Educational CyberPlayGround

Historical Resources on Slavery

Negro is a Spanish and Portugese word for the color black. The Portugese were the first Europeans to have contact with Africa in the late 1400s.

"Concerning the trade on this Coast, we notified your Highness that nowadays the natives no longer occupy themselves with the search for gold, but rather make war on each other in order to furnish slaves. . . The Gold Coast has changed into a complete Slave Coast." ~ William De La Palma Director, Dutch West India Co. September 5, 1705


Benin Ambassador Apologizes for Slavery
BATON ROUGE, La. - June 28, 2003

Benin Ambassador Apologizes for Slavery

By Associated Press

June 28, 2003

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Benin's ambassador has a message for all descendants of African slaves: His nation apologizes.
"It's so easy to say white man did it to us, but we share in theresponsibility," Ambassador Cyrille Oguin told an audience Friday at Southern University.
Baton Rouge is the first of several U.S. cities where Oguin is formally apologizing for his country's role in the slave trade that brought Africans to America. Other leaders from the nation have made similar addresses in recent years.
Benin, a country of 4.7 million people, was called Dahomey in the 17th century, when it was a major supplier of slaves for white exporters shipping from what was called the Slave Coast. Some accounts say Dahomey rounded up more than 3 million people for sale to slave traders.
Many Africans suspect the descendants of slaves in the United States and elsewhere still harbor ill feelings toward Africa because of it, Oguin said.
Reconciliation, he said, is the first step to healing old wounds and opening economic development.
"The president of Benin, the people of Benin have asked me to come here and apologize for the government, for the Benin people and for Africa for what we all know happened," Oguin told the audience. "Where our parents were involved in this awful, this terrible, trade."
Benin President Mattieu Kerekou has made reconciliation a priority, Oguin said.
"He knows the damage on our side that came from slavery," Oguin said. "He knows how this robbed our own society at home, how it turned us against each other."
In 1999, Kerekou called a conference to discuss reconciliation between nations involved in the slave trade and the descendants of slaves.
"During that conference, apologies were made and reconciliation was started," said Van Dora Williams, of the Reconciliation and Development Corp., which grew out of that conference and is temporarily based in Louisiana. "This was a move that people wanted but didn't know how to articulate."




The Slave trade stared in 1441 with Prince Henry of Portugal. who wanted to go to West Africa in search of gold. The next year his sailors brought back more gold and the following year 10 Africans. It took 40 more years to bring back African Slaves from Africa's Guinea coast town called "Elmina" which means "the mine" in Portuguese.
Slaves were typically captured inland, then brought to the outpost on an arduous journey that often lasted many days -- half of all captives did not even make it to the coast. Once there, the slaves would wait, often for a long period of time, until a ship arrived. They were traded for cowrie shells, iron bars, guns, basins, mirrors, knives, linens, silk, and beads.
Elmina had many Slave Traders besides the Portuguese, the Dutch, and English also sold and transported. By the 18th century, 30,000 slaves on their way to the Americas and this went on for almost three hundred years.

An Englishman Tastes the Sweat of an African 1725
"Precautions to take in buying slaves, and how to transport them to America in good health." The book Accompanying the engraving was a numbered list of descriptions in French, the numbers of which corresponded to those on the image.

Image Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale French publication,
Le commerce de 'Amerique par Marseille included
this 1725 engraving by Serge Daget entitled
An Englishman Tastes the Sweat of an African.

A View of Calabar

- Negroes displayed for sale in a public market.
A Negro Slave being examined before being purchased.

- An Englishman licking the Negro's chin to confirm his age, and to discover from the taste of his sweat that he is not sick.

Negro Slave wearing the mark of slavery on his arm.


St. Croix African Roots Project (SCARP)

July 18, 2009 Before the U.S. Virgin Islands were a Caribbean paradise, they served as a major stop along the slave trade route for almost a century. Compiled by the Virgin Islands Social History Associates, this is one of the greatest, most extensive compilation of slave trading records available, documenting everything from ship lists, to slave lists to a general census once they were free. If you have any ancestors that were slaves in the Virgin Islands, this will be one of the most important collections you'll ever see.

U.S. Virgin Islands St. Croix Slave Lists (1772–1821)
The St. Croix Slave Lists are organized by owner and contain more than 500,000 names — names of slaves and free individuals living on the property. You'll find additional information on age, death, birth, runaways, occupations, whether the slave was African or Creole and family relations.

U.S. Virgin Islands St. Croix Census (1835–1911)
This is the official census of the St. Croix population and deepens the wealth of information available on more than 200,000 slaves, their owners and their families. You may find additional details about the family your ancestor was indentured to as well.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938

slavery records shine light on families history

* Slave Trade Shipping Records, 1734–1802
* Property Inventories 1755–1848
* Free Persons of Color Records, 1740–1834
* Church Records, 1744–1917
* Vital Statistics, 1820–1917
* Vaccination Records, 1823–1853

Voices from the Days of Slavery - Former Slaves Tell Their Stories

Slave Movement During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
This site provides access to the raw data and documentation which contains information on the following slave trade topics from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: records of slave ship movement between Africa and the Americas, slave ships of eighteenth century France, slave trade to Rio de Janeiro, Virginia slave trade in the eighteenth century, English slave trade (House of Lords Survey), Angola slave trade in the eighteenth century, internal slave trade to Rio de Janeiro, slave trade to Havana, Cuba, Nantes slave trade in the eighteenth century, and slave trade to Jamaica. For information about the data sets, read the study descriptions for each data set.

  • Records of Slave Ship Movement Between Africa and the Americas, 1817-1843
  • Slave Ships of Eighteenth Century France, 1748-1756, 1763-1792
  • Slave Trade to Rio de Janeiro, 1795-1811
  • Virginia Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century, 1727-1769
  • English Slave Trade, 1791-1799 (House of Lords Survey)
    Angola Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century, 1723-1771
  • Slave Trade to Rio de Janeiro, 1825-1830
  • Internal Slave Trade to Rio de Janeiro, 1852
  • Slave Trade to Havana, Cuba, 1790-1820
  • Nantes Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century, 1711-1791
  • Slave Trade to Jamaica, 1782-1788, 1805-1808

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade CD Documents Slave Trade by Dr. David Eltis, a history professor at Cambridge University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada
The CD is compilation of 27,233 slave voyages from 1527 to 1866, listing the ship's name, its captain, owners, where it picked up slaves, where they were taken, and a host of other information, including the names and physical descriptions of the captives, and more.
Eltis believes that the compilation represents two thirds of the total transatlantic slave trade voyages. The slave trade began in the late 1400's, when African captives were taken to the Spanish Canary Islands and to the Portuguese island of Madeira. The 27,000 voyages of the transatlantic trade began in 1595 and continued until 1866. Eltis said there was at least one additional voyage in 1867 to Cuba that has not been fully documented. Forty percent of all captives went to Brazil, while five percent came to the United States. The busiest decade for the trade was the 1780's, followed by the 1790's, the 1820's and the 1830's.



Stanford Sociolinguist John Baugh on the diversity and flexability of African American Language.





AAVE As a result of the relative neglect of educational concerns over the past two decades, and the fact that linguists have rarely been directly involved in schools and classrooms, the contributions which Linguistics has made to understanding and solving the educational challenges of African American inner city youth have been limited.

EBONICS African American Black Venacular, Dialect, Creole, Patois

Gullah Culture - BUKRA - slave owner



points of Interest


  • African Americans who come from Virginia may be partly descended from the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria.
  • African Americans from the Carolinas may have ancestors from Senegambia, now Senegal and Gambia, the origin of a high percentage of Carolina slaves.
  • Barbados and Cuba received the most varied African populations, comprised of slaves from most parts of the continent.
  • On the other hand the Gold Coast, what is now Benin, Togo and part of Ghana, provided most of the slaves bound for Central America.

In the early 19th century enslaved people convicted of serious crimes in Jamaica and some other British colonies in the Caribbean were frequently sentenced to transportation.  This sentence was implemented by the sale of these individuals by the state to any individual who would agree to take them out of the colony. (The slaveowners received financial compensation.) It is clear from the British colonial records that the people sold in this way were usually taken to Spanish colonies, and sometimes it is specified that their destinations included Cuba (especially from Jamaica and the Bahamas), Puerto Rico (especially from Tortola) and 'the Spanish mines' (presumably the gold mines in New Granada).
But it stopped in 1825. The sending colonies avoided the cost of long imprisonment and compensating the owners for executed slaves.  The  receiving colonies feared these uncontrollable slaves during  the 18th as well as the 19th centuries.  In Louisiana slaves from Jamaica  were involved in organizing and leading slave conspiracies and revolts and  were runaways far out of proportion to their numbers.
After the successes  of the Haitian revolution beginning in 1791, fear of slaves who were Creoles of  Jamaica or who were jailed and then sold out of Jamaica increased. For documentation, you can check the indices under Jamaica these 2 books by Gwendolyn Hall.
Social Control in Slave Plantation and
Societies:  a Comparison of St.  Domingue and Cuba and Slavery and African Ethnicities in the  Americas:  Restoring the Links.
For slaves born in Jamaica in  Louisiana
, Click on Search the Database,  then check on origin Jamaica.  For slaves involved in conspiracies, revolts and runaways, click on miscellaneous searches. For slaves transshipped from Jamaica but born elsewhere, click on Downloads and download the slave database in one of several software packages.  Then choose Jamaica in the via field. ~ Gwendolyn  Midlo Hall

Who Went Where Speculation


  • plantation owners in the Carolinas favored slaves from Senegambia, because they were most apt to be familiar with rice cultivation.
  • few slaves were brought to the New World from Senegambia because slave traders found they were more apt to rebel.
  • Senegambia and what was known as the Windward Coast, now the nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau, acquired reputations as being sources of resistance.
  • Although the Gambia River was only three weeks from the Caribbean, the threat of insurrection there was strong enough to prompt slave traders to take a three-month voyage further south to the Gold Coast or the Bight of Benin, now Nigeria.

The European Countries Involved In The Slave Trade:



  • Primarily Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, all kept records.
  • Business firms maintained detailed accounts of their ships, cargoes and profits.
  • Family records of slave trading.
  • Commercial records are usually as complete as they would be for any other transaction.
  • The invention of the machine gun allowed the Europeans to defeat Africans militarily, while quinine enabled them to withstand malaria.
  • African resistance forced them to to go to the Caribbean which then in turn built the US.
  • HOW WOULD AFRICANS KNOW IRISH WORDS? FROM CAPTURED IRISH SLAVES. Carried off as captives by the Corsairs in the middles ages to Africa, maybe as early as the third century. Until the United States won its independence from Britain, the country was covered under the British treaties with the Barbary rulers.  After 1783, however, America no longer had that safety net.  They either had to pay like everyone else, cease trading in the Mediterranean, or run the risk of falling prey to corsairs.  Americans, particularly Thomas Jefferson, came up with an alternative--build a navy and fight.

Excellent Classroom Resources:



Overview of this slave revolt that started on September 9, 1739, when "twenty black Carolinians met near the Stono River, approximately twenty miles southwest of Charleston. ... [It was] the largest slave uprising in the British mainland colonies prior to the American Revolution. ... More than twenty white Carolinians and nearly twice as many black Carolinians were killed." Includes links to exhibits and collections.

Slaves and the Courts 1740-1860
This collection consists of about one hundred pamphlets and books documenting the experiences of African and African- American slaves in the United States and American colonies. Resources include trial arguments, examinations of cases and decisions, proceeding, and other materials concerning slavery and the slave trade.

The Slave Trade The British History Story 1700-1930
The Spartacus Internet Encyclopegraphies of all the leading figures involved in the campaign against the slave trade. Also sections on the slaves, legislation and anti-slavery groups.

The Slave Trade - The USA History Story 1840-1960 Slave Accounts, System, Life, Issues
People of African descent never outnumbered those of of European descent in colonial North America or the United States as a whole, although in selected colonies and states (e.g., colonial South Carolina and antebellum Mississippi) this was the case at certain times. It was particularly true of certain "black belt" counties in the 19th century. The first black majority for a colony or state was likely in pre-1739 South Carolina.
This made colonial North America and the United States very different from society in Brazil and the Caribbean. Here, white settler society preceded slavery by several decades. The probable high point for the percentage of people of African descent in the population as a whole was 20% in the census of 1790.

Historical Census Data
See Peter Wood, BLACK MAJORITY and the 1790-1860 census data or

Read a Petition of 1788 by Slaves of New Haven for the abolution of slavery in Connecticut

The History of Black Codes
Black Codes are most commonly associated with the laws adopted in the southern states after the American Civil War until the beginning of Reconstruction to regulate the freedoms of former slaves. Codes attempted to return freed slaves to bondage in legal fact, rather than official terminology. Contrary to popular misconception though, the Black Codes did not begin in 1865. Rather they develop over the span of half a century or more and date to the early 19th century in some northern states.
The Expansion of Black Codes: 1830-1860
Black Codes after the Civil War

The Black Codes of the 1860s are not the same as the Jim Crow laws, but were enacted in 1865 directly after the Civil War; whereas, the Jim Crow era began in 1890.

Laura Plantation
1830 Elisabeth Duparc Locuoul
The Creole Family Saga, is based upon 5,000 pages of documents found in the French National Archives and upon Laura's Memories of the Old Plantation Home, dramatically detailing 250 years of true-life stories of Creole women, slaves and children.
Alcee Fortier a teenaged neighbor, collects stories he hears in the cabins and pulishes them in 1894 calling them Louisiana Folkstales. The following year, Joel Chandler Harris, publishes the very same stories in Atlanta, calling them "The Tales of B'rer Rabbit". These stories had their original adaptation on these Creole Plantations.

Follow De Drinkin' Gou'd (songs)

Publications of the Texas Folk-Lore Society
Number VII
Edited by J. Frank Dobie

Published by the Texas Folk-Lore Society 1928
5 More Songs

Fugitive Slaves
in Mexico



Fugitive Slaves in Mexico Researched by Kathy Pozniak

U.S. history is filled with stories of the Underground Railroad. Mention fugitive slaves and inevitably attention is drawn north - first to the northern states, and later, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, further north yet to Canada. Yet thousands of slaves gained their freedom through a different route - into Mexico. In this paper, I hope to show that while slave escapes into Mexico may be only a small chapter in history, it adds another integral layer towards understanding the political, social and economic developments of the antebellum era.
In 1821, the Spanish government granted land to Moses Austin, an American, in Mexico. Unable to entice internal migration to this vast and unoccupied territory, the Spanish decided to take the unusual step of encouraging foreign immigration to establish a base of small rural landholders. (1) A few months after this grant, Mexico won its independence from Spain. And, although Moses Austin died before leading settlers into Mexico, this unique scheme for settlement was not abandoned. Shortly after its establishment, Mexico allowed Stephen Austin and other U.S. citizens to occupy land within the Mexican state of Texas. These settlers brought their slaves with them. By 1825, one out of five residents in Texas was a slave. (2)
Then, on September 15, 1829, Mexican President Vicente Guererro abolished slavery.(3) Ten years later, U.S. Senator John Niles characterized this action as a "hazardous experiment." In his book, the History of South America and Mexico, Niles argued that Spanish methods of colonization, in particular the practice of intermarriage with indigenous peoples, had caused a deterioration in their innate intelligence level and, consequently, their ability to practice democracy. Niles contended that any further heterogeneity would only guarantee the fall of the Mexican republic.(4)
Just two and a half months after Mexico abolished slavery and for reasons unrelated to Niles's opinion, Texas Governor J.M. Viesca secured an exemption for his state. The land fees generated an important source of income for the local government.(5) Nonetheless, Mexican officials were uneasy about the numbers of new Americans settling within Mexico and they attempted to curb the number of newcomers, including slaves, in another way. In 1830, Mexico decreed that foreigners could not cross the border without obtaining a passport issued by Mexican agents.(6) The Mexican government, however, was generally ineffectual in enforcing this law and it was largely ignored.
While slaveholders looked to Mexico for land, so too did abolitionists. In 1832, Benjamin Lundy attempted to acquire land in Texas for the purpose of establishing a colony for ex-slaves. Lundy favored colonization because he believed it was a way to end slavery; slaves would be freed only if their owners could be guaranteed that they would then leave the United States.(7) Furthermore Lundy realized freed slaves in the U.S. would still be subjected to racism and discrimination. In Lundy's opinion, they would have a better chance someplace where they would enjoy greater social and legal equality.(8) Though he knew of the 1830 law that prohibited further U.S. settlements in Texas, Lundy hoped that Mexican officials would make an exception for him. They did not. Two years later, Colonel Juan Almonte suggested to Lundy that he again petition for land but in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which was not included in the 1830 law.(9) Tamaulipas was located just south of Texas and straddled the Rio Grande. Although Lundy did not indicate in his recollections what motivated Almonte to make this offer, another Mexican official, Senator Francisco de Tagle, had suggested as early as 1831 that fugitive slaves be given homes on the frontier as a barrier against possible invasion.(10) In March of 1835, the Mexican government granted Lundy 138,000 acres of land in Tamaulipas.(11) Lundy wanted to establish at least 250 families within two years.(12) Unfortunately, war interceded.
In December of 1835, Americans in Texas began a fight for independence from Mexico. According to Lundy, they rebelled when they "ascertained that slavery could not be perpetuated... under the government of the Mexican Republic."(13) In the midst of the fighting, many slaves escaped into Mexico but those that moved to Tamaulipas found themselves entrapped once more. The Texan nation's new boundaries expanded southward to the Rio Grande River. Consequently, Lundy's land grant was no longer in Tamaulipas but in Texas; the planned colony never came to fruition.(14) Lundy never attempted to establish another colony in Mexico and he died in 1839.(15) The Republic of Texas declared slavery to be legal and in its ten-year existence, the slave population grew 450% from 5,000 to nearly 27,500.(16)
In the midst of mounting tensions between Mexico, Texas, and the United States during the 1840s, slavery became an issue over which Mexico could assert its sovereignty. Mexican authorities always rejected Texans' demands to reclaim their runaways. Texas President Sam Houston lamented to U.S. General William Harding in July, 1841, that ". . . two valuable negro boys for which I had paid in cash $2100 previous to my visit to Nashville, ran away last spring to Mexico. Thus you can see I am in bad luck."(17) After the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) Mexico continued to assert itself by refusing to enter into any extradition treaties with the United States and, although it finally ratified an agreement in 1862, it specifically excluded runaway slaves.(18)
Consequently, Mexico remained a place of amnesty. However, the absence of an organized network for escapes meant that most slaves made their way into Mexico either individually or in small groups. Despite this impediment, thousands of fugitive slaves lived in Mexico by 1850. But the flow of runaways into Mexico did not compare with the numbers still enslaved in Texas. According to the 1850 U.S. census, 58,161 slaves lived in Texas, whose entire population was 212,592. Thus, slaves comprised over 28% of the population.(19) On the eve of the Civil War, this percentage had increased to the point where nearly 1/3 of the total population of Texas were slaves.(20)
Finding the Mexican government uncooperative, Texas slaveowners took measures to stop escapes as well as to reclaim runaways. In 1850, they pressured the federal government to set up border patrols but with few troops assigned to patrol this vast frontier, this was not very successful.(21) Slaveowners also offered rewards of $200-$600 for the recapturing of fugitives. Noah Smithwick recalled being part of a group of men in pursuit of runaway slaves in Texas in 1855. Unprepared for the resistance they received, Smithwick's group retreated home. Much to his own surprise, Smithwick hoped that the fugitives had made it to Mexico.(22) (See Document One) Sometimes, however, Texans did not respect the border in their pursuits of runaway slaves. In 1855, Captain James Callahan of the Texas Rangers under the orders of Texan Governor Elisha Pease entered Mexico in an attempt to recapture slaves. Callahan insisted that the purpose of his excursion was to pursue Indians rather than recapture fugitive slaves. The Mexican government with the help of Native Americans, however, forced him to retreat and withdraw without the slaves; although not without leaving a small village in ruins.(23)
Sam Houston offered yet another solution to the problem of fugitive slaves in Mexico. In 1858, he proposed making Mexico a protectorate of the United States because he believed that Mexicans were incapable of maintaining a democracy and thus creating a "good neighborhood."(24) Although Houston did not originally mention slavery as a rationale, in promoting his plan a year later he suggested that slavery would aid Mexico's agricultural development. He also said that it would "provide for the reclamation of our slaves who escape into her territory."(25)
Seemingly unaffected by these debates, many runaway slaves assimilated into Mexican culture - learning the language and the customs. A number of persons left recollections of their encounters. As early as 1833, Lundy wrote about a man he met while in San Antonio de Bexar, Mexico. (See Document Two) Frederick Law Olmsted wrote of meeting an ex-slave during his travels through Mexico in 1854. (See Document Three) Mrs. William Cazneau, who lived in the border town of Eagle Pass from 1850-1852, documented the experience of an acquaintance of hers who encountered an ex-slave in Monterey. (See Document Four) Much to the surprise of these Americans, these former slaves had obtained wealth and status in their new communities.
Textbooks and survey courses do not focus on the topic of runaway slaves into Mexico probably due to the small known numbers. Estimates generally range between 3,000 to 5,000. Yet to focus in on just the relatively small numbers of fugitive slaves in Mexico is to miss the larger picture. By teaching this topic within the larger context of other events in the 19th Century, such as Manifest Destiny, expansion of slavery and Mexican independence, it serves to add another integral detail and greater understanding to this period in history.

(1) Rosalee Schwartz, "Across the Rio to Freedom," Southwest Studies No. 44 (1975): 8.
(2) Ibid., 11.
(3) Ibid., 16.
(4) John M. Niles, History of South America and Mexico (Hartford: H. Huntington, 1839), 199. [F 96 .6202]
(5) Schwartz, "Across The Rio to Freedom," 16.
(6) Ibid., 17.
(7) Merton Dillon, Benjamin Lundy and The Struggle for Negro Freedom (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), 27.
(8) Ibid., 91.
(9) Dillon, Benjamin Lundy, 180.
(10) Ronnie C. Tyler, "Fugitive Slaves in Mexico," Journal of Negro History, Volume 57, Issue 1 (January, 1972), 2.
(11) Benjamin Lundy, The Life, Travels and Opinions of Benjamin Lundy. Ed. William Parrish. (Philadelphia: William D. Parrish Publisher, 1847), 168.; Dillon, Benjamin Lundy, 203-204.
(12) Dillon, Benjamin Lundy, 203-204.
(13) Benjamin Lundy, "The Origin and True Causes of the Texas Insurrection," (originally published in Philadelphia's National Gazette, 1839), 31.
(14) Dillon, Benjamin Lundy, 219.
(15) A. M. Shotwell. Benjamin Lundy. (Lansing: Robert Smith Printing Company, 1897), 9.
(16) Frederick Law Olmsted, Till Freedom Cried Out. Ed. T. Lindsay Baker and Julie Baker. (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1997), xxi.
(17) Sam Houston, The Writings of Sam Houston Volume III. Ed. Amelia Williams and Eugene Barker (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1942), 10.
(18) Tyler, "Fugitive Slaves in Mexico," 11.
(19) Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through Texas. (New York: Dix, Edwards and Company, 1857), 472.
(20) Olmsted, Till Freedom Cried Out, xxi.
(21) Tyler, "Fugitive Slaves in Mexico," 4.
(22) Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State. (Austin: Gammel Book Company, 1900), 326.
(23) Tyler, "Fugitive Slaves in Mexico," 8-9. Olmsted, A Journey through Texas, 333.
(24) Sam Houston, The Writings of Sam Houston Volume VII. Ed. Amelia Williams and Eugene Barker. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1942), 104.
(25) Sam Houston, The Writings of Sam Houston Volume VII. Ed. Amelia Williams and Eugene Barker. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1942), 362.




Before the fifteenth century, European sailing vessels could not easily travel long distances. Although West African countries (depicted in dark green) had long-established trading relationships with Europeans, such activities took place mostly in the northern part of the African continent:

West Africans had traded with Europeans through merchants in North Africa for centuries. The first traders to sail down the West African coast were the Portuguese in the 15th century. Later the Dutch, British, French and Scandinavians followed. They were mainly interested in precious items such as gold, ivory and spices, particularly pepper.

At that time, "before there was any regular commercial contact with Europeans," some African kingdoms and societies kept slaves. (This is a BBC audio clip.) Among these were the Ashanti (whose capital, Kumasi, is in today's Ghana), the kings of Bonny (in what is now the Nigerian delta), and the kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin). In 1726, for example, it is said that the king of Dahomey agreed to supply slaves if Europeans established plantations in his kingdom.

The type of slavery (scroll down 70%) which existed in Africa, before European slave-traders descended on the continent, “had a social and cultural context, rooted in kingship, which imposed definition and restraints on the slave master relationship.” It was not, in other words, like the chattel slavery which later took hold in the Americas.

African people had a varied history before European slave-trading began. According to a synopsis prepared for the “Transatlantic Slavery” exhibit at Liverpool's Merseyside Maritime Museum:

The peoples of West Africa had a rich and varied history and culture long before European slavers arrived. They had a wide variety of political arrangements including kingdoms, city-states and other organisations, each with their own languages and culture.

Education and trade, among other things, were part of African life:

Art, learning and technology flourished and Africans were especially skilled in subjects like medicine, mathematics and astronomy. As well as domestic goods, they made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold and terracotta for both local use and trade.

When the technology of sailing ships changed, however, so did the trading relationships between Europeans and Africans. With stern rudders, helmsmen could more easily steer their vessels. With three masts and many sails - instead of one mast and one large sail - a crew could more easily manage their ship. Those two inventions meant that European ships could make much longer journeys. And when that happened, the cargo in their holds changed dramatically:

From their first contacts, European traders kidnapped and bought Africans for sale in Europe. However, it was not until the 17th century, when plantation owners wanted more and more slaves to satisfy the increasing demand for sugar in Europe, that transatlantic slaving became the dominant trade.

What prompted Europeans to think it was acceptable to kidnap Africans, treat them in the most barbaric ways and then sell them, as though they were cattle, in foreign lands?
* The Story of Africa, told by Africans, is a major BBC series. The link takes you to the index of programs, each lasting approximately thirty minutes, which you can hear online.





Thomas Clarkson - who first thought about the evils of slave-trading when he was a student at Cambridge University's St. John's College - wrote an award-winning essay about the topic in 1785. To better understand his subject, he conducted fact-finding trips. Traveling throughout Britain, on horseback, he obtained firsthand information about the slave-trade.

Later writing a history of slave-trading - an industry so massive that its scope can be compared to the modern housing industry - Clarkson relates (in Chapter 2) how European slave-trading began:

So early as in the year 1503, a few slaves had been sent from the Portuguese settlements in Africa into the Spanish colonies in America. In 1511, Ferdinand the Fifth, king of Spain, permitted them to be carried in great numbers. Ferdinand, however, must have been ignorant in these early times of the piratical manner in which the Portuguese had procured them.

Britain joined the slave-trade in 1562, during the reign of Elizabeth:

The first importation of slaves from Africa, by our countrymen, was in the reign of Elizabeth, in the year 1562.

Clarkson notes the Queen was greatly concerned about these events:

She [Elizabeth I] seems to have been aware of the evils to which its continuance might lead, or that, if it were sanctioned, the most unjustifiable means might be made use of to procure the persons of the natives of Africa.

Summoning Captain John Hawkins, to brief her regarding his voyage to Africa, the Queen:

expressed her concern lest any of the Africans should be carried off without their free consent, declaring that "it would be detestable, and call down the vengeance of heaven upon the undertakers."

Disregarding Her Majesty's directive, Hawkins commenced centuries of British slave-trade:

Captain Hawkins promised to comply with the injunctions of Elizabeth in this respect, but he did not keep his word; for when he went to Africa again, he seized many of the inhabitants and carried them off as slaves, which occasioned Hill, in the account [“Naval History”] he gives of his second voyage, to use these remarkable words:—"Here began the horrid practice of forcing the Africans into slavery, an injustice and barbarity which, so sure as there is vengeance in heaven for the worst of crimes, will some time be the destruction of all who allow or encourage it."

During the ensuing centuries, “injustice and barbarity” was inflicted on approximately 12 million Africans.


As Britain began to dominate the slave-trading business, its ships sailed between ports on three continents. A triangular trading system developed, combining European capital (in the first leg) with African labor (in the second) and British-colony resources (in the third):

  • On the first leg of the triangular journey, ships left Britain - principally from Liverpool and Bristol - loaded with manufactured goods: copper, textiles, silks imported from Asia, glassware, ammunition, guns, knives and other finished products.
  • Arriving in Africa, sailors offloaded those goods and filled the cargo holds with indigo and captured people: men, women and children. The "middle passage" brought the branded, newly enslaved Africans to the Americas or to Caribbean islands. It is estimated that at least ten percent of the captives died en route due to unbelievably bad conditions. When the ships encountered fierce weather, casualties were higher.

  • Ships, loaded with slave-produced raw materials, returned to Britain during the final leg of the triangular trading cycle. Sugar, coffee, tobacco and - especially - cotton were processed in British factories. Those materials provided workers with jobs and business owners with profits.
At the end of the process, European markets were well supplied with whatever goods they needed. And ... while Europeans were running the slave trade on the west side of Africa ... Arab traders were doing the same thing (this is a BBC audio clip) on the east side.

Let's take a closer look at the second leg of the triangular journey - the infamous "middle passage" - wherein Africans were shipped, to the "New World," as slave-labor.


In July of 1788, as MPs (Members of Parliament) debated the issue of African slave-trading, pro-slave-trade members summoned individuals, like Robert Norris, to testify. From Liverpool, Norris insisted that Pre-Colonial Africa: Society, Polity, Culture Africans were treated fairly and their transatlantic passages were comfortable. His book on the subject - at pages 171 and 172 - reveals his general position:

That the opinion...of these ships being unequal to the numbers which were said to be crowded in them, is groundless...That on the voyage from Africa to the West Indies, the Negroes are well fed, comfortably lodged, and have every possible attention paid to their health, cleanliness, and convenience.

Thomas Clarkson, in chapter 23 of his history, summarizes Norris' testimony to the privy council. The captive Africans, Norris said:
had sufficient room, sufficient air, and sufficient provisions. When upon deck, they made merry and amused themselves with dancing. As to the mortality, or the loss of them by death in the course of their passage, it was trifling. In short, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies "was one of the happiest periods of a Negro's life."
Norris, like others, wanted to maintain slave-trading for economic reasons. He knew slave labor was “the connecting medium of our foreign with our domestic commerce.” British manufacturing depended on it. If that connection were removed:
The export of British manufactures, which to Africa and the Colonies amount to nearly three millions sterling annually, would soon be reduced to nothing...From the inevitable decrease of the import of West Indian productions, there would be such a deficiency of the national revenue, as the imposition of fresh taxes, upon a people deprived of their accustomed resources of opulence and industry, could not possibly replace ... Our national importance would quickly decline, and be known to the next generation, only by the page of history. (Norris, pages 182-183
Anti-slave MPs were unimpressed. Their withering cross examination drew out actual facts about the gruesome Middle Passage.


In July of 1788, Liverpool slave-trade participants testified about their activities in Parliament. They told MPs that slaves, among other things, were comfortable during transatlantic crossings.

Then, under intense cross examination, they acknowledged the truth. We pick up the story in chapter 23 of Clarkson's history:

Every slave, whatever his size might be, was found to have only five feet and six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth, to lie in. The floor was covered with bodies stowed or packed according to this allowance: but between the floor and the deck or ceiling were often platforms or broad shelves in the mid-way, which were covered with bodies also. The height from the floor to the ceiling, within which space the bodies on the floor and those on the platforms lay, seldom exceeded five feet eight inches, and in some cases it did not exceed four feet.

When captives were brought (this is a BBC audio clip) to the African ports, they were bound together, two by two. Were they also tethered, in some manner, aboard ship?

The men were chained two and two together by their hands and feet, and were chained also by means of ring-bolts, which were fastened to the deck. They were confined in this manner at least all the time they remained upon the coast, which was from six weeks to six months as it might happen.

If they were captured to provide free labor, Africans needed nourishment. What did they eat?

Their allowance consisted of one pint of water a day to each person, and they were fed twice a day with yams and horsebeans.

Some of the captives refused to eat, wishing to die rather than to live in such horrific conditions. When that happened, slavers would force-open their mouths with a device (called a speculum oris) which looked like an instrument of torture. (See Clarkson, chapter 17.)

Confined in cramped quarters, how did the captives keep their bodies limber?

After meals they jumped up in their irons for exercise. This was so necessary for their health, that they were whipped if they refused to do it; and this jumping had been termed dancing.

Young girls could also be whipped if they refused the captain's order to dance without their clothes. One example was memorialized by George Cruikshank on the 10th of April, 1792. John Kimber, captain of the slave ship Recovery, whipped a fifteen-year-old captive while she was suspended by her ankle. Although she died of her injuries, a jury in the High Court of Admiralty acquitted Kimber. They concluded the girl had died of disease, not mistreatment.

Were captives allowed to breathe fresh air, or did they spend most of their time below deck?

They were usually fifteen and sixteen hours below deck out of the twenty-four. In rainy weather they could not be brought up for two or three days together. If the ship was full, their situation was then distressing. They sometimes drew their breath with anxious and laborious efforts, and some died of suffocation.

It is said one could smell an approaching slave ship ten miles away, so horrific were its onboard conditions.