Information on how many slaves were shipped from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas during the sixteenth century can only be estimated as very few records exist for this period. But from the seventeenth century onwards, increasingly accurate records, such as ship manifests, are available.
Where did the first Trans-Atlantic slaves come from?
At the beginning of the 1600s, slaves for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were sourced in Senegambia and the Windward Coast. This region had had a long history of providing slaves for the Islamic trans-Saharan trade. Around 1650 the Kingdom of the Kongo, which the Portuguese had ties with, started exporting slaves. The focus of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade moved to here and neighbouring northern Angola (grouped together on the table and map as west-central Africa). Kongo and Angola would continue to be substantial exporters of slaves until the nineteenth century. Senegambia would provide a steady trickle of slaves through the centuries, but never on the same scale as the other regions of Africa.
The rapid expansion of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade
From the 1670s the Slave Coast (Bight of Benin) underwent a rapid expansion of trade in slaves which continued until the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. Gold Coast slave exports rose sharply in eighteenth century, but dropped markedly when Britain abolished slavery in 1808 and commenced anti-slavery patrols along the coast.
The Bight of Biafra, centred on the Niger Delta and the Cross River, became a significant exporter of slaves from the 1740s and, along with its neighbour the Bight of Benin, dominated the Trans-Atlantic slave trade until its effective end in the mid-nineteenth century. These two regions alone account for two-thirds of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the first half of the 1800s.
The decline of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade
The scale of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade declined during the Napoleonic wars in Europe (1799--1815), but quickly rebounded once peace returned. Britain abolished slavery in 1808 and British patrols effectively ended trade in slaves along the Gold Coast and up to Senegambia. When the port of Lagos was taken by the British in 1840, the slave trade from the Bight of Benin also collapsed.
The slave trade from the Bight of Biafra gradually declined in the nineteenth century, partially as a result of British patrols and a reduction in demand for slaves from America, but also because of local shortages of slaves. To fulfil the demand for slaves, the significant tribes in the region (such and the Luba, Lunda, and Kazanje) turned on each other using the Cokwe (hunters from further inland) as mercenaries. Slaves were created as a result of raids. The Cokwe, however, became dependent on this new form of employment and turned on their employers when the coastal slave trade evaporated.
The increased activities of British anti-slaver patrols along the west-African coast resulted in a brief upturn in trade from west-central and south-east Africa as increasingly desperate Trans-Atlantic slave ships visited ports under Portuguese protection. The authorities there were inclined to look the other way.
With a general abolition of slavery in effect by the end of the nineteenth century, Africa started to be seen as a difference resource – instead of slaves, the continent was being eyed up for its land and minerals. The scramble for Africa was on, and its people would be coerced into 'employment' in mines and on plantations.
Trans-Atlantic slave trade data
The greatest raw-data resource for those investigating the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is the WEB du Bois database. However, its scope is restricted to trade destined for the Americas and ignores those sent to African plantation islands and Europe.
More of this article
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: Origins of Slaves
Details of where slaves were taken from Africa and how many.