Slavery: 5 things you didn't know about the transatlantic slave trade


Africa’s participation in the slave trade is often ignored

Although it is the most widely known aspect of the slave trade, most people know very little of the Atlantic slave trade. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, millions of Africans were captured and sold to Western Europeans on the coast of West Africa, then ferried over the Atlantic to the Americas.

There, they lived as slaves, working in terrible conditions to build the economy in countries like the United States.

The legacy of this phase of human history remains even now, in the heritage of African-Americans, in conversations about racism and the underdevelopment of the African continent.

Relics of that era remain to be seen, in Badagry, which was a major hub in the 18th century, in books and in documentaries which cover a very touchy subject, yet there is still some salient, yet little-known facts about the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Here are some of them:

(1) The trans-atlantic slave trade was a purely economic pursuit.

Starting in the 15th century, the Europeans had first explored Africa's hinterland, and then set up trading posts.


The first group of explorers and traders were the Portuguese, as evidenced in the name of Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, then the British and the French.

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The Europeans first traded in food and rarities. With time, they came to see slaves as valuable cargo, and created an industry around raids, kidnappings and the sale of captives imto slavery in the Americas.

(2) Because the hinterland was largely unknown and unmapped, the Europeans could not get slaves themselves.

They bought them from rulers, kidnapping rings and warrior clans in the West of Africa.

At the height of the empire's strength in the 1800s, it began to sell slaves to the Portuguese, British and French. The trade helped many kings and “traders” become wealthy.

However, it was also an uneasy enterprise. The traders were often under pressure, often to the extent of physical threat or war.

Most of them, especially local individuals, often kept their involvement private, as the society did not view them in a good light.

(3) The locals who were involved in the slave trade did not create this complex system until much later.

In fact, until the 18th century, only prisoners of war or displaced persons were sold into slavery.

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As the demand for slaves grew and the Triangle industry was created, slave raids were organised to gather free people from small, unguarded villages, and kings instigated wars to displace entire empires, gradually.


(4) After being captured, slaves entered the infamous Middle Passage.

This was the period where they were stacked aboard ships and transported to the fields.

Around 2.2 million Africans died during these voyages. They were packed into tight, unsanitary spaces on ships for months at a time. Their deaths were the result of brutal treatment and poor care from the time of their capture and throughout their voyage. 


To reduce the mortality rate, slaves were forced to dance as exercise and those who went on hunger strike, forced to eat. The conditions on board also resulted in the spread of fatal diseases.

(5) Slavery existed in Africa before the Europeans came. 

But there were key differences, slavery in Africa was not heritable – that is, the children of slaves were free – while in the Americas, children of slave mothers were considered born into slavery.

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Also, slavery in West Africa was not reserved for racial or religious minorities, as it was in European colonies, although the case was otherwise in some part of North and East Africa.


The treatment of slaves was also very varied across Africa. In some societies, they had no agency, and they were essential property. In others, they could start families and own communities.

Scottish explorer Mungo Park wrote:

The slaves in Africa, I suppose, are nearly in the proportion of three to one to the freemen. They claim no reward for their services except food and clothing, and are treated with kindness or severity, according to the good or bad disposition of their masters”

The slaves which are thus brought from the interior may be divided into two distinct classes – first, such as were slaves from their birth, having been born of enslaved mothers; secondly, such as were born free, but who afterwards, by whatever means, became slaves. Those of the first description are by far the most numerous….