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10 Most Disturbing Facts About the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The transatlantic slave trade was the most profitable industry in the world through the 400 years of its existence but also the most inhuman of any period of humanity. The cost in terms of morality, human life, and the image of the European continent was so high and long-lasting. No one in the 21st century wants to know their ancestors were slave owners. This inhuman enterprise went down as the lowest point humanity had ever stooped for profit. It is why people from Africa, Europe, and the Americas where the trade took place are trying hard to forget the sad events. It spanned between 1526 and 1900s when the last human slaves were finally set free. The UN still estimates that forced labor and continued human trafficking, have led to 30,000 people living in modern-day slavery in the world today, which brings back those sad memories. These issues made 99 countries agree never to allow trade in human beings within their borders ever again.

The First Slaves in the Americas Were Native Indians & European Africans

Christopher Columbus is a highly respected explorer for his discovery of the new world, but he may well be named as the first slaver. In his journal, Columbus wrote that when he arrived in the West Indies, he identified two locals whom he thought were likely to make excellent servants. So he enslaved them. Columbus’s voyage was only about to create the most significant havoc the Atlantic had ever seen. The indigenous American communities were wiped out by disease and the subsequent battles with the first European settlers. Hence, the remaining population was not enough to provide the labor needed on the cane farms that were spreading all the way from Brazil to Canada.

The Portuguese came up with the solution to this problem. They had already enslaved a few Africans whom they had bought as Prisoners of war from black African tribes, so they shipped them across the Atlantic. The African labor force was soon identified as very lucrative, and by the dawn of the 16th century, most black slaves on the European continent had been shipped to the new world. The Spanish and the Dutch also joined the business creating too high demand than the few prisoners of war from tribal leaders in West Africa could supply. So they went into full-scale enslavement of entire communities going deeper and deeper into the interior.[1]

When Abolished in Britain, the Government Paid Slavers & Not the Slaves

The smartest move by slave owners in Britain and the colonies was declaring that the slave trade was different from enslaving. It meant that when Britain stopped participating in the slave trade in 1772, there was no order at home to make it illegal to own slaves (Emancipation). The wealthiest families were still enjoying huge profits from the thousands of slaves they held on the Caribbean and other colonies. It was good news that the government abolished slavery totally in 1833. But the rich and mighty had to be pampered which saw the British treasury spend 20% of its money that year on slave owners.

While some local families got paid for the one or two slaves they had, the greatest beneficiaries were affluent families who still enjoy the fruits of these monies today. The worst part is that after abolishing slavery, the former slaves were neither compensated or given any form of incentive. Forcing them back into economic slavery as they had to work their backs off to make ends meet. The church of England was itself an owner of slaves paid over £8000 for their slaves in the Caribbean.[2]

It Took 20 Years for the Legislative Banning Slave Trade to Be Passed

It was more like preaching water but drinking wine kind of situation. Despite agreeing that the slave trade was immoral, religious leaders, could not just face it head-on because slavers brought money to the church. The church leaders also owned slaves, and many people held onto the idea that Africans were an inferior race that could not be allowed to live among them as equals. The transatlantic trade was well worth more than the entire oil industry today. Hence why it was tough to get a law against the slave trade passed in any parliament in Europe, leave alone the British one.

The Quakers, Baptists, some Anglicans, and other religious fronts joined arms in calling repentance by Slave traders. That was when William Wilberforce, the MP for Yorkshire tabled a motion in parliament with 12 clauses that wanted the British government to quit the slave trade and Emancipate enslaved people in the West Indies. His proposal was heavily defeated and continued to be for the next 20 years despite the increase in the number of evangelical MPs in parliament over the years. 1807, he succeeded with his motion in parliament banning the continued trading in slaves by Britons in Britain and its colonies only because the MPs were more concerned with Napoleon Bonaparte than the Slaves.[3]

The Slave Ships Were So Crowded There Was No Air to Light a Candle

It was the confession by Olaudah Equiano, the first African to buy his freedom. From the descriptions given by former ship captains and crew, Slave ships were simply floating coffins across the Atlantic. Every space on the vessel mattered as the more slaves you got across the ocean, the richer you were so human conditions didn’t matter to these greedy merchants. The cruelest route was the famous middle passage, which is believed to have experienced slave mortality of at least 25% on every trip.

The most vivid explanation of the conditions on the ships was given by the abolition campaigner Olaudah Equiano who described how he was forced below the decks of a vessel into a smelly interior. The heat was too much while the air was too thin as the hundreds of bodies were crammed together. Air got very thin as the people were forced to stay in that condition for many hours being released for only a few minutes to participate in the forced exercise. It was during this activity that the extremely sick would be identified and sometimes thrown overboard. Slaves would be kept in the horrible conditions for many days during the voyage, which is why sometimes only 60 or 70 percent would make it across the ocean.[4]

More Than 20 Million Africans Died During the Trade

The slave trade ran for over four centuries, but its peak and the worst spell was the 17th century when about 75 percent of the 12 million slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. The capacity of ships was increased during the period while slave shackles were increased to hold more people and prevent revolts. It is believed that through the 54,000 recorded voyages, shipments in the 17th century were the largest. At one point, 80,000 people were being shipped across the Atlantic yearly with deaths at each point of the route. The mortality on the slave ships due to bad weather, disease, and arbitrary killings accounted for up to 20 percent of the deaths.

The conditions in the Americas were also appalling. It is believed that most slaves didn’t last their first year in slavery, especially in South America and the Caribbean, which prompted the high demand for replenishment. The Southern Americas and the Caribbean jointly accounted for over 80% of the slaves where many died. The most significant problem was back home in Africa. The trade was taking away young productive members of the society, leaving most African communities with old sickly people and weak, vulnerable children. This left a total humanitarian disaster on the western part of the continent where people died in thousands every year. The slave capturing process was also brutal and inhuman, mostly involving full-blown wars which wiped out entire communities.[5]

Slave Traders Took Insurance Policies & Were Compensated for Slaves That Died at Sea

Many people question the morality of the Insurance industry today, and this concern hasn’t started today. Insurance records from Britain have been used as the best source for information on the slaves shipped from Africa to the Americas for years. In what was called the ‘triangular trade.’ Ships left Europe loaded with clothes and sugar going to Africa. They then Left Africa filled with slaves headed to the Caribbean and the Americas. After delivering the slaves, the ships would come back to Europe carrying raw materials from the booming agricultural industry.

All these trips were insured, and any of the items being transported between the three points could be covered by insurance whether they were human of food. The average payout for a slave Is believed to have been $400, about $12000 today accounting for inflation, which would be the amount given to the slave owner for any loss at sea. Some captains took advantage of this to throw sickly and undesirable slaves overboard such as the case of the Zong massacre.[6][7]

Nearly Half of All the Slaves Were Taken to Brazil

Brazil was one of the earliest recipients of slaves with the first ship arriving as early as 1501, and it would go on to receive so many slaves that they outnumbered the slavers. Brazil hand one of the saddest stories of Slavery that has haunted the country well until the 21st century. Slavery in Brazil ran for the most prolonged period ending in 1888 when. Rio was home to over 2 million slaves, while the outskirts are believed to have held an estimated 5.9 million slaves. Traditionally, people thought that Slavery in Brazil was more humane until the full disclosure of the facts in the 19th century, which became too grim for the Italian government to accept.

Slaves brought to Brazil were first separated, women to serve the masters and men to work on firms. The masters were especially encouraged to rape the women to give birth to the next generation of Brazilians who were simply considered a boost to the labor force. Voyages to Brazil were also more dangerous as at least 2 in 10 Africans died on the journey, double that of slaves headed to North America. Most of the dead were buried inhumanly in the so-called grave for new Africans.[8]

Many Slave Ship Crew Also Died in the Trade

Slave ships were the most inhuman point in the whole chain of the slave trade, and every participant of this journey was affected severely except the wealthy merchants and ship owners. The ship’s captains and crew also faced their fair share of peril on the doomed voyages. All through the trade, slave revolts were widespread, especially during the 17th century when West African slaves were enlightened and knowledgeable in fighting and using guns. A single slave revolt led to massive losses on the ship on both sides and many times led to shipwrecks.

Disease on ships also proved a significant problem as crew for Portuguese and Spanish ships became victims of contagious infection to an estimated 20 percent mortality in the heart of the trade. Many scholars have recently argued that slaves from Angola and other interior regions were believed to be especially aggressive and unlucrative. It caused captains to stick only to the number of slaves equal to the shackles on their ships. Some extremely violent slaves were killed or thrown overboard, although this was highly discouraged because each pound of flesh meant money across the sea.[9][10]

The Churches Played a Massive Role in Promoting the Trade

The question of the church standing by as its members enslaved and participated in a genocide across the ocean is very disturbing. The most prominent churches in Europe during the period of the trade were the Catholic church, the church of England and later protestants such as the Quakers and Baptists. There was no actual consensus between these churches. They couldn’t agree on the position of Africans in their “society,” so it fell on the various church leaders to decide whether or not Africans were enslavable. The first widespread slavers were the Portuguese whose confidence in the trade was boosted by a bull signed by pope Nicolas V who allowed Portugal to enslave Africans.

That gave confidence to the other catholic nations to also start enslaving Africans. The church of England on its side neither opposed nor supported enslavement. All we know is that they were the owners of one of the largest slave populations on the Caribbean and later beneficiaries of the payment after the end of enslavement in 1833. The other churches were divided because their congregations owned slaves. So all they preached was that slaves should be treated fairly sighting the biblical teachings of Paul. Quakers were the first opposers of the trade although their congregations were not very comfortable worshiping together with black people either.[11][12]

Africans Continued to Be Enslaved in the US Southern States Well Into the 1960s

The United States only received a small portion of the total slave shipments across the Atlantic. But it became home to one of the most inhumane treatments for slaves despite having “good Christian settlers.” Today, most people argue that the emancipation received support from the union with the primary reason of boosting their military power rather than the sheer objective of being human. After the passing of the emancipation in 1865, some states were still reluctant to give up slavery, and many slaves didn’t even know what was going on around them. Some slaves were told they were free, but without a home or money. They had nowhere to go, so they had to stay with your masters as an economic slave. The same trend was seen in Brazil and other regions.

Although Emancipation was passed in The US before Brazil, by the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, Brazil had fewer slaves than the US. The southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida were the most reluctant to give up their slaves. Many people there still believed that enslaving black people was their “God-given right.” Recent research by the historian Antoinette Harris confirmed that some of the southern states continued to enjoy free slave labor well into the age of full enlightenment in the 1960s.[13][14]

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