The Atlantic slave trade, between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, was the largest forced migration in the history of mankind. This migration was distinct from others of the kind, in terms of its begrudging nature, record breaking mortality rates and the alienation of generations from their roots. This essay aims to explore the various factors that led to the development of Atlantic slave trade - political, technological, social and economic. It also analyses the profitability of the trade from the viewpoint of the various stakeholders entangled in this epic trade network – kings, slave traders and middlemen, planters and ordinary consumers.
The yearning of the Europeans especially Portuguese, Spanish, British and the Dutch for exploration, colonisation and imperialism was a major factor in expanding the slave trade networks in the Atlantic. As discussed by Timothy P. Grady in the book The Atlantic World 1450-2000, “explorers from Portugal, Spain and other European nations expanded the geographic knowledge southward along the coast of Africa and westward across the Atlantic shores of the Americas”.
The urge for this exploration was triggered by the fall of Constantinople in May 1943, the last vestige of the Roman Empire, to the Muslim Turks which shook the fortitude of the European countries and the Christian faith. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire around the Mediterranean region deprived European merchants of the lucrative trade routes along the Silk Road to the East. The threat of lost communication and trade routes across the Mediterranean into China, India and other regions of eastern Asia and lost access to silk and other precious commodities carried along this route, forced Europeans to explore alternate trade routes to Asia by turning westward for new opportunities. Discovery of new routes west of Europe through the Atlantic, led to European arrival off West coast of Africa in the late fifteenth century. By mid seventeenth century, the coast line of West Africa was infiltrated by fifty forts and slave trading posts of competing European countries – Portugal, Spain, Britain, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany dividing the coastline into – Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast.
The political set up in Africa also facilitated slave trade. Africa was divided into a number of small and large states, chieftaincies and independent villages each with their own form of government, religion, customs and traditions. These territories often fought with each other and the captives of war were taken as slaves. Such conflicts were justified wars which according to Warren. C. Whatley was “natural struggles of nation building” conducted in the normal course of affairs. The captives referred to as “joint-products of war” or “stolen goods” were then exported. With the advent of the Europeans, domestic conflicts became slave raids. As Robin Law asserted, the Kingdom of Dahomey dominated the slave raiding and trading from 1715 to 1850. Their kings held a royal monopoly on the trade and conducted slave raids through their armies. Thus the political ambitions of the European and African monarchy led to the development of the slave trade.
The developments in technology and its impact on navigation, ship building, and firearms aided the growth in Atlantic slave trade. Navigation
The desire for exploration spurred European scholars, navigators and sailors to expand their knowledge of geography and devise new ways of charting and mapping their journeys. Increased use of the hour glass and logs to measure time and distance and the Portolan charts clearly documented navigation. In 1462, the Portuguese navigators devised methods of figuring out latitudes by measuring the height of the Pole Star above the horizon. Later in 1484, astronomers in the court of King Joao II, using the midday sun to figure latitudes, produced a set of declination tables. Under...
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