The Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of Enslaved People in the context of slavery at the time

CONTENT WARNING: Historical images of enslaved people in chattel slavery, pictures and descriptions of slavery and enslaved people. One image shows the back of an enslaved man named Peter. His back has been disfigured as a result of the whippings he endured. Some contextual historical use of language.

Author: Sophia Newton

Many people are keen to point out that slavery existed before the development of the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of Enslaved People. This is done for a variety of reasons, some educational and well-meant but mostly this argument is used to diminish the reality and effects. We think it’s important to acknowledge and understand the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking Of Enslaved People in the context of slavery at the time. We also recognise that modern day slavery still exists across the world, even in the UK. It is estimated that of the millions enslaved today, 25% of them are children; and that women and girls remain most at risk. This kind of slavery does not have physical chains (at least not usually) but does mean people have no agency over their life and often work in terrible conditions, face physical violence, sexual violence and abuse. We will be looking at racism and its interplay with modern-day slavery in more detail in an upcoming article but this piece will be focussing on the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking Of Enslaved People.

So has slavery always existed?

It is true that various forms of slavery, servitude, or coerced labour have long existed and still do throughout the world. Nearly all countries have been both slave-holders or enslaved at some point in some way. Typically in the past, when people were enslaved, it was often because they were indebted, had broken the law, or suffered a military defeat. The duration of their enslavement might be for life, or for a fixed period of time after which their freedom was granted. It was rarely passed down generations though this did happen from time to time and there were frequently times in Ancient Rome when parents would sell their children into slavery if times were tough. This obviously does not make this kind of slavery ‘better’ or ‘right’ but it does provide context and shows that it was used in different ways to greater and lesser degrees by certain places and people. The civilisations of both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome used many enslaved people in a variety of ways though it is worth noting that Egyptian experts and archaeologists do not believe they were used to build the pyramids! In later Roman times enslaved people were eventually granted limited rights.

Serfs in feudal England, on a calendar page for August, Queen Mary’s Psalter, ca. 1310, courtesy of the British Library Manuscripts Online Catalogue.

Closer to home, in feudal Britain we had serfdom though this was tied to the land rather than the person. A serf would not be paid, but they could not be bought or sold as an individual rather they were tied to the land so could sometimes be sold as part of a transfer of land ownership. Working the land, forests and even mines for the Lord of the Manor serfs would receive protection, justice and were able to cultivate their own plots to sustain themselves. This was more a form of indentured servitude than the slavery we recognise today. So yes, slavery in a variety of forms has had its place across global history but nothing can compare to the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of Enslaved People. No one is saying that the Europeans who arrived invented slavery; what happened was that the excuses made for it, its systemic nature, the commercialisation and corporatisation of it not only had horrific ramifications at the time but some five hundred years later – still do.

Yeah but West and Central Africa were already enslaving people, so what we did wasn’t that bad?

There were enslaved people in West Africa in the 16th century but not on the scale that would follow and the kind of enslavement was generally not chattel slavery. An enslaved person in West and Central Africa lived within a more flexible kinship group system. In contrast to chattel slavery, anyone considered a slave in this region before the Trans-Atlantic ‘trade’ had a greater chance of becoming free, legal rights weren’t generally based on racial categories, and an enslaved person was not generally permanently separated from their family or their homeland. As awful as being enslaved there would have been, it was not the same as ending up as an enslaved person on a Trans-Atlantic ship, or being born to someone who was.

Description: Weights for gold dust in shape of soldier and captive, from Asante people of Ghana Creator: Asante Date: Asante Copyright: Copyright BCC Museum Object ID:Ea 9344, 9346

The Portuguese were the first people to take a ship of enslaved people across the Atlantic in 1526. That first ship would not be the last as it became clear how profitable it was and soon the West and Central African societies experienced greater and greater demand for enslaved labour. To those West and Central African people involved in kidnapping and providing more and more enslaved people for the insatiable European appetite for free labour there were undoubtedly benefits, but there was also little real choice in the matter. For many it was either enslave or be enslaved. Often, enslaved Africans would be sold several times before they reached the European traders at the coast. Evidence found shows how one captain of the Bristol slave ship the Ruby dealt with traders in Cameroon, West Africa. He gave them goods in advance to buy slaves for him. The African traders had to leave their relatives as hostage for these goods, while they organised the purchase of enslaved Africans. If the traders did not deliver the slaves, the slave ship captain would enslave the hostages. It’s clear that a hierarchy of power was beginning to take shape in Africa in the 1500s and 1600s. This would take on a whole new meaning on the other side of the Atlantic and in the coming years would pave the way for colonialism on African soil. In recent times, many African nations and societies have apologised for their role. One must also reflect – who did best out of the trades? The common items traded for enslaved humans were cloth, copper, guns, gunpowder, glass beads, clothing and rum.

Description: Extract from catalogue. Articles suitable to the African Trade. Neville Bath, Cutler, Hardware and Toyman, from catalogue. Creator: Neville Bath, Cutler, Hardware and Toyman Date: unknown Copyright: Copyright BCC Library Service
Description: Trade beads collected in Ghana Date: unknown Copyright: Copyright BCC Museum


Meanwhile the industrial revolution in Britain was being powered on the back of slave labour; whole towns and cities were appearing such as Whitehaven, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester or as it was called then, Cottonopolis. Britain’s wealth was amassing at a rate of knots and lots more localised familial wealth was being created that would last generations and still does to this day.

So yes, there was slavery in Africa but what was different about the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of Enslaved People was the scale, legal status and in the “New World” its racial definition. This was chattel slavery in its entirety, a legalised system that removed all humanity and quite literally turned human beings into commodities.

Chattel (noun)

A movable article of personal property.

Any article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to land.

A human being considered to be property; an enslaved person.

What was the difference? What is chattel slavery?

Ultimately chattel slavery means the complete and utter dehumanisation of a person. Beyond other forms of slavery prevalent at the time chattel slavery meant that those of African descent had no rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness and nor would their children, or their children’s children or any of their descendants. Chattel slavery meant people were not viewed as labourers but as property with no way of escape. Just one example of this can be seen in the laws surrounding their very life and death. If a White person murdered an enslaved person it was only a misdemeanour punishable by a small fine. An enslaved person could only attack a White person in defence of his own enslaver’s life. Not their own life. Their enslaver’s. There were laws that protected the enslavers ‘chattel’ (property) but ostensibly none that protected the enslaved. It is little wonder that with such disregard for human life that it was common practice to throw people overboard on the journey from Africa to the colonies in America and the Caribbean if the ship’s supplies were running low. It is estimated that more than one million people are thought to have died in this horrific way on what is known as the ‘Middle Passage.’

A enslaver could rape, mutilate, punish and even kill the people they had enslaved with impunity. And they did.

A slave named Peter, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, April 2, 1863. Photo courtesy the National Archives/Getty Images


Despite the fact that buying someone to enslave was a costly business. Prices naturally varied over the four hundred years but evidence shows a young man could cost from around $40,000 to more than $120,000 in today’s money. This shows just how profitable it was to own a human being in this way, that despite such a large initial cost, this person’s ‘economic output’ would be so profitable that their treatment and good health did not matter. Men were  sought for their physical strength while women were able to provide children, more free labour.

There can be no doubt that the realities of the life of someone who was enslaved were appalling. The cruelty, degradation and loss of life were atrocious. It was a holocaust carried out over 400 years and one that didn’t stop when it ended as it was also the dawn of racism and anti-Black sentiment.

Of course people before had noticed differences in skin colour and differences in culture but a global hierarchical racial system did not exist. Racism was quite literally invented to uphold this profit making machine and to provide a convenient moral excuse as enslaving people didn’t sit quite right with the Christian values. Racial pseudoscience was developed which created a hierarchy of races, with Black people at bottom and White people at the top. Quite literally a colour-chart of privilege. Interestingly this worked so well that it even helped keep (and still does) poor White people from revolting or joining with Black people despite the huge disparities in wealth in society. That this was done for the wrong reasons one need only think of the question people asked scientists to prove at the time:

“Why are Africans inferior?”


Are Africans inferior?”

This racial hierarchy would mean worse outcomes for darker skinned people both during and after slavery. The ensuing Jim Crow laws and the ‘one-drop-rule’ evidence how far this ‘justification’ would become entrenched. The ‘one-drop-rule’ meant that even in the 20th century if someone had a Black ancestor in their lineage they were considered Black and that person would be legally treated as such meaning fewer rights. It is easy to look back on all this and see how wrong it all was, what is harder for people to see now are the long-term effects that this racist hierarchy has had. Changing laws does not change society immediately. That Black lives don’t matter as much as White lives is as evident today as it was then, it’s just the evidence looks a little different.

Why did it happen on such a big scale

In the 16th century there began a gold rush to the ‘newly discovered’ Caribbean and Americas. The fertile land and resources were an opportunity too good to be missed. Indigenous populations were decimated thanks to Europeans, either by sickness, reduction in their lands, or quite simply through murder and massacre. There were not enough Europeans there to make the most of the opportunities and building an economy out of a wilderness needs people. Many Europeans unable to find work at home had arrived under indentured servitude, buying their passage to the New World by promising to labour for a period of time when they got there, they would receive basic shelter and crucially a basic education and trade. But there was no where near enough of them and numbers were decreasing as employment rates increased in Europe. Essentially there was a labour shortage and a LOT more money to be made. More and more enslaved people from Africa were needed to plug that gap. In time, the trading of enslaved people would become an economic force in its own right, going beyond the seller > buyer route and attracting an industry of its own. ‘Slave Auctions’ were profitable and owning slaves was not only profitable in terms of labour but valuable as an asset too.

Inspection and Sale of a Negro, engraving from the book Antislavery (1961) by Dwight Lowell Dumond. Image: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

If the Southern US states (The Confederacy States) alone were considered a country in their own right, then at the beginning of the American Civil War they would have been the fourth richest country in the world. By 1860 the per capita wealth of Southern Whites was double that of Northerners, and three-fifths of the wealthiest individuals in the country were Southerners. The Confederacy was producing 75% of the world’s cotton. Cotton that was powering industries elsewhere especially Britain. Slavery had become the golden goose of America and Europe, but that goose needed to be fed Black people. The more Black people that were fed to the goose, the more gold it laid for the White people. It’s a horrible but I feel appropriate analogy for how slavery got so big and went on for so long. Even mechanisation didn’t slow it down, in fact it sped it up. The invention of the Cotton Gin which picked the seeds from 10 x the amount of cotton as a man, should have meant less manpower being required. Instead, this increased capacity drove up demand and more enslaved people were needed.


Think of it this way. Slavery was so profitable and important that to consider abolishing it started the American Civil War.


The golden goose would keep laying until the work of abolitionists (and no they weren’t just White and called Wilberforce, expect more on abolition later in the week) would eventually mean that slavery would be abolished in Haiti in 1804, across the British Empire in 1834 and after the Civil War in America across the USA in 1865.

As we know slavery did not end with abolition. Modern day slavery is still very much alive today and the legacy of those enslaved during the Trans-Altantic trafficking period is evident in society to this very day. Nor was the wealth and power generated back then redistributed. Instead in Britain we recompensed the slave owners. Among those paid were ancestors of several prime ministers, including David Cameron. William Gladstone’s father John Gladstone received compensation of £106,769. The equivalent of £83 million  today.

That many of these people and their families still hold political power and wealth today is not a coincidence. We are talking about history, but we are also talking about our present. We are not talking simply about Black History either – this is as much White History too and those who profited the most from it, still have the most to lose.