Human Chattel: A Brief History of the African Slave Trade

The year 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. After long and difficult campaigns in the United Kingdom and the United States, both nations passed legislation in the pivotal year of 1807 making it illegal to buy, sell or transport slaves. The transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for some three centuries, saw an estimated 10–12 million black Africans taken from their homes in West Africa. They were transported in chains across the Atlantic Ocean under the most appalling conditions imaginable, then forced to work as slaves on the cotton and sugar plantations of the Americas and West Indies for the remainder of their often short and brutal lives.

As important as it was, the 1807 legislation banned only the slave trade. It did not abolish the institution of slavery. Existing slaves were not set free but continued to work for their masters on the plantations. It was not until 1834 that a new law was introduced abolishing the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. In the United States, it was not until the end of the Civil War in 1865 that Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States.

To the modern mind, the concept of one person owning another is bizarre and even abhorrent. Slavery, however, in one form or another, has existed almost from the beginning of human history. It played a prominent role, for example, in the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Rome. Many are familiar with the biblical story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt.

Today many regard the slave trade in an ethnic or racist context, of white Europeans abusing the human rights, to an extreme degree, of black Africans. But this view is only partly true. For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, slavery had been an important part of West African culture. Unlike Europe, Africa had no system of permanent prisons. Along with convicted criminals, prisoners taken during intertribal warfare were often either executed or sold into slavery.

The first Europeans to begin trading in African slaves were the Spanish in about 1502. They were followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British. With the permission and agreement of local African chiefs and kings, a series of forts was established along the West African coast, or the “slave coast,” as it came to be known. These forts became a convenient and lucrative marketplace for the slave trade and also served as collection points for the criminals and prisoners of war who were being sold for shipment across the Atlantic. Local African Chiefs were themselves heavily involved in the trade.

Although the scenario of white slavers going inland to collect slaves is probably accurate on some occasions, it appears that most Europeans were happy to purchase slaves from African traders, who would bring them to the coastal forts. The slaves would be exchanged for guns, gunpowder, rum, gin or domestic utensils such as brass cooking pots.

Once delivered up for sale, slaves fared no better under European and American traders, of course. Conditions on board ship were appalling. Chronic overcrowding in the most unsanitary of living conditions led to the spread of disease so that many of the slaves died before they even reached their destination. Those that did reach their destination had further difficulties to face.

Clearly, the examination of world history proves that man’s inhumanity to man wasn’t always restricted by race or nationality in past centuries. There have always been those who were eager to exploit others for personal gain. Tragically, according to the picture emerging in regard to modern slavery around the world, not much has changed.