How the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Created the African Diaspora


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How the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Created the African Diaspora

The forced transport of enslaved people from Africa led to populations of Black people throughout North and South America and other parts of the world.

Leg irons once used on enslaved people on display at the Kura Hulanda Museum on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Credit: Amilcar Abreu / Alamy Stock Photo

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the capture, forcible transport and sale of native Africans to Europeans for lifelong bondage in the Americas. Lasting from the 16th to 19th centuries, it is responsible, more than any other project or phenomenon in the history of the modern world, for the creation of the African diaspora—the dispersal of Black people outside their places of origin on the continent of Africa.

As a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there are presently 51.5 million people of African descent living in North America (United StatesMexico and Canada), approximately 66 million in South America, 1.9 million in Central America, and more than 14.5 million throughout the islands of the Caribbean. Over centuries of transformation and upheaval, these diasporic peoples have developed rich cultural traditions, distinct societies and independent nations—all sharing elements of a common African heritage.

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Triangular Trade

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one leg of a three-part system known as the triangular trade. The forming of the triangle began when European ships, carrying firearms and manufactured goods, sailed to Africa, where the commodities were traded for enslaved men, women and children. Next, the same ships transported the human cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. 

This horrific journey was called the Middle Passage. Completing the triangle, the ships—having disembarked the enslaved Africans—were reloaded with cotton, sugar, tobacco and other cash crops produced by slave labor, and returned to Europe.

Slave Ship
A diagram of the interior of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade shows how captured humans were crammed into ships for their journey to the Americas where they were sold.DeAgostini/Getty Images

The triangular trade generated incredible wealth for the European and American nations that participated in it—at the expense of millions of human lives. An estimated 1.8 million Africans perished during the Middle Passage.

The countries that enslaved the highest number of Africans, from the most to the least, were Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States and Denmark—shipping a total of 12.5 million enslaved Africans to toil in what was considered the “New World.”

Other European nations, such as Germany and Sweden, took part in the trade indirectly or for a brief period of time. Canada, generally omitted from slavery history, was in fact involved in slave holding, first as a French colony, then as part of the British Empire.

“Little is known about Canadian slavery, both inside and outside of the nation,” says Charmaine A. Nelson, director of the newly founded Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University, in Halifax. “It is a national amnesia.”




Fellow Africans’ Role in the Slave Trade

Another downplayed factor is the central role played by ruling African states in the capture and sale of fellow Africans to European traders—an estimated 90 percent of all captives. The main motivation behind these transactions was the acquisition of guns for use in inter-ethnic warfare. The enslaved were abducted from as far north as present-day Senegal to as far south as Angola, and transported to destinations as far south as Argentina and as far north as New England.

Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving captive of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the U.S. (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

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Dehumanizing in all locations, the practice of slavery still could vary from place to place. This variation accounts for demographic, cultural and even genetic distinctions among modern diasporic Black populations. 

A July 2020 genetic study found that enslaved women contributed more than enslaved men to the modern-day gene pool of people of African descent in the Americas. The findings also show that Caucasian men contributed more than Caucasian women, confirming the well-documented practice of sexual violation of enslaved women.

African Communities Beyond the Americas

Predating the trans-Atlantic slave trade were eastward and northbound slave-trading enterprises known broadly as the Arab Slave Trade. They contributed significantly to the creation of an African diasporic presence in the Old World.

“People from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and the Swahili Coast were deported as slaves to the Indian Peninsula,” says Sylviane A. Diouf, a historian of the African diaspora who co-curated the 2013 exhibition, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers” at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

“From the 1300s, many of these Africans and their descendants became generals, admirals, architects, high-ranking officials, prime ministers and rulers, immortalized in numerous portraits. They also founded the states of Janjira and Sachin, where they ruled over Hindu and Jewish majorities.”

The Arab and trans-Atlantic slave trades inevitably coincided, if not in their commercial dealings, in their human exploitation. It is known that continental Africans were taken to the island of Madagascar by Arab enslavers from as early as the 10th century. In the 18th century, European enslavers took up operations on the island, transporting roughly 6,000 people in shackles to U.S. slave markets. Though these Madagascans constituted a tiny percentage of the total enslaved population, their DNA is identifiable to this day among their living descendants, such as the actor Maya Rudolph and director Keenan Ivory Wayans

To satisfy different European fascinations, enslaved Africans were also taken to Europe.

“Among British royals, nobles, ship captains and merchants, a trend began of keeping Africans as entertainment, curiosities, and sometimes surrogate sons,” says Monica L. Miller, author of Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. “In almost all cases, these Black men were extravagantly clothed in the latest fashions or liveries—forced foppishness.”

Role of Resistance

For the nearly four centuries before its abolition by all nations involved, “the trans-Atlantic slave trade not only influenced the composition of slave communities in the Americas, it also powerfully shaped slave resistance,” according to Marjoleine Kars, author of Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast.

“Take, for instance, the Berbice slave rebellion of 1763-1764. Lasting more than a year, the rebellion took place in a small Dutch colony on the Caribbean coast of South America in February of 1763. Enslaved people, led by a man named Coffij, or Kofi, rose up, set the Dutch fleeing, and took control of the colony.”

READ MORE: 7 Famous Revolts By Enslaved People




Nicholas Boston, Ph.., is associate professor of media sociology at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He was a consultant and writer for the PBS documentary series “Slavery and the Making of America.” 


1 reply

  1. What were some of the differences between the Arab Slave Trade and the Atlantic Slave Trade?

    8 Answers
    Profile photo for Zahir Hassan Sajid
    Zahir Hassan Sajid
    Answered Mar 25, 2021


    People often compare the Arab/Islamic slave trade (Indian ocean and trans-Saharan slave trade) with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but it’s not easy to compare the two. For example, the timeline of the Arab slave trade ranges from times of antiquity (650) to approximately the 19th century. The trans-Atlantic slave trade ranges from approximately the 14th to the 19th century. Henceforth, the Arab slave trade finds its roots in ancient history, gradually taking on a different shape towards the modern age.

    As far as racial prejudice is concerned towards Africans, both slave trades had that in common during the 1800s and onwards. To complicate things even further, black Arabs also participated in the trade (such as Tippu Tip). Additionally. the term “Arab” isn’t a racial term, but an ethnic/cultural one.
    The trans-Atlantic slave trade was based on plantation slavery and the vast majority enslaved were males. After the Zanji rebellion in Iraq, plantation slavery was abolished among the Arab Caliphs, not to mention most slaves were female (for every male slave, there was 2 female).

    There was a difference in who was enslaved and the type of slavery practiced. In the course of the Arab slave trade, slaves were of European, Sub-Saharan African, Turkic, and Middle Eastern origin. Most were soldiers, cooks, guards, and concubines (in harems).

    The early Arabs complied with all of the instructions given by Muhammad PBUH on how to treat slaves (known as the Sahabi and the Tabi’in) but with each successive generation, more and more corruption had seeped into their way of life ex. enslaving other Muslims among other things, which I’ll leave out. Slavery was institutionalized by the early Muslims for the purpose of slowly weeding it out from society (abolishing it), an institution only to be tainted later for material gain and profit.

    Albeit both slave trades had many similarities, they were mostly different from one another, collectively speaking.

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