Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa (Slave Coast), c1880. Although Britain outlawed slavery in 1833 and it was abolished in the USA after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1865, the transatlantic trade in African slaves continued. The main market for the slaves was Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Atlantic World Context
Slavery, plantation agriculture, and the major cash crop of rice all came to Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry region through a larger Atlantic World trade and migration system. To fully comprehend Charleston’s colonial and antebellum history of slavery, trade, and plantations, we must look beyond the city, region, and even North America, to include the trans-Atlantic exchanges and influences of a complex multicultural and multinational network.
Slave traders in Gorée, Senegal, by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, ca. eighteenth century.
Before the fifteenth century, the Atlantic Ocean proved to be a barrier between the populations and cultures of West and Central Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. Though southern Europeans and northern Africans along the Mediterranean Sea shared a long history of interaction through trade or conflict, African and European maritime trading networks did not extend along the Atlantic coast of Africa into the continent’s western and central regions until the fifteenth century. Ancient overland trade networks between Europe and western and central Africa have a much longer history, but they did not match the volume and speed of later maritime routes. By improving overseas navigation in the fifteenth century, European explorers and entrepreneurs rapidly increased trade and multicultural exchanges with Atlantic African populations ranging from small nations and kinship groups to complex African empires.
By the end of the fifteenth century, European explorers could navigate difficult currents and winds to not only travel down the coast of Africa, but also to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Their goal was to find a western trade route to Asia because the growing Ottoman Empire blocked the eastern route. Instead, these explorers encountered the Americas, and in the centuries that followed the Atlantic Ocean transformed from a barrier into a corridor of trade and migration — both voluntary and forced. New trans-Atlantic maritime routes launched an unprecedented level of interaction between Africans, American Indians, and western Europeans.
European and American Indian fur traders in Canada, drawing by William Faden, 1777, courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada.
The numerous encounters, conflicts, and collaborations that resulted from these interactions became known as the Columbian Exchange or the Grand Exchange — a massive movement of animals, plants, human populations, diseases, and ideas that would forever transform the diverse nations and societies of the Atlantic World. While the traditional labor systems, religious beliefs, military rivalries, and social hierarchies of these formerly separate Atlantic World regions remained influential in the New World, each cultural group also underwent dramatic changes in emerging multicultural colonial contexts.
United States Slave Trade, engraving, 1830, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the fifteenth century, Europeans seeking economic gain through trade, colonial expansion, mining, and plantation agriculture effectively launched this massive Atlantic World exchange. To make their various economic pursuits in the Americas profitable on growing trans-Atlantic markets, elite and entrepreneurial Europeans required land, widespread trading networks, and significant labor resources. They displaced American Indians from their traditional territories to access new land, and developed labor systems like European indentured servitude and African and American Indian slavery to fill their growing labor needs. For many Africans and American Indians, new encounters with Europeans in the Atlantic World meant conflict and oppression.
Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, image by Sylvia Frey, ca. 2000s. During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, ships disembarked enslaved Africans on Sullivan’s Island for quarantine in “pest houses,” before they were sold in Charleston markets.
Still, American Indians and Africans proved far from passive in this New World transformation process. In the Americas, Africans and American Indians consistently resisted European-imposed racial hierarchies and enslavement, and carved out spaces for their own political, social, economic, spiritual, and cultural needs and identities. In this way, the diverse cultural groups of the Atlantic World each played significant roles in shaping the multicultural societies that emerged in the coming centuries. Today, the history of the Atlantic World cannot be fully understood without including the multicultural experiences and influences of American Indians, Africans, and Europeans, formed through collaboration and exchange, as well as conflict and oppression, in the New World.
The growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas, primarily for people of African descent, exemplifies how older labor systems and racial beliefs transformed with New World economic, political, and social developments.
Map of North America, the West Indies, and the Atlantic Ocean, by P. Mortier, 1693.
Slavery before the Trans-Atlantic Trade
Roman collared slaves, marble relief, Smyrna (present day Izmir, Turkey), 200 A.D., courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum.
Various forms of slavery, servitude, or coerced human labor existed throughout the world before the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth century. As historian David Eltis explains, “almost all peoples have been both slaves and slaveholders at some point in their histories.” Still, earlier coerced labor systems in the Atlantic World generally differed, in terms of scale, legal status, and racial definitions, from the trans-Atlantic chattel slavery system that developed and shaped New World societies from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Slavery in West and Central Africa
Mansa Musa in Catalan Atlas, drawn by Abraham Cresques of Mallorca, 1375, courtesy of the British Library. Mansa Musa was the African ruler of the Mali Empire in the 14th century. When Mansa Musa, a Muslim, took a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 he reportedly brought a procession of 60,000 men and 12,000 slaves.
Slavery was prevalent in many West and Central African societies before and during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When diverse African empires, small to medium-sized nations, or kinship groups came into conflict for various political and economic reasons, individuals from one African group regularly enslaved captives from another group because they viewed them as outsiders. The rulers of these slaveholding societies could then exert power over these captives as prisoners of war for labor needs, to expand their kinship group or nation, influence and disseminate spiritual beliefs, or potentially to trade for economic gain. Though shared African ethnic identities such as Yoruba or Mandinka may have been influential in this context, the concept of a unified black racial identity, or of individual freedoms and labor rights, were not yet meaningful.
Map of Main slave trade routes in Medieval Africa before the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 2012.
West and Central African elites and royalty from slaveholding societies even relied on their kinship group, ranging from family members to slaves, to secure and maintain their wealth and status. By controlling the rights of their kinship group, western and central African elites owned the products of their labor. In contrast, before the trans-Atlantic trade, western European elites focused on owning land as private property to secure their wealth.
Slaves being transported in Africa, engraving from Lehrbuch der Weltgeschichte oder Die Geschichte der Menschheit, a book by William Rednbacher, 1890.
They held rights to the products produced on their land through various labor systems, rather than owning the laborers as chattel property. Land in rural western and central African regions (outside of densely populated or riverine areas) was often open to cultivation, rather than divided into individual landholdings, so controlling labor became a greater priority. The end result in both regional systems was that elites controlled the profits generated from products cultivated through laborers and land. The different emphasis on what or whom they owned to guarantee rights over these profits shaped the role of slavery in these regions before the trans-Atlantic trade.
Cowry shells, photograph, 2005. Cowry shells were often used as currency in different African slave trades.
Scholars also argue that West Africa featured several politically decentralized, or stateless, societies. In such societies the village, or a confederation of villages, was the largest political unit. A range of positions of authority existed within these villages, but no one person or group claimed the positions of ruler or monarchy. According to historian Walter Hawthorne, in this context, government worked through group consensus. In addition, many of these small-scale, decentralized societies rejected slaveholding.