The transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade began in the 15th century, after the Portuguese started exploring the coast of West Africa. At first the number of enslaved Africans taken was small. In about 1650, however, with the development of plantations on the newly colonised Caribbean islands and American mainland, the trade grew.

The majority of slaves taken in the transatlantic trade were from the states on or near the west coast of Africa. The growing demand for slaves from Europe meant that the African suppliers increased their activities. Chiefs and traders met the demand through warfare or by raids on small towns and villages. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, told how he and his sister were left playing in their house one day when the adults went to work in the fields. Raiders came into the house and kidnapped them, and sold them to other Africans. Equiano and his sister were separated. She might have remained as a slave in Africa, he was eventually taken to the coast and sold to the Europeans. The two receipts shown here are ‘bills of lading’, official documentation of cargoes loaded onto ships. One is for beads loaded in Bristol as part of the cargo of trade goods used to barter for slaves. The other records a cargo loaded in Africa, which included ’115 Males’ and ’115 Females’ as well as ivory, palm oil and dyewood (wood which produced a dye). On this voyage 201 slaves survived to be sold in St Vincent in the Caribbean, averaging £33 and 6s. 8d (£33.34).

By warfare or raids, people were often taken captive far from the coast. The European traders did not dare venture inland for fear of disease and attack. The Europeans often gave goods in advance to their African trade partners. The African traders would use the trade goods to buy slaves from other traders further inland. Often, enslaved Africans would be sold several times before they reached the European traders at the coast. The captain of the Bristol slave ship the Ruby dealt with traders in Cameroon, West Africa. He gave them goods in advance to buy slaves for him. The African traders had to leave their relatives as hostage for these goods, while they organised the purchase of enslaved Africans. If the traders did not deliver the slaves, the slave ship captain would enslave the hostages.

The slaves had to be taken to the Europeans who stayed on the coast. This often meant a long march for the enslaved people, perhaps hundreds of kilometres, in chains. Many died on the journey. Once they arrived at the coast, for many it was the first time that they had seen the sea. It was likely that for many it was the first time that they had ever seen a white man. The experience would have been frightening as they had no idea of what was happening to them. It was often rumoured that the white men were taking them away to eat them, and some of the enslaved Africans chose to kill themselves rather than be eaten or taken to some unknown fate.