The Transatlantic Slave Trade

16th–19th centuries

Over the course of the transatlantic slave trade from 1501 to 1866, more than 12.5 million Africans experienced the Middle Passage, the largest coerced movement of people in history; it was the middle leg of the triangular trade route that took goods (such as knives, guns, tools, and cloth) from Europe to Africa, Africans to work as enslaved people in the Americas and West Indies, and items produced on the plantations (sugar, rice, tobacco, rum, and cotton) back to Europe.

Without this trade, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain could neither have grown the crops nor exploited the New World resources that their populations demanded. The amount of wealth that Europe obtained from the trade was exceeded only by the depth of the tragedy it caused.

Jamelle Bouie writes that Portugal and Spain, the first European states with a major presence in the New World, dominated the opening century of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, sending hundreds of thousands of enslaved people to their holdings in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The Portuguese role increased through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as Portugal brought millions of enslaved Africans to the Americas.

In the 1700s, however, Spanish transport diminished and was replaced (and exceeded) by British, French, Dutch, and—by the end of the century—American activity. These hundred years—from approximately 1725 to 1825—were also the high-water mark of the slave trade, as Europeans sent more than 7.2 million people to forced labor, disease, and death in the New World. For a time during this period, British transport even exceeded Portugal’s. By the conclusion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade at the end of the 19th century, Europeans had enslaved and transported more than 12.5 million Africans. At least 2 million, historians estimate, didn’t survive the journey.