continue with the practice at all costs. That is not at all surprising simply because the profits from the system are too tempting for the slave-owners and traders to simply let pass.

Works Cited

Behrendt, Stephen D., David Eltis, and David Richardson. “The Costs of Coercion: African Agency in the Pre-Modern Atlantic World.” The Economic History Review, New Series 54.3 (2001): 454-76.

Coombs, Norman. The Black Experience in America. Mt. View, Calif. : Wiretap, 1993.

Hubbell, Andrew. “A View of the Slave Trade from the Margin: Souroudougou in the Late Nineteenth-Century Slave Trade of the Niger Bend.” The Journal of African History 42.1 (2001): 25-47.

Klein, Martin A. “The Slave Trade and Decentralized Societies.” The Journal of African History 42.1 (2001): 49-65.

Lovejoy, Paul E., and David Richardson. “The Business of Slaving: Pawnship in Western Africa, C. 1600-1810.” The Journal of African History 42.1 (2001): 67-89.



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