Around 1500, the Atlantic slave trade emerged alongside the expansion of the Iberian empires. The Portuguese circumvented Africa and established lucrative trade routes stretching as far as East Asia, while the Spanish colonized the Americas. Spanish expansion was characterized by indigenous genocide and the spread of diseases (particularly smallpox), resulting in the near extermination of native populations. While many survivors were enslaved, factors such as resistance, disease susceptibility, and lack of labor skills, meant that output did not meet the demands of colonizers. Europeans themselves were also weakened by tropical disease and often too proud to perform hard labor. Portuguese enclaves along the African coast became major trading ports for African slave traders, selling captives to Europeans who then transported these captives to the New World. The transport of slaves was the Middle Passage of triangular trade, which was the exchange of manufactured goods (textiles, weapons, metals) from Europe to Africa, slaves to the Americas, and the produce of slave labor (sugar, coffee, and cotton) from the Americas to Europe, where it was then consumed or used in manufacturing.
The slave experience
Middle Passage journeys took roughly 2-3 months, and almost 15 percent did not survive the crossing due to the spread of disease through overcrowded holds, violence, abuse, and suicide. Upon arrival, mortality rates remained high; the period of acclimatization, known as seasoning, was particularly severe in the Caribbean; some estimates suggest that almost half of Africans died within four years of arrival, and others give average life expectancies of seven years after arrival. For this reason, many owners worked their slaves to death to maximize the return on their investment. In contrast, the more temperate climate of North America meant that survival and fertility rates were higher, and the slave population growth was less-dependent on importation.
Age and gender also played significant roles in the slave experience; for example, young adult men were the most sought-after slaves, and mortality rates were higher among males; however, women and children were more likely to face sexual abuse and forced pregnancies. By law, the children of female slaves also became the master’s property, even in cases where the father was free or white (often the owner). While upwards of 12.5 million Africans were forced across the Atlantic as slaves, it is important to note that many millions more were then born into a life of slavery.
Slavery's abolition and legacy
Colonizers introduced extreme punishments for runaway or rebellious slaves, such as torture, mutilation and execution; these also acted as deterrents to others. Despite this, escape and revolt were ever-present in the history of slavery. The Haitian Revolution (1790-1804), was the most successful slave uprising and culminated in Haiti becoming an independent nation; the only country in history founded by former slaves. This period also saw revolutionary ideologies spread across Europe and the Americas, defined by ideas of liberty and equality, that contradicted slavery’s very existence. Abolitionist movements grew stronger in Europe and the Americas, yet, perhaps surprisingly, it was Britain, the nation most active in the slave trade in the 1700s, who drove and enforced slavery’s abolition in the following century.
By the 1840s, the Atlantic slave trade had been abolished in most regions, and Brazil became the final country to abolish slavery in the Americas in 1888. Nonetheless, this process was not straightforward, especially for slaves; working conditions worsened as quotas increased, racial barriers became institutionalized, and families were torn apart as many were relocated in slavery’s final years. Slave owners also sought to protect the institution of slavery, with those in the U.S. going so far as forming their own nation, culminating in the American Civil War. Cuba and Brazil became the last countries in the Americas to emancipate its slaves, in 1886 and 1888 respectively.
Atlantic slavery resulted in one of the most significant anthropological developments in human history; there were no known ethnic Africans in the Americas before Columbus’ arrival, but today, there are countries such as Jamaica and Haiti where over 90 percent of the population is of African descent. Additionally, the socio-economic legacy of slavery continues to be a prominent topic, as many of the racial inequalities and injustices of today can be directly traced to the racism and oppression of past centuries.
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