The Role of the Africans and Europeans in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST) was the selling of and transportation of slaves from African lands across the Atlantic to lands such as Brazil, Spanish Empire, British, French, Dutch and Danish West Indies, the British North America and US, along with Europe. It is estimated that as many as 13 million slaves left African ports (although only 11 million arrived to their various destinations). The Portuguese led this trade, delivering the slaves to Portuguese Brazil. The TAST lasted for more than 400 years, throughout the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Sugar, Coffee, Cotton and Tobacco were the major reasons why Europeans purchased slaves, the slaves were used as labour to harvest the crops for eventual export. As with any division of a historical event, the need for finding a truth is a priority. Why the TAST came into existence seems to be clear, but with varying accounts. Advancements in technology were growing at a pace in this period in time leading to the opening of routes between Europe and the Atlantics. The Portuguese first set sail in 1419 to discover foreign lands in technologically advanced boats that could navigate the Atlantic Ocean.
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History shows that Prince Henry the Navigator (Dom Henrique), the son of King Joao of Portugal, played a very important role in the TAST. But as discussed in ‘Herbert Klein’s’ literature – Internal and international slave trades existed in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans (Klein, pg. 105). One could then assume that the TAST was simply fashioned out of a pre-existing and established market running throughout African lands. Therefore the TAST is a difficult subject to discuss; it is a complex issue with varying accounts from an amalgamation of viewpoints.
After reading more on the subject, several important difficulties involved in the slave trade make it difficult to decide if an equal partnership existed. As discussed the slave trade existed prior to the TAST; did this have implications on the slave market that would be the eventual partnership between Europeans and African kings, princes and the elite merchants or tribes of Africa? The term equal partner is not easy to define, and whether the Africans were victims is also not simple to define.
Equal partners could equate to several examples in the TAST, the trading of goods to and from each side including African Slaves. It could be argued that for as much as the Africans were perhaps seen as the underdog in the TAST, certain African individuals had control over the trade, and gained important trading goods (such as guns, textiles, bracelets, metals), this motivated the African traders to receive these goods, which ultimately gave them more power and riches within the lands of Africa.
So in some respects it could be viewed that the victims of the TAST were the individuals of a less elite standing and power, and perhaps Africans who had no involvement in trading. Some important elements and issues to focus on are – What were the driving factors involved in the continuation of the TAST? Which parties controlled the trade? What contributed to the rise in the number of slaves being shipped across the Atlantics? Did power, greed and ownership throughout African lands motivate the slave trade? And did this assist the TAST?
Who gained most out of this trading, were the results detrimental to the African people? The TAST started at a relatively slow pace, compared to the climb in trading in its later stages. Some 370,000 slaves were transported out of Africa in the sixteenth century, compared to 1,870,000 in the seventeenth century, to a staggering 6,130,000 of slaves in the eighteenth century (Thomas, 2006). African traders including elite merchants, kings and tribal leaders took part in the trading of slaves and other goods in what was seen as a lucrative market.
As mentioned previously, Africans were by no means ignorant of the slave trading market and a domestic market existed before Europeans landed on African soils. It can be proven from accounts that the African traders were willing to trade slaves in return for goods from European traders. Further statistics show that European textiles were the highest import into Africa, an overall 56% (Eltis, 2006). The African traders used goods supplied by the Europeans to gain wealth and power across African lands.
The Gold Coast was the main importer of textiles within Africa (Eltis, 2006). Another important factor was the growth of sugar plantations starting on the carribean islands, this created more of a demand for the supply of slaves. As the slave trade developed the trading of valuable goods increased, and this facilitated the economical and social power of the African traders. When reading material on the history of the TAST, it is hard to ascertain exactly who controlled the trade.
At the beginning of the slave trade, as mentioned in Herbert Klein’s book, early accounts show ignorant slave captains seizing local Africans who appeared to them along the coast (Klein, 1999). But according to some accounts, this practice did not last long. In the early stages of the slave trade, Europeans were at the mercy of African traders to aquire a supply of slaves to trade, so this surely proves that the Europeans were not in control of the supplying of slaves.
Slaves were mostly supplied from the interior of Africa, as most coastal regions were less populated. In this comparison the Africans had total control over gaining slaves for trading. The Europeans had to pay the Africans for amenities whilst waiting to collect individuals to fill the slave ships. One could argue that the Africans had control over the trading of slaves, but they were trading to gain goods in return (among these goods were firearms, which eventually brought about the Gun-Slave Cycle) (Davidson, 1986)
If we now think about the rise in the amount of slaves leaving African ports, the numbers climb and increase throughout the trade period. The statistics show that many slaves were shipped to the sugar plantations in the Atlantic islands, then modelled on this to Portuguese areas of Brazil (Thomas, 2006). Further statistics show that at around the height of established sugar plantations, the cost of a slave increased, but not to the degree that the slaves were being sold to the plantation owners.
The proof lies in the statistics, around 1691-1713 the amount of slaves arriving in Jamaica increased. The trend reflects the increase for the demand in sugar production which was a very lucrative business, this could explain the jump in slave prices (Eltis, 2006). Sugar was a huge commodity for exportation in the TAST, imported to London to the many established coffee houses. This was therefor a supply and demand market for societies in the European trading countries, this implies a cause and effect system. Africa consisted of many ast states and political systems, in some accounts fragmentation of the land caused more complexities in the TAST. The rise of the Asante empire and the Dahomey kingdom made these states more powerful. As an example of the effect on the slave trade, the Dahomey kingdom disrupted trading in the Allada and Whydah states by overrunning the trade of these states. In some instances the internal warfare would disrupt the trade, but inevitably made kingdoms like Dahomey more powerful in gaining more slaves to trade in the TAST.
In this instance it could be explained that if a rebellion took place, the more powerful states could overpower local groups, and gain more slaves for the state to trade. (Klein, 1999) So if internal conflicts of great kingdoms with powerful leaders caused raging warfare throughout the African lands, it explains how this component assisted in the TAST growth. The Gun-Slave Cycle as it was known proved a very powerful way for the Africans to trade in slaves in return for guns and gunpowder. This again was a very rewarding trade, the guns were being imported from Europe, namely Birmingham in England.
The supply of guns to Africa had large implications on the future of the leading powers of each state. This increased the amount of warfare that took place across the lands, and African leaders used the guns to raid interiors of other states, gaining more slave supplies for use in the TAST. Consequently, gunpower was used as protection against raids by neighbouring states. This trading had a very big cause and effect, and could be seen as giving the African merchants or elites power in the TAST. (Davidson, 1986)
Discussed in the main body are many different elements involved in the TAST, these factors all had an impact on the trade, and helped the trade continue and flourish. Throughout this though it is not clear that the TAST was an equal partnership, predominantly because of the complex nature of the whole business. An equal partnership tends to define that all parties have an equal part or share in all elements of the trade. Was this the case in the TAST? An equal partner tends to indicate an equal gain or a comparable gain. It also suggests that the involved parties were in this together?
Or equally gaining, not necessarily with any partnership participation? Without a partnership could it be classed as equal? The equal partnership may have diminished over periods in time, and where one of the parties became more powerful than the other, perhaps through exploitation? There is evidence of this on both sides; slave prices would rise near the end of trading seasons (controlled by harvesting cycles) and the African merchants could gain more power and riches over the Europeans by increasing the price of a slave.
The Europeans started the Gun-Slave Cycle throughout Africa, and this could be seen as a form of exploitation in gaining more slaves and power. Over the period of the 400 years of this trade the equal partnership evolved into what it finally became. The complexities as discussed within this essay surely show that arriving at a clear decision of equal partnership is not clear-cut, as the varying accounts show.