The Connection and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
For centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans on West African shores, slavery had been a long-accepted practice in Africa, regarded as a legitimate and necessary element of society. Rival kingdoms constantly warred against each other, with those who lost becoming slaves to the victors. Many of these slaves were sent overland by caravan to buyers along the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula.
The discovery of the Americas expanded the African slave trade in unprecedented numbers. From 1595 when Spain received its first asiento, or contract to supply slaves, until 1870 when global trade in African slaves finally came to an end, scholars estimate over 12 million Africans were forcibly emigrated across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean.1
The majority (some 3 to 6 million) were taken to South America, particularly Brazil, to work in the Portuguese mines and on the sugar plantations. Four to 5 million were imported to the Caribbean. Only an estimated one-half million were sent to the United States.2
The business of buying and shipping African slaves was conducted by the Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and Dutch, who established forts, also called castles or factories (such as the one at Bunce Island), along the coastline from Senegal to Angola. The slaves were held at these factories, some large enough to hold as many as a thousand slaves, until full cargoes were acquired for the slaving ships.
Some African kings oversaw the procuring and selling of African slaves. Their relationship with the Europeans was like that of landlord and renter. The African kings were "landlords" who provided accommodations, protection and slaves to the European "renters," who traded gold, tobacco, cloth, guns and other goods for slaves.
Although African slaves were on American shores as early as the 16th century with Spanish attempts at colonization, it wasn't until the early 1700s that the importation of African slaves into North America began in earnest.
American buyers like South Carolina plantation owner Henry Laurens were astutely aware of the African slave's ethnic background. In the Carolinas and Georgia, there was a strong preference for slaves from the Senegambia region, Windward Coast and Angola. Slaves from these regions not only had direct experience in agriculture, particularly rice farming, they were thought to be more trustworthy, physically more adept, and more adaptable to a new environment. These slaves brought not only their labor and knowledge of rice but their culture—a culture that still thrives today.
1 Figures quoted on the number of slaves shipped to the Americas are from Colin Palmer, “African Slave Trade: The Cruelest Commerce," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 182, No. 3 (September 1992).