How did most of the slaves get to America?

Slaves for America

The transatlantic slave trade began before America was actually discovered in 1441 and 1444, when Portuguese ships brought the first North African Berbers and Black Africans to southern Portugal. It was the beginning of one of the greatest human displacements of all time.

Slavery in the New World

When the explorers and conquerors landed in the New World, they did not encounter uninhabited land. The Indian population lived on the American continent.

The Indians were enslaved on a large scale by the Europeans, died in the catastrophic conditions of forced labor in the mines or in the fields, and fell victim to diseases such as measles, smallpox and typhus introduced by the conquerors.

The American and Caribbean countries literally died out. In 1501 the Spanish kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile gave the settlers of the New World permission to "import" new workers in the form of black slaves.

This practice quickly spread to all European colonies and islands in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Slavery became an important, even very lucrative, industry.

The triangular trade

Trade traffic of enormous proportions developed across the Atlantic in the triangle of Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean.

The major European powers equipped ships loaded with weapons, powder, textiles, horses, alcohol, silver, tobacco, sugar and manufactured goods. The ships went to the West African coasts, where they exchanged the goods they had brought with them for slaves with tribal chiefs.

In a second stage, the ships loaded with slaves headed for America, where the slaves in the New World were sold at the highest possible prices.

The merchants loaded their ships again, this time with the coveted raw materials from the colonies: tea, coffee, sugar, cotton, tobacco, spices and precious metals. The traders then set sail again and returned to Europe.

This transatlantic slave trade was also a transnational business. Before nations emerged, it was the powerful European monarchies that systematically promoted the profitable business with the slaves: Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Denmark, Brandenburg-Prussia and Sweden.

Extent of the slave transfer

The transatlantic slave trade spanned a period of 350 to 400 years. Despite the British ban in 1808 and the confirmation of this ban by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it lasted until around 1870.

In the almost 400 years of Atlantic slavery, around ten to twelve million kidnapped black Africans arrived alive in America.

Four to five million slaves were brought to the islands of the Caribbean, 3.5 to five million made it to Brazil and half a million slaves were sold to the United States. But the number of unreported cases of systematic deportation is considerably higher.

It is estimated that around 40 million Africans have been abducted and enslaved. But only one in four survived the capture in Africa, the tortures of being dragged from the interior of Africa to the coasts and finally the cruel exertion of the crossing.

The abducted and sold people were literally stacked like cargo in a confined space during the crossing on the ships.

In addition to psychological stress, there was an undersupply of medical supplies, seasickness, hunger and thirst. The slaves were chained and beaten, crouched in their excrement and vegetated to themselves.

Many of them fell ill and did not survive the ordeal of the crossing. In the event of serious illness or if there was a risk of infection, they were often simply thrown overboard by their tormentors.

Life in slavery

If the slaves survived the crossing, an uncertain fate awaited them in the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean, on the tobacco plantations of Virginia or the rice fields of South Carolina. When the slave ships reached the American colonies and bases, the slaves were "freshened up" by the ship's doctor.

The slaves were given food rich in vitamins, hair and beards were cut, and their bodies were rubbed with palm oil. Wounds and physical blemishes were painted over - a process known as "bleaching".

There were basically three areas of work into which slaves were sold to the highest bidder: firstly, rural slavery, that is, slaves who were used in agriculture and plantation management. Second, urban slavery, that is, slaves for the household, for handicrafts, ports and transport. A third field of work was mining.

Undignified living conditions

The living conditions of the slaves often differed considerably, depending on the time and place of the slavery as well as on the respective master or mistress. In general, plantation slavery in the sugar cane and cotton fields was the hardest manifestation of enslavement.

However, the most advanced work organization again existed on the plantations. Sometimes there was a "criollero" - a kind of kindergarten for slave children. There was basic medical care such as smallpox vaccinations and opportunities for further training for loyal slaves were sometimes offered.

But violence was the basic requirement of a society that distinguished between slaves and non-slaves. Slaves were exploited to the point of exhaustion, and abuse and punishment were common.

Marking with the branding iron, whipping, bondage, hunger, thirst and mutilation - the lack of rights of the slaves opened the door to abuse.

Their owner decided whether and with whom slaves were allowed or had to live together as a couple. He basically had an economic interest in his slaves "reproducing", since the children born into slavery automatically passed into his possession.

Owners could also set their deserved and loyal slaves free. And sometimes a slave managed to learn a trade or a trade and, with the approval of his owner, put money aside in order to buy himself out one day.

African slave traders

When the European slave traders came to the West African coast, they did not capture the slaves themselves. They were brought to them, for example by African tribal chiefs or noble families who profited from the slave trade and controlled the African hinterland.

In fact, the existence of slavery, slave trade and wars in Africa before the appearance of Europeans was the prerequisite for the Atlantic slave trade.

Without African elites, none of the European powers would have had access to slaves from the interior of Africa or would have even been able to successfully operate the slave trade.

To this day, the trauma of the 400-year-long deportation of millions of people in Africa is still having an impact. And since 1960 many African elites have exploited the Europeans' guilt for colonialism to enrich themselves or to build corrupt regimes.

The demographic and ethnic consequences for the long-suffering, human-deprived African continent are complex and the subject of current historical and sociological research.