It’s an unfortunate fact that a major part of African history concerns the slave trade era, when African slaves were taken from their homes to be slaves in other parts of the world.
The transatlantic slave trade era in African history began when European empires began to flourish in the New World but needed a workforce. African slaves were brought over to do the work, and were found to be “excellent workers” — they had knowledge of cattle management and with agriculture, and they were used to working in tropical climates. So, beginning around the 15th century, people were captured from Africa and then brought to the New World to work in mines or on plantations.
It might surprise you to know that African slavery was not actually new to Africa, and had actually been going on for centuries by that time — nor was it the sole brainchild of evil Europeans. In fact, from about 1450 to the end of the 19th century, African kings and merchants actually were fully cooperative with slave traders and were willing participants in the slave trade process.
What made the transatlantic slave trade unique was that it was specifically done for the “Triangular Trade” that proved very profitable for merchants. With this, the first stage involved manufactured goods taken from Europe to Africa, such as metal goods, guns, beads, tobacco, cloth, and so on. Guns, too, were included in the trade specifically because they can help the Europeans expand empires and get more slaves, although this would later backfire and those firearms would be used against European colonizers. The goods that were taken to Africa were traded for African slaves.
The slaves were then shipped to the Americas as the second part of the Triangular Trade. The third and final stage of the trade was that a return to Europe was made with products from plantations run by slave labor, such as molasses, tobacco, cotton and sugar. When transatlantic slave trade began, slaves were first taken from Senegambia and the Windward Coast, and then moved to West Central Africa in Angola and the Congo in the 1650s.
From 1440 about 1640, Portugal was actually the only country to export African slaves. Interestingly, they were also the last country in Europe to abolish the institution of slavery, although it continued to utilize slaves as contract laborers even after that practice was defunct. Britain was the worst transgressor during the height of the slave trade and during this difficult time in African history, though, with 2.5 million of the roughly 6 million slaves transported during that time directly Britain’s responsibility.
African slaves were under terrible conditions during forced marches along the coast and during the beginning of the transport; it’s estimated that fully 13% of them died before ever reaching their destinations. Most African slaves were shipped to the Caribbean, the Spanish Empire, and Brazil, with less than 5% traveling to North America.
Slavery’s effects continue to be felt today, and not just because descendents of African slaves remain scattered throughout the world through their ancestors’ forced slavery and not because of choice. African American author and activist Maulana Karenga called the effects of the African slave trade “the morally monstrous destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among people of today.” He has said, in fact, that African slavery destroyed not just the people of that time but in fact the language, the culture, the religion — and the very essence of “human possibility.”