The Role of the Africans and Europeans in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

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Did African's participate in the Atlantic Slave Trade as equal partners, or were they the victims of European power and greed?

The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST) was the selling of and transportation of slaves from African lands across the Atlantic to lands such as Brazil, Spanish Empire, British, French, Dutch and Danish West Indies, the British North America and US, along with Europe. It is estimated that as many as 13 million slaves left African ports (although only 11 million arrived to their various destinations). The Portuguese led this trade, delivering the slaves to Portuguese Brazil. The TAST lasted for more than 400 years, throughout the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Sugar, Coffee, Cotton and Tobacco were the major reasons why Europeans purchased slaves, the slaves were used as labour to harvest the crops for eventual export.

As with any division of a historical event, the need for finding a truth is a priority. Why the TAST came into existence seems to be clear, but with varying accounts. Advancements in technology were growing at a pace in this period in time leading to the opening of routes between Europe and the Atlantics. The Portuguese first set sail in 1419 to discover foreign lands in technologically advanced boats that could navigate the Atlantic Ocean. History shows that Prince Henry the Navigator (Dom Henrique), the son of King João of Portugal, played a very important role in the TAST. But as discussed in ‘Herbert Klein’s’ literature – Internal and international slave trades existed in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans (Klein, pg. 105). One could then assume that the TAST was simply fashioned out of a pre-existing and established market running throughout African lands.

Therefore the TAST is a difficult subject to discuss; it is a complex issue with varying accounts from an amalgamation of viewpoints. After reading more on the subject, several important difficulties involved in the slave trade make it difficult to decide if an equal partnership existed. As discussed the slave trade existed prior to the TAST; did this have implications on the slave market that would be the eventual partnership between Europeans and African kings, princes and the elite merchants or tribes of Africa? The term equal partner is not easy to define, and whether the Africans were victims is also not simple to define. Equal partners could equate to several examples in the TAST, the trading of goods to and from each side including African Slaves. It could be argued that for as much as the Africans were perhaps seen as the underdog in the TAST, certain African individuals had control over the trade, and gained important trading goods (such as guns, textiles, bracelets, metals), this motivated the African traders to receive these goods, which ultimately gave them more power and riches within the lands of Africa. So in some respects it could be viewed that the victims of the TAST were the individuals of a less elite standing and power, and perhaps Africans who had no involvement in trading.

Some important elements and issues to focus on are -

What were the driving factors involved in the continuation of the TAST? Which parties controlled the trade?
What contributed to the rise in the number of slaves being shipped across the Atlantics? Did power, greed and ownership throughout African lands motivate the slave trade? And did this assist the TAST? Who gained most out of this trading, were the results detrimental to the African people?

The TAST started at a relatively slow pace, compared to the climb in trading in its later stages. Some 370,000 slaves were transported out of Africa in the sixteenth century, compared to 1,870,000 in the seventeenth century, to a staggering 6,130,000 of slaves in the eighteenth century (Thomas, 2006). African traders including elite merchants, kings and tribal leaders took part in the trading of slaves and other goods in what was seen as a lucrative market. As...
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