African Diaspora and the Impact of Atlantic Slave Trade on It

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The Atlantic slave trade’s beginning could be traced back to when the Portuguese, who by 1520 were exporting gold from West Africa, tapped into West African labor, specifically the indigenous population of the Canaries, the Guanches and enslaved them in both Madeira and the Mediterranean in the early fifteenth century. At the time, the Mediterranean was in need of labor for cultivation of sugarcane and thus Lisbon began importing as many as 1000 West Africans annually from 1441 to 1530 into southern Spain, Portugal and in the Mediterranean. However, it was not until the movement of Portuguese and Spanish into the New World which brought about increased reliance on captive African labor that the slave trade gained momentum. By the end of the Atlantic slave trade, approximately 11.9 million Africans would be exported from Africa of would 9.6 to10.8 million arrived alive while the rest died during the transportation in a process called the Middle Passage. As a slave, they would be overworked and abused in the plantations in the New World. Although majority of slaves were used in the plantations, some would be used in urban areas mostly as domestics and common laborers. Despite the Atlantic slave trade lasting for about 400 years, enslaved men and women resisted slavery in different forms, primarily by establishing maroons, organizing armed revolts, sabotage, and absconding. Slavery existed in Africa before the Europeans arrived as Africans enslaved captives who they captured in wars but selling the slaves to Europeans brought them additional resources which ultimately turned into a vicious cycle. However, the Atlantic slave trade in its scope was so big that the authors call it “one of the most extensive mass movements in history, a displacement to beat all displacements.” Such was the Atlantic slave trade: rife with greed and oppression, death and despair, and revolts and uprisings. 

After the Portuguese and Spanish expansion into the New World, a source of labor was required for the rising mining and agricultural industries. These industries needed to rely on captive African labor as the Europeans introduced new diseases into the New World which the indigenous population was not resistant to which as a result decimated 90% of the indigenous population by the end of the eighteenth century. By 1520s, enslaved Africans were brought to work in sugarcane plantations in Hispaniola (current day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and other Spanish-claimed territories while also replacing the indigenous Taíno in gold and silver mines. The number of enslaved Africans would outnumber Europeans in Cuba and Hispaniola while they equaled the number of Europeans in Mexico City and Vera Cruz by 1570. Portuguese-held Brazil also used slaves in sugarcane plantations as early as 1520s in the north-eastern region of Pernambuco. By 1600, Brazil slowly became the largest producer of sugar in the world and the number of enslaved increased significantly as well accounting for almost 42 percent of the total enslaved in the seventeenth century. About 11.9 million slaves is believed to be exported, out of which 9.6 to 10.8 million is said have survived the treacherous journey. 64.9 percent of the total were males, and 27.9 percent were children. Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland joined the slave trade at different times during the Atlantic slave trade but Spain and Portugal controlled the trade through fifteenth through mid-seventeenth century. Of all the voyages for which there is data between 1662 and 1867, Brazil imported 40 percent, Caribbean held by English and French accounted for 37 percent, Spanish-claimed islands accounted for 10 percent while North America imported 7 percent of total trade. West Central Africa, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and the Gold Coast accounted for 85 percent of those exported. West Central Africa accounted for 36.5 percent of the trade, the Bight of Benin for 20 percent, the Bight of Biafra for 16.6 percent, and the Gold Coast accounted for 11 percent of all the trade. The busiest ports were Cabinda and Luanda in West Central Africa, Cape Castle and Anomabu in the Gold Coast, Bonny and Calabar in the Bight of Biafra, and Whydah in the Bight of Benin.

The authors of Reversing Sail call the Middle Passage an “unspeakable horror” which “qualifies as the quintessential moment of transfiguration, the height of human alienation and disorientation” when describing its nature. While the Middle Passage is often thought of as the transatlantic voyage, the movement actually began in Africa when those captured in the hinterland were moved to coastal holding stages, or barracoons. Captured would be forced to match from hinterland to the sea, covering almost 100 to 700 kilometers in a day and could take four months to reach the coast. The loss of life in this trek is estimated to average 10 to 15 percent but in Angola, it reached 40 percent. When they reached the shore, they would be kept in barracoons to convalesce or to wait for the next slaver, a slave ship. Some of these barracoons would be exposed to the elements while others ranged from weather-protected dwellings to fortified castles. In Angola, captives would be fed the cheapest food, often rotten, which they were forced to carry and would be taken to Luanda where waited for weeks or months, chained and exposed, with little to eat to be transported to Brazil. As many as 12000 captives arrived annually in Luanda for export and between 6,000 and 7,000 survived for eventual shipment. Before boarding the ships, the captives would be denuded and branded with the purchasing company’s coat of arm. In the ship, women and girls were physically separated from the males which facilitated the “sordid history of the rape of African women and girls by European men”. The filthy conditions aboard the slavers was a breeding ground for diseases like dysentery, measles, scurvy, yaws, intestinal worms and smallpox. About 10 to 40 percent of the captives are believed to have died in the trek to the coast and at least 10 percent of those who reached the coast died awaiting export while there is no account of the number of captives who died in the ship except for accounts of description of the slave ships being “so covered with blood and mucous that it resembled a slaughter-house” which hints at a high death rate in the voyage as well.

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When the captives arrived in the New World, they would be sold as slaves to work mostly in plantations and for their masters. Their works would differ based on where they were sold. In Saint Domingue, both women and men performed heavy labor in the fields that included tilling, weeding, clearing trees and brush and stones, digging trenches and canals, and planting and picking. Work days averaged eighteen hours, with some slaves working twenty-four-hour shifts. For slaves in sugarcane plantation the grinding season between January and July followed the harvest and was just as arduous, whereas coffee plantation workers labored under a seasonal system that was different yet taxing. Urban slaves were boilermen, furnacemen, carpenters, masons, coopers, wheelwrights, and stockmen. Slaves in plantations elsewhere were also abused as field hands and their work varied little depending on the place. However the works of urban slaves varied more significantly on the location. For example in North America, slaves were carpenters, coopers, wheelwrights, painters, seamstresses, tailors, shoemakers, masons, and the like, and they were hired out by slaveholders to earn additional income. In some urban areas, slaves were also used as porters in docks.

Although the enslaved Africans were subject to brutal working conditions and treatment, they did try to resist them. Ever since the capture in slaving raids in Africa, the captives would try to escape. During the transatlantic voyage, mutiny was so common that male slaves would be chained together at the wrist and ankles in groups of two when boarding the slave ships. After their sale in the New World, many slaves would abandon their plantations or masters to establish or seek refuge in maroons which would often become autonomous and negotiate with the authorities for freedom and land. For instance, maroon communities originated as early as 1503 in Hispaniola. Maroons in Cuba, called palenques, or cumbes joined the Cuban Liberation Army in large numbers during the first War of Independence in 1868. The 1868 decree of the victors recognized the right of the palenques to continue to exist. In northeastern Brazil, Palmares were established as early as 1605 and lasting until around 1695 in Pernambuco with population of at least 5,000 and possibly as high as 30,000. In addition to establishing maroons, revolts broke out everywhere in the New World: Puerto Rico in 1527; Santa Martha, Colombia in 1529; the Panamanian town of Acla in 1530; Panama City in 1531; Mexico City in 1537; the Venezuelan towns of Coro in 1532 and Buría in 1555; and San Pedro, Honduras in 1548. Around 1720, the First Maroon War broke out between maroons in Jamaica and the British. 

Apart from revolts, slaves found other ways to resist. Having to live with such harsh conditions and being worked to death, simply surviving with most of your body and mind intact was an act of resistance. On the other hand, there are accounts of mothers allegedly killing their young infants and use of birth control, often accomplished by prolonging lactation through breast-feeding; and the incidence of abortion. Slaveholders and overseers were sometimes killed by poisoning or were seriously injured or maimed. Work slowdown, stoppages, and sabotage was also common. Absconding was one of the most fundamental expression of resistance. Sometimes abscondees stayed away for just a few days or a few weeks while some made their way to towns and cities, where they had a better chance of blending in and achieving anonymity, a possibility enhanced by vocational skills. Others who were absconding were seeking to reconnect with family and friends or just meeting with a loved one. In fact, Marshal Butler, an ex-slave who was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project talked about leaving home “to see a gal on the Palmer plantation—five miles away.” However, the most prominent resistance of all is perhaps the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), which is the one and only revolution that defeated the colonial master to gain independence. The revolution would take many unpredictable, bewildering shifts and turns but after interference from Spain and Britain, and under leadership of leaders such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Boukman Dutty, Jean-Francois, Dessalines, and Henri-Christophe, the slaves in Saint Domingue would overthrow the French and establish Haiti on January 1, 1804 sending waves of hope for slaves around the New World. 

In sum, the Atlantic slave trade was an inhumane business fueled by the expanding sugar industries which increased the reliance on African labor. It started the mass displacement of 11.9 million Africans from the continent and placed them in such harsh conditions that they were expected to die in 3 years after arrival in the New World. In the New World, they would be used in different works, as field hands in plantations to porters in docks. Despite such circumstances, the slaves would resist and revolt, and sometimes, as in the case of Saint Domingue, would overthrow their oppressors.


  1. Gomez, Michael A. 2008. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge.
  2. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress and Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 2001. Born In Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. [Washington, D.C.] :Library of Congress. 2017. Africa’s Great Civilizations. Directed by Virginia Quinn and Mark Bates.
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