The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began around the mid-fifteenth century when Portuguese interests in Africa moved away from the fabled deposits of gold to a much more readily available commodity -- slaves. By the seventeenth century the trade was in full swing, reaching a peak towards the end of the eighteenth century.
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Expanding European empires in the New World lacked one major resource -- a work force. In most cases the indigenous peoples had proved unreliable (most of them were dying from diseases brought over from Europe), and Europeans were unsuited to the climate and suffered under tropical diseases. Africans, on the other hand, were excellent workers: they often had experience of agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines. Was Slavery New to Africa?
Africans had been traded as slaves for centuries -- reaching Europe via the Islamic-run, trans-Saharan, trade routes. Slaves obtained from the Muslim dominated North African coast however proved to be too well educated to be trusted and had a tendency to rebellion. See The Role of Islam in African Slavery for more about Slavery in Africa before the Trans-Atlantic Trade began. Slavery was also a traditional part of African society -- various states and kingdoms in Africa operated one or more of the following: chattel slavery, debt bondage, forced labor, and serfdom.
See Types of Slavery in Africa for more on this topic. What was the Triangular Trade? [pic]Image: © Alistair Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About. com, Inc. All three stages of the Triangular Trade (named for the rough shape it makes on a map) proved lucrative for merchants. The first stage of the Triangular Trade involved taking manufactured goods from Europe to Africa: cloth, spirit, tobacco, beads, cowrie shells, metal goods, and guns. The guns were used to help expand empires and obtain more slaves (until they were finally used against European colonizers).
These goods were exchanged for African slaves. The second stage of the Triangular Trade (the middle passage) involved shipping the slaves to the Americas. The third, and final, stage of the Triangular Trade involved the return to Europe with the produce from the slave-labor plantations: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum. Origin of African Slaves Sold in the Triangular Trade [pic]Image: © Alistair Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About. com, Inc. Slaves for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were initially sourced in Senegambia and the Windward Coast.
Around 1650 the trade moved to west-central Africa (the Kingdom of the Kongo and neighboring Angola). The transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas forms the middle passage of the triangular trade. Several distinct regions can be identified along the west African coast, these are distinguished by the particular European countries who visited the slave ports, the peoples who were enslaved, and the dominant African society(s) who provided the slaves. For more on the regions where slaves were sourced see this map.
Who Started the Triangular Trade? For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract laborers, which they called libertos or engages a temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting ver 4. 5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). How Did the Europeans Obtain the Slaves? Between 1450 and the end of the nineteenth century, slaves were obtained from along the west coast of Africa with the full and active co-operation of African kings and merchants. (There were occasional military campaigns organized by Europeans to capture slaves, especially by the Portuguese in what is now Angola, but this accounts for only a small percentage of the total
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